By Stefano Rivolta
At the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), a nondescript office set among the campus’s numerous classrooms serves as an incubator for new ideas. This FSI Sandbox is a physical space for tech-savvy collaboration, where a multidisciplinary team works on special projects, creatively using information technology (IT) to promote learning, solve problems, and enhance business efficiency and operations. The Sandbox is located within the School of Applied Information Technology (SAIT), which trains the Department of State’s IT professionals in the skills required to maintain the complex technology systems domestically and overseas, while also promoting digital and data literacy for all employees.
The concept for the Sandbox emerged in March 2016, when FSI’s leaders wanted a space for experimentation at the nexus of technology and diplomacy. The result was a tailored innovation program focused on exploring new technologies for the modern workforce. After exchanging best practices with private sector contacts, FSI hired dedicated, tech- and business-savvy personnel and developed a physical space for the program. Less than a year later, the Sandbox was in business.
The unique technology in the Sandbox space enables new ways of collaborating and innovating not often found in most conferences and training spaces. Led by Program Manager Stefano Rivolta, the SAIT Sandbox was inaugurated in fall 2017 by converting a 25-square-foot classroom into a technology lab and collaboration space, ideal for IT instructors and students alike. Foreign Service Officer David Zweigel digitally transformed SAIT’s web platforms to serve as a virtual innovation zone. He began with the launch of SAIT’s internal flagship Communities@State website available for all employees, which hosts a variety of content including interactive blog posts and microlearning videos produced by IT instructors and practitioners in the field. Jim Hazeltine-Shedd, an information management specialist, brings a fresh field perspective to Sandbox projects, and he leads efforts to bring Knowledge Management and Agile principles to SAIT’s operations. He is currently the team lead for developing SAIT’s upcoming Solutions@State curriculum. The new courses will help prepare IT specialists to solve IT challenges at posts overseas by serving as “IT consultants”—not just technical experts—to their colleagues. Most recently, the Sandbox team welcomed Strategic Communications and eLearning Specialist Sam Fellows to inject human-centered design and user experience expertise into the program. The Sandbox also supplements its lean core team with full-time, fall and summer interns, yearlong Virtual Student Federal Service, and short-term Civic Digital Fellows.
“The Sandbox team focuses on three key areas: technology, consulting and training. We can fish, recommend ways that you can fish or teach you how to fish in the SAIT Sandbox,” said Rivolta.
The Sandbox team manages digital communication platforms for SAIT operations, including the internal WordPress website, a digital e-newsletter and digital signage powered by the Foreign Affairs Network. The team also coordinates with FSI’s technical support staff to ensure classroom hardware (such as Smartboards, laptops and micro PCs) and software (Google Meet, Adobe Connect, WebEx and others) are configured appropriately to meet the evolving training needs day-to-day.
The SAIT Sandbox also explores new and emerging technologies not yet available to the entire workforce. The team explores and evaluates a broad range of web and mobile apps to see which are appropriate for broader deployment. The SAIT Sandbox also invests in state-of-the-art collaboration hardware. One such tool is the Mezzanine 200 by Oblong, which focuses on multi-modal collaboration in physical spaces with a virtual participation component. It can be integrated with existing tools, such as video teleconference systems and web conferencing alternatives like Cisco WebEx and Google Meet. Given the diversity of the Department’s work involving both internal and external collaborations, these tools help provide employees options that best meet their needs. For example, Google Meet is being used for virtual consultations between instructors and Department employees and to bring overseas expertise into the classrooms in Arlington.
The Sandbox team is available for consultations, time permitting, by the Department of State workforce. The Sandbox welcomes both walk-ins and scheduled consultations about specific problems or challenges. These are most often related to the Cloud, internal versus external collaboration, educational technology, emerging technology and business intelligence. As opposed to solving issues with IT tickets and support requests, the Sandbox team sits down with employees face-to-face so they are able to define the problem in their own words. They try to identify practical means of resolving issues or helping employees develop a new solution. Employees from throughout the Department including interns, fellows, new hires, entry-level, mid-level, senior-level and political appointees visit the Sandbox. Outside of FSI, the Sandbox works closely with strategic partners in other bureaus including Information Resource Management, Diplomatic Security, Human Resources, Global Public Affairs, Overseas Building Operations and the Office of the Under Secretary for Management (M), and it holds virtual consultations with overseas posts worldwide.
As traditional training methods may not always meet the ever-evolving needs of individuals, business units or the organization at-large, the Sandbox hosts a variety of informal and social training events to supplement existing courses. Be it a half-day workshop, an all-day strategic off-site or a three-hour tailored seminar, the Sandbox works with Department employees to shed light on a specific Cloud application, mobile device, IT policy or business process. Some of the most common topics for specialized training include LinkedIn Mechanics, Smartboard 101, Microsoft Teams, Foreign Affairs Network, Google Suite for Enterprise, off-premise access to O365 and other ad hoc topics.
If you are interested in learning more about the SAIT Sandbox, email the team at SAITSandbox@state.gov. The SAIT Sandbox is happy to discuss an initial consultation with Department employees.
Stefano Rivolta is the program manager of the Innovation Sandbox.