In the fall of 2008, as CDL was gearing up to become deeply involved in HathiTrust, I was part of the team managing our efforts.

We anticipated a long-term initiative encompassing many projects, committees, and workgroups, and that was just from the University of California side of things ! From the beginning, we struggled to find easy-to-use, platform agnostic meeting arrangement tools, cheap but effective video conferencing mechanisms, and project tracking and document sharing spaces that developers, analysts, and managers all could embrace.

At some point, I realized that success at this level of complexity in virtual group work wasn’t just about technology, although having the right tools certainly makes a big difference. It rests too in the leadership of the coordinating core and also on the responsible participation of the colleagues involved. I began to think of something like project “citizenship.”

What I imagined was that, with such a far-flung effort, we would be best enabled as a team if each of us pushed the unique information we had to each other, rather than relying on any one particular person to pull that information from us.

My colleague Heather Christenson and I created a Best Practices document, which we gave out to all new UC project participants. In the document, we said:

Some of you are the UC’s sole representative on a HathiTrust Working Group. Some of you are members of a UC Explore Group. Some of you are doing development work with colleagues from various institutions. Some of you may have several of these roles. Depending on your role, your “project citizenship” duties will vary. If you are the only UC participant in the group, you are responsible for keeping the rest of us up to date on the activities of that group. If you are one of six, then make sure that one of the UC team is assigned to be note-taker at each meeting. For every HathiTrust activity, we need the project documentation to be kept up to date. We are all depending on each other for this.

No effort like this is perfect, but I think the idea is right: that, as we work farther apart from one another, we each need to assume responsibility for engagement that is of a somewhat different quality than what might work in entirely face-to-face project endeavors.

As an additional reference point, consider the thoughtful reflections on virtual committee work Cindi Trainor which wrote last week, in connection with her experiences on ALA committees. In her notes, you can get a picture of the real effort involved in pushing through technical challenges, and also the real advantages of working with creative people from disparate organizations to solve problems and build solutions. 

I think this ability to engage effectively on a virtual project team is a distinct skill, and, increasingly, an essential skill for the adventures that face us now and going forward. What do you think?