Thursday, June 12, 2008

Baby steps into extranets

When I joined the public service a few years back I was very pleased to discover that my agency was very proactive about engaging stakeholders when creating products and services for our customers.

The agency was still using 20th century methods to achieve these outcomes and was making no use of online collaborative groups or extranets.

This isn't a criticism of the people or the systems - the agency had developed the skills to manage this collaboration using the readily available technologies - email, mail, phones, faxes and face-to-face meetings. Since these were working well there had not been the need or money available to innovate new ways of engaging.

However over the last few years the tempo has accelerated.

The agency has placed a greater focus on stakeholder consultation, the level and complexity of engagement has increased and there has been the need to involve more players in approval processes. At the same time the agency has needed to manage its staffing levels carefully.

When most types of system double in size the effort required to manage and maintain them increases much more than double. This is because the connections between the different parts of the system increase exponentially.

For example, if you draw four dots on a piece of paper they can be connected in 6 possible ways (3+2+1), however 8 dots can be connected in 28 possible ways (7+6+5+4+3+2+1).

While it could be argued that as all these extra stakeholders deal with the agency as the central organiser the complexity doesn't increase that much - theoretically all these interactions can be fed into a central point at the agency, like spokes on a wheel.

However in reality the interactions between the stakeholders are an important factor and this is where all the additional potential connections come into play.

So with increasing need, increasing complexity and fixed or diminishing resources an important questions becomes;

How does the agency manage this on an ongoing basis - and do so cost-effectively?

This is where my Online Communications Team been able to add value to the process. We've worked with the stakeholder managers to introduce an approach that is both freely available and totally government approved - an online collaborative wiki.

We've established two collaborative communities for my agency using the Govdex platform provided by AGIMO. This wiki-based system is secure, readily configurable to agency needs, has support available and is free to use by government departments. Best of all it's easy for the relevant groups in the agency to manage themselves, with my team simply providing back up and account managing the Govdex relationship.

As we're in early days yet and learning as we go, the two communities we've established are internally focused. One is supporting the ongoing development of our intranet and helping the agency's online team understand the capabilities of such a system (so we can stay a few steps ahead of other users).

The other is a knowledgebase and discussion forum for the agency's stakeholder engagement officers across Australia. This is the prototype for a future system for engaging with our stakeholders across the country.

The experience of setting up these systems has been largely painless. Other than some issues with the access speed within our firewall, which appear to be due to government networks not playing nice with each other and are rapidly being resolved, our Govdex experience has begun as a positive one.

I'd particularly like to commend the customer service provided by Govdex - they have helped us get the sites up and running in record time.

I'm now in the process of beginning to promote Govdex as a business tool within my agency so that anyone who has the need to deal with a set of internal and external stakeholders can consider it as a potential solution to their communication and collaboration needs.

Note that Govdex and similar online collaboration systems aren't a replacement for face-to-face meetings, phone calls or emails, but they are another tool that can be used to facilitate and manage complex collaboration situations in a cost-effective manner.

By the way - here's a great presentation on GovDex from the Web Directions Government conference on May 19 2008 - Ralph Douglas - GovDex: Collaborating online in a secure environment

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