Two people sharing knowledge

Collaboration in the Corridor: State Department site helps staff connect

Before the State Department’s internal social networking site, Corridor, was launched three years ago, it wasn’t easy for the agency’s employees to find a particular skill or language expertise among their nearly 70,000 colleagues.

Instead, they called up who they thought could help them, said Tim Hayes, deputy division chief with the Knowledge Leadership Division with the Office of eDiplomacy.

State has social media tools such as an agencywide internal wiki called Diplopedia and a blogging platform called Communities@State, as well. But it didn’t have an online space where employees could search for expertise or collaborate and share information without public scrutiny – until Corridor.

Today, the site has about 17,000 members and boasts more than 800 professional and personal user groups behind State’s sensitive but unclassified network called OpenNet. While Hayes said many users are domestic, the agency does have users based around the world. And since it’s a “deliberative forum” where personnel share information informally, the site is not subject to open records laws.

OpenNet lets employees from far-flung places search for individuals with specific experience or skills, ask questions, do polling and seek advice, among other things. And the eDiplomacy office, which oversees Corridor’s development, will be adding new functionality as well as a mobile version later this year.

A mix of Facebook and LinkedIn

Corridor, which Hayes described as a mix between Facebook and LinkedIn, took about two years to develop before it was officially launched in May 2011.

While the agency considered using a proprietary solution, Hayes said it settled on using the open source WordPress platform, which it was already using for its online communities. Open source cuts down on cost and development time, but Hayes said it also allows the agency to take advantage of constant improvements by the open-source community.

The eDiplomacy office also decided to use the BuddyPress plugin for WordPress that has social-networking features, such as user profiles and groups.

Corridor is open to all agency employees and all information they post can be seen by every  user. That was a conscious decision to stimulate collaboration, said Hayes.

“Like many organizations, much of our information in the State Department was siloed, and we were trying to get away from that,” he said. “What we wanted was open and collaborative.”

Search and tag

When an employee first joins Corridor, he first fills out a profile page that includes location and work experience, similar to LinkedIn, Hayes said. There’s even a specific field for languages spoken, a much coveted skill often sought out by employees.

Users can also assign suggested professional and personal tags to their profile so it’s easier for other employees to find their specific skill or capability. The agency moderates the tags to make sure terms can be easily searchable and don’t contain underscores or capitalized letters, he added.

The home page, said Hayes, has a center column that looks like a Twitter feed. Whatever people post, everyone else can see and reply. Users can post information or questions such as a reference to a regulation, or advice on completing an assigned task. A year ago, eDiplomacy Office added a polling feature and a tool to shorten URLs.

The side columns feature tag clouds referencing the most popular tags used as well as a section showing user groups and the groups they have joined. There’s also a search box with advanced search features to find, for example, individuals with particular skills, such as an economist who speaks Korean at a particular location, Hayes said.

800 and counting

According to Hayes, the biggest “surprise” was the popularity of professional and personal user groups, usually around a particular subject or office. He said the agency  allowed personal groups because it’s a better way for people to get to know one another like they would in the corridors of their offices.

“We decided that if people ... collaborate and talk to one another about their personal interests then it’ll allow them to do cross-boundary collaboration on the professional side as well,” Hayes said.

There’s even a group for pet owners called DiploPets, in which State employees, who travel around the world and relocate to other countries, can ask questions or seek advice about pet policies and other issues. That’s information they may not be able to find elsewhere, Hayes said.

Hayes said the State Department added some new features such as recommending user groups that might be of interest to members based on their tags and profiles, similar to the way LinkedIn suggests groups of interests to its members. Before, Corridor users had to search or browse through groups to find one they want to join.

Also, users can currently connect with one another by mutual consent, which the agency views as creating a tighter bond than just “following” someone on Twitter. But the eDiplomacy Office is finalizing specifics on adding a new “following” feature that mirrors Twitter where users can see who they're following and who their followers are, as well.

Additionally, the agency is working on a mobile version of Corridor, which it plans to roll out later this year, Hayes said, who couldn’t provide any more specific information.

“As we look how the department is going toward mobile, we are preparing all of our tools to be mobile responsive,” he said.

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