The Art of Collaborating with Customers

Posted Thursday, April 4, 2013 in Customer Culture by Patricia Seybold

African Rural University students brainstorming their vision for their new libraryI just returned from two weeks in Uganda, visiting the campus of the African Rural University ( for women in the western hinterlands (five hour drive from Kampala; half on non-paved roads). While I was there, I had the opportunity to engage with faculty, students, and staff in envisioning the design of a University Library—something every University needs, and a facility that is required in order for us to move from our provisional certification as a University to gaining our full charter from the Uganda National Council for Higher Education (NCHE). NCHE has a lot of requirements—many of them based on square meters per student and number and types of physical books and journals. But there’s also room to be creative—to think deeply about the purpose that a library/resource center should serve—particularly a library that will no doubt become a magnet for learning in a region of ten million subsistence farmers with low literacy rates.

One of the highlights of our two-hour design session with students (customers), faculty, staff, librarians, media personnel, and other key stakeholders was breaking into teams to discuss the activities each group performs, how they’d ideally like to be able to do those things, and what outcomes they needed to achieve and what outputs they needed to produce.

Faculty and staff brainstorming how they’d ideally like to do their jobsAs a result of this activity-based focused (what we call Customer Scenarios), the group realized that they needed some resources that they might never have thought of, such as:


  • Project rooms for teams to work on ongoing community-based projects and field work.
  • Resource area for creating courses and recommended resource lists, and for evaluating and improving courses.
  • An evolving directory/wiki of faculty/staff/student/visitor-curated sources. (Every time someone finds a valuable data set or research paper or collection, they add a link to it and provide annotations about why this information is useful, how it might be used, and any cautions about defects or accuracy.)
  • Repository of multimedia assets (cataloged video, audio, and photos that the students and staff and visitors have created or acquired).
  • A Multimedia Lab for editing and producing multimedia products (video, audio, documentaries, radio programs for broadcast on the campus-based community radio station, etc.).
  • Agricultural samples: plants, soil, seeds, inputs and outputs, as well as databases and knowledge bases around value-added agricultural practices.
  • Lab for analyzing soil samples, etc.
  • Cultural Assets Collection for studying African agricultural and household tools and artifacts (the University has a cultural assets museum in a small mud hut on campus—the catalog and/or the entire collection could be moved to the Library).
  • Statistical databases and resources for use by students, faculty, local government officials, local community members, with resources from organizations like the:
    • National Land Coalition
    • Uganda Local Government Authority (ULGA)
    • Uganda Bureau of Statistics
    • International Bureau of Statistics
    • Ministry of Gender
    • National Agricultural Assistance service (NAADS)
  • Statistical and analysis software and support.

The Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University gets his first exposure to an e-book (iPad) and becomes a convert!And, of course, e-book readers, access to online books, online courseware, as well as physical books, journals and databases.

Not bad for two hours of brainstorming! So this is a good example of the kind of collaborative co-design process that more and more organizations are doing with their stakeholders and end-customers. These face-to-face co-design sessions are then continued with online discussions and workgroups, to turn brainstorms into action plans and priorities.

Collaborating with YOUR Customers. This week, Ronni Marshak provides a useful overview of the principles to bear in mind when you collaborate with your customers both synchronously and asynchronously—whether face-to-face and/or online.


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