“The team members are all in different time zones, too many fall off the email trail, everyone complains about not being able to find the resource they need when they need it….there’s got to be a better way to get organized and communicate more efficiently.”
How many times have you heard a similar plea? We work with a number of business and research groups who seek the best, most efficient methods to connect their far-flung workers and keep everyone in the loop on communication, documents, updates, schedules, and project plans. Geographically dispersed teams and work-from-home members intensify the need for workable solutions.
Recently, we’ve had success crafting customized “dashboards”. These are online hubs (for example Netvibes, My Yahoo, or iGoogle) that can be tricked out and populated with customizable widgets that display information pertinent to the team. The idea is to integrate information from multiple sources into one comprehensive, easy-to-access and monitor display, resembling an automobile dashboard. The information can be piped in from a wide variety of sources – e.g. updates from online calendars, microblogging streams, email, and RSS feeds from news sources, journals, or blogs. The widgets can also be programmed to serve as access points to other locations on the web – an online document storage system for instance. So, in this way, even online locations that can’t actually be piped to the dashboard can be represented by a widget “doorway” – just click and travel there.
The “hub” platforms listed above all offer a similar business plan. The basic service is free, premium service comes with a monthly fee. So far, all of our needs have been met with the free versions. The premium service gets you extra technical support, additional curation and analytical features.
So what do these dashboards look like? Here’s a screen shot of a Netvibes dashboard that I set up for my personal use.
As you can see, there are a number of “windows” (or, continuing with the auto dashboard analogy, you can think of them as dial readouts). Each window displays a dedicated stream of information. Every time I reload the page, the windows refresh with the latest information from their original source.
This one-stop shopping approach saves workers’ time and frustration since all needed information is in one handy, private (password protected) place. The privacy is important – if this is a business group, they will want to protect proprietary information.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate how dashboards can work is to give a specific example. We work with a group of medical researchers – a loosely knit team of 50 individuals and sub-groups, spread all over the United States, who meet mostly by phone and rely heavily on email. Keeping track of their collaborative work, their shared documents, and their topical correspondence is a source of tremendous frustration. We started with an evaluation of their needs and concerns. From there, we crafted the dashboard you see below (this isn’t their actual dashboard, for privacy reasons, but a mock-up to look like theirs). The first thing to notice are the tabs across the top. With an endless number of tabs you can subdivide your dashboard into compartments (by team, by function, or required objects). I’ve circled in black the tabs on this dashboard below: “Home”, “Communication”, “Documents”, “Library” and “Executive Committee”.
In this view, we’re on the “Home” tab. This is a good place to put general stuff, welcome messages and orientation material. You can also see a Google calendar (project meeting dates and schedule), a to do list, and some Flickr images. To make it more personal, you can include a short talking-head video of your community manager (using Eyejot), to welcome everyone to the dashboard and give them a dashboard tour by directionally pointing. Note that we customized the dashboard header with an image specific to their work, which could instead be a company logo or an identifying color.
Here are successive screen shots and descriptions of each tab, working from left to right:
Communications tab. there is a window for a Yammer stream, one for your Twitter stream, or one for email. Each person using the dashboard signs into their account to view it in the widget window. For this project, we created a private Yammer group for the team members. Their Yammer stream displays in its window and posts, replies, and updates can be made from there without traveling to Yammer.
Documents tab. Here we’ve placed widgets for Google docs, box.net, and Egnyte; a range of online document creation and storage sites. This particular group prefers to use Egnyte. We set up the widget so that they can log in, within the Egnyte widget, and download, upload, or view documents from within the dashboard. If viewing or working within the widget window is awkward they can click on the widget’s top bar and a new browser window, displaying the Egnyte site, will open.
Library tab. As the name implies, this is the place to display RSS feeds from journals, online news sources, or relevant blogs. All required reading in one, handy spot. The final tab, for the Executive Committee, features a window to a wiki site for posting meeting agendas and minutes and collaborating on documents.
So, that’s the idea. Clustered access, easy to retrieve information, curation, communciation and collaboration. But what are the drawbacks? Even before they settled in to using this dashboard, our team of researchers expressed the following concerns:
- We already have a project management tool, why do we need another one?
- Is it too complicated? Too difficult to learn?
- What about security? Will our information be protected?
- Will my corporate or university firewall let me in?
We worked through their concerns step by step. Because we’d planned carefully, we were able to roll out a populated dashboard to the group with useful items on view that they recognized (a video with someone they knew, the Egnyte interface, etc). We provided orientation sessions in a series of brief webinars, focused on just one function per training session. Participants observed (in a shared screen environment) and asked questions as the trainer walked through dashboard tabs and demonstrated how each function operates. Following each training, participants were assigned three brief homework tasks: all things they needed to do which are easier to do from the dashboard.
Subsequent trainings featured other functions. Yammer, wiki use, blogging, document curation, and metatagging followed. Once the group started to use Yammer, the penny dropped. They could see the value in the tagging and they could begin to see the dashboard advantages.
It’s not perfect. One member institution’s firewall blocked Netvibes and we had to make special arrangements.Yes, they do have other project management software, but none that weave together the communication and RSS feed functions with the other, more typical project management features. Some participants are still not on board, but they are beginning to feel the tug of the larger group when the phrase, “it’s on the dashboard!” is used multiple times in a status meeting.