Building UniConnect—an enterprise collaboration platform
The University Competence Center for Collaboration Technologies (UCT) is a joint initiative between the University of Koblenz-Landau and IBM Germany, founded in 2010. The goals of the UCT are to advance research in the area of collaboration technologies and to provide students with the opportunity to work with industry-strength enterprise collaboration systems. With support from IBM and IBM Business Partner GIS AG, the UCT hosts a fully functional academic collaboration platform called UniConnect, which is based on IBM Connections. With over 34 member universities and 2,600 registered users as of August 2016, UniConnect enables teams of researchers, students and industry partners to work together on collaborative research and teaching projects.
“We have substantial experience with IBM collaboration solutions: for many years my research group has used IBM® Notes® and IBM Domino® software to help students and academic personnel to work together,” recalls Prof. Schubert. “For that reason, when IBM first released IBM Connections, we immediately recognized its potential to transform our approach to collaboration. Working together with IBM enabled us to create UniConnect; a single, centralized workspace for all of our students, professors and industry partners.”
Prof. Williams adds: “In today’s university environment, many students have the opportunity to interact with specific collaboration tools in isolation—for example, editing an internal wiki, or commenting on blogs written by members of the faculty. The challenge with this approach is that students often lack access to all the various collaboration methods in a central place.
“With UniConnect, we have created an integrated platform that includes all the typical enterprise features. In fact, we now offer courses entirely focused on content management and collaboration—and using UniConnect in practical scenarios is a key aspect of the work. One of the first workshops students participate in is called ‘the Enterprise Collaboration Challenge’, in which students take on the role of business consultants for a fictitious company and attempt to optimize their collaboration processes using UniConnect. The major benefit is that our students experience the kind of industry-strength solution that they will eventually encounter in the business world.”
From a technical perspective, UniConnect shows students how collaboration components integrate, and helps them build a sound knowledge of best practices.
“Our students can avoid the kinds of common mistakes that we see people make when they use a collaboration solution for the first time,” comments Prof. Schubert. “For example, we train students in how to properly set up tasks and alerts, how to decide the best place to store and work with data, and the most effective way to tag and categorize information to enable easy retrieval and compliance with intellectual property legislation.”
The University of Koblenz-Landau also launched IndustryConnect—a collaboration project between the companies using collaboration software that is actively moderated by representatives from the university. IndustryConnect addresses trending collaboration issues and topics, such as teamwork and the active knowledge exchange between employees at companies using Enterprise Collaboration Systems. IndustryConnect enables these companies to share their experiences in a way that goes beyond traditional interest groups, round tables and business lunches.
Prof. Williams states: “We have around 40 students doing thesis research based on data from UniConnect and IndustryConnect. Our data is a rich resource for students who want to do practical research around collaboration technology, because it enables them to start answering questions such as: ‘Why is the way that businesses work changing?’, ‘What value do businesses get from collaboration platforms?’, and: ‘How are businesses using these technologies to create new value?’.”
Pushing the frontiers of collaboration research
With an enterprise collaboration solution at the heart of the organization, the University of Koblenz-Landau is achieving its goal of giving students the best possible start in the competitive highly skilled employment market.
“From day one, our students use UniConnect to organize their work, set up teams for group projects, communicate with their professors and lecturers, and keep track of their tasks and deadlines,” explains Prof. Schubert. “As a result, our students gain valuable experience of a digital workplace, which is undoubtedly a major asset when applying for positions in the business world.”
UniConnect enables researchers to uncover the ways that businesses use the platform to drive their work. Using this knowledge, they can develop best practices to help enterprises to obtain the maximum value from their investment in collaboration.
“Because researchers are able to analyze millions of event logs in UniConnect, we can offer deep insight into real-world user behavior,” says Prof. Williams. “By mining this data, we can reveal patterns in the way that people are using the collaboration tools to solve problems, and identify ways to improve efficiency.
“For example, we have noticed that a common mistake is to create tasks without assigning them to a person or giving them a deadline—which enables us to make straightforward changes to the way we train people on the platform, and explain the productivity benefits of using the system in the intended way.”
As mobile devices become smaller, more powerful and more widely used, the University of Koblenz-Landau can offer students and businesses the benefits of collaboration on the move.
“Today, our users no longer see collaboration in terms of individual tools such as email, calendars and shared drives—they see a centralized, integrated workspace,” comments Prof. Schubert. “Whether our students are logging into the platform on a laptop or on their phones, UniConnect has become their go-to place to work.”
Prof. Williams concludes: “Without question, our work with IBM Connections has helped transform our approach to collaboration inside the university and beyond. By continuing to develop our enterprise collaboration platforms, we are well placed to uncover new insights into user behavior and advance knowledge in the field.”