Collaborative technologies – facilitating how we conduct research together

Posted by Lou Woodley, Community Engagement Director – Trellis and Program Director – AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program

3 people using laptops. Two have letters and numbers obscuring their heads.
Illustration from Think Quarterly by Matt Taylor

Last week I attended the Science of Team Science (SciTS) conference in Clearwater Beach, Florida where I took part in a couple of sessions, and moderated a third. Here I’m going to share some reflections from the first session which focused on collaborative technologies for academic collaborations.

The uses of collaborative tools

The first activity that we used to open the session involved gathering the names of current online tools and grouping them into 5 broad categories. The categories, suggested by workshop co-organiser Ryan Watkins, covered different reasons for using online tools. I’ve listed each below, with my interpretation added alongside:

– Project management and communications – tools that allow users to organize and communicate with one another about their group-based work.

– Sense-making – tools that enable discussion and idea sharing that leads to participants forming or refining their knowledge and beliefs about topics.

– Knowledge sharing – tools that enable the dissemination of information.

– Acquisition of knowledge – tools that enable active searching for information or passively receiving updates about new information.

– Data analysis – tools that enable the sharing and computation of raw data.

I found it interesting to compare these suggested categories to the uses and gratifications theory (that I blogged about earlier here) which would additionally suggest a “work-focused” category for tools used for building or measuring reputation (e.g. Altmetric).


3 questions that came out of the session:

1. Can one tool successfully perform more than one of these functions?

For the five broad categories of tools listed above, it was noticeable that most tools are found in a single category. Each tool often focuses on adding a particularly specific and/or comprehensive set of features to address a particular task.

For example, Tableau is a tool for data visualization. You wouldn’t use it to communicate about the implications of the data. Trello is a tool for organizing tasks but it’s not a tool for sense-making or data analysis.

Some of the emergent platforms such as Trellis fit into multiple categories (communications, sense-making, knowledge-sharing, and acquisition of knowledge) but are not intended to be deeply specialized. Our approach to creating a basic platform requires integration with other more specialized tools to achieve both a breadth and depth of features.


2. What makes a tool collaborative?

Another question that came up during the session was what factors make a tool truly collaborative. Is it about sharing access to the data with team members such that they can work on it if they want or need to (e.g. depositing information in a shared Dropbox or Google Drive folder)? Or does collaboration require the ability to work in real time (rather than asynchronously) such as on a conference call or via in-line editing of a Google doc – or something else?


3. How to assist adoption of tools?

With many tools to choose from, it can often be a challenge to encourage your colleagues to adopt a new one. In the session we talked about examples of successful adoption such as scheduling regular work out loud sessions on Slack (something we do with the AAAS community engagement fellows). What programming or regular activities have you used to promote adoption of new tools? Have you found that training or other tactics worked?