In the beginning … 
Shwu Jiau Teoh

Shwu Jiau Teoh

Way back in the early 1980s, there was no email in CGIAR. When scientists wanted to collaborate with each other, they did so using the technology available at that time: phone, fax, telex and cable. Some of these communication methods were often slow and unreliable, and always expensive – factors that had a direct bearing on critical research efforts. Then in 1985, with the advent of email across the CGIAR System, things began looking up. Almost overnight, day-to-day communications became much faster and cheaper. However, long-distance collaborative efforts could still be slow and, at times, confusing.

The age of social media

Fast forward to the 21st century and we have a completely different scenario on our hands. Welcome to the Age of Social Media!

To find out how today’s scientists are collaborating in the CGIAR, we caught up with WorldFish GIS specialist Shwu Jiau Teoh at her office in Penang, Malaysia.

“I feel social media is changing the way some CGIAR researchers work with partners and present the results of their research,” she says. “For example, my team uses Google Sites to share documents and collaborate. It’s easy to create a website using the Google Sites template. You don’t even have to have a programming background – I picked it up in a few minutes. It’s ideal for accessing and sharing information and it’s free.”

Site features

Shwu Jiau is also impressed with the various features and functions of Google Sites.

“My team in Penang needs to be able to share information and collaborate with our Chinese partners while working on our project Valuing Living Aquatic Resources of Wetlands in China, led by Dr. Suan Pheng Kam,” she explains. “We started using the site last May, when the project first got underway, and we feel that the 10GB of storage (Google Apps standard edition) is more than enough for our needs. We have created content on a public Google site, so that visitors are informed of our work as the project advances. But we also set up a restricted site available to just our team members for sharing knowledge and documents in one place. The site settings allow us to easily assign different levels of permission to our members.

“Any changes to a document are tracked in a history archive, so we can follow the evolution of a document as it is accessed and changed by the various team members. There’s also a calendar, a section where members can see announcements in real time, and a page for project and research documentation. A dashboard page, which is by default a two-column webpage with four placeholder gadgets, automatically gives an overview of the project: an embedded calendar with the most recent posts from the announcements page, a list of updated files from the project document page and links to the different research components page.

File Cabinet

Of all the easy-to-use features available on Google Sites, this GIS specialist feels the File Cabinet, in which project documents and literature are stored, to be the one that team members value the most.

“Without Google Sites, we would have to communicate via email, which wouldn’t be convenient when we want to share large files, as some mail boxes have limitations,” she explains. “The File Cabinet is very useful for storing our reports and research literature. In addition, it immediately displays the latest version of all our documents. This makes it easy for team members to keep up to date and also helps with the compilation of donor reports – this is easily done by referring to the related documents available on the project page, without having to search through all the annexes.

“We also use the File Cabinet when we want to prepare material for a workshop and need input from our Chinese counterparts. At the conclusion of a workshop, we usually upload material from the event onto the site for the team members to access and also embed into the site a Picasa slideshow that displays the workshop photo album. There’s no way we could go back to using just email to accomplish this.”

It looks as if Shwu Jiau and her team have their feet firmly planted in the 21st century.

For those who are already using Google Sites, we’d love to hear your story, too.

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Last week I blogged about the 1st Training Session at FAO and it was such a success that they repeated the training session on Wikis again yesterday for those people that didn’t get the chance to register last week.

Tania Jordan, Gauri Salokhe, Romolo Tassone

Tania Jordan, Gauri Salokhe, Romolo Tassone

Usually after the training sessions, Gauri Salokhe and Romolo Tassone from the FAO Web Knowledge Exchange and Capacity Building Division, perform an “After Action Review” to the participants to see what they liked the most or least, and use this feedback to improve future sessions.

It seems that many participants liked the ‘hands-on’ session last week where they had the opportunity to ‘play’ around with the tools, but participants requested  they should have more time …in other words: ‘less talk and more play‘…of course, nothing better than doing-it-yourself!

So considering last weeks feedback, yesterday’s 2-hour session was organized as to give more time to the participants for the ‘hands-on’ session.

Steve Katz

Steve Katz

Steve Katz, Chief of the Knowledge Exchange Facilitation Branch at FAO, introduced the session by saying:

FAO is a multi-disciplinary environment and we organize events such as the Sharefair and training sessions like these to introduce new knowledge sharing methods, tools and approaches to help us work more horizontally in the organization…the challenge is to see how these can be applied in your work…

 

Romolo continued by giving the participants an introduction about what makes a Wiki a Wiki, and he explained: 

  • inline edit/save
  • easy and open access to history, versioning/differences information and the ability to role back
  • The most recent additions/modifications of articles can be monitored actively or passively (RSS, email, summary page) – to facilitate collaborative editing
  • Discussion tab
  • User management/permissions
  • approach that focuses on trust, accountability and transparency, rather than security/authority/ownership
  • Moderation/advocacy required. Sense of community and personal involvement of content
Gauri Salokhe

Gauri Salokhe

Gauri showed the example of the Knowledge Sharing toolkit (KS Toolkit), a long-term collaborative Wiki site using Wikispaces that assembles knowledge sharing tools and methods resources as a clear example of collaboration between CGIAR ICT-KM, FAO and most recenly from the KMforDev community.

Tania Jordan

Tania Jordan

This time, I showed them an example of a private collaborative team site under our CGXchange 2.0 implementation where more than 25 people from the different continents were actively collaborating to produce 7 Enterprise Security Good Practice documents on a Google Sites Wiki.

There were interesting questions like: ‘ How do you get people to start on a Wiki?’, What if I need to work only on one document? or How do I know if I need a Wiki’… Like any website, to get people started on a Wiki, you really need someone that is constantly ‘pushing’ people to provide their input, someone (or a group of people) that as Gauri put it: acts as a ‘Wiki gardener’, that encourages people to provide their ideas and content on the site. Once people start feeling confident on the tools and see the potential of what they’re working on, the Wiki starts taking a life of its’ own!

Remember that in some cases, people don’t really need a Wiki site, sometimes a simple online document can do what you need and I explain these differences further on this post: Useful tips for collaborative writing with Google Docs and Google Sites.

Of course towards the end of the session, the moment they’ve all been waiting for…the participants were paired up on the computers and had the opportunity to get their hands-on the Wiki…indeed this is the moment where they have lots of fun!

Once again, I congratulate and thank Gauri and Romolo for organizing this wonderful session…it’s very nice to see that there are always new things to learn from each other.

Gauri also wrote a blog post about this Wiki session.

Until the next time, I look forward to your comments…

Yesterday I had the opportunity to participate as guest speaker to the first training session about Wikis at FAO and it was an enriching experience!

The 2-hour session was moderated by Gauri Salokhe and Romolo Tassone, both from the Web Knowledge Exchange and Capacity Building Division at FAO.

These sessions at FAO are part of an ongoing series of workshops on the methods, tools and services that can facilitate knowledge sharing.  These trainings are offered weekly by the Knowledge Exchange and Capacity Building Division (KCE), in collaboration with Staff Development Branch (AFHT).

The session was fully booked and it was interesting to see how more and more people that couldn’t register were arriving to see if, just by chance, they could get a seat to participate in the session. This shows there are a lot people interested in learning more about collaborative tools and how these can be applied to their work at FAO.

Initially the moderators introduced Wikis by showing one of the world’s most popular Wiki: Wikipedia. Actually at FAO, they have implemented MediaWiki, the software behind Wikipedia as their internal Wiki, but they also offer other Wiki tools depending on the users’ requirements.

Together with Gauri, we showed the example of the Knowledge Sharing toolkit (KS Toolkit), a collaborative wiki site using Wikispaces that assembles knowledge sharing tools and methods resources. The KS Tookit is an initiative of the ICT-KM’s Institutional Knowledge Sharing project and in collaboration with FAO and the KM4Dev community, it currently has approximately 120 people that contribute to keep this global public good growing.

I had the opportunity to show the Wikis we have implemented recently in the CGIAR. As part of the CGXchange project, we are currently offering Google Sites which is a Wiki that users can easily setup themselves and start collaborating quickly. Some of these Wikis are public or private. The private Wikis in the CGIAR are mostly being used for project/team collaboration and meeting sites. The public Wikis are shared with the world for viewing and only a few people with editing rights can maintain the content:

http://www.cgxchange.org (site that gathers tutorials and trainings of the collaboration tools available for the CGIAR staff)

http://alliance.cgxchange.org (the strategic framework of the new CGIAR is being shared through this public Wiki)

We also discussed about the Wikis that ‘die‘ because of the fact that people do not contribute. Of course…Wikis are just like any website, they need a moderator or at least a group people that are committed in keeping the content updated and encouraging others to contribute so they can be useful.

Towards the end of the session the participants had the opportunity to edit a Wiki that had been setup for the training using a free Wikispaces guest account. The participants had a lot of fun adding content, links, inserting videos and deleting what others had written!…thank goodness that Wikis have version history and you can easily go back and retrieve older versions! 🙂

You can find a summary of all the links to the Web pages that were viewed during the training session on this Delicious page: http://delicious.com/sharefair09/training_wiki

I would like to thank Gauri and Romolo for the invitation to participate as guest speaker for this session. I believe we learned a lot from each other and hope we continue partnering in these knowledge sharing sessions in the near future. 

I believe that we, in the ICT-KM program, are doing a lot of research about social media tools and have vast experience on these topics. Given the CGIAR’s dispersed locations, currently our main method to communicate our knowledge is using our blog, which is great, but many people still prefer hands-on training sessions than reading. In this respect, my take home message is that we should learn from our FAO colleagues and start organizing on-site or online training sessions as well, every now and then, to share our knowledge on social media tools for our colleagues in the CGIAR…

Lately, we’ve been receiving many requests from people who would like to write documents collaboratively.

This is not the first time we write about this topic: Meena published a general overview of collaborative writing approaches, and Silvia Renn shared tips on writing proposals with Google Docs.

Having been involved in the Google Apps Case Study and currently in CGXchange 2.0, I’d like to share my experience with Google Docs and Google Sites since I’ve found these tools are helping me and the ICT-KM team improve the way we work.  In particular, I’m sharing tips for organizing comments and edits so that every collaborator feels comfortable with the tools and the collaborative writing process.

Enjoy and share your experience and feedback!

(more…)

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.

Examples

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.

Examples
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.

etherpadEtherpad: 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. 

Examples
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.