Ontario urges public sector to form intranet peer groups

TORONTO — The Ontario government’s strategy for delivering services electronically and the province’s distributed workforce have produced an ideal climate for the emergence of online communities of practice, experts told the Showcase Ontario conference on Wednesday.

During a workshop on

the final day of the annual public sector event, executives urged their colleagues to consider creating informal peer groups to share information, and to host the related documentation and communicate through the province’s enterprise employee intranet, MyOPS. Launched in February, the portal won the public/private partnerships trophy at the Showcase Ontario gala awards Tuesday night.

The government is encouraging so-called communities of practice (CoP) to make a home on its Web site so that it can do a better job of capturing best practices, said Michael Nigro, an executive with the Ministry of Education, Colleges and Universities. Working in collaboration with Shared Services Bureau, the province is creating dedicated Web pages within MyOPS that will include the CoP’s’ agenda, meeting minutes, discussion forums and links to related resources within the government. Six of these CoPs are already live on MyOPs right now, and Nigro said his team was working with another five to get them up and running.

“”Really, this is a tailored CRM package,”” he said, referring to customer relationship management software. “”This is a place that you’re likely to visit at least once a month, so it makes sense to use it as a one-stop-shop.””

MyOPS pulls information from the government’s PeopleSoft HR system and Oracle database to manage profiles of government users. These profiles are based initially on details contained in the province’s Workforce Information Network (WIN) but the site allows them to create personal homepages with connections to various e-services. Jaime Hopkins, a Web architect with the Office of the Corporate Chief Information Officer (OCCIO), said the site uses Entrust digital certificates to provide secure access for each other, tailing content and services. Public sector workers now use MyOPS to track down payroll and benefits information, browse corporate learning opportunities and insurance products.

“”There are just too many government Web sites,”” she said. “”We were finding that it was very difficult for the government to issue direct communications to all of OPS, especially for emergency notifications.”” Those notices are now front and centre on the intranet, as is one-click access to all the other provincial ministry Web sites.

Maureen Hayvren, an executive with the Shared Services Bureau, said MyOPS is becoming a helpful tool for CoPs to maintain momentum, which sometimes falls off when the administration gets too onerous. CoPs, which usually consist of 25-30 people from various government departments, are not supposed to act as official committees but as self-organizing bodies that simply support and encourage colleagues, she said. There are already CoPs in the province’s IT department, HR and administrative support areas.

Hayvren said that when she worked in the Ministry of Transportation in the mid-1990s, she noticed managers spent most of their time visiting other offices, usually with a colleague. This is where mentoring used to take place, she said. “”Now it’s always a teleconference, or an e-meeting,”” she said. “”There’s less time for the creative cookery you need to develop your talents.””

Although CoPs often meet face to face, Hayvren said online tools can significantly speed up problem-solving — even social problems. As an example, she cited a public sector worker who shared a desk with another person. When she worked at the desk, she liked to display a small flag and some flowers. Her co-worker, who took over the desk when her shift ended, wanted a clean desk. The woman e-mailed her CoP for advice. Their response? That each worker get their own drawer, so that the woman could put her flag and flower pot in her desk at the end of the shift.

“”This was something they’d been fighting about for 18 months,”” Hayvren said. “”But she said, after getting 20 e-mails saying the same thing, that she thought they were right.””

The province wants to make MyOPS a more attractive location for CoPs by integrating more services into it, Hopkins said. A third-party portlet administrated by Via Rail Canada, for instance, will prepopulate forms so that public sector workers can book train tickets more easily. “”We’re already saving money on travel,”” she said.

Existing CoPs and those interested in starting new ones can get space on MyOPS by contacting Shared Services, said Nigro, though the bureau is still working out a cost model. “”There is going to be some funding required,”” he said.

In the meantime, Hayven said it’s best to get involved early, so that CoPs can prove their online presence is valuable to managers who may need to help sponsor it. “”They’re looking for guinea pigs,”” she said. “”They want to see what works.””

Showcase Ontario wrapped up Wednesday.

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