Category Archives: collaboration

Simple, free collaboration using internet tools

Since joining the steering group for LocalGov Digital, I’ve been getting back into the swing of things when it comes to working remotely with people spread across the country.

In 2018 it feels like an obvious point to make, but the internet really does make this stuff easy. However, knowing how things are inside many organisations, there is still a whole lot that can be achieved by simply making open internet tools available to people to use to do their jobs.

Collaboration in LocalGov Digital is based on three main tools, all of which are free and can be set up by anyone with an email address and five minutes to spare.

Slack

Slack is the key communications channel, and is a real time text chat application which gives a group of people the ability to talk to one another in themed channels. It’s very easy to use and can be accessed on the web, or through mobile and desktop applications.

The downside with Slack is that it is ephemeral, and stuff can get lost or forgotten about. This is particularly true of the free version, which only archives a certain number of messages. It’s definitely worth storing useful stuff people have shared in a more permanent space when you spot it.

Google Drive

Google Drive is the space where more long-lived collaboration takes place. It delivers word processing, presentations and spreadsheets along with a filing system – all based in the browser.

The ability to have many people working on the same documents, whether typing in directly or adding comments and suggestions is really powerful and it dramatically reduces the need for emailing things round.

Getting the most out of it does need a bit of planning though, particularly looking at folder structures and so forth. It’s tempting to just chuck everything in a flat structure and let the search do its job, but in reality having some order really helps people find their way around.

Again, as well as being web based, there are mobile apps too, which means that folk can get involved on any reasonably modern device. Handy.

Trello

Trello is a simple web app for making lists and sharing them with people. You create a board, add some lists and then add items to the list. People can then comment on them, add due dates, add additional sub task lists, label them and so forth.

Really it’s a bunch of different features that can be used however the group collaborating decide to use them, which makes it really powerful. Using Trello, we can see at a glance how certain actions are progressing and which need a little nudge to get going again.

And guess what? As well as the web, there are mobile and desktop apps for Trello. Boom.

Thoughts on getting the most out of these tools

  • Sometimes a human API beats a computer’s one – while all the tools above can integrate with one another, sometimes it isn’t always all that helpful to do so. Often, it takes the eye and skill of a human being to link this Trello board to that Google Doc, or post that link in this Slack channel
  • Don’t assume they are instantly easy to use – compared to many fully fledged desktop applications, these things are easy to pick up. That doesn’t mean that it will happen straight away however and it’s worth working with your team to ensure they are confident in using them
  • It’s worth thinking about information security – whilst not letting it get in the way of doing good work. Not every bit of data is appropriate to be stored on these tools, particularly when you are using the free, consumer version of them, and it’s worth thinking about the nature of what you are sharing before you share it.

Photo credit: Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash

On collaboration

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Euan Semple writes:

I have always said that the first step to real collaboration, as opposed to just having a shared space to stick your unreadable documents, is having the self awareness, the humility, and the courage to admit that you need help.

Too right!

Back when I was a local government officer, I used to be involved in things like local strategic partnerships – only the first word was, I think, accurate.

Anyway, various ‘delivery partners’ would turn up to a meeting, pledge to do something collaborative – i.e. something they were going to do anyway – and then go off and do it on their own, as they always would have done. Three months later, this activity would be announced at the result of partnership working and collaboration.

Am sure everyone reading this will have seen this happening, and as Euan says, no file sharing platform is going to fix this.

Instead, a sensible collaboration conversation ought to look like this:

  1. Decide on shared outcomes – are they really shared? are they really outcomes? Much of this is about aligning interests – all organisations should be open about their motivations and why they are collaborating. Then, through some enlightened self interest, it ought to be possible to plot a course that meets everyone’s needs, including the people all the partners are trying to help.
  2. Map what every organisation can bring to the table to help achieve those outcomes
  3. Identify the gaps. Is there another group who could meet those? If not, are they collaboration-killers? Can you still achieve your shared outcomes without those skills or resources? If not, you might need to reboot. Important: don’t pretend you can do something you can’t!
  4. Come up with a framework for organising and measuring activity and how it maps across to your outcomes, so you know whether you’re succeeding or not and can pivot accordingly
  5. Only meet if you really need to – and only have those that need to meet turn up – no agenda stuffing, or meat in the room
  6. Have an open way of reporting progress, through an online dashboard, say, so that everyone can see who is doing what and how much of an impact it is having.

Collaboration – 10 steps to success

collaborationDigital tools provide great ways to collaborate online. Whether working with a smallish team to co-create a document, or engaging the wisdom of the crowd to build a list of ideas, the net allows us to work with people at a previously impossible scale.

But how to do so effectively? There’s nothing more depressing than a collaborative project that nobody wants to collaborate with you on; or a popular collaboration that runs out of steam, or drifts off at tangents.

Here’s a ten step process I’ve come up with to help your project succeed.

1. Identify who might be interested

There’s no way you will pinpoint every person who might be interested in what you are collaborating on. However, you should be able to spot the people you are aware of who will definitely get things going. This might be because they have a track record of getting involved on this issue, or that they know their way around these kinds of processes. Either way, they are useful people to have around.

Reach out to these folk and let them know what you are planning to do. Keep the specifics around the tech side of things vague, but recommend they encourage others to get in touch, so you can use other people’s networks to create a bigger list of initial collaborators.

Also find out at this stage roughly what level of tech-savvyness there is among this initial gang. Find out how they like to communicate – do they prefer email, discussion forums, or are they happy getting their hands dirty with a wiki? This will help inform which platforms you choose.

2. Put a platform together

Bearing in mind what you found out in step 1, decide at this stage what system you want to use. The fundamental factor is to keep things as simple as you possibly can. Other issues include whether you want to host it yourself or are happy for the content to be sat on someone else’s server, and whether you need to restrict access.

On the first point, by and large hosted platforms are far easier to set up and use and often are more functionally rich than those which you manage yourself. On the second, make it as open as possible, so that there are few barriers for people to get involved.

Make sure your decision on platform and process matches the research you’ve done with your initial user group in terms of the way people collaborate. Are they happy editing other people’s work? Would they prefer commenting, or submitting ideas?

Getting this right is important, but it shouldn’t get in the way of starting your project. Pick something that will hopefully work, but be flexible to allow for change in the future.

3. Get the content on the platform

It’s very hard to begin a collaboration with a blank page. You do need some content to get people talking and give them something to work with.

This, depending on your starting point, can be a quick or a very labour-intensive job. Copying and pasting text from other documents is fine, but when it is from (say) a PDF some cleaning of the formatting is likely to be necessary. Make sure you factor the time in to get this done.

Don’t forget your users when adding content. Consider adding some consistent header text to the top of each page, explaining what the content is, how it can be edited or discussed, and how the project administrators can be contacted for help, etc. Ensure that you take into account what people told you at stage 1. If people say they like to respond by email, make sure there is an email address they can send comments to, and a process for getting those comments onto the platform.

Ensure that the navigation for the platform makes sense and that people will be able to find the bits they are interested in easily. Test it out on some of your initial group to get their thoughts. Maybe find a complete web-novice in your organisation to take a look and see how they get on with it.

4. Set the rules of engagement

Having rules is boring, but a lot of people like them. Part of this will come into the page heading text I mentioned in step 3, but it is probably worth explaining again on a separate page. Make it explicit who should have view and edit rights to the content and also how vandals will be dealt with.

It might also be worth explaining exactly what will happen to people’s content that they add, who it ‘belongs’ to and under what licence it is published online. These things shouldn’t matter to most people, but those that do care often do so loudly.

It probably is also a nice idea to explain what the aim of the whole exercise is – what is the eventual output likely to look like? And how will those who have collaborated on it be credited?

5. Invite and manage contributions

Now invite your initial group to come onto the platform to start collaborating on the content. Keep it to this gang as much as you can to start off with. Any problems in the structure of the site or the way content is made available will soon be spotted and fixed.

Other things will be bound to go wrong at some point. People will accidentally delete entire pages of content, for example, and panic about what to do about it. Make sure you and your team are keeping a constant online presence to monitor what’s happening so you can react quickly to a) calm down the person who has just ballsed things up and b) put things right so the project retains at least a veneer of professionalism.

6. Figure out some roles

As part of the initial work with the smaller group, take the opportunity to identify some roles on the project and fill them with some of your early volunteers.

Roles can include:

  • Community manager – someone to keep everyone engaged and motivated on the project
  • Social reporter – a content creator who
  • Curator – collecting relevant content and useful information from around the web and bringing it together into one place
  • Gardener – a person who likes to keep your project tidy, cleaning up formatting errors, ensuring links work, and navigation makes sense
  • Evangelist – someone willing to go out and recruit new people to come and collaborate on your project

7. Market it

To get people involved beyond your core group of volunteers, you need to get eyeballs. Post to relevant forums, blogs and mailing lists about what you are doing. Telephone other contacts and get them to sign up. Stick a link to the project in your email signature. Mention it in every letter you write.

Don’t forget that you are asking people to give up their time to help you out for nothing in return other than the kudos of actually being asked for their opinions. Some will jump at the chance, others will need more persuading.

8. Get everyone in a room

At the very least, have a party at the end of the exercise to thank everyone. But even better, have one towards the beginning too. Even online networking fanboys like me appreciate that to get trust in a community, you have to meet one another face to face first. OK, you don’t have to, but it really does help.

Maybe you could have a collaboration hack day – a big room with lots of laptops, wifi, flipcharts and post-its, where everyone does their best to get as many quality edits done as they can, chatting to each other and developing ideas in real life. Plenty of coffee and sandwiches would probably help too.

9. Let go

Involvement in any activity like this one will involve the acceptance of a significant loss of control and messiness in the way things develop. This is good, don’t try and fight it.

Do moderate offensive or stupid content – that does no-one any favours. But if things are developing in a direction you didn’t expect, or don’t like, let it. Have a conversation about it. Examine your own preconceptions and assumptions and see if things can be worked out another way. But don’t go round reverting pages because you don’t agree with them.

10. Get the output sorted

Finally, make sure there is a recognised output at the end. Hopefully this could be some sort of document that people who like documents can read. Make sure it is full of links back to the wiki so that people can see who developed what idea, and how that idea changed from the original.

Make sure that a description of the process is included in the final document, and that everyone who contributed is credited. Go back to those forums, blogs and mailing lists that you punted the idea around on and let them all know how it finished. Make a fuss about the fact that this stuff works!

Do you have any tips for making collaborative digital projects work?

Collaboration or cooperation?

coopStowe Boyd is a great writer on technology and the impact it has on organisational culture.

You can follow his blog here, which is updated several times a day with great titbits and articles.

He has written a post for the CMSWire website, entitled The Fall of Collaboration, The Rise of Cooperation which is a really interesting read.

In it he mentions a great quote from Marshall McLuhan: “Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools!” – I can see myself repeating that in meetings in the future, for sure.

As we move into a new way of work — one based on more fluid and looser connections, grounded in freethinking, humanist and scientific approaches to the social contract — it’s becoming clear that the traditional model of “collaboration tools” is based around outmoded structures of control rather than the shape of our work today, or the nature of networked sociality. We need a different take on the tools we are using to get work done, one based on open cooperation at the core of our work instead of closed collaboration running alongside it.

His idea seems to be that the notion of collaboration has come to mean big, corporate platforms and processes. Cooperation on the other hand is more about individuals finding their own way to work together, using the most appropriate tools for the job.

Is this how you see things? Has the word collaboration become tainted by association?

Collaboration ground rules

groundrules_bSometimes to make collaboration work you need to set some ground rules.

It’s easy to say, “let’s start up a google doc!” – and imagine everyone leaping in to give their ideas. But it’s not so simple as that, especially if folk haven’t had the experience or confidence in this way of working.

Instead it’s necessary to have a think about how the collaborative activity might be approached, and ensure everyone is aware of the process you have selected.

Often this will be the case when the technology available is a bit lacking. As an example, a recent collaborative effort I started was based in a ‘Note’ within a group on Yammer. Notes are the collaborative writing part of Yammer, but they aren’t terribly sophisticated and won’t allow you to use formatting such as tables.

So, I spent a bit of time describing how to add ideas to the list. I came up with a fairly simple process that involved a bold heading for each new item, with two bullets points underneath for other related information to be recorded.

Without this introduction, people may have been unsure what to do, and so not bother, or even accidentally start hacking up what others had written.

At the very least, when working on a Google Doc with others, for example, I’ll put “No deletions!” at the top as a general rule to people.

Any other collaboration ground rule tips to share?

How the digital workplace is transforming office life

Great talk from Sharon O’Dea:

By moving information and services online, successful companies enable their staff to work from any location, and almost any device, so that work becomes what you do, not where you go. In this session, learn how the digital workplace supports more flexible working, reduces costs – and makes employees happier and healthier.

Notes on making collaborative technology successful

I spent an interesting morning at the Online Information conference on Tuesday – ably chaired by my pal Steve Dale – and the session I enjoyed most was about implementing collaborative technology in organisations – one example was from a big media and communications provider, the other a government department.

Here are some of the thoughts that the session inspired me to write down…

1. There’s always a disconnect between what the organisation wants and what the user wants.

This doesn’t mean you are doomed to fail – but it means you are if you don’t think about how to balance these competing elements.

Knowledge management is a classic example of this problem – the organisation wants its people to share their know-how so they won’t be missed so much when they leave. But maintaining their indispensability is a pretty important thing for employees who want to stay in work.

The answer here is, I think, not to pretend that the disconnect doesn’t exist – just manage it. Don’t try selling organisational benefits to staff – instead focus that on what’s in it for them. Find a way of aligning what the organisation wants and what makes the users’ lives easier and better.

2. Calling it something new is a bad idea. Just make it ‘work’.

Imagine you’re sat at your desk and someone approaches you, beaming, and announces that from now on we’re all going to start managing our knowledge! Or sharing our collective wisdom! Or collaborating!

My eyes are rolling just thinking about it. By giving an activity a name you separate it from other, existing activity. It becomes more work rather than just a new, better way of doing the existing work.

If people see something as a new responsibility or an additional task, they are unlikely to want to do it. Instead frame these tools as more efficient ways of getting the job done better.

3. Getting good engagement requires skills that not many organisations have.

One of the key ones is community management, which I have banged on about quite a bit before. Encouraging people to an online space and to get involved is exactly a community management activity and anyone trying to do it really ought to spend some time learning about it (which might be going on a course, but could just be spending some time reading about it).

There’s other stuff too like curation, social reporting, writing for the web, networking and so on… none of which are full time jobs but skills that are needed and roles which should be performed if you are going to engage users with your platform. Assuming the skills exist or that they aren’t needed will result in failure, I’m afraid.

4. If you find yourself in the position where you’re having to convince people to collaborate or share, you’ve probably already failed.

I do wonder sometimes whether allowing people to discover social tools in the workplace for themselves might make them more likely to take them up. It might make for slightly slower levels of engagement but I dare say they will be more sustainable in the long term.

There’s something here to learn from the success of Yammer in many organisations, which is often started up under the radar by individual staff members with no strategy or management buy-in. Because it belongs to the people using it, and it isn’t being imposed, it feels like a space people actually want to use, and there’s no need to convince people.

What I am saying here might sound a bit like ‘if you build it, they will come’. That’s not what I’m saying.

Maybe I’m saying ‘if you plead with people to come to something you’ve built, they will regard you and your thing with contempt’.

5. Don’t prescribe what people can do. Let them surprise you.

This ties in a bit with my first and second points but is more focused on activity and features. What I mean here is that if you launch a social system with the intention of it being a knowledge management tool, and people end up using it to manage their projects, then let them.

If instead of correctly managing the versions of various official documents within the strictures of your beautifully designed taxonomy, people end up discussing the ramifications of the latest restructure, then let them.

Telling people they aren’t doing things right is unlikely to endear them to you or your platform. Of course step in if people are behaving anti-socially or whatever, but by and large they them do what they want to do, and just be glad that they want to do it on your system. Once they begin to trust it and like it, they might just start doing some of the things you originally hoped they would.

Experiments in social learning

Social learning is a really interesting concept. It’s basically the idea that we can often learn better from each other rather than from an expert or teacher.

There’s an obvious usage for the internet and the kind of social tools I write about here in social learning, and an additional argument in favour of making them available within organisations.

Creating easy to use, informal spaces for learning to happen is something I am really committed to – GovCamp and LocalGovCamp are offline examples and lately I have been experimenting in online social learning too.

Two examples are fairly similar. Earlier this week, FutureGov‘s Dom Campbell and I were in Exeter, speaking with Devon County Council’s managers about the opportunities of digital innovation in local government.

My talk was an expansion of this ancient blog post, entitled If Place is a system, lets make it an open source one (slides here). Part of the talk is to tell some of the interesting stories about the birth of hypertext, the internet, the world wide web and free software.

Folk like Vannevar Bush, Doug Englebart, Ted Nelson, Richard Stallman and others. People for whom the primary role of technology was to support learning and knowledge sharing.

Devon

Anyway, before the event, Carl Haggerty and I threw together a very quick private WordPress site to enable some social learning to happen around the talks Dom and I were giving. We kept it very, very simple, choosing five or six examples of digital innovation, providing a bit of background with some text, links and videos, and then opening up the comments for people to discuss how that technology might affect their service.

So, nothing clever, technology-wise. But such a simple setup clearly resonated with people – we had 67 comments in less than a week – many of which were left in the evenings, or at the weekend.

By doing this, we managed to turn a short, half day learning event into a conversation, with ideas and experience being shared between people at a time and in a place covenient to them. It makes complete sense.

I’m taking a similar approach with a group of up and coming local government folk who are taking part in the SOLACE Springboard programme. Again, I’m providing a one hour workshop session later this month, on digital innovation.

To make this a bit more useful, I’ve built a similar site to the Devon one, with a few pages outlining some of the concepts, with some text, videos, documents, links and so on, and encouragement to use the comments to discuss these issues before and after the face to face session.

Again, the aim is to reinforce the discussion at the face to face event and add some value to it – not necessarily to replace it entirely.

The key thing to me in terms of making social learning like this work is to make it as easy to get involved with as possible and to allow it to be as self-directed as possible – not to make too many rules or force people to do things in a certain way. Again – pretty much like GovCamp!

The second example takes more of a lead from social networking ideas, and uses BuddyPress to create a dedicated social learning network.

This was done following conversations with my friends David Wilcox and Steve Dale, inspired by the work on social learning shared by Harold Jarche.

Social Learning NetworkThe site has all the usual social networky bits like profiles, friends, activity walls, groups, wiki type pages and so on. But of course it isn’t the features that matter but how you use them. Steve and David have used this platform to provide an easy to use environment for an exploratory learning exercise on behalf of the Nominet Trust around the use of technology by those in later life – something they both know a lot about, of course 🙂

People share their stories, links to interesting things and so on – and follow up what interests them. Nobody claims to be an expert, there are no hierarchies and people get as involved as they want to.

As I have mentioned here before, we do a fair bit of training for various organisations and increasing I see that we need to offer an element at least of online social learning as part of this.

I’m even planning how a whole course could be delivered in this way – although I suspect that’s for another post.

On a slightly related note, this post by Clay Shirky on the concept of the “massive open online course” is a really good read.