Can social software enhance collaborative working?

This article offers thoughts from Rowan Purdy (Website author) and Gareth Johnson (Warwick University) on whether social software can enhance collaborative working.

An assssment of the potential of blogs and wikis to build communities

Rowan Purdy

A year ago we launched our knowledge community. Intially the kc was an environment for people interested in forming communities to support improvement in mental health services and wellbeing.

To reflect our organisational change the scope of the kc will be broadened over the coming months to cater for people interested in forming communities to support improvement in care services and the wellbeing of vulnerable people. This includes vulnerability on the grounds of mental health, learning and physical disability, across all age ranges from children and young people, to adults and older people.

Membership is free. To date 6,500 people have joined. Non-members can still browse the system.

At its heart the KC provides members with informal, easy to use publishing tools. Blogs for individuals. Blogs and wikis for groups. Any two members can set up a group. To date we have over 365 groups with varying purpose, size of membership and activity.

People working within NIMHE / Rethink Early Intervention in Psychosis Programme are using their public kc group to support social networking across the country. David Shiers and Jo Smith, Joint National Programme Leads, say,

“We are a group of users of services, carers and practitioners with an enthusiastic passion for improving services for people with psychosis. The main challenge we faced was overcoming our geographic dispersal and the impracticality of physically meeting on a regular basis to share ideas and organise our work. We use our KC group to share ideas and news with each other. We debate, review and refine ideas together to solve problems and improve our everyday decisions at work.“We regularly respond to the questions posed by others. We don’t always know the answers but am able to signpost people to someone who might. It’s rather like a group of gardeners growing things and weeding together in a communal garden. Every so often a seedling begins to sprout and we marvel as through our collective efforts new shoots and eventually flowers blossom or fruits form.”

Contrast this with private groups which are equally successful but for different reasons. Primary Care Graduate Workers use their group as a peer support tool where they share problems and concerns in confidence away from the eyes of their managers.

We have had less success with the open source wiki tool we provided for groups. However, we have recently piloted the use of confluence, a user friendly wiki tool, and find that it is really suited to supporting project teams in collaboratively delivering short focused pieces of work that have already been agreed. The project teams I support know that there is one place they need to go to find or contribute to up to date information about our work. In the past we had massive email chains and problems with multiple versions of documents flying around without anyone knowing which was the most up to date. Our new approach is helping us to deliver our work better together.

Gareth Johnson

Here at Warwick we are already seeing the emergence of multiple communities. Many are born of a mutual inter-dependence (say studying on a course or module), whilst others are springing up as might be expected between social society members and research teams.

One of the best examples seen of the professional potential of blogs being exploited is through the Learning Grid and their team blog. The Grid comprises an information commons environment staffed largely by student advisors with very limited managerial presence. Due to diverse scheduling of the assistants shifts there is no time when they are all on duty, and studying practicalities prevent the possibility of physical team meetings. To this end they have successfully employed blogs for the past year to help weld the virtual team together.

What started out as a simple mechanism for reporting issues or problems during a shift for the subsequent team members or management to pick up on has developed into a rich supporting community. Moving from a systematic reporting to a more informal structure has enabled a rapid interchange of information – far more rapidly and freely than within the formal approach. It has certainly helped develop a group of disparate individuals into a cohesive whole – who on the rare occasions they meet up socially are able to function on a variety of levels.

We’ve also seen evidence of hidden blogging communities formed of bloggers who support and comment to each other, but not to the outside world. For sensitive issues these are a way in which the blogs have provided a forum for discussion and expression.

What are the challenges associated with it?

Rowan Purdy

We face a number of challenges

  1. keeing the system simple and social up front whilst being smart behind the scenes. We actively involve our key stakeholders in the development of the system: scoping requirements and usability testing. Even so, many users say that the complexity of the system presented through the interfaces is a barrier to their engagement and participation. We have begun a redesign effort to simplify the interface, providing advanced fgeatures only on demand
  2. no matter how simple the interface, proactive community engagement and content development are key
  3. corporate messaging vs individual voice. The kc is an open system, everyone can have their say subject to the terms and conditions – no abuse, offensive language etc. We use RSS technology to enable administrators to control which content can be broadcast onto corporate satellite sites.

Gareth Johnson

A major challenge in building any community or common practice with such tools is through the establishment of community boundaries and norms. In the early stages it is all too easy for a few individuals to dominate or tarnish the potential through actions that are perhaps distasteful to the wider community if to a degree inadvertent. At the same time there will always be script-kiddies who will attempt to not so much subvert the system but actively seek to disrupt, destroy and pervert.

The solution to the former problem can be found in the maturation of any online community and the self-regulation that comes with it. For the second problem it is only through the vigilance of the technical/development support individuals that we can prevent such ongoing abuses.

In terms of corporate blogging efforts there are the challenges of image. Whilst the academic community might be happy to give full flow and vent to their students’ discussions, and to a degree their own – when blogs are used more as a team or corporate tool it is a different matter. If a blog is well configured it should be relatively simple to ensure that postings intended for internal consumption only are only seen internally. On the other hand without some sort of guidance it is possible for this to be inadvertently misused. How you straddle the gap between a free and lively flow of information, and corporate censorship is not easy. (link), Warwick have ours.

Though in terms of blogs in the Library & Information Service context a preface has been added into our own rules to help better guide our colleagues Work team blogs (e.g. Science Team, RIU as opposed to personal ones) are considered semi-official representations of the Library, its services, activities and staff. As such any content should reflect, wherever possible, the Library and its staff members in the most suitable light to user and external community.

What proof is there that they are powerful tools for change?

Rowan Purdy

These tools are changing the way we work

  • Conversations about questions that matter – We have groups making use of on-line conference facilities to:
    • spread the reach of their off-line conferences across national boundaries
    • improve use of face to face time – making papers available in advance encourages people to begin to debate some of the issues via on-line conference facilities. People will come to the conference and already be up to speed with the issues so that we can concentrate our efforts on debating solutions and agreeing actions.
  • Improving our efficiency – my team has adopted a set of communications standards to change how and for what purpose the team use different forms of technology. This includes the teams use of:
    • telephone
    • SMS
    • email
    • instant messaging
    • websites
    • video conferencing
    • blogs
    • WIKI tools

The communications standards have transformed our team. There is good evidence to show that email overload significantly increase stress levels. Addressing this issue has not only helped us to work more efficiently but also helped us to be happier in our daily work. My colleague, Alison Kerins, national strategic communications leads and senior client manager, says,

“I used to use email for every type of communication. I often found myself tied to my email system reacting to emails as they arrived. This often interrupted my planned work. Now I use email at specific times in the day to send out formal communications only. I probably spend 1 hour per day less time producing and reacting to emails than I used to. I use other forms of technology for other communications. For example I use instant messaging and SMS for immediate questions and answers or updates.”

Using wikis to write together – people are currently drafting books and policy guidance together e.g. EI, commissioning, dementia

Gareth Johnson

Change agency is a role I see blogs supporting in the academic world, though I’ve yet to see evidence of those role as an instigator of it. They are currently the flavour of the month and it will be interesting to see what their real impact is over the next few years. Academics are hoping that through blogging about their courses that students will seek to engage with their subjects more closely.

However, e-learning tools allowing asynchronous chatting and message boards have been a feature at many educational establishments for the past decade with virtual learning environments. It is difficult to see what functionality blogs offer that these do not. Where the student mindset – dominated by an A-Level study/pass mentality rather than engaging with the wider scholastic process not to mention increasing time pressures – remains one in which the majority seek to complete the core of a course and no further, academics will struggle to truly use blogs to engage.

The future of collaboration tools: blogs, wikis, instant messaging, what next?

Rowan Purdy

Increasing time pressures and the need for greater efficiency will only fuel the appeal of collaborative working tools in the public sector. We want tools that work for us and not the other way around. Our goal is to shape the tools to meet our needs. For example, email is very useful but our use of email has to change.

My team has considered the following as an approach:

  • Email is good for formal approval and notification of actions
  • Face to face, telephone, video conference, IM, SMS are best for real-time
  • Blogs are good for ideas, opinions and debate – I can choose whether to engage and participate by deciding when I open my RSS reader and which channels to subscribe to
  • WIKIs are great for generating products collaboratively

Successful collaboration, whether online or in person, depends on good team dynamics and appropriate behaviours.

  • facilitators plays a key role
  • ground rules / rules of engagement
  • careful planning
  • rewards for sharing

Gareth Johnson

Censorship will always be a problem for some – whether it be governmental, organisational or from within community itself. Whilst blogs have thrived on the free-Web and in academic communities – where freedom of speech is a key given. In commercial organisations where there is much more concern over commercially sensitive information, the free-flowing, informal; style of the blog comes into question. What happens when someone gives away a multimillion pound idea to a major competitor?

In academic terms the pressures of time will always erode at the potential of any collaborative working functions to enhance the scholastic experience for all. At the same time whilst there will always be those students who leap to embrace new facilities the risk is that it will be their voices (spoken or otherwise) that will dominate blogging debate or wiki contributions. In the many cases this will see a diminution of contribution or self-worth from other, less vocal members of the community.

At the same time there is the ever present consideration of bias or uneven viewpoints. Perhaps acceptable as topics for debate in the arts or social sciences, but in the factually dominated science and engineering world the strident advocate for intelligent design or rounding the value of Pi to exactly 3 could have devastating consequences for the education process. The role of the academic to step in and mediate these potential errors begins to take away a large portion of the uniquely autonomous culture of the social media facilities and could potentially retard their use considerably.

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