Putting Heads Together...Virtually

Putting Heads Together...Virtually

Online collaboration software can help streamline meetings, brainstorm efficiently, and even generate some revenue on the side.

What does collaboration mean to you? And how can it help your school meet its goals and possibly generate revenue?

Considering its location in the small city of Decorah, Iowa, more than an hour from Cedar Rapids, Minneapolis/St. Paul, or any other major city, Luther College is an unlikely candidate to make a profit from its "Round Table Service," a program that allows external groups like for-profits and nonprofits, and internal groups like student organizations and faculty/staff committees, to use online collaboration software within a roundtable conference room fitted with computer terminals.

Online collaboration is the process of group decision-making via computer terminals and software designed to keep responses anonymous. It can improve productivity, shorten meetings, and cut down on the negative influences of "formal and informal hierarchies" that naturally arise in group settings, says David Sallee, president of William Jewell College (Mo.).

Location is no longer a barrier for project teams.

Danuta McCall, a spokesperson for Facilitate.com, a collaboration tool developer that's currently working with these schools, estimates that 15 percent of organizations are using online collaboration tools (audio, video, and web conferencing providers), with rapid growth expected. As early adopters of technology, institutions of higher ed likely comprise a big portion of that segment, she adds.

Of course, online collaboration has an almost infinite number of uses, from student projects and brainstorming sessions to anonymous surveys and group discussions. It also helps with strategic planning.

McCall explains that online collaboration software is "ideal for strategic planning because it allows the quick capture of information (risks, issues, opportunities) and flattens politics and negative group dynamics." Another advantage: Location is no longer a barrier for project teams.

In the case of Luther College, online collaboration takes place in a "Round Table Room." External and internal groups frequent the room for brainstorming sessions or day-long conferences.

Institutions also use anonymous brainstorming and voting to do academic reviews, faculty position selection, and other committee work that requires precise documentation, nonpartisan discussion, and careful evaluation, McCall says.

External groups, such as The Mayo Clinic-affiliated Decorah Clinic, pay Luther College an hourly fee for a facilitator to moderate the web discussion.

Nonprofits receive a discount. Sometimes, outside groups will bring their own facilitators. But they still pay for any fees, such as for surveys conducted prior to a meeting so the group leaders can get feedback from a larger constituency. On-campus groups, meanwhile, don't pay a cent.

An online survey tool is used internally at Luther, as well. Ann Mansfield, the lead facilitator for Round Table Services, says alumni were recently surveyed as part of the accreditation process for an academic department. Students are also surveyed regularly--about curricula, courses, advising experiences, and residential experiences, for instance.

William Jewell is also using online collaboration tools for outreach. A few outside groups have used their facilities, generating "a little revenue," Sallee says. But with potential for more, the college has a staffer dedicated to marketing the program.

At Morehead State University (Ky.), meanwhile, administrators are considering hiring a facilitator to take care of their Collaborative Technology Center to free up the time of faculty members and graduate students who have been taking time out of their schedules to moderate sessions.

Julie A. Varughese is a former associate editor of University Business.


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