Thursday, November 23, 2006

The E-collaboration network, a CoP and a laboratory

Based on the input of John Smith, learning facilitator

Don't plan ahead too far, outline a few steps, practice a lot. These wise words summarize quite well the advices given to our e-collaboration by the learning facilitator John Smith. A learning network, which according to him was a great example of a community of practice. One year ago we had a workshop on e-collaboration which was the start for what now is a learning network, with 60 members, regular meetings a d-group and a weblog. Time to look back, and forward. We were very happy with the opportunity offered by PSO to provide us with the assistance of an experienced learning facilitator, John Smith to help us in that process

John Smith started of with a number of Skype interviews, both with active and less members of the e-collaboration network and with the organising committee. The findings of these interviews were the basis for an afternoon session at ICCO in Utrecht in which about 12 people participated during his ideas were further elaborated. After a digestion period of a month this meeting was followed by a Skype conference with 9 people. This article is a summary of the insights that this process has given us. It will not elaborate much on the past but focus on points of reflection and next steps in order to develop our network into a flourishing CoP.

Main points of reflection on the e-collaboration community

Clarity on our mission, identity of the group: The network started off with the inventory of tools and the technical aspects of using them. Gradually more attention is paid to the application of the tools. Also the relevance of the group for our organisation becomes an issue. The adoption of e-tools is put in the perspective of the wish to increase the effectiveness of our organisations. Currently the mission of the network would be better described as “influence the judicious adoption of e-tools”. The relevance issue is important. It is good to have a mission statement for the group even better when it is understood by all members and discussed on a regular basis.

The boundaries of the group, group membership: The discussion on the relevance of the group also includes that of the boundaries. Who can become member of the group, how open are discussions. How big, how diverse do we want to become. Diversity in the group is already high, different levels of comfortability with e-tools, different expectations of the group. There are also differences between the organisations behind the group. This creates the risk of a break down of the group in smaller groups. The variety can also be an asset, especially if learning relations can be build in the group. Members might also be members of other groups. Make use of this, let them in new things learnt elsewhere.

Community of Practice (CoP), a laboratory: After the discussions with John it becomes clear that our network is, of course, a Community of Practice. A community of practice of people interested in the use of e-tools in order to improve the effectiveness of development cooperation. This particular topic offers the very interesting opportunity of making the CoP a laboratory in itself. A laboratory to gain experiences on the the triplet: tools, applicability, adoption.

Repertoire of tools used: This laboratory function can be benefited from even more by adding more technical tools to the repertoire used by the group No better way of gaining experience on the applicability of different e-tools then in the context of our own CoP. Every event is an opportunity to practice new tools and learn about their applicability. This learning should be an active process, choose for intervisions (sort of peer assist) rather then the nice stories.

Leadership: This group is inter-organisational, this makes it more challenging for leadership. But the fact that members belong to different organisations make the group also appealing for shop-talk, kitchen-sink-talk (kijkjes in elkaar's keuken). How come that one organisation is more successful in adopting certain tools then others? Framing and sense-making is an important role for the leadership. How to shape and sustain this leadership is a challenge.

Suggestions for next steps

  • Once a year a community-wide discussion about it’s relevance. This can help members frame their engagement. And it might give organisations a reference point for measuring the value. It creates energy for learning.
  • Use the diversity of the group as an opportunity for contribution. For example by working in small focus groups.
  • Value both f2f and on-line vents, improve both, look at the rithm, combine tools. Create enough room for shop-talk (e.g start each f2f meeting with a short round of experiences), create room for contact, develop ways to include new members.
  • Use the Blog as a main publishing tool for the community to describe experiences, not only the successful ones, also the one from which lessons can be drawn.
  • Gradually move from the emphasis from ‘tools’ to the ‘process’ in which they can be used. Attention for framing and sense-making. Make link to organisational learning in own organisations.
  • More concrete actions: add one-to-one contact (like telephone interviews), add RSS feed to member’s blogs, add more frequent telephone conference calls (smaller groups, narrower subjects). Learning from those groups then shared in broader community via notes, audio, pod cast, f2f.
  • See the community as a warehouse for resources: e.g. one member is hosting a paid wiki (or conferencing tool), of which other members can make use of.
  • Expanding the network, yes or no: Are people from more commercial organisations welcome in the group? How public are resources and conversations in the community? What will happen with the intimate sense of ‘solving problems together’ when the community grows? What (+) and (-) would be entailed by inviting partners from the South?

. Angelica Senders (ICCO) en Sibrenne Wagenaar (PSO)


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