Real Time Virtual Collaboration

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As anyone who regularly uses the internet knows, we’re in the midst of an explosion of new web applications for collaboration and conferencing. These platforms use text chat, video, voice, screen-sharing and social media technologies for online, real-time meetings, but only the more costly services combine them all for use in large, global conferences. These services may well enhance public policy collaboration as well as citizen engagement, but many of the tools are so new, and their number so enormous, that it is very hard at this stage to make choices among them.

The Real Time Virtual Collaboration (RTVC) is trying to solve that problem. In early May, the group held its first experimental event to test the feasibility of combining multiple technologies in a smoothly integrated conference experience.

Organized by Holger Nauheimer and other members of the Change Management Toolbook, the RTVC is “a social experiment designed to learn, practice and explore how we can use online tools to collaborate in real-time for positive change with organizations and communities around the globe.” The intention of the group is to learn the lessons of this first event and then introduce a refined concept in future conferences.

Open Space Technology principles provided the basic structure and approach for the RTVC, and more than 50 change management practitioners from around the world took part. Prior to the conference, an international team spent two months in preparation and coordinated online hosting. The Skype chat tool was selected as the basic means of participation for the introductory and plenary segments. If participants could not obtain a Skype ID, they could also follow key elements of the conference through Twitter, which was used to record notes and comments. Thus, brief text messaging provided the framework for discussion.

This group chose the web meeting applications, structured the conference and developed the overall schedule, which was made available online in Google Docs. Individual members took responsibility for managing and in some cases hosting those web tools to be used during break-out sessions. They also coordinated registration and distribution of orientation information to the participants.

During a 48 hour period prior to the conference, participants had access to a common chat room where they identified topics to cover in the smaller sessions. Those who took responsibility for managing each break-out group also chose the particular “space” or combination of web applications that would be used for that session. The other participants not only selected a group for its subject but also for the technology they were most comfortable with or interested in trying.

Here are the applications used in each of the break-out sessions.

  1. Collaborative Intelligence in the Workplace: Yuuguu is a screen-sharing application that enables participants to view a host’s desktop screen presentation. It connects with Skype and uses instant messaging as the communication tool. Mindmeister allows collaboration on mind-mapping, and a draft map of the discussion was developed during this session for immediate sharing with the group.

  2. Communication Tools for Managers: Skype Voice Over Internet (VOIP) and chat. Skype also includes a video feature, but at present it is limited to just two users.

  3. Interdependence of Collaboration & Technology: Teamspeak is a VOIP system run from its own server. It eliminates transmission flaws like those sometimes encountered in Skype, and can accommodate thousands of users. Online mindmapping was used in conjunction with this system.

  4. Open Money: Twitter and Skype.

  5. Global Skills: Etherpad is a real time collaborative document creation/editing application that incorporates teleconferencing.

  6. Twitter via Tiny Chat. Tiny Chat provides chat rooms with video and permits access to Twitter even if a participant has no Twitter account.

  7. Community Owned Communications: Skype chat.

  8. New Change Management Approach: DimDim is a web conferencing platform that includes chat, video and audio along with screen sharing for live presentations with whiteboards and web pages. Meetings can also be recorded so that proceedings can be distributed and the event replayed for anyone who could not attend the real time event.

  9. Collective Action (Shirky’s Concept): Twitter and Tiny Chat.

The Twitter messages were organized centrally in another application, TweetGrid. Prior to the conference, a site like That Time Now was used for scheduling and coordinating participation from locations around the world. This application has a comprehensive scheduling suite, including a World Clock, that facilitates identification of conference times in every time zone.

The RTVC organizers received a lot of favorable feedback about content, the interaction of participants and the ease of use of the software, though a few found the tools hard to get used to. The organizers are reviewing the experience and refining the conference concept for the next event.

If you are interested in following the experiment, you can find groups dedicated to the RTVC on Facebook and Linked In. You can also search on Twitter for #rtvc to read messages produced during the conference and afterward. The Facebook group has made available an excellent slide presentation summarizing the event.

This is an important project that will help those in the public policy – or any other – field more quickly identify some of the best applications for real time meetings. Given the level of business investment in developing new software of this type, it’s just a matter of time before more integrated and comprehensive tools are introduced.

We’ll continue to follow these developments here and provide more detailed discussion of how to use such applications in public agency contexts.

Please let me know about other web tools you have experience with and also your assessment of their value.

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4 Responses to “ Real Time Virtual Collaboration ”

  1. I think this is a very interesting experiment.

    In reality, collaboration is increasingly spanning time zones, so synchronous tools that require us to be “online” at the same time are only part of the solution.

    To create a face-to-face like meeting experience but with the asynchronous convenience of email I started TimZon. It’s a video discussion solution that enables remote teams to communicate through recorded conversations.

    By enhancing the conversation with functionality such as white boarding teams can communicate on complex topics across multiple time zones.

    I would be very interested in your feedback on this solution.

    Regards,
    Jerome.

  2. Good to know this John. I’ll have to check out the RTVC further. Interestingly enough I’m currently involved in a pilot project here in British Columbia to assess and test out different ICTs for conducting family mediation online (e.g., mediator in one location, parties in different locations). A number of the applications you mention, we too, are working with – e.g., VOIP, webconferencing. We’re also leveraging wikis. As you say at the beginning of your post, “we’re in the midst of an explosion…”.

  3. That’s true, Jerome – Although Time and Date is a good tool, some potential participants of RTVC realized the event would so late for them that they would not be “at their best” – as one person said. You’ve identified a problem that certainly needs to be addressed, and I’ll definitely have a look at TimZon.

    Thanks for your comment.

    John

  4. Hello, Ben –

    I’m glad to hear you’re working with ODR technology. If you don’t know it already, you might look at Steve Mehta’s blog, Mediation Matters. He often has articles on the use of technology in mediation.

    It’s an exciting time for online collaboration services, and hopefully they will be more smoothly integrated soon.

    Thanks for dropping by –

    John