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Using social software for managing research and development projects

February 2nd, 2011 by Graham Attwell

In around 1995 I was appointed by Bremen University to manage a relatively well funded European project on the teaching of teachers and training for vocational education and training. The project had partners in seven or eight countries. I set up a project newsletter and after three or so months announced I would no longer be ending postal copies but it would be sent exclusively by email. There was considerable opposition to this, one person (the Swedish partner) saying he had a Mac and documents would not be compatible, others claiming that they lacked the skills and technical infrastructure to manage a project electronically (my own professor used to get his secretary to download and print off copies of any emails to him).

But the shift was made and by the end of the three year funding period no-one could imagine going back to post as the main means of project communication.

In the last two or so years we have seen a similar radical shift in the technologies we use for research communication and collaboration. At the launch workshop for a project in January I was asked what tools I wanted to use for the project. My list got surprisingly long:

  • Skype for day to day chat and audio communication
  • Flash meeting for online project meetings
  • Diigo for shred bookmarks
  • Twitter for project dissemination and sharing outwards
  • WordPress for the project website
  • PB Works for sharing work in progress
  • Flickr for sharing photographs
  • Google Docs for collaborative authoring
  • DropBox for sharing documents

Interestingly, one of the parters offered us a space on a relatively mature project management system and although we all agreed to use it I doubt we will. In my experience these systems are too restrictive and do not provide sufficient facilities for active collaboration. Of course they usually provide forums, but I have never worked on a project where there has been prolonged collaboration through a forum (despite most projects trying).

The one application not on my list is of course email. And despite having taken part in many projects where it is decided not to use email as the primary means of communication, after a short period everyone reverts back to it. Is this because of familiarity or because it perhaps is the quickest and simplest means of communication?

None of the applications listed require any great technical abilities (although firewalls and interoperability issues do sometimes arise). However they require changes in our working practices – in our socio-technical competences. And that can be difficult, especially where researchers are not used to working in an open and collaborative environment.

In terms of distributed international projects it is probably skype and Flashmeeting which have made the greatest impact. even then it takes time to get used to working online in synchronous environments. Online meetings require preparation and moderation – just as do face to face meetings. Yet because it is online there is often a tendency not to prepare in the same way as we would for a face opt face workshop.

I am not quite sure how DropBox is going to pan out in all of this. It certainly has a clever financial model – my free account was overflowing within a month of setting up an account.

And it is an uncertain science. Whilst organisations like Jisc have invested considerable expenditure into developing relatively heavyweight online research environments I do not know of any research into how we can use loosely coupled social software tools for research projects. We are maki9ng up our own practice as we go!

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