During the past year, the Carnegie Foundation has launched four CarnegieHub websites. These sites provide the collaborative technology to support improvement networks that are diverse and broadly distributed, yet must engage in coordinated action to address significant problems of practice. They serve a variety of purposes from supporting pre- and post-session work for our workshops to enabling day-to-day work across our networked improvement communities (NICs).
Consistent throughout all the CarnegieHub websites is a deliberate design process that aligns to one of Carnegie’s core improvement principles — “make the work problem-specific and user-centered.” The essence of user-centeredness is to engage users early and often in a clearly defined process leading to solutions that address user needs and are sensitive to deep understanding of the problems that they encounter.
In the September 2014 blog post, “How Carnegie is Using Technology to Enable Collaboration,” we introduced four reasons why CarnegieHub is powerful in strengthening networks. Living the concept of “collective intelligence” by developing better collaborative tools that accelerate sharing across and improvement in the network, we can work more efficiently together towards shared collective aims.
We suggest these four key design principles distinguish CarnegieHub websites’ development from regular online workspaces
As the CarnegieHub sites rolled out, we consistently sought feedback from the respective user groups. From that feedback and through comparing and contrasting patterns of activity and levels of engagement, four design principles emerged that we found important for successful CarnegieHub sites. By way of sharing our learnings, we offer these design principles as guidelines for those who might be interested in employing similar processes to create online workspaces that maximize collaboration. We suggest these four key design principles distinguish CarnegieHub sites’ development from regular online workspaces: early introduction and engagement, visible engagement from network leaders, resource rich environments, and relationship facilitation.
Sharing Our Learnings – What Works Best?
- Get NIC members involved early: We have noticed that the time and manner in which users were introduced to and involved with the CarnegieHub greatly impacted their usage and activity. Simply put – the earlier, the better. When we involve users from the outset, there is an expectation set that we, as a network, want to engage users through the networks’ development journey – from design through improvement. In addition, whether or not people had established prior work processes or understandings of a routine way of doing work affected their learning curve – the difficulty of shifting to new social practices of work meant having people leave behind an obsolete system and then re-adjust to a new one.
In the case of the Student Agency Improvement Community (SAIC), the website was introduced from the very beginning alongside the establishment of the network (with its attendant work routines) itself. This early adoption meant there was no significant change in work practices or any pre-existing notions about or comparisons to existing systems. Whereas, in other cases, such as the Pathways Improvement Communities sites, people struggled to engage because they were accustomed to a very different approach to the work. As this militated against rather than invited their engagement, people stopped using the previous systems all together. Without adequate spaces to effectively support their work, users experienced a lack of trust in technical solutions and found it hard to motivate themselves to try new work processes. This gap adjusting from an old to new system resulted in a lower initial usage of the Pathways sites as compared to the SAIC site.
- Engage network leaders visibly and actively: We seek to create a context for membership in our networks through shared commitment to solving an explicit, high leverage problem of practice. To us, commitment revolves around active rather than passive involvement. The work should focus on knowledge generation, peer-to-peer sharing, and network building instead of the passive listening of a large group. An important way to facilitate this is through network leaders modeling the behaviors they are trying to promote. Modeling supports broader participation by illustrating the significance of active engagement to foster ideas and action. This includes consistent and repeated reminders to members to participate in and contribute to the network activity. Reminders about upcoming opportunities prompt network members to use the site and become proactive about content creation and to share their ideas, thoughts, and learnings.
In SAIC, network leaders modeled ideal engagement practices on the site and encouraged members to do the same. Network leaders first contributed blog posts to share their learning and to increase readership and site usage. They also encouraged network members to write and submit their own blogs. Through publishing these blogs, network leaders demonstrated that member contributions matter and are valued. Members are empowered by seeing that their inputs are heard, and that network leaders are responsive to their interests. This strengthens the collaborative relationship between leaders and members that helps enliven the work and increases site participation. In fact, the SAIC team has reached almost 150 network member-contributed blog posts in less than a year.
- Provide a resource rich environment: It is critical to ensure that the site provides a wealth of information and resources that members find useful. This is a job that is never finished because as the problems being addressed morph, improvement efforts adapt, and resources evolve as a result. The site needs to be kept up-to-date so that users have the expectation that this is their go-to place for dynamic, current, and relevant information. Users should be able to easily find information here in a central location, not in a variety of tangential places.
Whenever a new development or major change occurs within the Pathways Improvement Community, for example, the transition of the Pathways to a new online platform, the resources that support this change are updated so that everyone is kept in the loop. This included times of platform training webinars and how to access the help line, so that all members of the network were able to ask questions about the transition. This is an essential communication strategy because we want to be as transparent and accountable as possible to the network. If people can depend on the reliability, timeliness, and relevance of the information, they are more likely to trust and use the site.
- Facilitate relationships and connections: Knowing whom to connect with to ask questions, clarify concerns, discuss issues, or collaborate on tasks offers a lot of potential for the network to accomplish more together. Knowing where and how to make that initial point of contact, while making it easy to do so, is crucial in order to make these connections. The barriers to engagement must be as low as possible. Often, active curation is necessary to build and sustain such networked interaction. Over time, the connections eventually lead to developing effective direct relationships and partnerships that are built on trust and reciprocity.
Whether it is connecting with peers, Foundation staff, technical support team members, or network leaders, facilitating relationship-building opens up opportunities for network members to take advantage of collaborating with one another. The Pathways NIC includes over 500 members, so a key need is being able to identify expertise, location, and role. This need was met through providing a directory page listing all the network members and their contact information so that someone can easily find thought and work partners. This relatively simple directory acts as a starting place to foster future relationships, giving agency for these connections to users themselves.
Our big picture goal for network improvement communities is to realize solutions to complex problems of practice in education and to support the spread and use of these solutions. We believe that designing better collaborative workspaces can assist in this effort. Innovative solutions emerge from many groups of people working together to create collective impact. However, collaboration, especially in a network that is diverse and broadly distributed, is a task that takes a considerable discipline and effort to sustain. We use the collaborative tools and applications of the CarnegieHub sites to leverage the power of our networks. To this point, we have identified important design principles and conditions to address when creating effective online workspaces. We acknowledge that it is still early and hope to continue to learn how to make the design better and more usable to improve the collaboration among our networks through CarnegieHub.