November 04, 2011

Adopting and embedding Sharepoint in higher education

In November 2011, I visited City College in Coventry to look at how they use Sharepoint (with Chris Coe and Rob Batterbee from Theatre Studies, a Sharepoint user). Rob Talbot gave us a good overview of their quite substantial achievements. They have made significant progress in four years (having been an early adopter of Sharepoint, they stepped-up their use of it in 2007).

I had two principle questions in mind:

  1. What have they achieved by using Sharepoint?
  2. What has been the secret of their success?

Here are my answers.

Sharepoint is commonly described as a “collaboration tool”. So one might say that they have achieved “better collaboration”. But that is far too vague and hence unhelpful (as are many descriptions of IT enhancement projects). We need to get more precision if we are to understand their achievements and the role of Sharepoint in their work.

Here’s a more helpful headline:

City College have used Sharepoint for more effectively working with information, using the best possible means for constructing and using information, individually and collectively.

That’s still very much at a high level. But it does helpfully name a virtue that may or may not be present in an institution (or individual), and suggests a broad project of improvement to which Sharepoint might contribute.

To get little more precision we should operationalize that virtue into a range of significant technology-practices. What might we mean by “constructing and using information”? Here are some patterns and examples:

Pattern Example
1. Adding a new object to a collection of similar objects. Complete a form to create a new record in a list of records.
2. Completing a series of distinct stages in a sequence, each building on the last. A workflow in which person A completes a form, person B reviews the information and adds to it, person C reviews and adds to it (perhaps making a decision).
3. Composing an object by adding and positioning parts of the object (in no particular order). Several people, over time, add text to a document.
4. Creating distinct components of the product according to a plan and assembling them together, with an additional process of integrating the parts. Writing the distinct sections of a funding application and then constructing the finished application from the parts.
5. Adding a distinct layer of commentary to an object. Reading and reviewing a document as it is read.
6. Creating and comparing alternate versions of an object. Each person reviews and annotates their own copy of a document. They then meet, compare and discuss their notes.

Many other patterns and examples are possible. This is just a sample of the kinds of behavior that would be enhanced by the project to More Effectively Use Information.

Some variation is introduced by various forms of collaboration. The construction process might be a collective act (with conscious collaboration between a group of people), multi-user (without the participants consciously co-operating as a group) or individual. The construction process will often happen over a distinct set of engagements (for example, several people adding contributions at different points in time). Individuals might collaborate synchronously or asynchronously, from the same location or remotely.

At City College we looked at a range of cases in which these technology-behaviours had been enhanced through the use of Sharepoint. The platform, when combined with the right kind of design, implementation, support and skills infrastructure, is capable of all of this and more.

The behaviours were enhanced along three dimensions:

A. Management Dimension

Sharepoint is used to optimize existing practices: repeatable and regular, quicker, more reliable, traceable etc. For example, purchasing data is entered by several people onto a single table, using a form that includes drop-down lists of suppliers. Reports can be automatically generated and people notified, thus guaranteeing that the right people get the right information as quickly as possible.

B. Creative Dimension

Entirely new ways of working are made possible. An aspect of the organization is redesigned to meet otherwise un-achievable objectives. For example, teachers create lesson plans, course specifications etc as part of their usual work. Sharepoint has been configured so that they can select some of their plans for inclusion in the audit process. Each individual teacher contributes to the assembly of their department’s auditable selection.

C. Networking Dimension

People work together better, share skills, using common practices and protocols. Where appropriate, they adapt the common practice for their own local requirements. For example, teaching materials are defined globally as a specific “content type” with a set of appropriate meta-data fields. This is used and understood across the whole institution. Departments and other groups can adapt this, adding additional fields and descriptors that make sense in their own area.

To achieve these enhancements, basic design values must be applied. The process of construction should be orderly, clearly stated and visible, signifying progress and other key indicators, manageable, efficient (in design and implementation) and not requiring more effort than is justified by the end product. Participants shouldn’t have to acquire new skills and understandings unless they will easily transfer and reapply to other cases.

Sharepoint is far from perfect on these terms. Very few actions are possible using Sharepoint without either context-specific training or an ability to understand and to think-through its particular interface and workflow logic. At City College this has been a challenge but not a barrier. IT skills, and more specifically Microsoft Office skills, are relatively well developed across the board. All members of staff are expected to undertake formal training in Office and Sharepoint. The similarities between the two have also been exploited.

As an approximate benchmark guide to how easy Sharepoint adoption would be for an organization, we can use comparable Microsoft Office skills. On this basis, City College were able to adopt Sharepoint at a fairly high level of sophistication, across the whole college.

A more fundamental design question must also be addressed. Does the pattern of construction afford all of the necessary attention to detail, considerations, variations and opportunities to differentiate and extend the product to the best possible or best required result? For example, when adding a record to a list of records, is there an opportunity to create additional new fields or accommodate additional and potentially useful information in other ways? Constraints are important for the sake of clarity and efficiency, but in some cases opportunities for more free-form work are also essential. The pattern must be designed so that the desired result is achieved. And it must therefore be possible to adapt the platform to meet these needs. The consequence of failure in design is that people will just stick to their existing habitual practices.

How well does Sharepoint do on this consideration? Again it’s not simply a technical matter. We need to consider the full platform: Sharepoint + design + implementation + support + skills + development.

There are 7 common levels of sophistication, all of which are possible with Sharepoint as a starting point:

  1. The participants use a familiar, habitual, un-examined approach to a new problem.
  2. They make ad-hoc adaptions, modifying a familiar approach as required.
  3. They select the most appropriate approach from a range of possibilities.
  4. They choose from a range of pre-existing approaches and make ad-hoc modifications.
  5. An expert designer makes the required modifications.
  6. An expert designer creates a new approach to meet the new needs.
  7. The participants themselves are able to create a new approach to meet their own needs.

In an ideal world, more effectively working with information, levels 3, 4 and 7 would occur most frequently. The habitual unexamined adoption of a pattern of working is avoided. Experts (5, 6) are required only for very difficult cases.

On its own, Sharepoint does not do well at helping people to make good informed choices (level 3). An additional supportive and guiding environment must be created. Sharepoint can be modified (by an expert) to make the options more explicit and meaningful (along with help materials). Or consultancy services can be made readily available in person. City College has chosen the latter option, with 3 people supporting an institution of equivalent size to one of Warwick’s faculties. Network effects also play a part once that a growing number of people have made choices and successfully used the system.

In addition, more advanced Office skills (for example creating Access databases) transfer across to some extent, meaning that advanced Office users can become advanced Sharepoint users at level 4, 5, 6 and perhaps even 7. City College has benefitted from this, along with providing an expert design, implementation and support team to work at levels 5 and 6.

Recommendations for Warwick

Good or advanced Microsoft Office skills are less evenly distributed amongst staff at Warwick. There is less likelihood that we can train all staff to this level. There is less commonality in the activities that could be enhanced with Sharepoint. The success of City College would therefore be harder to replicate. However, we could:

  • Initially target groups who are proficient in Office and do share a commonality (across the university, so as to build a distributed embedded user community).
  • Create a few useful Sharepoint based applications to significantly improve common practices for many people. Extra customization could be done to make the interface and workflow more intuitive and less dependent upon advanced skills, understanding or time spent in training.
  • Over time introduce more sophisticated functionality, depending more upon user-skills and effort.
  • Provide more local support (and customization).
  • Create an easy access, low cost (time and money) training channel for basic Office and Sharepoint skills.
  • Create a larger scale project to More Effectively Use Information across the university.

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