Lorne Olfman of Claremont Graduate University: “The instructor must have a rigorous agenda”

Delivering a constructive message in person makes it less likely that the student is totally focused on the criticism whereas a written message is something the student can return to as needed. It is also unfair to deliver constructive criticism to a specific student in front of their peers. Of course, if students want to […]

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Delivering a constructive message in person makes it less likely that the student is totally focused on the criticism whereas a written message is something the student can return to as needed. It is also unfair to deliver constructive criticism to a specific student in front of their peers. Of course, if students want to speak with me, I am happy to speak to them in (virtual) person.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lorne Olfman.

Lorne Olfman is a professor and director in the Center for Information Systems & Technology (CISAT) at Claremont Graduate University. Olfman’s research interests include: how software can be learned and used in organizations, the impact of computer-based systems on knowledge management, and the design and adoption of systems used for group work.

Olfman received his MBA and PhD from Indiana University before coming to CGU. He has been on the CISAT faculty for 33 years. Along with Terry Ryan, Olfman co-directed the Social Learning Software Lab ([SL]2). Their new endeavor, along with Wallace Chipidza, is TwIST. A key component of Olfman’s teaching is his involvement with doctoral students; he has supervised 73 students to completion and has served on 100 other completed dissertation committees.

As an active member of the information systems community, Olfman has co-authored 168 refereed articles, including 60 in journals, 28 as book chapters, and 80 as conference papers. He is a senior editor of the AIS Transactions on Human Computer Interaction. Olfman was also co-chair of the doctoral consortium for the 2009 Americas Conference on Information Systems.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

I was born and raised in Calgary, Canada. I worked as a programmer, air transportation economic analyst, and telecommunications analyst before coming to the US to earn a PhD at the Kelly School of Business at Indiana University. I graduated in 1987, and I was hired by CGU as an assistant professor. I earned tenure and a full professorship before becoming a Dean and later Director of the Center for Information Systems and Technology (CISAT).

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In my first semester at CISAT, Dr. Paul Gray, the founding chair of the Center (which was originally called the Program in Information Science) asked me to take his place in a high-level working group at an international conference. There I was, a rookie professor with one semester under my belt, participating along with nine “famous” information systems researchers. They called me “The Virtual Paul Gray”. This experience gave me confidence. It also allowed important people in my field to get to know me and realize that one of their colleagues thought I could take his place in those meetings.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I cannot recall a funny mistake I made when I first started at CGU (although I am sure there were many), but one (maybe not mistake per se) that I do recall went like this: I used to hand out materials individually to the students. As was returning to the front of the room on this day, a student leaned over to me and quietly said, “Your fly is undone”. I thanked him and then said to the class “I will be right back, please read the handout”. I went to the restroom and found that my zipper was broken. What to do? I remembered that I had my academic robes (which I only used for the annual commencement ceremony) in my office, which luckily was just down the hall. I put them on and then thought about what I should tell the students. I decided it was best to tell the truth since there was no other plausible excuse I could think to tell. The lesson learned was that the student could have let me look silly in front of the class, but chose to tell me instead, which must have meant he cared about my feelings, and that was probably true about the other students.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

I believe in the mentor model. Dr. Gray told me when I was interviewing for the job that he did not have a son, and if I was hired, he would treat me like I was his son. He did! He always looked out for me in my professional and personal life, which did relieve stress and helped me to thrive as an assistant professor. When I became the head of the academic unit, and was responsible for leading the hiring process, I told candidates the story and that I would mentor them like Paul did for me (even though I have a son and a daughter). I believe I succeeded.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?

I have had just over one year of experience managing remote teams, which in my job, is the equivalent of teaching online.

Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?

I want to reiterate that I manage students and student teams remotely. I expect the challenges are different than for managing an organizational team, however, I think some of the challenges I have found are relevant to any management process. Generally speaking, online classes are shorter than face-to-face classes. This creates a number of challenges compared to face-to-face classes.

  1. Students must complete additional work in advance of their class sessions.
  2. The instructor must have a rigorous agenda.
  3. The instructor must actively involve the students early in the class session.
  4. The instructor must decide in advance who to put into breakout groups.
  5. The instructor must remember to turn video off and on during breakout sessions.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

  1. I have implemented a three-part assignment structure: before, during, and after class. I make sure students are prepared for the class session. I prepare a study guide (in presentation format) for each class session. It contains a list of what readings, assignments and/or preparations need to done, the class agenda, and a summary of the key information in the readings.
  2. I give the agenda to the students well before the class session.
  3. I open each class session with a 5-minute general questions period, then I have a 15- to 30-minute Q & A (discussion) driven by a set of questions about the key information for the class session).
  4. Breakout rooms facilitate active learning by having the students solve a problem or answer a set of questions. For problem solving, I create different scenarios and find interesting exercises. I usually have three students in a group and assign them to groups randomly. I visit the groups two or three times to see how they are doing and to answer questions. These sessions can take anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes. All students return to the main room to share their solutions to the problem solving/question answering, and their peers are invited to ask questions and provide feedback.
  5. I find it very difficult to manage the class recording. Breakout sessions are not recorded so it makes sense to stop recording until the plenary session(s). I have a reminder note beside my keyboard: “UNPAUSE RECORDING”. And yet I forget to do that about every second class session.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?

I am partial to giving written feedback to students and especially online students. Delivering a constructive message in person makes it less likely that the student is totally focused on the criticism whereas a written message is something the student can return to as needed. It is also unfair to deliver constructive criticism to a specific student in front of their peers. Of course, if students want to speak with me, I am happy to speak to them in (virtual) person.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

I mostly use the “comments” feature in the grading tool of our learning management system to write critiques to students. The critiques are often tied to the reason for giving a student a lower grade than the student might have expected. Providing comments “next to” the assignment is effective. As for the tone of the comments, I try to give positive feedback before the critique; something like: “I liked the way you solved the first part of the problem, but I did not understand the rationale in the second part. You could have improved that part by doing so and so.”

Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic? Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?

One of the concerns we learned about when moving from face-to-face to online teaching was that students liked coming to class early and talking about whatever was on their minds without the instructor present. No one had to organize these sessions, but with online, it has to be organized. This semester, I scheduled the Zoom class meeting to start 20 minutes early and told the students I would not enter the Zoom room until the scheduled time.

What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?

I think breakout rooms help to create a positive work culture, because it allows students to get to know each other under no pressure.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The most good to the most people can be delivered through good education. I am on the Board of Directors of a small nonprofit called “Amigos de Chocolá”. We provide tuition and other expenses for grade 7–12 students (and one college student) in the town of Chocolá in Guatemala. Education in Guatemala is only free up until 7th grade. Most families in Chocolá are extremely poor and cannot afford to send their children to 7–12 schools. Thanks to our Board members and donors, we enable over 50 students to remain in school. In addition, we helped build classrooms and a concrete yard for the middle school the students attend; and we bought all of the supported families food baskets for four months during the height of the pandemic. It costs between 250 dollars and 350 dollars to send a child from Chocolá to school for a year! The actual return on investment is incalculable.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I must return to my mentor, Dr. Paul Gray, who had many simple but extremely effective pieces of advice for me (and others — he captured these pieces of advice and more in a book titled “What They Didn’t Teach you in Graduate School” he co-wrote with another CGU professor, Dr. David Drew). The two that affected me the most and that I often say myself (giving credit of course) are: (1) “The number of publications you need to get tenure is n + 2, where n is the number of publications you have now” (in other words, never take your foot off the gas when trying to achieve a task as difficult as earning tenure in a research university). (2) “The best way to be out of favor is to be in favor” (in other words, there are good and bad cycles in every endeavor, so don’t get too full of yourself).

Thank you for these great insights!

You are welcome. Thanks for asking me to provide my insights.

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