A virtual college/university partnership – “online information management” system

The Automotive College was a partnership of UK universities, further education colleges and industry, set-up in the 1990s to design and deliver education and training programmes to SMEs in the automotive supply chain. It responded to a need from industry for education providers to meet their specific needs for graduate competencies and capabilities and has evolved into the National Skills Academy for Manufacturing. Members of the partnership were located all over the UK and needed to operate efficiently and virtually.

The College developed an “online information management” system (known as the “OIM” system) which became their principal means of digital communications, information management and knowledge-building and was one of the first organisations to adopt such an approach in preference to e.g. using e-mail. The system was based on Lotus Notes and accessed via a web browser. It was designed to match information needs to partnership work-flows. For instance, when developing new learning materials, design teams would up-load new drafts of their materials to which others could feedback suggestions and the OIM system would manage version control and “signing-off” by those authorised to do so.

The OIM system also featured tools to support meeting management and documents, task allocation and management as well as various course and student management functions. What was unique was that e-mail, whilst not being totally “banned”, was greatly discouraged and the phase “it’s on (or use) the OIM” became almost a mantra. Members of the partnership would log-on every day to find the latest updates and the system would highlight any new postings that matched the member’s profile (the concept of “roles” was adopted whereby different roles had different privileges – and also allowed members to decide who could and could not see any of their postings. Many of the features of the OIM can be found in more recent cloud-based project management systems but the Automotive College pioneered a new approach to using cloud-based services which overcame many of the weaknesses inherent when using e-mail (i.e. overload of information and everyone keeping private information records).

A major advantage of the OIM system, was that it developed an extremely valuable knowledge base for the College which meant that new personnel joining could have access to this rich knowledge resource, which would not happen when using e-mail as a principal means of communication). The implementation of the OIM system was not without its difficulties – some members of the partnership did not like the openness of the system – they were more comfortable with the use of private e-mail. However, the College had a Director who was firmly behind the approach and insisted that all participants adopt the OIM system.

A major benefit for both the College Board of Directors and operational teams was that the system freed up their meetings to be much more focused on creative brainstorming and all the administrative & project-chasing activities were undertaken using the OIM in a more asynchronous mode.