Web 2.0 is more than a technology shift. It is a shift in culture and a challenge to existing organizational paradigms.
For the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), collaborative technologies present an opportunity to better connect and expand networks globally, redefine how we develop policies, share information and manage our operations.
The mandate of DFAIT to manage Canada’s foreign relations, promote our country’s international trade and assist travelling Canadians requires a robust, flexible, effective and connected network of employees and offices in Canada and abroad. This global platform operates 24/7 and is made up of over 10,000 employees located in headquarters, 18 regional offices across Canada and 173 missions (i.e. embassies, consulates, etc.) around the world.
In addition to delivering a complex mandate in some very difficult environments, the department has a highly diversified workforce composed of Canadian Foreign Service employees, who rotate from HQ to missions on a regular basis, as well as non-Canadian staff hired locally at the missions. The challenge is to keep this changing global platform connected and interactive in a way that ensures the expertise and knowledge in our worldwide workforce is found, developed and shared across the network.
In 2007, DFAIT launched its Transformation Agenda calling for change and improvement to the department in Canada and abroad. Among the initiatives proposed was the use of Web 2.0 collaborative technologies to improve internal communications and share information more effectively. Early in 2008, senior management endorsed the e-Collaboration strategy and gave approval to the internal use of these technologies, including to the introduction of a departmental wiki and an employee networking system.
By the fall of that year we unveiled wiki@international on the department’s intranet, encouraging employees to use this new interactive site to draft documents, organize conferences and share information. The DFAIT wiki functions with the same open source software used by Wikipedia, National Resources Canada, Treasury Board Secretariat and the U.S. Department of State.
Two years later, we can confidently declare that the wiki has become “mainstream,” used daily by thousands of employees at HQ and at missions for a broad range of tasks, ranging from preparing meeting agendas and documents, crisis coordination and organizing events.
One excellent example of its use was in the aftermath of the tragic earthquake in Haiti. The wiki was employed to coordinate actions and disseminate timely information across the department, publishing information in real-time and in one central location, keeping all informed and engaged (and greatly reducing the flurry of e-mails that normally accompany such events).
Following the success of our wiki, we introduced an employee networking system, Connections (an IBM Lotus product), in 2009. Among other things, Connections allows employees to blog, participate in themed discussions and online communities and has a directory function called Profiles where staff can provide information about their experience, skills and knowledge. The expectation is that this “corporate Facebook” will serve to bring DFAIT staff more closely together and help managers to locate skills and capacities in the department’s far-flung and churning work force.
An example of the effectiveness of Connections was during our 2009 Leadership Conference. In the past, these conferences would have involved the attendance of many executives travelling from their respective missions. Instead, a three-week virtual “policy jam” – an online discussion – took place on Connections among 300 executives allowing a larger number of senior managers at our missions to participate virtually in the conference. This encouraged a broader and more open discussion, and reduced costs.
The e-Collaboration initiative and our adoption of these technologies is very much aligned with the direction the Clerk of the Privy Council has set for government to “take full advantage of the Web 2.0 collaborative tools … to help improve the productivity of our workplaces and better harness the skills and knowledge of public servants.”
So far, both systems have already proven their value: our wiki contains more than 8,000 articles and we have several hundred online communities in Connections that support strategy development, policy discussions and project management.
However, the adoption and transition was not easy; the work continues and we are still learning and adapting. The formal, hierarchical structure of government and the policies surrounding security of information, privacy, official languages, to name a few, present real challenges to these new ways of collaboration.
The collaborative technologies are quickly transforming our social lives and many businesses and organizations have adopted them for competitive advantage and/or corporate renewal. We will continue in our journey of change, expanding e-Collaboration to reach partners in government, academia, business and citizens.
Gaston Barban is the Chief Information Officer and Director General, Information Management and Technology Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT).