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July 20, 2014

Onboarding and Week One at the Collaboratory

by Hannah Koenig

by Hannah Koenig

I’m happy to finally report that last week was my first full week of work at the Collaboratory! On my first day, I successfully navigated the maze of buildings associated with the U.S. Department of State (DoS) in the Washington D.C. humidity and was officially sworn in as a Franklin Fellow. This was a pretty cool experience, as I took an oath to the U.S. Constitution itself alongside another Fellow. Here’s a nerdy picture of me (middle, trying not to mess up the words) by the American flag taking the oath. Three cheers for public service!

Swearing in

My team at the Collaboratory surprised me by showing up en masse to my “onboarding,” which is DoS-speak for swearing in and first-day-of-work paperwork. They also decorated my cubicle (which I’m trying to treat as a studio space) and threw me a surprise welcome/birthday party at our daily team meeting. This, I’m learning, is par for the course at our shop, where we operate according to a people-first principle that is particularly prominent on team member birthdays.

My time so far has largely been spent doing research and data-gathering, where I’m getting up to speed on the work and culture at the Collaboratory, the ECA Bureau, and DoS at large. I’m swimming in an alphabet soup of acronyms; for example, depending on the context, PD may mean Position Description, Professional Development, or Public Diplomacy. I’m getting to know my team and interviewing them individually to understand their experiences, goals, and portfolios as users working within the Collaboratory. I’ve begun consulting with a long list of other people working at DoS to understand their experiences and interactions with the Collaboratory as well.

The Collaboratory can be a little difficult to understand at first, and that’s partly because it is iterating so quickly that its self-understanding is sometimes changing month to month. In November 2013, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) announced the launch of the Collaboratory, a new shop that was to be focused on virtual exchanges. ECA runs the Department’s 150+ cultural and educational exchange programs for Americans and foreign nationals, of which one of the most famous is the Fulbright program. This is part of a larger mission of public diplomacy, where education diplomacy has been a major focus and strategy to reinforce mutual understanding across cultures.

In this context, the Collaboratory quickly grew from a team dedicated to virtual exchanges—which use technology to augment in-person exchanges by connecting people virtually—to a team equally interested in collaborative techniques and innovative approaches to government. The Collaboratory also wanted to serve as a network, connecting people within ECA to one another, to other bureaus at DoS, to other government agencies, and to organizations outside government, like NGOs, tech companies, and higher education institutions. Today, we are active on all of those fronts, and continuing to grow and “rewire,” as my boss frequently says.

Prior to my onboarding, the Collaboratory team (of which I am now the sixth member) drew a chart to express their latest take on their mission within ECA. It’s in all of our workspaces (you can see it in mine below) and also in our studio, a former conference room built from big dreams, donated decor, and no budget. This is where we run virtual programs, hold meetings, and brainstorm new ideas on a variety of fronts. The post-its on the wall are crowd-sourced ideas for an Education Diplomacy Toolkit that will be sent to posts (embassies and consulates) overseas to help them build their education diplomacy initiatives.

Collaboratory supports ECA goals

Collaboratory studio


Over the coming weeks, I’m eager to begin compiling and sharing insights gained from my interviews with the Collaboratory team as we begin to think about refining our brand and visual identity. I’ll be jumping in on some ongoing projects and begin training on connective technologies for virtual exchanges. My quest for Creative Suite software will progress. I’ll also continue to accumulate design thinking resources—books, articles, videos, websites, etc—to share with my team and add to our cumulative reading list for our Tuesday reading period. I’m lucky in that my team is excited about design thinking and eager to know more. We are definitely the odd ducks in federal government, but hopefully not for long!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the U.S. Department of State.

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