Organisational Blogging – Ultralab 2 year retrospective

Blogging at Ultralab was inspired in 2004 by Tom Smith during a sabbatical with his old employer. At the heart of this was the aggregator coined the Ultralab Blog of Blogs!

On this page of the blogsite you can read in rather abstract terms what Tom perceived as problems for Ultralab in terms of its (1) web presence and (2) its communication strategy set against the backdrop of a desire to be a ‘learning organisation’.

Essentially, Tom identified a failing website, and missed opportunities because of our reliance on the use of FirstClass as our primary means of communication as it encouraged Ultralab to be an inward facing organisation rather than outward looking one.

Tom saw that RSS technology offered a possible innovative solution that could achieve two things. The first was the development of a dynamic website that communicated effectively with the outside world. Secondly as an organisation we could also improve internal communication and collaborative work practice by gaining a better collective view of what each of us were contributing to the success of Ultralab. If the smoke is blown away and there is an expectation that we publicise what we are doing we can both more readily offer support and benefit from vital evaluative feedback – a brave attempt to develop a better communication system that was truly transparent.

Interestingly, the widespread adoption of Blogs could also provide a solution to thorny issues that is appraisal, by enabling everyone to demonstrate what they are doing and submit their work to the appraisal of their peers. Far more effective than the usual ‘paper chase’ exercise employed by most organisations!

So where are we 2 year on? A quick review and reflection identifies the following….

From a staff of around 45, Ultralab has 8 active bloggers (active being defined as blogging at least monthly)
Ultralab has 4 occasional bloggers (occasional being defined as sporadic efforts now and again:^)
Core-education (formerly Ultralab South) has three active bloggers and 3 occasional bloggers

Of the active bloggers most, although not all, are from the younger end of the Ultralab age spectrum. I propose that it is because they have far fewer years of conditioning and as such are better equipped to adopt new approaches to working. The key thing, I believe, isn’t the technology as everyone at Ultralab must be prepared to use new software, but that their outlook means that their behaviors are more readily adaptable – they have less respect for dogma.

“with new technologies, often you have to jump in the swimming pool before all the water is in… and hope it’s a fast tap… It took 10 years before lots of people would use email!!! (Tom Smith, Jan 2006)

The blogs range from purely personal (family, friends, holiday), through almost 100% professional. However, this is a difficult judgment to make as at Ultralab separating the work from play isn’t straight forward.

So Tom, what have you achieved 2 years on?

1. There has certainly been an impact on those active bloggers and a cursory glance at the comments shows that there is also a wider impact both with friends of Ultralab and around the world. In terms of making us more outward looking, I think this has been at least partly achieved.

2. The Ultralab website is now powered by Plone, quite a powerful open source, content management system that displays aggregated blog feeds, and offers RSS as well as enabling communities to be readily constructed. Although not directly related, I think that an increasing understanding that we need to use the website as a vibrant interface between Ultralab and the world was helped by the advances with blogging.

3. FirstClass still dominates, in this little has changed in that much of the powerful dialogue that takes place is restricted to those with the appropriate access permissions – an opportunity still to be capitalised on I hope!

4. Equally significant I think is the ‘slow burning’ impact on Ultraversity and potentially Ultralab Learning in the future. For the impatient Ultraversity has been slow to adopt the new technologies, being somewhat stuck in our old ways of doing things. However, we do have the Ultraversity Blog of Blogs, and the empowering Plone open source community / content management software.

This is significant in that it moves us away from the preferred relationship of control that Universities typically enjoy with their students. Clearly, the institution is still in the position of power, but students do have far more flexibility over whom they work with and how they chose to learn using a range of technologies – the embryonic practice required for the vision of a personalised learning environment?

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