In May 2020, the University of Southern California (USC) recognized it had an urgent need to enhance digital collaboration capabilities between faculty, staff, and students to create meaningful connections in a virtual world and enable remote learning as the COVID crisis took hold.
USC is a leading private research university located in Los Angeles, selling itself as a global center for arts, technology and international business. It is home to the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and 21 exceptional academic schools and units.
Susan Tincher is Associate CIO, Infrastructure Services, at the university and this week told the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco how her institution became a digitally connected workspace using Slack. It all starts with principles and values, she said:
We truly prioritize an excellent student experience. That student experience can be residential on campus, in the classroom, in social meeting places or digital through our virtual platforms. We also must account for [the fact that] our staff are really looking for flexible work accommodations. How do we bring these different groups together in a meaningful way that respects and appreciates that in any given engagement people feel connected, regardless of their different circumstances? Additionally, as part of our culture at USC, we really prioritize inclusivity and accessibility. We want to provide technology in a way that works best for the students, faculty and staff.
Examples might include capabilities such as voice-to-text transcription through the ability to change colors of the background to appropriate use of pronouns, she explained:
What are those small and big ways that everyone can feel the technology works for them? We truly look to prioritize platforms that understand the complexity of our organization and can support the different ways in which we come together. Here at USC, we sometimes say, with some levity, that we're 40 different organizations and units with a common football team. Each one of those organizations had different collaboration and communication tools. We really needed to bring in a collaboration tool that helped to unify those different organizations, a tool that worked for our School of Engineering or our School of Business, that also worked for our campus operations as well as our School of Dance. We really needed through our collaboration tools to create one USC.
That already existing objective got a unwelcome boost with the onset of the COVID crisis in early 2020, she recalled:
Early in the pandemic, USC recognized the urgent need for us to enhance digital collaboration capabilities between our faculty. We found that different groups and different organizations were using their own respective tools. It was really an imperative, a call to action for us to create meaningful connections in the virtual world and really further enable remote learning and collaboration capabilities.
Especially during this time, we needed to make sure that we continued to be there for our students and our faculty and staff, recognizing that we needed to support them, not just as traditional academics in education. These were very challenging times and we needed to make sure that we were creating that sense of community and if they needed support and assistance that we were able to provide that for them in a way that they felt comfortable communicating with us.
The tool to deliver this was Slack, a choice that was reached after consultation with a hugely important constituency - the people who were going to end up using it. Tincher said:
I think one of the first things to do for any organization is really listen to your organization, to those have those conversations to really understand how [people] currently communicate, what their gaps are, where they're looking for opportunities to improve, and just really recognize that it's more than just the technology, it's more than just the tool. It's really about how people feel connected and how people communicate with each other. It can be often be very personal - this is where they spend their time, this is where they invest their energy, this is the community.
[It's about] recognizing how the technology fits within business processes [and] within the community and how the technology is able to fit with particular preferences and how someone communicates. One of the ways that we knew this was working for us here at USC is, as we were going through the pandemic, we were doing surveys. We really wanted to understand how were respected digital platforms and tools working for [people] and for us here at USC? Of all the tools assessed, Slack was ranked number one by far. If [people] were using Slack, they really saw it as a tool and as a way for them to really feel like that the boundaries of physical location were really torn away.
With Slack selected, USC engaged Deloitte to provide organizational change management and strategic communications to support and accelerate organizational adoption of the new tool. Tincher explained:
Our focus was clear - to have Slack be our primary digital collaboration platform for an over 65,000 member community. One USC, one collaboration, what we call the digital campus ...a new form of one-stop-shop connecting our students and our faculty and staff with the tools and systems needed for instruction, learning, engagement, collaboration and especially support. Whether they are on campus, whether they're remote, whether they're in campus operations or whether they're in the academic environment, this has really allowed us to bring together capabilities that we use every day, such as our learning management system, Zoom, and notably Slack to really help to engage our community and bring connectedness to our organization.
Adoption was helped in part by Slack already being used by some students for affinity groups and recreational events, but this needed to be built upon, said TIncher:
We wanted to bring this platform in a broader sense at the university. We wanted to try and transform it from kind of an exclusive social tool to really bring it into our classrooms, really bring it into our community.
To achieve this, the IT team automated the provisioning of Slack channels based upon USC’s learning management system and courses that were happening:
With the approval of faculty we automatically provisioned students into those specific Slack channels. So really on day one they had a means in which they could communicate with their classrooms and students and peers could connect with each other.
Another notable example of the new connected workspaces using Slack was the use case of graduate students trying to do outreach within the community to share information about the global pandemic and ways in which these graduate students could help our community. It’s a good example of the potential of this sort of digital workspace, argued Tincher, bring the community together and support USC values.
As far as what's next for USC, Tincher argues that collaboration and communication are always a journey, not necessarily a destination:
We will continue to work within the organization to leverage platforms and tools such as Slack to continue to further communication and connectedness across the university. We really do believe that we have opportunities to make this be our collaboration and our digital hub, to continue to bring other tools and platforms within Slack to continue to create follow-up services and make that digital experience, that student experience, just that top notch that we expect for our university.