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< Contents ERCIM News No. 54, July 2003

Internet-Based Learning
and Collaboration for Dispersed Co-Workers

by Dian Tan and Peter Mambrey

The internet-based collaboration platform NetKM, developed at Fraunhofer FIT, supports self-organised learning and knowledge-sharing. It was established in an insurance company to assist a geographically distributed team in organising its daily work practice.

The concepts of learning and information sharing in organisations are rapidly changing: from the idea of learning in advance and the false belief that knowledge can be stored in repositories, to self-organised information sharing within groups and the construction of organisational ‘knowledge’ bases. We conducted a longitudinal case study to investigate how a group of dispersed co-workers acquires a new technical platform for the purposes of sharing information and self-reliable organisational learning. The daily use of technology and its options evolved over time based on the user’s voluntary activity, without direct intervention. We explicitly focused on the self-organisation of these processes.

The users were trainers within an insurance company. They were concerned with internal vocational training, and the appendant back office - 22 people in total. The back office was located at the company's headquarters, while the trainers were dispersed all over the country. Since the back office was responsible for the trainers’ assignments, a lively exchange between back office and trainers is implied.

The main structrure of the 'Networked Knowledge Market'.
The main structrure of the 'Networked Knowledge Market'.

As a technical basis, we chose the BSCW system (Basic Support for Cooperative Work), developed by the Fraunhofer Institute FIT. This groupware system facilitates the coordination and accomplishment of group work in shared workspaces. Since it is web-based it works independently of a specific operating system and can be accessed from any computer with an internet connection. The user can create folders and various types of objects (charts, URLs etc), and download and maintain them (version control, conversion). Object-specific information (eg who has read or changed a document) can be recalled anytime by the members of the workspace by a simple mouse click on a symbol next to that object. They can receive a daily activity report that lists all activities which occurred the day before, and the system also offers flexible allocation of rights. Plenty of other functionalities are available. The BSCW system was modified to meet the requirements of the insurance company, and was introduced using the metaphor 'Networked Knowledge Market' (NetKM). Only invited and registered members could enter this portal. Advised by the company, we developed a folder structure consisting of nine main folders, eg organisation, presentations, teaching materials, FAQ or personal folders. We provided them with some material and all users could add their own material. Our aim was to support self-organisation, rather than regulating the content and ways of using the system. The customary methods of communication persisted, and the NetKM complemented but did not replace them.

The period of use started in June 2001 with an introductory workshop and training to explain the handling and functionalities of the system. Our findings refer to the one-year period from the start to July 2002, but the system is still in use by the company. The exploratory study was evaluated using qualitative and quantitative methods. All available data on the use of the NetKM (eg daily activity reports) were documented and analysed. Additionally, all users were asked to answer some questions about the NetKM. We also conducted interviews with seven carefully chosen people.

Users were encouraged to establish as many objects as they wanted within the main folders. In the first year these totalled 337 folders on different levels within the main folders; the folders contained 1043 documents. The number of new objects varies greatly over the period. Back-office employees, trainers and researchers all contributed material to the NetKM. Interestingly, the data suggest that trainers who left the department stored their 'knowledge' in the NetKM shortly before leaving. In this way, important information was transmitted to colleagues and remained available to the company.

The number of downloads (reading activities) per month from the NetKM is even more irregular. The data show that the number of downloads is obviously not dependent on the number of new documents. For example, there was one month (March 2002) when only two new documents were uploaded, but 101 downloads were registered. This may be explained by the fact that this analysis accounted only for the upload of new documents, not the update of existing documents. Documents that were often updated contained current information and were often downloaded by users.

The written and oral questioning brought up some interesting findings. The users mentioned plenty of things they appreciated about the NetKM and also some aspects that could be improved. They also provided us with useful hints for the further development of mobile self-organised methods of knowledge-sharing in dispersed groups.


Please contact:
Dian Tan, Fraunhofer FIT