As the global economy has grown and become ever-more interconnected, the need for collaboration across time zones and borders has become increasingly important. People need real-time access to information during working hours that may occur at any point in a 24-hour period. Information captured around the globe needs to be stored in a mutually accessible form and location.
“With a virtual collaboration, the authority to set a goal, along with a clear and unambiguous statement of the goal, are critical to success.”
It takes more than putting files in the cloud to achieve this. Those involved on a project must be able to collaborate and communicate without being in the same room, or even on the same continent. The work being done to detect foodborne pathogens and trace them to their sources using the GenomeTrakr network developed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is one such example of a successful virtual collaboration.
The GenomeTrakr is an international network of labs that began with an FDA pilot program in 2012. By 2018, the program had attained its stated milestones. The GenomeTrakr utilizes whole genome sequencing (WGS) to produce detailed genetic information from foods and foodborne pathogens to support outbreak investigations. An international network is essential because the food we eat comes from a number of different countries. Until the GenomeTrakr, tracing a foodborne illness back through the steps it took to reach a consumer’s plate had been time consuming, if not impossible. Today, the ability to enter information for the pathogen and “make a match” with the information entered for a food tested in the field results in identification of the source of the pathogen in a matter of days or less.
What it takes to make a virtual collaboration work
Any form of collaboration requires a willingness to work together toward a common goal. At first glance, that seems obvious and uncomplicated. Pick a goal. Get to work. Celebrate success along the way. We all know, however, that it’s often the case that a collaboration doesn’t work as planned. Somewhere along the line, trust is lost, misunderstandings occur, communication breaks down. The result is a missed opportunity that costs everyone involved time and money.
Apps for Virtual Collaboration
The ability to communicate, schedule, access materials, and edit documents is at the heart of any virtual collaboration. Here are a few of the many apps designed to make this work for you:
Store and share documents. Both cloud-based, these apps make it possible to share folders and individual files. There are different types of accounts and levels that make these worthy of consideration.
Edit and comment. Working to produce a document with a team means a lot of changes and back-and-forth. These solutions give you the ability to work on the same document, suggest edits, and share comments. You’ll find spreadsheets and slides, too.
Communicate and more. These apps focus on one or more aspects of virtual collaboration. There are personal and business options. Often, there are levels of service, too:
Organize and email.
With a virtual collaboration in which the stakeholders may never meet in person and will depend largely on written communication and video calls or conferences, the opportunity for things to go wrong is exponentially greater. Language can also be a barrier, along with social customs and assumptions about working together. Despite all of this, the GenomeTrakr has proven itself to be an international success by tracing several recent foodborne illness outbreaks to their sources in record time. Here are several reasons for that success:
The goal was clearly stated from the start by the stakeholder with the authority to run the program. Those involved in the project understood that the FDA’s GenomeTrakr existed to make it possible to identify the source of a foodborne outbreak from the pathogen present at the outbreak. This understanding made it possible for collaborators to offer meaningful feedback or suggestions for improvements related to the goal. Collaborators also knew that the FDA had the authority to head this project.
As is the case with any collaboration, in addition to being clearly stated, the goal must be realistic and fall under the area of responsibility of the stakeholder setting the goal. It makes no sense for a stakeholder without authority to set a goal. Likewise, it makes no sense for the goal to be vague and without benchmarks along the way. With a virtual collaboration, the authority to set a goal, along with a clear and unambiguous statement of the goal, are critical to success.
The data and analysis are maintained by the stakeholder with the necessary resources and charter. The purpose of the US National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) is to advance science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information. Having the NCBI serve as the host while making the database available to anyone in the world at no charge and publishing daily reports that make it possible for contributors to see how new pathogens relate to existing data is a logical fit. Also, the NCBI is in the position to standardize the fields and the structure of the data input so that it is directly comparable across all users.
Especially when a collaboration involves the use of a new technology, as was the case with the GenomeTrakr, stakeholders in key roles must have the requisite knowledge, ability, and infrastructure to carry out their part. It may mean reaching out to organizations or people with the unique skills required, even if you don’t have an established relationship with them, if the result will be a stronger team.
Participating labs are vetted to ensure quality before becoming part of the network. The labs preparing the WGS and entering the information into the GenomeTrakr need to be vetted and approved by a preset process to ensure that all of the labs meet the same requirements and standards. This is necessary because, as is the case with any collaboration, the team will only be as strong as its weakest link. Also, those collaborating need to be able to trust the information coming from others on the project. When stakeholders are not local, the need to ensure consistent quality of the sites and at the sites is essential.
The technology is clear and well-defined. The GenomeTrakr cannot function without the detailed genetic information obtained through the use of WGS. This information essentially creates a fingerprint for a pathogen. Any one of them may one day be identified as the source of an outbreak. There are a number of acceptable ways to collect samples from individual foods and the WGS process is inherently uniform. As a result, there is a significant level of confidence in the accuracy of the WGS information obtained.
“It’s not enough to have formal, timed video calls where the discussion is focused on the project and only the project.”
The methodology is transparent. The result of the WGS can be entered into the database by any approved lab through a prescribed method that is intended to maintain data integrity. Those attempting to make a match must also use a defined method for that process. Establishing a methodology that is known and available to all ensures that the information in the database is valid. It also ensures that the information in the database can be retrieved as intended.
A personal connection is still essential. Virtual collaborations serve a useful function. Virtual meetings with far-flung collaborators have replaced most in-person meetings. Email and texts have taken the place of many phone conversations. All of this is well and good, as long as team members and stakeholders are able to forge the working relationships that are the keystone of an effective collaboration. It’s not enough to have formal, timed video calls where the discussion is focused on the project and only the project. Some interactions must be a bit more freeform so that those collaborating have a sense of one another. This doesn’t need to be a formal affair; in fact, many people find that they get to “know” one another through simple email exchanges that largely focus on the task at hand. The end result will be a virtual collaboration that thrives.