Tag Archives: collaboration

Presentations, Collaboration, Co-creation and Engagement

I’ve had an idea lurking for a while now. It’s this.

The “format” of “doing a presentation” is a tried and tested one. It has been around, probably for millennia. Someone turns up, talks for a duration. Sometimes at the end there a questions.

And to some degree it could be said that the format works. We all know what to expect, how to behave ( shut up and laugh at the right moments ) and we leave, hopefully having learnt or gained something. If you were only mildly entertained most people would chalk the experience down as “not a total waste of time”. Sometimes, on the good days, it changes the way you think, blows your mind and changes everything. Most times are not sometimes.

For the presenter, a presentation is, pretty much a known entity. Often a presentation has been rehearsed or performed before, being tweaked and improved as it goes.


So, if the presentation format works, why fix it?

I don’t really want to change the presentation format as such, but what I’d like to try are some experiments to see if by doing things only slightly differently that we end with a totally different outcomes… for the speakers, for the audience and for the wider world of interested people.

And much of the thrust of this comes from the huge pools of potential that, to me at least, seem un-tapped…

Firstly, there’s the technology: Technology is great isn’t it? And yet most of the time it’s only used to project the Powerpoint slides of the speaker. Some people argue that using slides has hobbled the presentation format and we’ve all been there squirming when someone reads ( badly ) their badly written slides.

I’ve been to some conferences where they display a Twitterfall using a shared conference #hashtag. This can sometimes let the audience ask questions or suggest links. In general it is disruptive because the speaker wasn’t planning on speaking about that then, or because some idiot like me has posted a crap gag.

The problem with technological augmentation of conferences is that it often just makes it worse. I haven’t seen QR codes used at a conference yet. I live in fear. The issue with adding technology… whatever it is… to a conference like event is that in order to accommodate it, the event ( or the event format ) has to change. Slapping technology around normally doesn’t help matters.

But the most obvious problem with technology at a presentation is that it isn’t playing to technology ( or even peoples’ strengths) because it needs to exist in real time… and to be honest, I’d rather set my attention on the speaker than start pecking at an ipad.

Technology, in this case, probably works best asynchronously… before and after the event, not during.

So typically, before the presentations, the presenters may forward their PowerPoint slides. That’s it. The sum total of “using technology” to support the event. Some posher conferences might have a simple site where the speakers and/or delegates are listed so you can nosey around a bit, but this is far from the norm. So if presenters turn up with their slides on a USB stick… then, despite there being ( allegedly ) a whole heap of ways of working together online, presenters either choose not to or can’t.

Surely there must be SOME technology that we might want to use BEFORE a conference/presentation events more than an email with directions in?


Secondly, I believe in people and collaboration: Sure, there are some excellent, charismatic speakers out there but I also like hearing from reluctant speakers too. They may be talking about their life or their work or their passion – it doesn’t matter. I’ve seen and enjoyed too many people like this to think that the slick Steve Jobs delivery is the only show in town.

I also believe, or know, I’m not sure which that lots of people do their best work in collaboration. Often people genuinely don’t think they have a story worth sharing. It’s the “why would anyone be interested in little ol’ me – I’ve been been training hamsters to juggle for years” syndrome.

So if it’s a given that there’s oodles of technological opportunities just lying around AND that there are more inspirational people than the shining polished show offs … what can we do with those two surpluses to stir things up, maybe do something better.


Lastly, I believe in people and collaboration again: Maybe it’s because I’m a big-mouth AND a chicken that I find myself in the audience at a presentation and want to participate more. I may not have anything earth shattering to say, maybe I just want to add a link to what is being said, a quick heads-up type thing but the current presentation format ( except for the twitterfall ) doesn’t really allow that. It’s just not allowed. You are here to listen and shut up.

Again, I’m left thinking that there’s a huge potential here, the audience, just being wasted or at best ignored… and surely, shouldn’t technology be able to allow contribution without ruining the experience.


So What Can We Do About It? Some ideas…

I’d like to be clear about this. I don’t have a clue what I’m trying to do here, except that it’s something to do with the audience being less separated from the speakers, the speakers are more connected or aware of each other and the audience and that the best people are chosen, and they are encouraged ( maybe via collaboration ) to produce their best work… and all of this is enable by some technology… somehow…

What it boils down to is a number of simple interventions, that, by doing things differently, might be incredibly useful… So here goes some ideas…

  • What if everyone shared their slides and a heap of URLs before the event? Maybe instead of slides, what if people posted ideas on PostIt notes on a shared wall? Like this. Would anyone take part? Would it change anything?
  •  What if the speakers could poll the audience before hand… not in a “does anyone like ice cream way?” … but in a more involved way, that might include more in-depth free-text responses? Would it work?
  • What if, rather than an event being a collection of presentations or experiences, the end result was a book, with chapters that we would all be co-creating.
  • What if there was the idea of an over-arching META-narrative and so rather than the speaker taking up their allocated time-slot, they would fit what they wanted to say into a bigger story.. maybe speaking more at the beginning, a little in middle and just for one slide at the end.
  • What if the speakers had to introduce the next speaker up… with some insight?
  • What if, rather than working on individual slides, the speakers worked on ONE HUGE PREZI presentation? Would your content occupying the same 2D space as someone else force new connections to happen?
  • What if people “pair presented”? Presenters would be matched by people designated to ask questions, join in, maybe refer to the twitterfall for inspiration. I saw Dan Catt and someone else from the Guardian do this and they were brilliant… I wonder if this would work if done cold?

Now of course you might be thinking that all this sounds like a lot of work ( for the speakers ) but I’m not convinced it is.. it might not take much time at all, but it IS a very different way of working – that needs to happen before the actual get together.

My belief is this… that if you can find half a dozen people interested in presenting, who are themselves interested and interesting then isn’t a total waste of the latent potential of 6×6 peoples’ shared power if you simply ask them to fill a time slot?

Getting six people together doesn’t guarantee wonderfulness. Some people don’t play that way. It could end up in a fight ( it often does ) but there is always that potential lurking. I’ve seen it happen too many times not to believe that it is probably there more often than not.

So, finally finally, two questions…

1. Does anyone have any more ideas for ways you might fiddle with the presentation format to get more out of it, to have more fun?

2. Who’s in?







Tweaking Cyn.in’s Features

Cyn.in is a great platform for collaboration but I am looking into how it might be adapted to be a better fit for the University of York’s needs.  What I need to do is work out which features …

  • should be rolled into the development of Cyn.in. A good example of this is the UI for the Home Page when we have more than 40 spaces. It’s already apparent that you need a very different user interface for working with 4,000 people as opposed to 40. It would be good if Cyn.in “adapted” based on usage so that as the site gets bigger and more complex, the UI reflects this. One very easy (and cool) addition might be an “I’m going” button on events.
  • already exist and are are about integration. Good examples of this are the FeedMixer product for displaying RSS feeds and the Faculty / Staff Directory product which lets people add more information about themselves in their profiles. the Anz.Jabber instant messaging product has caught my eye too.
  • can be easily developed myself (or with a little help from my friends). I am currently looking to maybe use Archetypes to create a Location content type. There are others out there such as PloneWorldKit (uses Flash) and GeoLocation (uses GoogleMaps?) but I’d quite like one that worked with OpenStreetMaps and has less strict GEO-focussed functionality.

Other features such as “can I have a taxonomy of jargon-related abbreviations and acroynms that get appended or search-and-replaced when editing a document”… seem hard to define and even harder to work out if they are a low-level feature request to Cyn.in or something I could easily create myself. This isn’t essential, but it would be nice and could be made to work for peoples’ name, locations (such as room numbers) etc.

Another feature I find hard to explain is to do with how groups (and Spaces) are administered. I would quite like to create a Group/Space that automatically has a “private sub-space” … but that this isn’t set to be the default (otherwise people tend to work away in privacy and obscurity). I’d then like a “knock to join this group” button which the administrator manages. The alternative to this is a massive top-down administration overhead that I just don’t think will work.

One feature I would definitely like is the “First Use Ten Second Tutorial”… so that having accepted an invitation to a Cyn.in community you are presented with a one-page (maybe two) tutorial saying “this button does this… and don’t swear please (or similar)”…

Lastly, as I said, I don’t think the design of Cyn.in’s Home Page works very well for larger organisations and yet vanilla Plone does have a “Dashboard” screen. I like the notion of a personal dashboard where you can decide which portlets to show (or have them pre-configured for you). This, in one fell swoop solves the problem of “Fire Hosing”… it opens up the possibility of adding Google Gadgets (say for email or calendars)…

So in a nutshell… I need to…

  • Attempt creating a new Archetype based object type (this may  be useful as a Minutes object for recording meetings).
  • Add Location abilities (collective geo looks good but I can’t contact them)… this just needs to be very simple
  • RSS Feedmixer and portlet
  • Anz.Jabber for instant messaging (even if just for status … i.e “is online”)
  • I tried at the WebServices product but get an error when I call it. This might be handy for hacking and integration (not essential).
  • integrate Faculty / Staff Directory (does it do Twitter accounts and Blog URLs? If not needs adding)

And finally I need to work up and discuss with Cynapse some UI ideas, particularly with regards to the Home screen.

The Tools

We started looking for suitable collaborative tools by looking at Gartners Magic Quadrant for Social Software in the Workplace – a lovely chart that plots all the movers and shakers in the social media space. We could quickly rule out tools that seemed too CRMy, had a pricing model that ruled them out (i.e per user) or too business focussed. After a few rounds of testing we were left looking at….

The Candidate Tools

SocialText – a commercial enterprise wiki with a social layer


One of the most interesting things about SocialText are what it calls Signals, which are a bit like Twitter for the organisation, except Signals include tweet-like messages AND document changes. Very nice. We found the blogging tools very poor though – with blog posts essentially being wiki pages.

Like most wikis you can embed tags to give pages more functionality (such as showing a list of Recent Changes, or items from a Delicious feed etc). This means that you can cobble the functionality you need together very quickly. One example we played with was for the IT Support Office to individually use Delicious to bookmark and tag fixes they found out in the rest of the web and have them “collected” back on their wiki pages.


One of the “killer” features of SocialText is it’s Desktop application which, like email, tells you when something new has happened. This is an essentially component of any new collaborative tool because it “pulls you back” rather than becoming “another place to check”.

Jive – a commercial forum-based tool with wikis and blogs etc


Jive has a lot of polish with regards to the interface. It is easy to create content.

LifeRay Portal and LifeRay Social Office – a java-based, open source portal tool


LifeRay is an astounding product. When you initially log in, you just drag the components you need into your community site ( pages, wikis, blogs, calendars ) and then invite people in. This is staggeringly easy to do, like having a Ning-builder (but better). The LifeRay Social Office suite is sort of a “pre-built” version of the portal.

If you have ANY java abilities at all this is worth a look. I was slightly scared by having to compile CSS into jar files to change the look and feel and work with a gazillion XML files but some people can eat that geekery for breakfast.

Elgg – a php-based “community in the box”


Elgg is immediately likeable. You create Groups that have blogs, discussions, files, wiki pages etc. The problem with Elgg (for us at least) was to do with the permissions model, or who can see what. It’s funny but with almost ALL these tools, the permissions model is where the pain is… And often, it’s not that it’s difficult, it’s just that it’s poorly communicated. You can’t see who can see what…

Other Tools Worth Considering?

Half way through the trials we kind of re-discovered Confluence, a commercial enterprise wiki with an impressive list of plugins (including Sharepoint connectors which may come in handy at some point).

And later I stumbled across Mike2.0 which is interesting in two ways. Firstly, it is attempting to share the knowledge about collaboration… and secondly, it attempts a shot at combining some best of breed open source tools into one suite. You can download omCollab which is WordPress, MediaWiki, phpBB and other tools all rolled into one seamless environment. It’s a great idea… it almost works… but there are seams (and it’s fun to install).

Some of the others we tinkered with are listed in my Delicious tag for collaboration .

The Difficulties of Evaluation Community Software

Because collaboration is almost impossible to simulate… the plan is/was to get as many teams actually using these tools on short length actual projects so that we could get reliable feedback about what works and what doesn’t. So, through a process of “walking about a lot” I met as many different teams at the university and badgered them into helping test the tools. We now have teams sharing content daily … and others tinkering at the edges. It’s a good mix and so far has been a damn sight more productive than attempting to evaluate what the organisation needs without people in the mix.

The next post will be about some of the features and bugs that we found along the way.

p.s This post would have been a lot longer, in fact it was, but somehow WordPress lost it and I’m still a bit grumpy about it… As it turned out, it’s probably a better blog post for being shorter…. still… grr!

PPPeople PPPowered

One of the stranger parts of the Collaborative Tools Project was that a few weeks into the job we accidentally landed a JISC funding grant to attempt to create something like Amazon’s “if you like this book – you’ll like these” but for people. The Jisc project is called PPPeople PPPowered and I will be blogging about it here.

The idea in itself isn’t that original, creating a browsable serendipity engine for people. Many people have tried to do this before. The basic wireframe of how it might look is shown below. What I am hoping is that I can simply make a reasonable job of assembling existing open-source tools to create something new, used and useful. A large part of my approach involves involving people in the project very early (like now) creating a site they could use every day and then augment that with mined data but also even have activities such as “Tag Yourself Day” so that we kick start the process at a human level rather than trying to achieve it all with technology.

At the moment I’m collecting tools that might be useful for working with peoples’ social media profile data, tools for reasoning about unstructured data and tools for working with large repositories like ePrints, Mendeley, CiteULike or Academia.edu AND tools for visualisation…  So if you have any suggestions, do  leave a comment.


Of course, one of the obvious visualisations would be something like a MentionMap network diagram (shown below).


… but then again, in many ways, although beautifully swooshy… it is something of a cliche isn’t it. What are the best methods for displaying connections, or possible connections between people I wonder?

Public Showcase and Engagement Blog Wiki Thing

Today’s Use Case for the Collaborative Tools Project is a difficult one to give an accurate title. It can be thought of as a site that promotes the work of a department or aims to attract a community of like minded people. It might have lots of media such as photos or videos from conferences or even lectures.

The teams I have that need this are…

  • The Sustainability Forum – who want to raise the awareness and debate around the University of York’s sustainability
  • The Philosophy Wiki – a Community of Practice about, er, philosophy (currently they are using MediaWiki)
  • Humanities Research – a cross departmental research department (currently using the WordPress service)
  • History of Art

An important part of this Use Case looks to engage potential students and impress funding bodies and attract collaborators. It is very much an “outreach site” and aspects of  social media marketing or Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) or being well ranked in Google might even come into play.

My first thoughts for providing service  this was WordPress…. and then the Philosophy team turned up and complicated things. Who’d have thought?

The challenge here is to give people what they want.. and what they tell me they want is…

  • Something that looks shit hot
  • Something that is very much “their look and feel”
  • Something that is the beginning of a niche community
  • Something that is theirs.

It’s a tough nut to crack.

At first I thought that a shared WordPress Multi-User environment, with a shared look and feel, although being easy to administer, might not be appropriate at all. It would be just “too corporate”. And WordPress is woeful at wiki integration and wiki thinking so it wouldn’t do for the philosophers at all.

But on the other hand, maintaining the upgrades on multiple installs of WordPress isn’t something I would look forward to doing.

I am struggling here to decide what is the best approach to providing great-looking, easy-to-use sites that broadly support self-promotion, blogging, community-building  and wiki working that are public-facing and look to engage the wider world in discussion or even content creation.

I currently am thinking of providing workshops, templates and guides to using Blogger, WordPress, PBWorks effectively and then make sure that we aggregate the items created centrally. This sort of gives people the “best of breed” service for a few pounds a month. They could even hire their own designers if the look and feel of free templates isn’t up to their very high specifications.

What would you do?

Collaborative Editing

One of the main requirements for the Collaborative Tools Project is collaborative document editing. A group of researchers, at York want to be able to work on a paper or a research bid document with researchers at other organisations. You’d think that by now this would be a solved problem wouldn’t you?  Some of the first GUI computers in the 1970’s created were designed to be used by two people, each with a mouse of their own, so surely by now collaboration should be as natural as a mouse gesture. It’s not.

The two most commonly used approaches for working collaboratively on documents are a. wikis where the document lives in one place online and b. emailing documents around lots of people. Both of these approaches are flawed.

The Problems With Emailing Documents Around

  • You receive feedback from seven people about the same typo
  • The latest version is sent to Jill who is on holiday and you have edits you want to make
  • Someone on the team doesn’t have the “right” version of Word
  • Someone just joining the team has no idea of “how we got here”
  • It’s difficult to add comments to text (without adding text to the document)
  • It’s difficult to know who added what. I’ve found most people aren’t comfortable with merging documents at all.

p.s If you are in the hell that is emailing documents around then CompareMyDocs (for merging) and CC Betty (for keeping track of who has the latest version) may help. I’ve also had a quick look at Alfesco (an open source replacement for MS Sharepoint) but deep down I feel that documents themselves are the root of problems so I keep looking for “document free” solutions to the whole collaborative editing itch.

The Problems With Wikis

  • The editing screens are often ugly and difficult to use. Nobody should have to learn wiki markup.
  • They often only work online, meaning you can’t edit the latest version on the train.
  • The interface, being browser-based is often slow or even worse “faulty” resulting in people losing their carefully crafted work.
  • Many wikis don’t handle concurrent saves very well, resulting in you losing other peoples’ carefully crafted work.

There are some interesting attempts at solving the collaboration problem, including Google Docs. Here’s a collaborative document about collaborative documents (shown below).


Google Docs (like most document editors, whether online or not) is poor at document navigation. Most of the document editors out there almost assume that you start at the beginning and then write until you’ve finished, whereas most of us jump around a document filling in the bits that we can. This jumping around (or what Jef Rasking called LEAPING ) is normally only ever done with the scrollbar which is woefully clumsy way of getting to the bit you want to edit.

Despite Google Docs being one of the most interesting tools, other alternatives have features worth exploring. I’ve been using Zoho editing tools recently, which have been integrated into a workgroup application called Huddle. Did you know they have an API meaning that you can embed a Google Docs quality editor in your web application?

Adobe Buzzword (apart from looking nicer) has the ability to add comments (or annotations) to the text. You can see the mess that Matthew and I got into in the Google Document (above) as we added our comments to the document. It took us a while to work out that we could assign colours to our comments and there isn’t a key (I don’t think) that keeps a track of who is which colour. I think annotation is as important as actual editing and is often overlooked in these sorts of tools.

One tool that tries to tackle annotation head on is Revizr. It’s not the clearest of interfaces, it could do with a Web2.0 lick and spit, but I like its thinking.


Etherpad, the “real time collaborative editing tool” is also worth a mention. Although it has a limited set of tools (this in itself may be a good thing) it’s nice because it is so immediate (see below). What I like most about Etherpad  is…

  • people are automatically assigned colours (which can be removed later)
  • there is a “chat room” (bottom right) so that you can discuss the changes you are making without them becoming part of the content.
  • I also like the fact that this chat room is time-ordered, whereas the document may “evolve” over time.


Etherpad has just been bought by Google, which probably means either Google Docs will inherit some of its features.

All of these tools seem to work better in different situations, or on different points on a collaboration lifecycle… which might look a bit like this… When you look at the process of putting a research document together, in really simple terms, there are distinct phases each which might need it’s own user interface.  For example, Etherpad works really well for documents around a page long but when the text is longer, people can be working on a completely different section and you have no idea that they are busy working away.


So far, I have yet to find a collaborative editing solution I’m completely convinced by. Tools that try to solve the problem by over computerifying the workflow end up too difficult for occasional users. Tools that totally mimic word processing applications are kind of starting from the wrong place. For me, I think all the opportunities for innovation are in the early and late stages of the collaboration lifecycle above, in collecting ideas (brainstorms etc),  shaping or outlining and finally annotation (or adding comments and content without changing it). We already have a plethora text editors that work well enough or work the way we want them to. I’m looking for tools or processes that support the whole process rather than just the middle bits.

This Month Is Collaboration Month

I’ve been inspired by OffMessage’s – A Little Every Day re-invigoration of his blogging and decided to follow suit. It’s time to eat my own dogfood again, so here goes.

Recently I’ve been working on the Collaborative Tools Project at the University of York which aims to improve online collaboration. It’s a fantastic mix of designing and providing tools, evangelizing Web2.0 concepts and hands-on training… I’m absolutely loving it!

So my plan is to share some of what I’ve been doing, thoughts, tools, results in a one blog post a day for a month format… or close enough anyway (don’t hold me to it). For me at least, it’s going to be Collaboration Month.

See you  next Monday…ish for day one which will be about the Use Cases we gathered.

I’m going to keep this below a Table of Contents as we go…

Use Cases

The Tool Trialled