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EduCause 2009 - Collaboration is Strategy: from DIY to DIO

December 1, 2009 by Doug Worsham

Brad Wheeler's talk Collaboration is Strategy, was a favorite of mine at EduCause 2009, primarily because it helped me better articulate a set of ideals and practices that increasingly define how many of us involved with learning technology are approaching our work at UW-Madison.

For me, a central question in learning technology support continues to be: how do we move from a DIY (Do It Yourself) approach to a DIO (Do It Ourselves) approach?

Wheeler points out that the DIY approach, although an essential practice in the corporate world, does not create a strategic advantage in higher ed:

In industry, the essence of strategy is choosing to do an activity differently. In higher ed, the essence of collaboration as strategy is choosing to perform activities similarly to reach an advantage.

Wheeler explains that recognizing the advantages gained through collaboration has led higher-ed consortia to work together above the campus on a number of projects, creating over time a "Meta-University" - a set of communally constructed frameworks of open materials and platforms that help us all work better and more cost-effectively.

A few examples:

  • cnx.org (textbooks and educational materials) - "Connexions is an environment for collaboratively developing, freely sharing, and rapidly publishing scholarly content on the Web."
  • Hathi Trust (libraries) - "As a digital repository for the nation’s great research libraries, HathiTrust brings together the immense collections of partner institutions."
  • Sakai Foundation (learning) - "collaborative design, development and distribution of open-source software for education, research and related scholarly activities"
  • InCommon Federation (authentication) - "enables scalable, trusted collaborations among its community of participants."

So, what does the development of this meta-university have to do with all of us non-CIOs?

Over the past few years, while universities have been working above-campus to create the "meta-university" a number of CoMETS members have been doing their own consortium building, investing in strategic collaboration by working above-school/college/unit. It is worth noting here, a few of our success stories:

  • New ComETS website - A workspace for communities and working groups. Any ComETS member can create a community group and use it as a common workspace for cross-unit collaboration.
  • ComETS involvement in the IT Strategic Plan - ComETS members from across campus work together to write and provide input on the strategic planning process.
  • Moodle Council / Open Source SIG - Cross-campus groups work together to support and develop open-source learning technology software
  • Community Events (e.g., emerging trends) - ComETS members get together to share knowledge and expertise
  • Publications - ComETS members work together to draft white papers (e.g., the VITAL Report)
  • Engage / TEL - Staff from various units collaborate on support for campus-wide grant opportunities.

Each of the above (and the others I'm inevitably forgetting - apologies in advance) has required the time effort and energy of a vibrant mix of central and distributed IT professionals working together on a common set of goals, and practicing a common set of ideals. We haven't always collaborated perfectly, but over time we continue to hone our collaboration skills, reduce the inevitable costs of collaboration, and increase the returns.

We're doing well, but what's next for above-school/college/unit collaboration? If you've read this far, I'm sure you have a few ideas. Here are a few of mine:

  • Social coding - The campus needs more efficient means for units to share and collaborate on code. Having multiple units agree on how to share code will make collaborative development much easier.
  • The T word (transparency) - We've made great strides in this area, but all too often, innovation still happens in quiet corners of the campus. It is good that there is a lot going on, it isn't so good that even the most connected are still often in the dark.
  • Scanning - The flip side of transparency, an environmental scan ensures that we pop our heads up early in the process of tackling a new problem to see what others on campus are doing before diving in and inventing the 17th wheel. Too many 17th wheels is indicative of too much DIY and not enough DIO.
  • Consciously flexible alignment - In his talk, Wheeler related an anecdote from the development of the Sakai Foundation. He found himself saying, "Just do whatever Michigan says." This sort of flexibility was possible because he knew that his fundamental goals were aligned with Michigan's. If we take the time to define the shared vision early in our collaborations, it makes it easier to get over small disagreements, and focus on what counts.

What do you think? What do we need to do to continue the shift from DIY to DIO?

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For some excellent notes on Wheeler's talk see The Gale Stafford Weblog.

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