Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Developing and managing online projects and collaborations

This blog was developed for those people that work in project teams but realize that new collaboration technologies exist that could improve productivity. The application of ICT is fraught with choice and many people are forced to make technology choice decisions when they are potentially under-skilled to do so. Although many people understand that there is a role for online collaboration environments in projects, few project leaders or managers have sufficient ICT know-how on the role, selection and application of them in their work. It may seem strange for technologists (i.e. the author) to be more concerned about the human element of project teams than the technology itself, but it isn’t. Project teams rely on solid and managed interactions within the team and also for those resources outside of the team (e.g. project partners). This has always been the case, and as past research shows, the human element has often been missed which has led to failed project collaborations.

There are numerous approaches that can be applied to understand the dimension of online collaboration development. Use cases force the would-be developer to look at the requirements of the collaboration system. Use cases are written pieces about a human process in the project (e.g. workflow or communication among team participants) that highlights the human condition needing to be fixed by the collaboration environment. By drawing up use cases, it forces you to think about the processes that are presently used by your people and also helps you identify how collaboration tools could benefit them. There are a considerable number of tools available to support online collaboration (e.g. forums, chat tools, document stores and video conferencing), but some may suit your project team when others do not.

There are several keys to successful deployment of any ICT based technology but none more important than understanding the needs of your people in the work you’d like them to accomplish. Teams are about harnessing knowledge that they then turn into novel innovations. Whether the innovation is an idea, concept or a produced product, collaboration environments can make readily knowledge readily available to your people and help them work more effectively. How you move from A to B is a critical question. A is the starting point on wanting to learn about deploying collaboration tools into your team environment, as evidenced by reading of this blog, B is your intended destination where you have functioning tools in use. Travelling from A to B can be a challenging project in itself, but nothing is more rewarding than watching your people produce output in front of your eyes!

People thrive on collaboration. Collaboration is the bringing together of minds to solve problems of the day, to provide a platform for developing novel innovations. People have been working collaboratively since man first began hunting animals in a team-like way; perhaps longer. Many example of humankind's collaborative ways exist. For example, during the industrial revolution new approaches to the production of harder metals took place by people travelling to other countries and seeing for their own eyes how other cultures had dealt with pre-existing problems. Word of mouth was key to their ability to determine if processes were available elsewhere they could take advantage from. Innovators take their lead from current practice then tweak it with their own knowledge, until something even better emerges. The process of collaboration allows innovation to occur and it should be actively encouraged. The human race learns from itself, from both mistakes and wins. Although today’s cataloguing of web material makes it much simpler to find out how ‘stuff’ is done, and who produces innovative knowledge; Google is about quickening resource discovery, but it still takes thought intervention to create novel knowledge from it. Google is simply a service platform that quickens our information find and publishing capabilities. Collaboration is about providing a people orientated platform where like-minded people of similar interest, but with unique specialism’s, can share knowledge to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Six months of changes in Sakai...

Six months can be a long time in technology markets, and I have created this blog to provide you insite on changes we have made to out Sakai service. Only six month ago we moved over to Sakai 2.7. Bringing in new social networking features, it opened a door to new ways of thinking that make Sakai a warmer place to work in. By allowing Sakai users to form Connections among work colleagues (a bit like friends in Facebook) it allows groups of similar minded individuals to form up without the requirement of a worksite. The standard social networking kit in 2.7 is pretty basic and although people hooked up quite quickly, it soon became apparent that something else was needed to help it make better sense.

Adrian Fish had already begun developing the floating chat tool that would take advantage of Connections and it was launched just last month. This tool allows users to chat with Connections that are already logged into Sakai. It's been a great hit with our users. We noticed that even in the wee hours of the morning that people were still hooked into Sakai chatting away. We think this tool is an essential ingrediant to any collaboration platform, even for asking simple questions like, 'Time for a coffee?' or 'Have you seen this link?'. Not content with getting the core chat running, Adrian then set about some newer features, such as the ability to 'ping' connections that are not already logged into Sakai. This feature emails recipients an invite to chat with you providing them an additional opportunity to stay in the loop. We think that floating chat will become available in Sakai 2.9, but stuff doesn't always go to plan :(

Then Dan Robinson and Stevo Swinsberg decided to expand out the Profile2 feature set. Building a place to post to your own or your connections profiles, this is a space to share information among your social sakai contacts; we only launched it 10 days ago so we are still looking at user issues. To date, nothing dramatic has emerged and that is usually a good sign. The current publishing space is a bit limited in scope and we'll be adding new features throughout the year based on user requests. Dan also tidied up the people search facility within Profile so that presentation of results is much better making it easier read.

So, in six months we went from Sakai CLE to Sakai CLE with social connectivity. Last year some of my eBusiness students complained that Sakai was hard to get into (being the second VLE at Lancaster); since deploying 'boosted' Sakai users tell me they really like the experience for the additional functions we have added. We note also that the addition of social tools has improved Sakai 'Stickiness'; a term used to describe how long people stay logged in for. I guess this is what we should expect. Importantly also, due to implementation of Profile2 with our additional features, our latest clients tell us that profile2 was one of the strongest choice factors for choosing to use our technology. Moreover, discussions are now underway with central uni services to roll out Sakai across campus later this year. Watch this space!

During the next 6 months we'll be evaluating user data in various ways. For example, we have collected Connection formation data and can link this aggregately to other data arrays (e.g. propensity to chat, complete profile, activity in worksites etc) plus user survey data. With this information we'll be able to determine segments of user's and track back user acceptance issues from it. After all, the new ways of working won't be to everyone's taste, but it'd be nice to be able to find out who they are and tailor a service about them too.