Strong interpersonal communication is a necessary skill that applies across all work contexts, both in-person and virtual (online). An information professional’s overall competence is contingent on the effectiveness of the method and quality of their communication. Also, information professionals do not work alone, collaborating in teams of people with varying skillsets, levels of experience, and perspectives, in service to their communities. All this is made even more challenging in an online context, in both group projects and presenting content, synchronously and asynchronously. Solid teamwork, especially in virtual teams, is rooted in interdependence. Actions and results are dependent on the collective work of members, who share a collective responsibility to collaborate in achieving team goals (Steiner, 2014). High levels of trust, clear communication, strong leadership, and appropriate levels of technology that are usable by all group members are key factors in the successful functioning of virtual teams (Bergiel, Bergiel, & Balsmeier, 2008).
What contends against these factors includes various logistics, technology, and communication-related issues, from being able to coordinate schedules across different time zones, team members’ varying proficiencies in technology use and familiarities with information-communication technologies (ICT), and different approaches to conflict resolution, among others (Steiner, 2014). The lack of visual body cues that people use and take for granted in face-to-face interactions in order to build trust and rapport can and often render seemingly powerful online communication tools ineffective at times (Karpova, Correia, & Baran, 2009). Yet the very ability to communicate online developed because the appropriate technology was created by forward-thinking companies in their efforts to compete in today’s complex global economy (Bergiel et al., 2008). Thus, in order to collaborate effectively in both in-person and virtual contexts, information professionals need to gain familiarity and proficiency in the various communication methods available, on top of more “softer” skills of being able to coordinate workflows across different time zones, working as effectively as possible with team members with varying skillsets and experiences, and in some cases, making critical team decisions.
Communication in online collaboration involves juggling between synchronous and asynchronous modes of communication across a variety of technologies. Learning how to take advantage of these new ICT technologies is dependent on the individual’s willingness to “learn to use and use to learn” new technologies – people can either feel energized with the challenge of learning, while others feel it is a waste of energy to devote to learning about the tool that could be used for the task at hand (Karpova et al., 2009). Though there are always varying perspectives due to culture and technological proficiency, as long as team members are willing to adapt, both to the situation and to the technologies at their disposal, teams can collaborate effectively and grow from the experience.
I see that collaboration is a strong core of the SJSU iSchool curriculum and the online education experience. Yet at a personal level, communication and coordination has always been the most difficult issue to overcome in group work. As previous studies have shown regarding the “rewards and challenges of virtual collaboration,” teams prefer to use synchronous discussions to reach consensus on important decisions and asynchronous discussion methods to log information and develop ideas (Karpova et al., 2009). I have seen this trend in my various group work experiences at the iSchool. With Canvas LMS and Blackboard Collaborate/IM, alongside other free tools such as Google Hangouts and Google Docs, iSchool students working in teams must exert effort to bridge the time difference divide to collaborate in ways that make sense for the various stages of any given project. This trend also occurs in webinars, which the iSchool also provides to its students from the iSchool administration and itsstudent chapters of professional organizations, in how each uses Collaborate and other ICT to communicate with students and generate participation. As an aspiring information professional, I can reflect on how I learned from my online group work and presenting experiences and gained experience in interacting with others virtually that can translate well into future work situations.
[Note: This is a .zip file of three group work reflection assignments from their respective iSchool courses]
Throughout my time here at the iSchool, I have been involved with four specific group projects that involved three or more people. Chronologically, I was involved in a WebData Pro database build project for INFO 202: Information Retrieval System Design, a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis and strategic plan proposal of a real information organization for INFO 204: Information Professions, a group research project for INFO 285: Research Methods in Library and Information Science (topic: Doing Research Online), and an Environmental Scan and Embedded Librarian Proposal for INFO 220: Embedded Librarians/Embedded Libraries (a special topic for the course Resources and Information Services in Professions and Disciplines). In all of these group work scenarios, I always found myself initiating the first conversation between group members and setting up various tools that the group could potentially use in our time together (e.g., Google Docs, WebData Pro, Prezi, MS Excel, MS PowerPoint). In these group projects, I took on various specific roles, ranging from “tech support” to group leader, and engaged in a variety of team dynamics and work styles, trying to ensure that work responsibilities were split relatively evenly as much as possible. Additionally, where it was needed, I engaged in various editing, cleaning, and organizing duties, all while offering my own ideas and perspective on how to approach various issues regarding assignments. Yet I also knew only to follow through with my suggestions after asking for and receiving group consensus.
For the INFO 202 WebData Pro database build, students chose their own groups, so I found myself in a group with members all in the same time zone (PST). As tech support, I was the person who primarily interacted with WebData Pro while everyone else worked on the majority of the actual content. I saw that there were lots of moving parts in how to set up a database in WebData Pro, and the program itself does not lend well to collaborating with more people on the same database in real time. We created a workflow that consisted of periodic meetings to discuss how to proceed with our database construction and item generation (despite the fact that not everyone was able to show up at each meeting), while I concentrated on inputting those items into WebData Pro. From these experiences, I realized that even though I am a “lone wolf” in this project as the sole point person that managed WebData Pro for our group, I see that group work is best when everyone comes together for a common cause and works to their strengths in achieving the project objectives. Also, I developed my personal concept of “tired trust”: in order to proceed with the project and not dominate other members’ involvement, I had to trust the work that my group members did creating the database content while they in turn had to trust me in building the database properly – all while we brought the fatigue from our day jobs in the process. This tired trust is also built on compromise, which like in many database projects, arises from failures encountered and how designers attempted to address them (Weedman, 2009).
For the INFO 204 SWOT analysis and strategic goals proposal, groups were randomized, and I found myself in a group with members across the United States, creating a three hour time difference in our interactions. Early on in the project, we lost our group leader who had to drop the course due to personal circumstances. So I then stepped up as “Lead Organizer,” since I saw myself as a person that could oversee how the group could generate the actual project content, and I would do my best to facilitate our communications, set deadlines, and made sure that the packaging for our content (two properly APA formatted documents and a Prezi voice over presentation) was organized well. I did not have the actual content or insider sources needed for our SWOT analysis and strategic goals proposal of an information organization, so I left it to the rest of the group to generate the content. In the process, I attempted to promote autonomy (letting team members work towards agreed-upon internal deadlines), accountability (ensuring that everyone shared the work equitably), and transparency (communicating to the team timely status reports, feedback, and writing setbacks). As I mentioned in my structured peer review of my group members’ performance, I did my best to ensure that everyone contributed to the project, had enough time to review each other’s work by setting reasonable internal group review deadlines, and held themselves accountable to a high level of polished work. Yet I had to intervene for a particular group member twice throughout the project, who did not meet our internal group review deadlines, put forth repetitive “cut-and-paste” writing that lacked clear thought and rationale required for academic writing, and was resistant to do work to address this issue. To put it bluntly, I essentially did this group member’s work in order to ensure that we reached our deadlines. Yet, as I stated in that performance peer review assignment, I learned something about leadership from this incident: Leadership is not about the leader, but rather the team as a whole taking charge. I personally do my best to do good work, trusting that my team will do good work in kind. Yet that trust will get broken at times, especially when easily preventable issues arise at the last minute that strain my sense of accountability for myself and the other person. When I broke apart my own roles in order to compensate for that group member’s resistance to revisit their own work after my initial feedback, the other three team members stepped up to do the revisions that the resistant group member should have taken in order to stay involved in the project. Their combined flexibility, consideration, strong writing and editing skills to respond to this incident was quite inspiring, and I hope that they are proud of their efforts as I was in how I did my best to handle this situation.
For the INFO 285 research project, group members came together based on common interest. In this particular scenario, I felt that there was no true leader in this project, and that at times I had to take initiative to motivate everyone to get the project moving. What compensated for this, however, was our openness and timeliness in communicating with each other in organizing our research goals and distributing our duties. Though there were some minor disagreements about how to phrase certain ideas and structure the paper, I felt that our discussions generated from our long email chains and guided course discussion posts on Canvas helped generate a sense of rapport with each other. This propelled our work towards a manuscript submission beyond the end of the course, towards a publication in the online open access journal Webology.
For the INFO 220 Environmental Scan and Embedded Librarian Proposal, groups were self-assigned, based on common interest and topic for potential librarian embedment into a course or program. I was not group leader this time, but I did my best to help spur our group discussions so that the group leader with the insider access to information on our group’s analysis of an information organization could ask relevant questions to their organization’s contacts. We communicated well using email, and I felt like everyone contributed equally, working independently and knowing how to come together to edit and polish our combined work in Google Docs. Though there were setbacks such as contacts not following up with our group leader’s questions and one of our group members working with a three hour time difference, we knew how to help each other whenever we could in achieving our project objectives.
I saw personal growth coming out of each of these group experiences. I did my best to build upon the lessons of the previous group experience, from my notion of tired trust, to engaging in active leadership, and finally to a group consolidated notion of leadership. I made sure that I have both a critical eye on the process as well as the content being generated in each of these group projects. I engaged with a variety of perspectives and work styles, and made sure that I contributed my best effort in a way that everyone involved has an equal share, and hopefully a sense of strong pride in contributing to quality work.
As a content editor of the iSchool’s SLIS Student Research Journal (SRJ), I had the privilege to present a webinar titled "Join the Conversation: Tips for Strengthening your Academic Voice." I presented information regarding how interested authors can develop their academic writing voice and discussed my “behind-the-scenes” perspective of how a content editor thinks and reviews manuscripts in the context of the overall SRJ editorial structure. The content and process of building this webinar was based on the preparation work that I made for INFO 250: Design and Implementation of Instructional Strategies for Information Professionals.
Presenting my instructional content as a webinar involved knowing my audience. The target population for this instruction was current SJSU iSchool students. The prior knowledge and characteristics of SJSU iSchool students are varied, as they are at various points in their Library and Information Science (LIS) careers. Students’ academic backgrounds range from first time Master’s students to students with multiple Master’s degrees and/or PhD’s; these degrees in addition to their undergraduate ones may or may not relate to LIS. They may or may not be working currently in a library context; some may be making mid-life career transitions as well. The particular skills and knowledge learners should have prior entering into this instruction mainly comprise of experience with academic writing, which should come with completion of an undergraduate degree. This entails knowledge and use of a writing style guide (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago-Turabian) and writing research papers.
I also kept in mind that iSchool students are all adult learners, who typically have been in the workforce for some time (many in library settings) and are re-entering school to gain new skills to advance in their current workplace or move into a different career path. Adult learners are motivated by practical reasons for learning things – they are “problem centered rather than subject centered” (Grassian & Kaplowitz, 2009). I had to also ensure that I was presenting small, manageable amounts of information, so that I do not overwhelm my potential participants, who are taking their time out of their busy schedules to listen to what I have to say. This is why I presented my content as decently sized chunks under five main, relatable and informative points (see my webinar handout for the presentation outline). The motivation that I offered them to attend and participate in my webinar was that my content will put them in a better position to get published and boost their CV, resume, and LinkedIn profiles, and more generally, help them in becoming better writers in their coursework. Also, I hope that the handout that I provided will also help them remember my five points.
Presenting my material also involves knowing the parameters of the ICT that I am using, Blackboard Collaborate. Blackboard Collaborate is an educational web conferencing tool that has a wide variety of features suitable for classroom discussion and collaboration. By its nature, Collaborate involves synchronous interaction (at least when viewed live). Participants can interact with one another using the chat box, microphone, and video camera, talk in “breakout rooms” apart from the main presenting room, as well as “raise their hand” to ask the presenter questions. They are also able to interact with the whiteboard with real-time annotations and text, even over PowerPoint slides. For my instructional content, I placed all of my material into a PowerPoint, which was displayed through Collaborate’s slide deck. In this “teachers to learners” (one-way to many) format of instruction, I presented my content and encouraged discussion via chat box and voice options, which I monitored to answer questions. The most important consideration I had when I was presenting on Collaborate was that the instruction must also stand well asynchronously, since the recording would be available later on the SRJ YouTube channel.
Conducting the webinar itself was personally exciting and fulfilling. Knowing that I had 60 minutes to go through all of my material, I recognized the fact that I needed some leeway to account for some ad-libbing that I had to do. I made sure that my scripted content would span 25-30 minutes, with 10 minutes for the guided exercises, with the remaining time available for answering questions. In practice, I went over my personal time allotment of 30 minutes for the instructional content, since I had to provide more information for the participants who logged on 10 minutes into my presentation, and I spent an unexpected but welcome amount of time answering questions that came up from interested potential authors. From the results of a post-webinar effectiveness survey I asked participants to fill out, I found that those who took the time to respond to the survey generally found my material very relevant and applicable to their own writing and felt that many of the advice points I gave and the exercise I facilitated was useful. (The summary of responses can be found here).
Information professionals must develop and maintain strong interpersonal skills because they are “fundamentally about transforming lives” (Abram, 2015). I would argue that this transformation also occurs within the information professional, in a process of growth from each interaction with the people that the information professional serves. To quote sports and video game jargon, I see myself as a “flex player” in group work situations. The flex player can fill a variety of roles, to adjust for situations that arise when trying counter the opposing team (D’Argenio, 2016). I have experience leading and following, acting as tech support and generating content. This allows me to adjust my work strategies to work with other groups members and address issues that arise when completing the project, and grow in the process.
I also have experience as a presenter, and I know that I do well when I have adequate time to prepare structured presentations and facilitate relevant activities, taking advantage of technology whenever possible. I see these experiences transferring well towards positions as a lecturer, professor, and instructional librarian, giving live and pre-recorded instruction. The goal of instructional content shifts slightly between a live audience and a prepared recording: the live audience requires active, genuine delivery and responses to participants’ questions, while a prepared recording requires the presenter to keep longevity in mind, to ensure that the recording is clear enough for everyone who may be viewing it even years from now. The webinar I hosted is a combination of both, and I feel that I did my best in the moment during the live interactions that I had with my participants, as well as beyond that live moment, for the people who may be watching the webinar recording in the future.
All ICT afford certain advantages and corresponding limitations, which in turn affects how information professionals interact in teams and with their communities. Information professionals have to stay current with developments in how information is accessed and retrieved, all while being able to convey that knowledge to the people they serve. Such developments are both technological and interpersonal. As the old adage states, the tool is only as good as the person that is using it. The best communication ethic then, for team work and for presentations, is being able to juggle between the technologies at one’s disposal to address various, changing situations, grown from a desire to learn and a willingness to adapt towards effective collaboration, audience consideration, and desire to communicate relevant information to others.
Abram, S. (2015). Librarianship a continuously evolving profession. In S. Hirsh (Ed.), Information services today: An introduction. [Kindle version] (pp. 41-52). Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Bergiel, B. J., Bergiel, E. B., & Balsmeier, P. W. (2008). Nature of virtual teams: A summary of their advantages and disadvantages. Management Research News, 31(2), 99-110. doi:10.1108/01409170810846821
Grassian, E.S., & Kaplowitz, J. R. (2009). Information literacy instruction theory and practice (2nd ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.
Karpova, E., Correia, A., & Baran, E. (2009). Learn to use and use to learn: Technology in virtual collaboration experience. The Internet and Higher Education, 12(1), 45-52. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2008.10.006