Extending the Reach of Collaboration

Paige Francis, CIO, Fairfield University

Paige Francis, CIO, Fairfield University


Technology has always been and will always be rapidly changing. Within the past decade, thanks in large part to the shift away from ‘build it’ to ‘supply it’ demands, technology leadership was finally near-forced to make a dramatic change as well to appropriately represent the changing face of IT. Suddenly IT leaders and CIOs transitioned from being considered highly-educated though slightly off-putting nerds in suits to engaging facilitators of transformational change within the core of the business.

"Collaboration solutions should facilitate and streamline interaction, devoid of any unnecessary static"

Moving up through the ranks of IT, I experienced the faces of meeting participants when the technology head honcho left the room. The expressions were often of slight awe and significant confusion. That persona is simply no longer useful. The tone has changed from directing what we will do to welcoming spirited, collaborative discussion leading up to the best-case solution that will most surely positively impact bottom line. With decades-old silos breaking down around us, leaders across most flavors of business embrace collaboration as an invaluable exercise. So who is our target audience? Everyone.


When it comes to identifying technology solutions for collaboration, ‘so many options, so little time’ comes to mind. There are comprehensive and pricey end-to-end solutions, requiring an investment in equipment on all ends of the conversation. On the flipside there are open-source message boards, free online software and heaps of social media options to accommodate any level of conversation.

The key to collaboration tools today is simplicity. The value should be in the actual group participation, not the medium. Less is more. Flashy conveniences are fun, but they have a tendency to detract from the meat of the task at hand – the sharing of ideas to reach a final consensus.


Now is a fantastic time to try using a technology solution to facilitate collaboration and this can most likely be accomplished without running to a CIO list and gathering recommendations for the best-of-the-best solutions out there. Most industry and universities alike invest heavily in technology systems to facilitate business within the organization. There is a belief that human beings only use approximately 10 percent of their brain. Although that particular percentage has been labeled a myth, I find it commonplace that many businesses only use a fraction of the available technology within the systems they already own.

As an example, within higher education supporting a Learning Management System (LMS) is commonplace. These LMS systems empower group work for students from assignments through message board conversations through testing. Documents are stored, shared and continuously refreshed. We use our student LMS system to host a variety of non-student collaborative groups. Our Board of Trustees has their own channel within our LMS that allows them to access meeting agendas, notes, and supporting documentation. It is secure, requires a unique login and password and is available 24/7. Board meetings are held quarterly and ongoing. Most recently we used our student LMS for individual task forces on a strategic planning effort. Individual task forces could only access their specific task force data, comments were made on working documents, and discussions were held devoid of time zone and scheduling limitations.


There are no boundaries. Collaboration happens. Collaborative tools can be used to streamline group efforts at any level, for any audience. In most instances the only requirement for real-time interaction is an Internet connection and device of choice. Whether waiting for a flight at LaGuardia or sitting in your home office, set up a time with your project partner halfway around the world and there’s your meeting.

Why Collaborate?
Its best practice

The best technology projects I’ve been involved with were successful due to strong cross-organizational collaboration. Historically a need would be communicated, a solution identified, a basic structure developed and users would be brought in to play around in the test environment. Based on user feedback, the solution might be tweaked here and there to match expectation. Communication on the new solution would be pervasive and lengthy, running alongside persistent training efforts. As solutions become more integrative in our Internet of Things (IoT) world, the process by which we manage projects morphed to more appropriately align with expectations. Tweaking technology systems was certainly much easier in an object-oriented programming world. Now that we’ve moved to service-oriented and mobile-oriented, most decisions of performance need to be made prior to development. Therefore our new normal involves sitting around a table, virtual or otherwise, sooner rather than later.

It’s affordable

I work on a variety of national projects that require participation across fields, industries and experiences. The occasional video conference is helpful for putting names with faces and personalizing the group, however little is more task-forward than a simple conference call alongside real-time access to a shared, web-based document. Discussion in conjunction with hands-on ability to update, edit and comment on a working document proves invaluable through a collaborative project – from conceptualization through final review. The shared-screen approach of yesteryear worked well at the time, however now we prefer to ‘do’ while we discuss. If a company does not have a contract with a paid provider of document management/ sharing, there are a variety of open–source and free solutions.

In closing, collaborative technology should be seen but not heard. Collaboration solutions should facilitate and streamline interaction, devoid of any unnecessary static. Much like a transactional mobile shopping experience, we know what we want now we simply want to purchase the item without fanfare. The substance in collaboration is the exchange of ideas and group development leading to the best possible solution. Oftentimes you don’t even need to look outside your laptop to identify a perfect collaborative tool for just about any project out there.

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