Collaborative Creation for Technology Implementation: The Portal Story

Susan Geller

The University of Minnesota is implementing a new portal, a central website that will provide personalized information, tools, and services to the entire University community—more than 100,000 students, staff, and faculty across five campuses throughout the state. It potentially could mean a significant change in the way that people in the University system meet many of their daily needs at work. The new portal will first be available in late 2014, continuing to develop and evolve after that.

This project has no shortage of challenges including limited funding, a time frame constrained by a larger initiative, and technology limitations. The single biggest challenge is to build a portal that will meet a diverse group of needs and interests. There are many people grand ideas and it will be impossible to accomplish them all at the initial release of the new portal. The success of the effort depends completely on people’s acceptance of the initial product. The more people like what is there at the start, the more they will be invested in adding to it, and the more it will be used.

The University has a history of creating/implementing products that are not widely accepted. The reasons behind that are complex and include organizational structure, traditional top-down processes, and funding models. The core problem seems to be that people don’t feel the product meets their needs. We didn’t want this to be our story and so we invested in early and often broad collaboration.

There are already several portals existing in the University landscape and our project goal is to bring them together and make one strong portal that will be the go-to place for all.  The core strategy for this initiative is to provide a framework in which the University community can create the product together. If we all create it together, we’ll have a better chance of meeting all of our needs. And, if we create it together, we’ll collectively be more invested in using it and growing it over time.

The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”) practices and frameworks focus on participatory engagement and co-creating solutions. They have much to offer this initiative and we look to them again and again. The following story takes us from the first meeting of the portal leadership team to the end of the first phase of the project. The practices move us from initial team formation to a concrete list of priorities. They provide a vehicle to move from idea to action.

Every step in the process is focused on building community towards our objective. At each point, we are clear about purpose, intentional about method, and committed to deliverables that will feed the next activity and advance the work. Throughout we weave together relationship building with task completion.

Part 1: The Leadership Group Convenes

On January 7, 2013, members of the leadership team and the project team (the people who guide the process and the people who work through the specifics, respectively) convened for the first time. We gathered for a full day, at the start not knowing each other, at the end feeling like a team.

The leadership team consists of a chair plus 10 members from different business areas and campuses throughout the University system. Prior initiatives included people only from the main Twin Cities campus leaving other campuses feeling that their needs were not attended to. Because we did not want to repeat this pattern the leadership team is comprised of four people from other campuses. While the primary responsibilities for each leadership team member are elsewhere in the University system, a successful portal affects their work in significant ways.

The project team consists of people whose primary work is for the portal project. Some of us are full-time on the project, some part-time. Some work for the University and some are consultants. I am the project director and my role is to lead the work of the project team and to support the work of the leadership team.

Each of us has expertise in certain parts of the University system and has deep understanding of certain demographics. Collectively, though, we do not represent everyone—there are still major gaps. We need to come to our team both with our expertise but also more broadly as stewards of the University as a whole.

Purpose & Method
The purpose of the day was to understand the opportunities presented to us with this project and to clarify how we were going to work together to implement the portal in partnership with the University community.

Geller_charrette_visual_agendaI designed the day with input from some of the project team and the chair of the leadership team. We used the charrette format, a structure that comes out of design thinking and is used to solve problems. We identified the problem as how to become a team that could lead the portal initiative. The components of the day were structured so we could get to know each other and have opportunities to practice working together as a team. This day would be the only chance we’d have to be in the same physical space. Subsequent meetings would include at least some of us attending via technology.

I and one other member of the project team hosted the charrette itself.

Highlights of the Day

  • Gifts to the team: Sitting in a circle, each person shared an object that represented what they will bring to the team. We put each object in the center as we told our stories. The collection included a penguin, a ball of rubber bands, local coffee, a thermos and much more.
  • User Stories. In preparation of the meeting, we had identified different user stories to help us keep in mind the diverse portal audience. Some examples include Alex, a first year undergrad; Yinong, a faculty researcher; Hayden, a student adviser; Gail, a staff manager. Each was fictional but tried to represent a different experience that would come to the portal. The stories included a name, some background, the person’s connection to the University, what excites them about the portal, and their relationship to technology. During the day, we worked in pairs to do a reflective activity from the perspective of these user stories.
  • World Café. We held a World Café to share ideas about success, challenges and assumptions. This conversation was designed to help us think about what we’d include in our project charter. At the end of the café conversations, we identified themes and used these to start our charter.
  • Breaks and lunch. We planned long breaks and a festive lunch to ensure time for more informal getting to know each other. In these spaces, people told stories, shared concerns, and made bonds that would sustain us in virtual space for the next four months.
  • Closing. We started the day asking team members to share their gifts. We ended by giving them two gifts. One was a photo card created by Kate Maple, a member of the University’s Art of Hosting community of practitioners, that offered insight from Wendell Berry: “It may be that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey.” The second gift was a compass to help us as we embarked on the journey together.

We captured the day in a summary document with many pictures to help us remember the energy and the content of the day. We also shared this document with the University community as a way to learn about the leadership team and process.

The charrette was part one of a three-part team-building framework. The result of the gatherings was a one-page document that explained the project and that would serve as a communication tool to talk about our initial work. It discusses the vision, the anticipated benefits of the new portal, the timeline, and the intention to use a collaborative and transparent process for the project.

We also created principles for stakeholder engagement and added detail to each to explain how we intend to work with these principles in the project:

  • A collective vision results in a stronger portal
  • All voices have value
  • The process is stakeholder-centered
  • Innovation lies at the intersection
  • The project embraces the unknown

Part 2: Widening the Circle

The portal team cannot create a portal on our own. We need broad input from the community. At the end of the leadership charrette, with a strong core team in place, we were ready to invite in the University community into the conversation, learn more about what the University needs, and build relationship to help us co-create the new portal.

In addition to being the portal project director, I am a member of the core leadership team for the University of Minnesota Art of Hosting community of practitioners. I knew the community was interested in a major event for the year, to show the University the potential impact the Art of Hosting could offer. While individuals are using these methods in their areas of work, the community as a whole was looking for something that would let us work together on a larger initiative that had great impact for the entire University system. The portal project offered a chance to work with students, staff and faculty on all five campuses, meeting the scale the Art of Hosting community was seeking.

They hosted the portal project kickoff event providing wisdom, expertise, commitment, and enthusiasm of 20 volunteers who served on the design team and as hosts on the event day.

Purpose & Method
The purpose of the kick-off event was “to begin a University-wide conversation about creating an easy-to-use interactive web tool for facilitating access to information and services that are of primary relevance to YOU and the University community.”

We designed a two-hour event using a World Café held simultaneously in seven locations across the state. We needed to get input from all our campuses and demonstrate, from the beginning, that we were committed to doing that by having the event at all five campuses. By holding the events at different locations at the same time we hoped to convey that we are all going to work on this project together. We invited the entire University community including students, staff, and faculty. More than 430 people attended. The portal leadership team was equipped to host this type of event both because we had just participated in something similar during the charrette and we could work with the volunteers from our Art of Hosting community of practitioners.

Geller_kickoff_cafeHighlights of the Day

  • Each location had a hosting team that included both members of the portal leadership team as well as members of the University’s Art of Hosting community. In this way, we made sure that the hosting team was grounded in both the conversation method of World Café and the conversation topic of portal.
  • Each location had the same visual agenda posted on the wall to bring unity to the seven sites, and each hosting team added its own visual interest to the room to create a space that reflected their own creativity. One site was covered in batik cloths, another had seedlings on their tables


  • At the center of one of the rounds of conversation was the one-page document explaining the portal project that had been the output of the leadership team charrette.
  • We used Twitter to connect people between the sites, tweeting the text of the comment cards that came out of the World Café. At one point, we were trending in the top three across the state of Minnesota.
  • We used Google Hangout to connect the sites together at the end of the World Café, so that everyone could see and hear a bit about each site’s conversation. We staged this as in a news room format having anchors in one event and reporters from each of the sites engage in a short conversation with the anchors.

We captured the experience of the day in a graphical summary document to share what we learned back to the community. We also captured all the planning details from the day to share with the Art of Hosting community as a reference for future events.

At the end of each World Café conversation we asked participants to capture their thoughts onto comment cards. During the event, each location themed the cards from the first round of conversation and reported on the themes when we all gathered via Google hangout. All of the cards were collected at one location after the event for a larger theming activity.

Geller_kickoff_cardA small group of Art of Hosting volunteers spent most of the next two days theming the 838 cards we collected from the three rounds of café conversation. The single biggest request we heard from the event was that people wanted to be able to log in once and then access all the University tools that they need for their role. This learning and other identified themes formed the basis for going deeper into the design of the portal project. The specific ideas identified formed the foundation of what became a long, collected list generated during this first project phase.

Part 3:  Listening Deeper

Purpose & Method
From the kick-off we knew some general things that people were hoping for from the new portal. But, we needed to hear in-depth from more audiences. The purpose of this step was to have more extended conversations with a lot of different groups around the system.

The kickoff conveyed the message that the portal team is interested and listening to what the University community has to say. Yet, many people had more they wanted to say. We designed and conducted more than 50 listening sessions across the state with student, staff, and faculty groups. The core format was the same and included sharing information, collecting ideas, and building investment in the outcome. Each session was slightly different to reflect the specific situation. We talked with the Faculty Consultative committee about teaching and research, we talked with administrative staff about operations, and we talked to student groups about student life at the University. The team that lead these sessions dubbed themselves the “Stakeholder Superheroes” given that they held this number of conversations during six short weeks.

Most notable about these sessions was the number of people and groups who wanted to meet with us, and the number of people who attended each of the meetings. One participant from a central office said that in more than 15 years at the University, she had never seen such widespread representation at meetings.

At the end of each listening session, we captured all the opportunities that people told us about into our collected list of ideas started after the kickoff event.

Part 4:  Design Thinking Workshops

Purpose & Method
In our listening sessions we spoke with people sharing a common perspective. The purpose of the design thinking workshops was to bring people together from different perspectives to generate specific ideas about features and design elements people thought would make for a great portal experience.

As part of an academic institution, we wanted to bring academic knowledge and expertise to our project. We partnered with the University of Minnesota College of Design and Virajita Singh, founder and lead of Design Thinking @ College of Design. These workshops and highlights are described in another chapter of this book.

We harvested the workshop learning in three ways:

  1. We posted results of the workshops on our project website to help generate enthusiasm for the upcoming workshops and to share what we were learning.
  2. We extracted the features and the sticker count, and then logged these in our growing collected list of portal opportunities.
  3. We created a Pinterest site to share the prototypes in a way that responded to what we learned about how participants like to consume information.

Part 5:  Closing the Circle

After nearly four months of engagements in many different formats, we had more than 1800 items identified in our collected list of ideas. We needed to move from a massive list to a roadmap for implementation. The portal leadership team would have to set priorities and they wanted to do that in collaboration with the University community so that the direction would be shared and owned by everyone.

Purpose & Method
To prioritize opportunities towards a manageable scope for the first implementation of portal, the project team began to synthesize the collected 1800+ opportunities into a set of approximately 300 options. We designed a survey to help us learn what the University community thought was important at least among a subset of those. We sent the survey to everyone who had engaged with us through any of the methods listed above as well as to the broader University. We received more than 2200 responses, far exceeding our hopes of 500–1000 responses. The survey was anonymous so we are not sure how many of the respondents had engaged in prior events. However, we suspect the high participation rate was a result of all the earlier work we had done.

At the same time, the portal leadership team deliberated about how to set priorities for the first implementation. They decided on using a values-based model and identified the core values that would drive decision-making. They drew upon this long list of ideas that represented the diversity of perspectives at the University and a lot of data about each. Though each leadership person works with or for a specific demographic at the University, the team agreed to make decisions based on the larger system needs.

The portal project has a website that makes visible all of the work we have done. As this work came to conclusion, we gathered the documentation in one place. This includes the list of ideas and the data we had about each, the results of the survey, the values the leadership team used, and the resulting priority set.

Part 6:  Next Steps

The writing of this chapter coincides with the end of the planning phase for new portal. Next we move into design and build. The steps we take will build on the data and priorities we set in the first phase, as well as the ownership people currently feel towards the new portal. We will ask for and rely on continued active involvement from the community. Plans include building a community of content providers and sharing several early versions of the portal design to get input as we refine the design in a build-measure-learn cycle. We’ll build our best guess as to what people want, measure how successful we were, learn what we need to do better, and start over again.

This graphic shows how the work described in this chapter is part of a larger vision of collaboration. The “Gathering Ideas” phase is what we have just completed. The framework of collaboration continues through the next two phases and after the product becomes available.



We know that people who engaged in this first phase were satisfied. After the kickoff we sent out a survey and asked, “Did you feel a part of the conversation about portal and that your input was valuable?” We had a 52% response rate. 75% of the people said “Yes, I felt a part of the conversation” and 20% said, “Sort of.” We surveyed design thinking workshop participants and asked them, “Did the workshop provide you with an effective mechanism to develop and share some of your ideas about portal?” We had a 72% response rate. 84% of the people said, “Yes” and 14% of the people said, “Sort of.”  Both the high response rates and the high reports of satisfaction and effectiveness help us know we are on the right track.

People have also told us they like what we are doing. A faculty person who does product development shared that we are doing all the right things with engagement. Long-time staff members who have seen many new tools implemented in their tenure have said that there have been so many opportunities to give input that nobody will be able to say that they were not asked. We’ve heard over and over again, “Thanks for asking. I didn’t know anybody cared.”

So, we have been successful at engaging. And, the engaging has resulted in a deep understanding of the needs and priorities of the University community. The portal team has been surprised by what we’ve learned about critical project elements; without the input we could easily have gone in misguided directions.

What I don’t know at this writing is whether these engagements have set a new expectation or increased desire for more of the same in relation to other projects. I think so and I hope so, but until the next large system-wide initiative, it will be hard to say for certain. Nor do I know at this writing if all of this engagement will lead to a portal that is well received by the University community. My hope is that even where the portal tool might fall short because of limited time and resources, it will have a strong foundation and base of support from people who helped to bring it into being. That foundation can help the portal grow and evolve over time to better meet the needs of the University.

The content of this story is clearly focused on creating a new portal at the University of Minnesota. But, the impact is in the process we are using to create it. We started by building our core team with authenticity and engagement, and then broadened those same principles to include more and more people. We used solid methods to both expand our input pool and to narrow the options to set direction. This process could be used for many different types of initiatives. I wonder what it will be next time?