Meet our new team member – her name is Twitter

It was more than just a little ironic that the week that we were assigned the group presentation activity via Twitter, I was teaching teaming to our freshmen engineering students.  Each of us in our class have far more team experience than most of my students, yet when placed in the unfamiliar landscape of using Twitter as a collaboration tool to build a presentation, many of us were reduced to mere babes in the woods.  In my teaming class, I spend a LOT of time stressing the importance of a few but essential elements of an effective team: 

1) Establishing a code of cooperation (COC)

2) Assigning responsibilities for the deliverable

3) Understanding/leveraging the inherent strengths of the individual in guiding team behavior

4) Communicate, communicate, communicate

 In reflection, I have thought about how the use of Twitter fits into these fundamental principles of an effective team, let me share…

COCThe very essence of Twitter seems to be oriented toward a code of cooperation of “when I have something to say – you, as my follower will hear to me”.  Observing the “real” twitter users, I see this behavior played out in their frequent observations put on record, and their followers making thoughtful -albeit 140 character long replies in near real time.  A subtle aspect of this COC is the difference between hearing and listening to someone.  I can hear someone without listening to them.  In either case, the game of Twitter requires you be IN THE GAME – no side-liners; you can only WIN THE GAME if you are carefully listening and replying to the tweets of your teammates, not just hearing them.  Learning Twitter as an application, getting comfortable with it, learning the sometimes cryptic and compressed language, and finding a way to access it in a timely fashion were all observed barriers to Twitter facilitating the teaming/presentation building processTwitter can be a benefit to effective teams by its very nature to facilitate rule #4, but as stated, you must be present to win.

Assigning responsibilities – This step seems straightforward (and really should have been for us), but for the synchronous nature of Twitter, and participant violation of rule #1 in Twitter space (Be in the game; Listen, don’t hear).  Everyone had the right idea – carve out a part of the presentation agenda, take responsibility for it and get going.  However problems arose when any one person lost synchronization with the Twitter thread; at that point, we found ourselves walking over the work of others, confused on how to hit the “undo” button and fearful to retreat to the position of doing nothing or waiting to be told what to do.  This again speaks to the culture or code of cooperation within Twitter; if we all have equal say – then who is in charge?  Twitter could have benefited us by using it to send a link to some form of poll where we could have taken a vote on who wanted to do what, then we could have divided the work using the timely replies of everyone.  We could have also used it to send out a simple Doodle scheduler to see when we might have met for a quick organizing meeting, so that we only needed to tweet updates and status thereafter.

Leveraging individual strengths In a team, there can’t be all leaders or all followers, and at some point, we have to own our role in the team.  Those roles change and morph based on the skills and abilities of the individual in the team, and the task.  Below is a table of team roles by Belbin (1981).  Re-reading the Twitter thread, it is easy to see examples of how the team members for the presentation attempted to play the various roles; Chris and Hanjun filled action oriented roles, Geovon demonstrated people oriented roles, Xin, Jing & Quincy all filled thought oriented roles, etc….  The problem was that the speed of Twitter didn’t really allow those roles to mature.  Further, being willing to step up and offer yourself into a role is a very complicated negotiating process that didn’t seem to fit Twitter very well.  Twitter could have been used as Geovon suggested to have some sort of Face-to-Face video conference, in which we could read the body language and interpret more clearly the verbal cues as to what everyone was good and comfortable in doing to benefit the team.

Figure 1: Belbin’s Team Roles1

Action Oriented Roles


Challenges the team to improve.


Puts ideas into action.

Completer Finisher

Ensures thorough, timely completion.

People Oriented Roles


Acts as a chairperson.

Team Worker

Encourages cooperation.

Resource Investigator

Explores outside opportunities.

Thought Oriented Roles


Presents new ideas and approaches.


Analyzes the options.


Provides specialized skills.

CommunicationWell, communicate we did and Geovon’s graph said it all in the final presentation!  However, the graph also showed that we each operated on different schedules (early birds vs. night owls).  This too offered challenges to the necessary synchronization of all parties into the Twitter threads.  Because of Twitter’s speed, if you lost an hour of listening and participating, you may have lost your assignment, role in the team, or even your very direction.  Twitter’s benefit was the real time nature of constant communication (lots-of-data exchange); its drawback was the same – communication with a fire hose.  If we had thought of Twitter not as a tool in the process, but as an additional team member, we would have considered its strengths and weaknesses, and leveraged it appropriately,  – not forcing it to work against its very nature.  If Twitter were a team member she would be our Specialist.

Overall, this was an amazing, immersive, sometimes painful learning experience from which I have mined many golden nuggets.  I have learned first- hand how incentives can motivate change, I have witnessed interesting and complicating team dynamics in the Web 2.0 world, and I have benefitted by testing what I teach about teamwork, and examining closely the paradigms that can arise in the social media space.

Citation: Belbin’s Team Roles Understanding Team Roles to Improve Performance, 1981., accessed 9/8/2011, 10.19pm