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The Front Line
The Front Line: Charles D. Blanke, MD, SWOG Chair

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A distributed work model is succeeding in SWOG

Sep 27, 2013 - I just wrapped up a face-to-face meeting with my Group Chair's Office staff here in Portland. What's amazing is that this integrated, efficient team does its usual day-to-day work from a number of different cities and states. Modern technology helps keep us integrated and efficient. In fact, one of the key agenda items at this meeting was how to refine our use of collaborative tools to work together even more productively when we can't poke our heads physically into one another's offices.

SWOG is part of the NCI's National Clinical Trials Network, and a network by definition is wide-spread. With our membership extending around the globe and our leadership, staff, and foundation contributing from across the continent, SWOG has recently become even more widely distributed, with administrative and operational functions centered in several different sites. The tools we rely on most often for communicating across the miles are the old standbys -- telephone (though they are usually smart phones!) and email. But through careful planning and a general commitment to becoming adept with other useful technologies -- video conferencing, online calling, instant messaging, distributed document sharing and authoring tools -- we work well together while remaining physically apart.

Occasional face-to-face interactions, of course, remain key to maintaining personal connections as well as serving to help us do long-term planning. Thus, the GCO staff will meet at least twice a year as we did this week, in Oregon or Michigan, face-to-face over conference tables, meals, and the odd team-building exercise. For similar reasons, I make frequent visits to our Operations Office crew in San Antonio, our Statistical Center partners in Seattle, and our Hope Foundation squad in Ann Arbor.

The marvels of technology (in this case Adobe Connect web-conferencing software) also help us run leadership meetings in the ether. My Executive Advisory Committee meets virtually on Fridays, with members spread across more than a dozen different locations and at least four times zones. The software allows us to share content on a screen just as we would in a single meeting room, and we have all relearned the schoolroom skill of raising a hand (virtually, of course) so we don't end up talking over each other. The committee which reviews protocols (Executive Review Committee) is similarly spread-out, and uses the same technology to meet every Monday. Members traveling are still frequently able to participate over their laptop, allowing as much expert input as possible, as well as timely review of concepts (meetings are seldom canceled because of too many reviewers being away from their home base).

SWOG and the other cancer cooperative groups set the stage for team science in the second half of the twentieth century. We're extending that distributed model into the twenty-first century, and will experiment as needed so we can continue to conduct our business, helping those affected by cancer, without being limited by the vagaries of location.


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