My perfect Zoom background is …

We’re into Week Three of Martin Sherlock’s stint as our Guest blogger, during which he’s been offering his thoughts on learning and knowledge sharing. This week he reflects on the different perspectives we can each of us bring to the process of organizational learning and how these diverse ways of thinking can spark innovation.



“Caveat up front. I say Zoom, which I use mainly for friends and family (alongside Skype and Facetime); but I also mean Microsoft Teams, which the business uses as part of its Office 365 platform. Both Zoom and Teams allow you to add in some standard or your own backgrounds when on a call. I’ve spent time recently in BBC sets, the Marvel Universe, Schitt’s Creek; and challenged colleagues to surprise me with their backgrounds. I even wrote some guidance to help people do this.

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I don’t know about you, but I really miss the ad hoc interactions with colleagues that comes from being based in a busy office. I usually work alongside colleagues from regional project delivery teams, PMO, Assurance and (across the road) asset delivery, technical specialists and enabling functions.

Whilst there is purpose and structure to much of the formal work with the business to capture, evaluate and apply knowledge; the happy coincidence of a kitchen conversation often generates new ideas, connections and opportunities, a light bulb moment. The ability to look across the open plan office, see who is in and free, and pick up a conversation with a subject matter expert to clarify a point in a lessons learnt report. This business context is important – I want to capture and share knowledge in ways that makes my delivery colleagues lives easier, safer, more effective. It’s harder to do that when all your colleagues are at the end of a network cable, no matter how intriguing the background to their Zoom and Teams conversations may be.

I recognise that some of this is about difference. I use two different lens to look at the world and help me think about what others might need to participate, feel included, get the most from knowledge sharing activity.

MBTI_Z (002)_edited

I use MBTI to think about people’s preferences. I know what works for me (and how to ask for it, if it is lacking), but what might work well for others? I like talking things through, finding connections, exploring possibilities, trying something new; a bit of an outlier in a project and programme delivery environment where the plan is key, detail is important, and process is about consistency and continuous improvement. I tailor my approach to check what people need, the level of detail is right, they can read and reflect before talking through a problem. Concise, factual, logical; a standardised approach, open to improvement. Yet using the different information and decision making preferences in turn (the Problem Solving Z) is key to good problem solving.

LearningCycle (002)_editedI introduced Honey & Mumford’s learning styles to help people think about the kinds of channels, activities, materials they will want to access to engage with the learning and (more importantly) take it away and apply it. Some will want to have a go, others to see how an example plays out; some to hypothesise, consider models and frameworks first, others to look at how the learning can be applied to their scheme. Like those training courses that give you the framework, talk through a scenario then give you an exercise to work through in a group. We can all learn from the different styles, but some will work better for us than others. If I provide content and channels that meet the different styles, everyone should find something to engage with and take away.

In terms of knowledge management, this then becomes a balancing act. We need consistency to be able to catalogue, quantify and search content (and to track and measure outcomes). Our SharePoint Knowledge Management store uses a simple taxonomy (high level categories from assurance and governance, detailed sub-categories from the work breakdown structure terms and the different phases of the project life cycle). Content is curated by broad topic; I can add or amend topics to reflect current need, without compromising the integrity of our taxonomy (recently adding a Lockdown section to capture examples of how we are doing things differently to meet the challenges of social distancing.)

Casestudypage_editedContent is largely written case studies (the challenge is getting people with experience to find the time to write them), video presentations and slide decks, checklists and templates. The kind of content that works well for people who want to think things through first, want to see examples and consider concepts before trying out something in the real world, who want to work through detail and logic in a practical way step by step. Not necessarily the content for people who want to bounce ideas around, test out options, explore possibilities.

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Part of my plan for this financial year was to programme some knowledge sharing events. A mix of challenging speakers, teams sharing experience, break out sessions to problem solve, explore, update. Recruit some knowledge champions to act as role models, help capture and curate experience, facilitate conversations, promote the value of investing in knowledge. Find some ways to tap into the experience rich / time poor people’s knowledge, to convert good intentions into action, make it easy to do the right thing. Sounds easy when I write down, but it was going to be a real challenge to get the balance right, recruit champions to help spot and capture the great stuff we do; and as importantly do it in ways that meet different preference and needs. Covid-19 came along, and those plans changed.

I’m now looking at how we can leverage our technology in creative ways to bring people together. A discussion board in SharePoint to share problems, encourage subject matter experts to offer insight, capture the wisdom of crowds. Testing the limitations of Teams to run events (Live events will give us control to host presenters, field Q&A, broadcast but not yet allow people to break out into smaller groups to discuss specific issues), and testing with some existing communities of practice in virtual spaces to see what works well. Keeping an eye out for the delivery team’s innovations.

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An example: We do regular site safety tours, to meet our legal obligations under Construction Design and Management regulations, and to ensure all our staff and partners work safely and with due regard to their wellbeing. Typically they involve a regional Safety Adviser walking around the site with members of the project team and our supply chain, checking standards are being met and picking up any issues. That’s not a realistic option during lockdown.

So a safety colleagues and our contractor came up with a creative solution: the contractor used a GoPro camera on site, to walk around the office environment, using Twitch to stream the video, linked in to a MS Teams meeting that the project team and safety adviser all joined from their respective homes. Outcome was a successful safety tour that all relevant parties were able to join, the contractor was able to stop, zoom in and move around the environment to address questions from the team. I then scheduled a Teams conversation with the Safety Adviser, using the questions in our case study template to frame discussion around what, and why, and how; recording that Teams meeting to be able to play back and ensure I captured all relevant detail. I now have the case study, safety tour report and aide memoir, and GoPro footage all linked in our SharePoint Site for others to use when planning their next safety tour. Even better, we can use this approach after lockdown to make tours more inclusive (not all team need to be on site to take part) and provide useful induction material for new team members. Something to promote in Yammer groups and see how people respond (hopefully surfacing some other innovations we can capture and share).

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So the background context becomes more than a distraction or creative competition. If we change the context, use a different (Covid-19) background, we see different opportunities, sometimes different sometimes better ways to capture and share new experiences, learn new ways of doing things. Some will be temporary, others will be longer lasting (can we use this learning to reduce our carbon footprints, free up time, develop more inclusive ways to collaborate?)

I don’t actually have a favourite Teams / Zoom background. Just a variety that give me different views of the world and others different perspectives; still looking for that perfect background that gives me a different perspective. How about you?

Week 4: Can we truly solve complex problems.

  • Is the real challenge for us all to be able to adapt to and embrace future complexity, rather than try and fix it?

Complexity – if you can’t beat it, adapt!

ChameleonJoin us at 13.00 BST on Thursday 28th May for a Zoom Live conversation to explore the themes Martin in airing in his blog series. We are learning that complexity isn’t something to be solved but something to which we need to adapt. During the live call we’ll discuss together what does adaptation mean for you in terms of project organization, team working and personal capability?

Register for the Zoom Live session on 28th May

Read Martin’s other posts in this series

If you build it, will they come?

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas

About Martin Sherlock

Currently I work as a Knowledge Manager in our Major Projects directorate. (On the side I co-chair the staff LGBT+ network). As Knowledge Manager I am part of a small central team focused on developing and maintaining the specialist skills, knowledge, systems and reporting needed to underpin and assure a large construction programme. My colleagues in the wider business are responsible for operating, maintaining and enhancing the Strategic Road Network for England. Our work is shaped by our licence to operate and our delivery plan – in other words, are we spending public money wisely and efficiently to deliver the programme of work to a standard agreed with our shareholder and our regulator.

I came to Knowledge Management with a background in advice work, learning and development and professional capability; which turned out to be a really good grounding. From advice work I learned to listen to people, pay attention to their needs, assessing the merits of requests and finding ways of meeting the reasonable / realistic ones. From L&D, understanding of different learning styles, preferences, how to coach and develop people to improve behaviours and understanding, capture content in formats people can learn from. In professional capability, I spent time getting to grips with our professional standards, the importance of effective governance and assurance, the knowledge that there will always be a learning curve to navigate. All three gave me an understanding of the importance of getting the foundations right before moving on to the people focus and relationships that give me the real challenges I enjoy.

Find out more about the work of Highways England

Connect with Martin on Linkedin

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