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Information Discovery and a little Random Interaction among researchers

Earlier this week, as part of its regular meeting, the University Research Committee (URC) invited representatives from University Communications to discuss ways in which faculty and researchers communicate with one another. Tim Jones (dir. of Web Communications) and Luis Chacon (senior developer) led the discussion.  There’s a lot we all can learn about how the research side of the business likes to work with each other…and talk to each other.

Some surprises, some not so surprises, but a great exercise.  Here’s what Tim and Luis discovered in addition to the fact that the research group likes pizza!

Key Points:

  • In-person communication remains the most critical tool for fostering collaboration
  • Email is by far the most commonly used digital communication tool (but don’t we all complain about too much email?)
  • Personalized, customizable email subscriptions would help immensely
  • Providing multiple communication options is important since not everyone’s needs and expectations are the same
  • Specialized, somewhat private social media tools like Ning have potential to improve communication among faculty and researchers
  • Facebook and other popular social media tools hold little appeal for professional interaction among faculty and researchers
  • Collaboration tools like Google Docs and Google Wave offer promise as well
  • Ideally, more existing information and data sources would be integrated, offering easier access to related information
  • Finding faculty and researchers with shared interests isn’t easy (thus, you’ve got to reach far and wide)
  • Locating opportunities (seminars, etc.) across departments is difficult
  • The “randomness” of Web browsing often proves beneficial and should be encouraged and retained
  • Basic training and education for digital communication tools is essential

Current Communications

Currently, URC members find the most value with in-person communications. Most also agreed that email was a very popular, familiar tool that helped facilitate communication. Several were using the existing biotech listserv to share and consume information about research. A few URC members indicated that the listserv was used frequently for communicating urgent and immediate requests, such as locating equipment.

Ning, an online social community tool, was also cited as a valuable resource for collecting and sharing information and research opportunities, specifically surrounding the topic of Health and Well Being. That site (still in its infancy) in particular and others like it seem to have some potential for communications for many members, though maintaining a constant stream of content and ensuring continued participation posed some potential issues.

Others said the Stimulus Central Web site offered a good, successful model for sharing information about research opportunities. The site offered RSS feeds, allowing uses to “subscribe” to the site and receive updates via RSS and email.

URC members cited a number of different communications needs, including a significant interest in departmental seminars, both at NC State University and at neighboring universities. Finding seminars outside of one’s own department is currently very difficult, as there is no central location for seminar information. Seminars help connect faculty members—in-person—across disciplines and departments. Most URC members felt these opportunities were among the most valuable types of interaction and welcomed tools that would make finding, attending and connecting with others attending seminars easier and more intuitive. Sortable, searchable lists of seminar opportunities as well as a way to see who else would be attending particular events and connecting with them beforehand were some of the key ideas shared at the meeting.


Members consistently expressed frustration with the lack of centralized, customizable sources of information. Most said they’d like to be able to choose topics of interest and then elect how they receive information, whether by daily, weekly, monthly email, hosted on a central Web site, or through some other delivery mechanism. The key is choice and personalization. One member said he “wouldn’t check a Web site, and doesn’t currently check the Website,” while another said, they didn’t want to get emails every time something was updated.

Building on the idea of non-centralized resources, many URC members said they’d like additional information integrated into tools they’re already using  (PINS, university directory, calendars, Town Crier, experts list, RADAR, Community of Science, etc.). Providing information such as professional interests to the university directory could potentially offer a new, rich source of information to help connect to other faculty members. Citing the wild inconsistency of departmental homepages and websites, one member suggested each department offer a faculty listing that included a few searchable keywords with each directory entry to make finding faculty easier.

Another URC member asked about new technologies like Google Wave that could help with document collaboration. Some members said they use Google Docs and other document collaboration tools that suffer from a lack of immediacy that could be addressed by something like Google Wave.

When asked specifically about Facebook nearly all URC members said the did not use Facebook and weren’t interested in using it, citing a lack of professional appeal (as compared to a more controlled Ning site), unfamiliarity with the platform, and a general perception that Facebook wasn’t the right tool for research communication. Members seemed much more comfortable with the concept of  “more professional” social networks separate from Facebook. One member said her use of Facebook was limited to “keeping up with my kids,” and likely wouldn’t become anything else.

One overarching communication challenge and expressed desire of URC members was the concept of information discovery and random interaction. Many talked about accidentally finding some critical or interesting piece of information because they happened to click related item after related item, following the multitudinous pathways of the World Wide Web. Many expressed a desire to maintain this sense of random discovery with whatever tools they used.

Finally, all members said regardless of the tools offered, they would benefit greatly from brief training and instruction for the communication outlets offered, from Ning and RSS to Twitter and calendar entries.

Another thing was obvious, these men and women are passionate about their work and about keeping up with the work and activities of their peers here, and around the country, around the world.  Yet another example of…

Passion Rules!

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