I always enjoy reminiscing about the way things were before the advent of the mobile phone or the Internet or thumb-size music machines… and I usually think to myself, in a corny fashion: Isn’t technology amazing?
Now, if you’ve been collaborating with colleagues (whether in your office or across different time zones) on reports, projects, events and meetings, you’re probably aware of the frustrations involved. One immediately springs to mind: email exchanges that involve logistics, participant lists, activities and, most annoying of all, documents that appear in various draft stages from different senders – it’s enough to confuse anyone.
On that note, I have to say that collaborative writing has evolved in ways that have left me in awe. When you need to work with several people to produce written documents, such as agendas, reports and proposals, emails are the least productive way to go.
Granted, the humble email has done a lot for collaboration between people in different locations, but there are now more effective online tools that can help you with collaborative writing in the research arena. Not only do these tools enhance your writing experience within the group, but they also reduce the ridiculous number of emails that make it hard for you to retrieve the correctly revised versions of documents from your In-box.
While collaborative writing can make us more efficient and effective, several issues need to be addressed: the imbalance in contributing to content, the lack of interest, the subtle hierarchies which hinder real collaboration, and also the difficulty in relinquishing autonomy or control over the written word.
So be warned, we are now moving into a truly ‘democratic’ zone of collaboration. Ready to let go of the control panel? Read on!
Tools for collaborative writing
Wikis: the word originates from Hawaii – ‘wiki wiki’ means quick. Wikis let you create your collaboration environment online very ‘quickly’. What this means is that you can actually create your own wiki site, place your content on it and allow access to any number of people to see, add to or edit it in almost ‘real-time’. A history of revisions is maintained online, so you can check back on earlier versions.
Ideally, a team member can add to or edit an existing draft, with equal measure. The focus is on content and not the person who contributes. So your team will need to comprise people who are willing to contribute to the content subject, who enjoy the stimulus of sharing thought processes collaboratively and who also do not feel too much pressure from having their colleagues edit them. So, wikis may not suit everyone.
It would also be wise to have an editor or person-in-charge to maintain and update the site – this is called wiki gardening, for obvious reasons. Pages will need to be linked, content may need to be removed if not relevant anymore and indexes will need to be created.
When to use wikis
Wikis are worth using when you want to build a body of knowledge online, such as a handbook, a toolkit, raw data sets, even a book chapter, but with collaboration from others. The most obvious example is Wikipedia, a web-based encyclopedia that lets just about anyone with access to the Internet add or edit content. However, there are many uses for wikis. Check out the KS Toolkit page on wikis and see for yourself!
Wikis are also excellent for planning events and documenting meetings. Once you have your team members in mind, you can create a wiki site and allow access to them. Being a collaborative tool, a wiki site lets you and your team prepare agendas, activity lists, proposals and reports collaboratively. Whatever the content, new pages can be created by anyone in your team and linked, ensuring that all documents are found in one site.
How to get started with wikis: there is a wealth of wiki tools, go to wikimatrix.org to find the one for you.
Google Sites: originally based on wiki technology, Google Sites has shortcuts and improvements that include website management features.
Taking the wiki a step further, Sites lets us choose from different page types, such as a list, a file cabinet, a dashboard, announcements. Google documents, spreadsheets and presentations – as well as videos, maps, calendars and all the goodies you can build with Google Apps and services, all of which can be easily embedded into a Google Site. Collaborators can add comments and attachments. A site map is automatically created. And voilà! You have a ‘website’ for your collaborative writing.
When to use Google Sites
Google Sites is perfect for all non-techies out there who need an online collaborative environment to write, share and collect different types of information in one place, while maintaining a semblance of order.
Examples of public sites on CGXchange 2.0 (Google Apps for the CGIAR)
Google Docs: well, you’re probably wondering what took me so long to get to this, and chances are that you may already have tried this tool out.
In case you haven’t, Google Docs lets you and your team collaborate using text documents, spreadsheets and presentations online. While it is similar to wikis and Google Sites, Google Docs is used for collaboration on one specific piece of content at a time. This content can then be exported and used in blogs, reports, proposals, etc.
When to use Google Docs
Google Docs is best used when you have one document requiring input from others. You simply prepare the document and invite collaborators (anyone with a Google account). Any revisions made will be kept online, so nothing gets lost. In addition, spreadsheet documents allow real-time discussion between collaborators, thanks to a built-in chat room.
Don’t expect the formatting power of Word or PowerPoint, or the computing power of Excel. The point is … this is not the point! The formatting is so basic that Google Docs just lets you focus on what you want to write, and helps you collect and refine the collaborators’ contributions. Then, when everything has been finalized, you can export the content or copy/paste it into the final destination format.
Docs are usually not public (with exceptions). Here, on the ICT-KM Program blog, the Social Media Tools Series posts are developed in Google Docs: Meena writes, Antonella contributes, and Mary edits. When the content is final (and it is in HTML from the start, which helps a lot), it is pasted and given final formatting in WordPress. Another great example is Silvia Renn’s post on Using Google Docs for Proposal Writing.
How to get started with Google Sites and Docs: all you need is an account with Google (i.e. sign up for Gmail): these tools are available to Google account holders. CGIAR Staff can get started by requesting an account at CGXchange 2.0, where they will find a fully managed set of collaboration tools included in Google Apps.
Etherpad: Taking the term ‘real-time’ literally, this is probably the next step in collaborative writing. It’s a kind of wiki but easier to use and can accommodate up to 8 participants typing at the same time. While changes are updated every 15 seconds on Google Docs, Etherpad updates a document every half second, thus providing a dizzying combo of wiki and chat (see what Etherpad looks like). Isn’t technology amazing?
Updated: The next generation in collaborative writing is close at hand. As early as end of 2009, we may be able to collaborate in absolute ‘real-time’ as Google Wave promises today with ‘live’ transmission collaboration.
Check the Use Cases on the Etherpad site. One of the sessions in the Real Time Virtual Collaboration (RTVC) experiment, held last May 9, was run on Etherpad: check the RTVC mindmap also for other examples of real-time collaboration tools.
So there you have it! Some tools to help you get started with collaborative writing. In a nutshell, these tools can benefit you by:
- bridging geographical distances, allowing people across continents to collaborate with regard to event/project development, information gathering and knowledge management;
- uncluttering your email box along with the email boxes of your collaborators. While some may be content to use email for their communications, many people are looking for ways to reduce their email load. Whether working on project proposals or creating a knowledge base, these tools eliminate countless email transfers and, along with them, bits of information scattered in several different messages. These tools also house content at one location online, with researchers being able to access and collaborate on a living document.
Nonetheless, the process of writing within a team is challenging on its own, and the tools only provide a conducive environment. Getting past the hierarchies and the defensiveness requires tactful handling.
It would be a good idea to establish rules for collaborative writing, nothing set in stone, just simple guidelines on what is expected of the team, the purpose of the collaboration, and respectful editing practices that help the team to negotiate during discussions between collaborators when changes are needed.
Engaging collaborators at the very beginning, clarifying the objectives of the collaboration, suggesting a set of rules and encouraging them to add to it, may foster a sense of ownership and accountability. After all, technology can only go so far!
Till next time…
P.S. My thanks to Antonella Pastore, whose collaborative input made this blog post possible.
This morning we had our first conference call with 14 social media workshop participants.
Nancy's clock notes from the call
We went around the clock (see the method described in our KS Toolkit http://www.kstoolkit.org/Teleconference+Clock) to have a chance to introduce us quickly and share the type of social media tools we are already using for personnel or professional purposes. Almost all the tools we will be discussing over the next three weeks have been mentioned: Twitter, Yammer, Blogs, Facebook, Slidesharing etc. Nancy compared this group’s feedback with the initial comments we got when we launched the first knowledge sharing workshop early last year. “It is incredible how much more tools you are using and it is only one year later”, she said.
Nancy also made the point that it is quite easy to get overwhelmed with the number of tools that are out there. “Over the next 3 weeks we will try to get to know those tools, and think about the strategic path each of you might take. The tip is to focus on what matters to you. You don’t need to look at all the tools” Nancy suggests.
We then spent some time on participant’s examples. Florence Sipalla who is a Communications Officer with the CGIAR Gender & Diversity Program tells us about the AWARD fellow ship blog which tries to “reach out to more people more frequently then the newsletter”.
Salomon, World Agroforestry’s Web coordinator seemed excited about the Slide Share site where the center shares its presentations.
Talking about slide-sharing: Social Media is indeed a lot about sharing: It is based on the assumption that you don’t have all the content yourself and that using and re-using of materials can improve the content but it can also help adapt the content to specific user groups. Another important characteristic of social media is that the emphasis is less and less less technology, to become each day easier to set up, learn and use.
The obvious downside of social media is the bandwidth problem. “Users with low bandwidth are having a hard time in accessing some of the tools,” Nancy states: “But people are also getting creative in the way they address low bandwidth issues”. There are a series of tips and tricks that can help and that we have to learn. One example is to share on a blog a link to a power point presentation rather then to embed the presentation into the blog which makes the page faster to load.
Another participant raised the sometimes difficult choice of reaching users through email versus social media: Too much in peoples email box leads to overload and there is a need to balance. Participants seemed to agree that “email is still essential”
Maria Iskandarani from the CGIAR Secretariat asks if blogs are good discussion tools. Nancy thinks that in general discussions are difficult because of the ‘dominant role” of the blog author. A blog doesn’t put the reader and the blogger on the same level. A comment on a blog is more like an input to an author than a conversation. Also Nancy emphasizes that the adoption of a blog can really take time, as the ICT-KM Program blog https://ictkm.wordpress.com/ shows which needed almost a year to thrive including trying out different techniques, fine tuning ownership issues, getting the whole team on the blogging board, as well as adding a marketing component like Twitter.
The final issue raised was about security related to our digital identity. Nancy suggests being careful when you share information related to your location, your personal telephone numbers etc. “If you just start now with social media, choose a secondary email when you sign up.” Antonella Pastore from ICT-KM shares a great link with us: http://security.ngoinabox.org/ Tools and tactics for your digital security!
I have talked in earlier posts about the blog “Embracing Change” that supports the sharing and documentation of the organizational change process of the CGIAR.
In this post I would like to look closer at the learning curve and the progress that I have been observing and talking about with the team over the last 2 years or so.
Learning curve step 1: The blog started in June 2008. At that time the CGIAR Secretariat had been tempted to do a blog for a while but it was really the beginning of the CGIAR change process that provided an ideal opportunity to experiment with this new media.
Step 2: The beginnings were filled with uncertainties and questions: Who will blog? What should be the tone? Do we need an editing process? How often do we need to update the blog? How official is this site? And so on. These were all legitimate questions and ended up being answered with a relative conservatism: Let’s publish official messages from the CGIAR Chair Kathy Sierra! The advantage of this approach is that many people are interested in what the Chair has to say, the inconvenient being that the message has to go through a complete editing chain, and looses the personal tone to become very institutional which– the experience proves– doesn’t really make a blog thrive.
Step 3: To boost the frequency of messages and subsequent traffic, it was decided to hire a blogger for some of the key CGIAR change events, the first being a stakeholder meeting in the Philippines in September 2008. Indeed the number of visits increased dramatically. In a related post, the event blogger Sue Parrott from GreenInk stated: “The blog, as a new channel and trendy media, generated interest among the meeting participants who responded very positively to my interview invitations. I could work very independently also I would almost have liked interviewees to be more controversial.” Due to the little experience everybody had with the blogging process, the team felt at that time necessary to revise the blog posts before posting them. The blog started to mix nicely photos, and videos with the interviews.
Step 4: The experience was considered positive and pursued in December to cover the Annual General Meeting 2008 of the CGIAR in Maputo, Mozambique. Now, Sue Parrott could post her stories without revisions!
Step 5: The Strategic Communications Meeting of the CGIAR included a great opportunity to meet with the CGIAR change Transition Management Team (TMT) and to talk about the best ways to communicate the change process. The need for a more personalized tone was emphasized by a lot of participants. This led the TMT members to follow the suggestion and write more frequent updates and to post those on the blog as TMT Journal updates. The recent donor meeting in London was another opportunity for live blogging. And new features appear on the site, like the Flickr photo gallery.
That is where we are in our learning curve right now: The blog got more ownership, and became less formal in its tone; the statistics prove the concept, as the number of visits is growing. There is still a small number of comments, and sometimes it might seem discouraging, but from our ICT-KM blog experience it is urgent to be patient: People need time to find you, and they need time to feel comfortable enough to jump into the cold water and expose themselves to “everybody”.
The next steps could include an agreement among the bloggers on who replies (more quickly) to the comments as this encourages other readers to contribute (Learning curve step 6: Always reply to the comments you get). The blog posts could also deal with and link to partner and center sites where related topics are discussed (Learning curve step 7: Cross linkages increase readership and help to raise the profile). And finally “somebody” should take over the flagship and listen to what others say about the CGIAR change process and related topics on the web, go to those sites and start an online conversation through comments and links. (Learning curve step 8: Social Media Listening is key for engagement online ).
Congratulations to the blogging team for taking up the challenge and continuous improvement!
The second social media workshop of CGIAR’s ICT-KM Program kicks off next Monday with 35 participants from 10 different organizations, among those IFAD, CTA, IRG, and CARDI.
The facilitators team Nancy White, Meena Arivananthan, and Simone Staiger-Rivas also welcome participants from 2 Challenge Programs, 6 CGIAR centers, as well as eco-regional and systems-wide programs, and the CGIAR Secretariat.
In this edition we are also happy to have a workshop mentor: Jonathan Thompson from the World Food Programme.
We are looking forward to three weeks of social media explorations and discussions. Pre-workshop preparations include a short survey that invites the group to share existing IDs or set up accounts for the social media tools that we will be learning about (Skype, Fickr, Twitter, blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) The three weeks have each a different focus:
- Thinking About Your Social Media Needs
- Exploring and Picking Tools
- Social Media Strategy and Implementation
The workshop menu includes also 2 optional teleconference calls and discussions on the internet platform Moodle. The facilitators provide the group with discussion starters, tools introductions and related links, and will refer to the KS Toolkit as central resource. Watch out this space for summaries of the event!
Photo Credit: Matt Hamm
I write this from CIAT, where at the Knowledge Sharing Week of the Institute we have been presenting approaches to increase availability and accessibility of CIAT’s research outputs. CIAT was the second center where we carried out AAA benchmarking. The results of this exercise were presented to the participants in the Knowledge Sharing week, where scientists from all over the world reviewed data showing the availability and accessibility of the results of their work.
At the meeting we showed some pathways, that we have been developing with other CIARD partners: from Copyright management, to building repositories, to using social media
Good news: such is the support to the results of the benchmarking, that a plan of action with the committed support of the Director General is being prepared. Concrete actions to ensure the results of the hard and valuable work of CIAT’s researchers get to the hands of those who need it most.
Next we are moving to Bioversity, where the benchmarking exercise has started! Stay tuned.
In a previous post we said CIAT’s Knowledge Sharing week, was introducing innovative ways to communicate what is happening here. From pictures on Flickr (great photos!) to videos on Blip,tv, to all presentations on Slideshare. Excellent ways to stay true to their commitment to opening
Visit CIAT’s blog. Highly recommended! Well done to all of CIAT’s colleagues!