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E-collaboration at the FDFA

April 10, 2012 | LND | Learning Elsewhere, Methods & Tools |

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Andreas SchoeneAfter Riff Fullan’s comprehensive contribution on e-collaboration and on its prerequisites, in this blog post Andreas Schöne concentrates on more general terms of information management and on the e-collaboration infrastructure to be expected in the near future for FDFA employees and external partners.

By Andreas Schöne

If we understand e-collaboration as the working together via electronic media, e-collaboration has got three dimensions: a human, an organizational and a technical one. The human dimension comprises all aspects of the user and – from a systemic perspective – the user interface of an application or platform. The organizational dimension entails the processes, procedures and contents of an institution or a community; and the technical dimension covers the technical infrastructure, the functionalities of an application or platform.

EckpfeilerWithin this magical triangle, the interesting issues always rise at its corner points, where two dimensions meet each other:

  • Where the human factor meets technology – or the considerations of the usability of a user interface versus the technological constraints of an application;
  • Where organization meets the technical infrastructure, i.e. the challenge of an application to cope with the institutional procedures and contents on an operational level
    and third,
  • Where the user meets the organization, or the question of how the user best can cope via the user interface with the exponentially growing amount of information produced by the organization.

Human factor meets technology

The crucial factor of building-up an e-collaboration platform is not the technical feasibility. The crucial factor is to get the acceptance for such an instrument on the end users’ side.

The user only accepts such an instrument, if s/he understands how to work with it, and if working with it generates a value-add. An application must be easy to use and it must support its user to do a task easier or quicker than with any other instrument. Usability therefore is key. If this cannot be achieved to the wished extent, adequate coaching and support must be provided. The less user friendly an application is, the more support must be given.

Organization meets technical infrastructure

Collaboration via electronic channels requires a new form of organizing oneself. To me, this is the most challenging issue, for it means to each of us giving up traditional forms of working in favor for others, thinking in different contexts, which I am not familiar with.  – It means change.

From the technical perspective, the application chosen as the base for e-collaboration needs to meet the institutional needs. This seems trivial – but it is not. Very often, there are certain regulations or policies which limit the freedom of choice of an application (e.g. proprietary versus open source products).
Furthermore, the needs differ within an organisation. What seems perfect for one organizational unit does not fit at all for another. Thus, on the end users’ side, more flexibility is required and on the side of the providers, operation of a platform must include further development in accordance with the (growing) needs of an institution or community.

User meets organization

With the exponential growth of information, the problem is not so much to find information, but rather to find reliable information relevant in one particular context. In future, it will not suffice, to have a sophisticated search engine. If we want to obtain reliable information, all of us will have to store together with a piece of information “information on the information”: Or in other words: metadata. We have to tag information with key words of our specialized vocabulary and – if ever possible – we should give a statement on the reliability and the importance of a piece of information. This can be done by ranking the information or simply by adding a comment to a document for example. Tags help to find information and even more, they help to structure it.

In order to do e-collaboration, new skills are required. Each of us and the institution as such has to develop a certain ripeness to deal adequately with all the possible instruments of e-collaboration; a certain e-collaboration literacy is required. When do I best use a blog? In which cases a news is better chosen? Is for my particular purpose a discussion forum best used or rather a wiki? What is the difference between a blog and a wiki?

Learning to cope with information and instruments of e-collaboration requires two things: first consulting, coaching and training provided by a competence center, and second experience. The building-up of information and e-collaboration literacy is a development process which has to be fostered by the institution (community), first by providing the resources necessary for consulting, coaching and training, and second by aiming at a culture which allows and advocates end-users’ initiatives to try out and use the e-collaboration instruments available.

Subsequently, an example is given of how the Knowledge and Learning Processes Division at SDC tries to support employees in their usage of e-collaboration instruments.

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E-collaboration at the FDFA

Mapping the aspects of usability, technical functionalities and information management, with the new platform to come, the following statements can be made:

  • With the new platform we will have a variety of e-collaboration instruments at our fingertips (news, discussion forum, wiki, blog); the challenge will be how and when to introduce them, i.e.
    being in accordance with the end users’ needs without asking too much from them.
  • Based on Microsoft SharePoint 2010, ease of use of the new e-collaboration platform will be a challenge; there has a compromise to be found between the wished usability and the costs raised by customizing the software.
  • The introduction of more powerful systems of a higher complexity needs more resources for consulting, coaching and support; the awareness of this fact still has to be created – especially with the upper management.

The new platform will provide for the “mechanical” prerequisites to do e-collaboration; a culture of exchanging information and the processes necessary to do so will have to be established yet. In this sense the project is far more an organizational or change management project than an IT-project.

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