The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s foray into electronic collaboration

“I’m going to be telling you a story,” says Gaston Barbon, CIO of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) speaking from the stage at GTEC 2009.

“It’s the story of the deployment of a collaborative work environment.”

Barbon’s story begins more than a year ago with being tasked by his deputy minister to bring modern electronic collaboration tools into the workplace.

DFAIT was an ideal department to try out new collaboration tools as it has a large staff, some of whom are spread out all over the world.

After establishing a team for the project, Barbon looked at how his counterparts in the British Foreign Office and U.S. State Department were using social media.

He learned that the State Department had the Office of eDiplomacy, which included wikis and blogs.

Following the fact-finding, Barbon’s team prepared a presentation and in March 2008 were given the greenlight to go ahead.

The main piece of DFAIT’s new collaboration strategy is an internal wiki dubbed Wiki@International. It was built on MediaWiki, which gave the department the opporunity to experiment with open source software.

Wiki@International was given a custom template and modified to be easier to use.

“We made sure it was as easy to use as Microsoft Word,” says Barbon.

The wiki was initially used in a sandbox environment, where librarians were tasked with adding information to it before allowing the rest of the department access.

However, there was no big launch. Instead, Barbon and team decided to let use of the wiki spread virally through the department.

“We worked with early adopters who wanted new solutions and let the tools go viral,” says Barbon.

The plan worked, with usage picking up in December 2008 when many employees were left stranded by a public transit strike and started using the wiki to set up a ride-sharing board. 

According to Barbon, Wiki@International has cut down on e-mail in the department as meetings are scheduled by simply sending a link to an editable page on the wiki and those who are expected to attend can list their availability there.

Currently, Wiki@International has 5,200 users with 2,800 topics.

To add additional social media tools to the workplace, DFAIT went with IBM’s Lotus Connects for the software’s compatibility with Blackberry devices, of which there are 4000 used by DFAIT employees.

“It’s been an eye opener and it’s working,” says Barbon of DFAIT’s e-collaboration experiments. “We will continue to look at these and make the department the best place to work in town.”