Working in the technology field is a lifetime apprenticeship. In this industry, we continually introduce innovative technologies and those technologies challenge our workforce, creating the ever-present skills gap between technology professionals and their current jobs. We must endlessly enhance our knowledge and supplement our technical skills throughout our careers, or we quickly fall behind. The most cost-effective way to maintain or enhance our skills and proficiencies is to gain experience by working with others who are willing to share knowledge among us, and this requires personal interaction. This also means focusing on the soft skills necessary to do our jobs instead of a sole focus on the technical ones.
Forbes recently referenced an interesting data driven study (IZA World of Labor) which found that people were more productive working from home performing repetitive or routine work, but less productive on complex or urgent work that required problem solving. The study evaluated the quality of play by analyzing 27,000 moves made by elite chess players during online and in-person tournaments. Chess players performed worse when playing online versus in-person, the average size of their errors was statistically significantly higher. The theory is the players did not experience the same pressure as they would in person. The conclusion was that high-stakes tasks, such as resolving critical issues performed daily in the technology world are better conducted in the office.
Working from home reduces the number of impromptu interactions and the learning experiences that come with it. You don’t get to benefit from hearing a friend suggest other ways of addressing a technical issue or discuss why another way is the wrong way to resolve the issue. Humans learn technology from one another, not just from technical manuals and white papers; there’s so much to learn from one another in the form of coding shortcuts, server management, architectural design and new processes. The net is that when we decrease interaction, we decrease growth and professional development of all parties involved.
Recently I was struggling with an answer to the best technique of installing single sign-on (SSO) to an existing enterprise application and our Security Officer stopped by my office to discuss the State’s information security awareness training. At the end of our conversation I mentioned what I was working on and he filled in the missing piece I was struggling to address. Not only did he have a solution, he suggested security improvements. Our sidebar conversation occurred because of the principle of proximity. We would have never scheduled that conversation over a video conference. He was simply stopping by and we began discussing a topic we are both enthusiastic about, opportunities for process improvement, when I made the comment about SSO. This would never have happened if he had not stopped by to give me an update on his project. And, because he was so enthusiastic and knowledgeable on the solution, he now owns the project.
I believe it’s more effective to illustrate a concept using a conference room with a white board. I believe in reading body language, getting instant feedback, and yes, having those sidebar conversations that often lead the group to envision a better way to address the concept being discussed. The whole environment is important. I still remember where people were sitting, how they expressed themselves and how they interacted during the many meetings we held in 2015 to spread the message of consolidation and the vision for the State of Nebraska’s technology organization. That could never have happened over a video conference. (Sidebar: if we are on a video call and no one has their camera on, isn’t it simply a conference call?)
Learning requires personal interaction; it is spontaneous, not planned. I did not learn Physics while in the University lecture hall with ratio of one professor to a class of 300 students. I learned from the graduate students in the physics lab, during study groups in the library, or in the student union. We students learned from each other.
During these separate experiences and different exchanges, I have learned four valuable principles to apply in the collaborative learning environment:
- Identify which individuals have the knowledge I need; interpret, and then fill in the gaps in my understanding of the topic.
- Identify those individuals that I can approach for a different viewpoint or understanding of the problem.
- Identify who I can trust to take the time to listen and provide support when assistance is needed to solve a problem.
- Ensure I am a responsible participant of the group and provide support for others.
These principles require human interaction, proximity, and time to identify a trusted support group. Most importantly, for this to work, each teammate needs to be willing to provide the appropriate reciprocated support. I will continue to rely on these four principles and for my team, I will rely on “Storytelling” as one way of providing this shared support.
As always, I appreciate what you do every day for the State of Nebraska.