Educational Technology & Society 2(1) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

Collaborative Technologies & Organizational Learning

(Book review)

Reviewer: Jim Moshinskie
Professor of Performance Improvement, Baylor University
Waco, Texas, USA

Textbook details:
Collaborative Technologies & Organizational Learning
Robert Neilson
1997, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey, PA, USA
(ISBN 1-87829-39-X)


The next wave of economic growth, we are told, will come from knowledge-based businesses. If this is true, then, accelerating knowledge transfer from individual to individual, from individual to groups, and from individuals to organizations and eventually to customers is beneficial. The advent of electronic collaborative technologies, such as groupware, facilitates this knowledge transfer, but we need a lot more information on how to use these technologies effectively. In "Collaborative Technologies & Organizational Learning" Robert Neilson reports on a case study conducted at the National Defense University involving collaborative technologies. The central research question was: How is organizational learning advanced by transferring intellectual material via collaborative technologies? This study is important because early-adopting companies which have jumped upon the groupware bandwagon have quickly found out that while such technologies come with many attractive features, the results of initial projects have been very disappointing. Much more information is needed to make these technologies beneficial to aid the growing global glut for knowledge management.

The study

In this exploratory case study to uncover some of the perils and opportunities of groupware, Neilson sought to develop new insights concerning how organizational learning is advanced through collaborative technologies. Neilson defines such technologies as a set of tools which support two or more people to achieve common objectives, with groupware such as LotusNotes as an example. Groupware is networked computer software and hardware that enables synchronous (real time) and asynchronous (delayed time) collaboration.

Neilson incorporated three distinct groups and approaches to using LotusNotes in his study. The approaches were: (1) Field of Dreams, which he described as "if you build it they will come," (2) Champion, which used a group member other than group leader in a pivotal role, and (3) Business Reason, which requires the use of groupware as an integral part of everyday business. To further tease out interrelationships surrounding the transfer of intellectual material using collaborative technologies, a series of eight propositions were advanced to address information exchange, technology use, and learning. Neilson describes each proposition in detail with an excellent review of literature that makes the study even more insightful.

Synthesizing study results

For corporate trainers preparing to initiate collaborative technologies, Neilson's results provide a starting point for designing similar projects. For one thing, his study indicated that relying solely on a Field of Dreams approach does not work. Obviously, just because a company spends the time and money to install elaborate groupware resources does not mean that employees will be enticed to participate freely on the system. Also he found that even while initial training in using the groupware product is important, it alone is no guarantee that the trained individuals will contribute more than others.

It seems that having an a priori business reason increases the likelihood of successful groupware implementation and use. Furthermore, using a champion other than a group leader increases participation. External factors, including certain Myer-Briggs preferences, also influence contribution rates. For example, almost two-thirds of the respondents involved in a business reason to implement LotusNotes were intuitive thinkers (NT's).

Prior experience with information technology and peer pressure were not factors in groupware use. However, Neilson found that people will continue to read and write to groupware databases as long as they feel others are contributing equally. One study participant remarked, "I reach a threshold point. I'll keep posting my work to Notes databases until I feel that no one else is. If that happens, it's not worth my time to continue posting information."

The study also indicated that respondents who have had prior negative first-hand experiences with collaborative technologies will continue to have negative reactions to these technologies regardless of training and peer pressure. These findings seem to indicate that groupware projects must be introduced carefully, leaving very little to chance.


Advancing organizational learning by transferring intellectual material via collaborative technologies is a complex task. This research illustrates that a complicated web of relationships exists, and much more needs to be learned. Neilson stresses that additional proposition development and testing needs to grow from his study. Companies can not just install collaborative technologies and simply think that employees will use it. The results of this study show that corporations must put many resources into implementing these new technologies, and then learn from failures and successes. Such knowledge will help corporate training departments continually improve how to connect people and make knowledge exchange more powerful. Without reinventing and reengineering how they handle knowledge transfer, organizations will suffer from what Neilson calls "organizational Alzheimer's disease - a learning disability that is often fatal."


Book in progress...

The "Book in progress..." describes key changes in shifts in the global learning architecture. The purpose of this project is to present a forum for continuing discussion based on these issues.