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Lessons Learned: Designing a Collaborative Space for a Region

Hey, Here’s a collaboration challenge: the International Finance Corporation (IFC) supports private sector projects in more than 100 countries. The organization’s Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) department has offices in 15 countries that manage operations for a total of 30 countries in the region, and the department wanted to create a pilot project—a digital collaboration space (shown in Figure 1) where staff members could connect, share ideas, and discuss issues.

Homepage of the Latin America and Caribbean department’s collaboration site.
Figure 1. The collaboration site for the Latin America and Caribbean department of the International Finance Corporation is a work in progress. (Credit: IFC)

Around the same time the decision was made, the LAC appointed a knowledge management officer to support knowledge creation and dissemination in the region. One of the first initiatives for the KM officer was to make that collaboration space a reality. The challenge was to create a site where people across various countries, regions, and time zones could communicate and work seamlessly together.

This project was about more than just providing a platform with collaboration capabilities and sending an email telling everyone to check it out. It was about going through a process—discover, define, design, implement, and optimize—and committing the time necessary to nurture the users in as many ways as possible for site adoption and use.

Step 1: Discover

The team tasked with creating the collaboration site was located at LAC headquarters in Washington, D.C. Members reached out to regional staffers to define what they wanted the experience to look and feel like in order to best support and enhance their daily work. The LAC surveyed staff in December 2013 for a baseline measure of knowledge management: how information was created, shared, disseminated, and accessed across the region. An online survey created by the KM officer and two volunteers was sent to 291 employees. Forty-five percent (131 employees) responded. Then 23 staff members culled across countries, grade levels, and sectors participated in in-depth interviews. This was a crucial first step in identifying staff pain points.

Sixty-three percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement: “It is not easy to find the right information needed for day-to-day work.” Other survey and interview quotes included:

  • “It really depends on the people involved. Some regions/managers are excellent about sharing across regions. Others are horrible in sharing within their own regions.”
  • “No one is responsible and accountable for organizing this information.”
  • “We’ve had several cases where information got lost and issues were not followed-up because staff left to another region or left IFC.”
  • “There is a need for periodic meetings/knowledge sharing sessions, more than once a year.”
  • “I do not rely on any systems to get information. It takes too long to search.”
  • “There is simply no effort and no encouragement from managers or hub leaders to share knowledge…all knowledge sharing with colleagues is purely voluntary and mostly done if people get along well together.”

In an analysis of the survey and interview results, it was evident there was room for improvement and that staff might be receptive to a central location where information and collaboration would be the focus.

The KM officer spent the most time in this discovery phase. Then the content cleanup began. The headquarters’ staff chose a time frame—seven years—and eliminated files older than that. Duplications and drafts were deleted. Team members created folders on a shared drive based on business lines. The idea was to organize the data at headquarters, then share the method with country offices to help them identify what content they wanted available in the new space.

Lesson Learned: Even though almost 50 percent of staff responded to the survey, one survey does not replace the need for getting to know your global audience through observation, research, and asking questions. A great deal of input and emphasis was placed on discussions with the LAC headquarters team. There should have been more effort to involve the staff in the field via phone calls and video conferencing. Also, more time dedicated to gathering requirements would have helped.

So far, the content cleanup has occurred only at D.C. headquarters. Once the country offices tackle their shared drives, the KM officer will have a better idea of the content they have and what would be of value to everyone else.

Another department within the IFC requires its KM officer to visit all the hub offices of the region. The tour serves several purposes, including scheduled face time with management to garner buy-in; a chance to build and nurture relationships; and the opportunity to enlist additional knowledge/content/collaboration champions in support of knowledge management efforts. The LAC KM officer is keen on the tour idea and wants to implement something similar. However, given the demands on staff time, the objectives and expected outcomes of such travel, including basic metrics of success, would need to be clearly stated and justified.

Step 2: Define

A site’s audience should be defined to ensure expectations and requirements will be met. There was a striking distinction between staff at the LAC’s D.C. headquarters and staff in the LAC region. The D.C. staff members were physically close to the KM officer so they had frequent interactions. The field staff members don’t know the KM officer by sight and many are focused on their own area of work, oblivious to others in their region.

Another difference was in user expectations. Some staffers wanted the space to be very visual and interactive, while others wanted to use the platform as a content management system and put all of their high-access presentations and resources on the home page. Some of the groups requested private spaces just for their own country office; this undermined the purpose of collaborating across the region.

An issue that was unexpected: employees in the field failed to grasp the relevance of a regional space. The strategy-focused headquarters staff wanted a more holistic, regional view of what was going on. But while the 15 country offices manage operations for the LAC region, each office is more concerned about collaborating within their particular industries, rather than collaborating with other offices.

Lesson Learned: Again, it goes back to requirements gathering at the start: would staffers even see the need for such a space? More time should have been spent raising awareness of the purpose—and especially the benefits—of a collaboration space. The staff at headquarters should have planned more directed approaches in cultural messaging, outreach, and in engaging potential users in planning the space. In addition, a plethora of technology tools are available and advertised internally. Going forward, clear definition and distinction of this collaboration space will help avoid tool overload.

Step 3: Design

The project’s D.C. team was not familiar with the platform that hosts the IFC sites, so they relied on in-house expertise and the use of best practices in the design of the site. The KM officer looked at seven different department sites and had discussions with the assigned designer about what aspects of those sites worked well and what areas needed improvement. They also discussed elements the LAC site should include, based on the earlier staff survey and interviews. The HQ staff then met weekly for a month to view iterations of the site and offer input on the homepage layout, content most easily accessible via quick links, the most important RSS feeds to feature, and other aspects.

Lesson Learned: Even though you have a template that works for one global audience segment, that doesn’t mean it will translate to every other segment. This fact was particularly evident with cultural and country audience variations of the LAC region. It’s a prime example of the importance of involving users in the design process. If the country offices focused on their own situations had an understanding of how a regional collaboration site could benefit them, and they had a stake in how the site was going to look and behave, those offices would be more invested in the project’s success. Plus, the site would be more likely to meet their needs, so they would (ital)want to collaborate.

Step 4: Implement

The project team scheduled a WebEx training session at each of the 15 country offices to explain and promote the new site. The sessions were at convenient times and food was provided to encourage attendance. Those that participated seemed engaged and interested; approximately 100 out of 280 attended. However, country manager and senior staff adoption of the site has been low. The HQ staff hasn’t heard from regional managers that the collaboration and knowledge exchange is important. Site use isn’t mandatory, which makes behavior change more challenging. Additional training sessions will be offered, with email reminders.

Lesson Learned: Top-down communication regarding participation is needed, with management setting the example through blog posts, by starting discussions, and sending announcements via the site. Defined use cases of business efficiencies can help employees shift their way of collaborating and further understanding of knowledge management. Incentives need to be in place.

The LAC should also explore various methods and channels of communication to aid adoption. Initially, the KM officer relied heavily on email and WebEx sessions, but more opportunities exist to socialize the collaboration site, such as departmental meetings, video tutorials, brown-bag lunch sessions, and video conferencing.

Step 5: Optimize

The collaboration site will never be “done.” Since the site is still in its infancy, optimization will be an iterative process. Basic metrics are reviewed on a regular basis; focus groups, usability testing, and country visits need to be planned. More communication is necessary to update and engage everyone about the site.

The site is in English, as it is the business language, regardless of the region. No one has requested additional languages such as Spanish and Portuguese; however, this may be a barrier as yet uncovered.

Three months post-launch, the KM officer sent another online survey to gather feedback. In the email request for participation, the purpose of the collaboration space was reiterated: to reduce silos across countries and help employees virtually share key materials for business efficiencies. The goal of the survey: to discover what participants find useful about the site, and what aspects they like and don’t like. (The survey was still in the field as of this article.)

Lesson Learned: The message to be open, local, diverse, and curious may add value to the idea of the collaborative space and spark site activity. The KM officer needs to follow up with each country office and ensure that staffers know the site is a work in progress. The team also needs to market how other IFC regions and groups are successfully collaborating…and how this project is a chance to join their ranks.


The KM officer is projecting that site adoption may take up to a year. The LAC management views the site launch as a good starting point.

Many lessons were learned throughout the development of the collaboration site. And the overall goal of using the project as a pilot to formulate a smoother process for the regional departments that follow has been valuable.