Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sharing knowledge with and between counterparts

The KIC project
The OXFAM-NOVIB KIC project is an international project consisting of an online portal, face-to-face meetings, virtual workshops, expert meetings and discussions. KIC stands for knowledge infrastructure with and between counterparts.
The features of the online portal
The most important features of the website include: room for online communities, document sharing and locating partner organisations. (At the partner locator.)
Before entering the website you have a choice of four different languages: English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Visitors can also access the site in a low bandwidth version the site although not all features will be accessible that way. The portal will be public, with some closed areas reserved for members only. All partners and affiliates will be granted access and interested organisations can gain access on request. The information will be kept as open as possible. All partners are provided with the option to freely upload documents. News items will be supervised by a knowledge expert to guarantee the quality. A moderator, who can give access to other people, will oversee the communities. This can be set when a new community is created: people either request access or the moderator invites people. Every member has a profile, containing information about their job description, their organisation and the field they work in. Other members online are visible and can be approached by chat or e-mail.

The next interview took place in August 2006 with Jan van Ansum from OXFAM/NOVIB.

Working together, sharing knowledge and finding each other

The themes of the thematic sites“The KIC project contains multiple components and aims to increase and stimulate the exchange of knowledge and collaboration with and between OXFAM counterparts and affiliates. The online, multi-purpose portal is part of this. It offers the option of sharing knowledge at the specialist sites by uploading documents to exchange experiences. People can collaborate online in the online communities, while the portal also provides a listing, a kind of ‘yellow pages’, of all partners. Access to the portal is open to all affiliates and partners; around3000 organisations in total. Visitors can also access the portal for news items and general information, but won’t be able to access all parts.”

Learning from the experiences of others

How did this project get started? “The idea for the project was first conceived about four years ago. It looked as though all OXFAM processes could be better regulated and our partners asked us if we could come up with a way of exchanging experiences with other partners. They saw other partners encountering similar problems and issues in their work and wanted to share their experiences. The project was eventually developed by two OXFAM affiliates and some 30 partners.” How has it progressed so far? “The portal has been online since 1 July. We don’t give all partners access straight away; it’s still being tested at the moment. The lay-out can still be improved in places, and we intend to improve it gradually. Initially, we allow access the organisations which were involved in the design process. We also give them a script for entering the page so they can explore the entire portal step by step. We also make sure they receive a feedback list so they can tell us what they like, where they have difficulties or have suggestions about things to be added.”

Practices and the partner locator

What I like most about the portal are the ‘yellow pages’ and the options for sharing experiences. Can you tell me more about those? “The yellow pages are the partner locator. We’re planning to register all partners, counterparts and affiliates in the system so people can locate them. Only a few are registered at present, but the list is expanding. You can search the locator by area, theme and country. There’s information about each partner, its location, main themes and goals. There is a ‘practices’ menu where people can share experiences. This is where you can upload documents, with descriptions of experiences useful for others. We refer to these experiences as ‘good, bad and new practices.’ A template can also be downloaded, so they can use the right format for sharing. If a document is being uploaded, the region, theme and language of the practice must be indicated. People can search for these indicators. Each of the portal’s registered users is free to upload documents, so there’s never a risk of bad quality documents. A peer reviewing system for documents, and “expert reviews” will differentiate between good and lesser quality documents and practices. If the KIC team finds that too many people add irrelevant documents, authorisation for adding documents can be limited.” Did you take any precautions to encourage only uploading good quality documents? “We created an option for readers to rate practices as a way of avoiding lower calibre documents. A practice is awarded a certain number of stars, depending on its value to others. This way, we hope to encourage people to only upload high quality documents. Of course we have to wait to find out if this will work.”
The search screen to search the uploaded practices
Motivate and reward

How are you planning to motivate people to make an active use of the portal? “We will announce it in our newsletters and suggest that people check it out. We are also working on ideas for rewarding those who share the best practices. As I mentioned, we let the users of the practices judge them themselves. We’re thinking about introducing a reward for ‘the best practice’. Alternatively, all practices could be published in a book. We are also considering offering people an option to chat with a manager or expert. Chat is one of the portal options. You can see who is online at any time and start a conversation with them. Offering a chance to talk to people who are not normally easily accessible might attract users to the portal. Everybody also has his own profile with their name and information about where they work. We also want to use these profiles to indicate how active people have been on the site, with information on how many documents someone has uploaded, for instance.”

2 Months later…

Now it's almost two months since the portal went live. Has word spread already? “No. So far only the individuals and organisations we have directly approached know of it. We’re planning to send out a mailing when the holidays are over. But that’s not to say we’re not doing anything to publicise our portal. OGB, the OXFAM affiliate in Great Britain has field offices in the south and those people visit the partner organisations to encourage them to use online communities. They look at how their work could benefit from communities and how they could use communities to further their objectives. So we’re working hard to get communities started, but so far people only find out about the portal through other people or from mentions in the e-letter.” When the portal was set up, you sent feedback questionnaires to the organisations. How did those people respond to the system in general? “Well, it took a bit of effort to get an initial response. We had to call people to get the forms back; finally, only about 10 were returned. . I guess they didn’t have time to fill them in. The overall reaction was positive. People thought the layout was logical although they couldn’t find much information relevant to their work; but that information will come from the uploaded practices.”

Practice documentation

Let’s go through the features individually: how are the practices doing? Have any been added? “Yes, but mostly because some organisations were approached personally to ask whether they’d share one of their practices. People really have to be given an opportunity to document these practices properly, which requires time and effort. In the future we want to institutionalise uploading practices more, so that it will be included in job descriptions. This way we can make sure they will be given time to make them.” Do you already have an example proving the benefits of the shared practices? “I know there’s a keen search on for a success story so it can be shared with other organisations. There are rumours but, because people are so eager for success, they may be reading more into it than there actually is. Another problem in searching the practices is that sometimes more than one practice is contained in one document. Which is a problem for the search option, as a number of practices cover several areas, which means they may go undiscovered and unread.” Have any practices been star rated yet? “Not yet. By the way, here at OXFAM we held an in-house rating for some new regulations or approaches for the entire organisation. We hardly got any responses to that. I think the system is still too difficult. We had already planned on dividing the rating into different areas, such as the method used in the practice and the degree to which someone could apply the practice in their own work. This might make it easier to rate a practice. This will then present us with the challenge of averaging these ratings. If everyone finds a practice mediocre but it has genuinely benefited one individual’s work, which consideration will weigh heaviest?”

Retrieving counterparts

And is the partner locator finished now? “Regrettably, not. It is very hard to retrieve the information about all counterparts. There’s not list of them anywhere, waiting to be printed. But the difficulty we’re having in collecting information on the partners proves just how useful the locator will be. We expect it to become the portal's main attraction. Unfortunately we’re also having a few technical problems. The locator isn’t working as we would want it to work at the moment.” How’s the chat function getting on? Is it already in use? “I think it will only be used if more people join the portal. We’re still considering attracting people by inviting a number of experts or gurus in certain fields to go online.”

Another point of view

The online portal of the KIC project contains many features and could be described as the ultimate e-collaboration tool. People can co-operate, share experiences and knowledge, retrieve information, communicate and find partners and affiliates of OXFAM/Novib. There are no features missing.

It is hard not to become overwhelmed due to the many available options In order to make the best use of it you should start by looking at your own situation. Where do the constant struggles in the process remain? What could be done more efficiently? Where is there miscommunication or a lack of information? From there you can look at the portal and choose the feature best suitable for your purpose. The many features don’t have to be used all at once. The offer of so many features at once in one portal is often not recommended. Since OXFAM/Novib is such a big organization with many requirements from many different people, they have chosen to offer all of these options. It is up to the users to choose the right ones from all the options made available to them. If you are targeting a smaller group you should keep in mind that only the features necessary need to be developed. It is important that the option to add features at a later stage is kept open. E-collaboration tools must be able to grow with their users’ wishes.


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