Thursday, November 02, 2006


What do the different stories tell us?

We tried to cover the field of e-collaboration among Dutch NGOs as broadly as possible, to give an impression of the many different ways Dutch NGOs use e-collaboration in their work. The interviews are held with one person from an organisation, who was in many cases the initiator of the project. All stories are independent and relate a personal opinion of the interviewee about e-collaboration. Therefore it is not possible to collate them all together although we can use these stories to highlight the questions people encounter, and the stimulation and starting of the process. The interviews are the basis for these conclusions, although the meetings of the learning community and the interaction at the D-group helped in formulating the questions and problems more strongly.

These conclusions are built up the way the interviews were. I will start with the overall view of the phase Dutch NGOs are in, concerning the implementation of e-collaboration in their work. Then I will take a look at where they started from and how became enthusiastic. The reason they started comes next. What will be made clear there are the problems people sought solutions for or what they wanted to achieve by using e-tools. I will present the processes intended or provided to stimulate in a table per initiative. The influence of partners in the south will come across next.
Then the implementation stage follows. How did people start looking for the right tool, how did they approach and convince others and how are they planning for the future?
Then I will give an overview of the benefits e-collaboration brought to the people who are experimenting with it and also an overview of the difficulties they encountered in the broadest way. Finally I will present some recommendations for people who may like to start e-collaborating, which will mainly focus on the issues that have to be taken into consideration before starting.

Orientation and experimentation

One general observation is about the phase Dutch NGOs are in at the moment. Overall people are getting curious and are seeing possibilities for themselves and for their organisations in e-collaboration. People are experimenting, exploring and trying out different e-collaboration tools. They are on the search for the benefits e-collaboration can bring and how they can best approach and implement this. A good example of this is the size of the e-collaboration group: with 57 members it indicates that people are interested in e-collaboration as well as in e-collaboration with others interested in the subject.

A tool or the process as a starting point

E-collaboration is approached from different angles: people can start with an e-tool and experiment with that. Or people start from a process in their organisation or between partners that they want to improve. These are two different ways to go e-collaborating, but many principles or problems account for both approaches, as well as why people start e-collaborating in the first place.
The initiators are not necessarily technicians or already experienced with e-collaboration. Overall all they are curious and like to experiment with ICT from a personal interest. They often know their way around the internet and this could be one of the reasons they can so easily see the benefit of sharing over the internet. If you are familiar with the different ways the internet is used, you already have seen the way it could work. If you read blogs, make use of wikipedia and if you need any help on a topic you can go search on Google and often end up at a forum where other people provide your answers, so you can already see the value of sharing knowledge. These people have beliefs about e-collaboration for instance like: ‘It helps in communication with partners’; ‘we have to go that way in order to not get behind’; ‘it would be fun to experiment with the possibilities’; ‘if he (a colleague or a friend) is so enthusiastic there has to be something there.’
In every organisation experimenting with e-tools, most of the time there are one or two enthusiasts, unless the initiative comes from the organisation management. The ‘man with the vision’ is then harder to locate.

The reason for ‘doing’ e-collaboration

The reasons for starting using e-tools can be divided into two categories. The first is centered around information. Information sharing, searching, collecting and management. The benefit of e-tools here is the fact that information can be made accessible to a lot of people in their own homes, that they can access at their own time. Information is also more and more about experiences and knowledge of others, since people see similar problems arise with other people or organisations. A question that one comes across regularly is: How can we learn from the experience of others? How can we make this implicit knowledge explicit and make use of all knowledge out there? Interaction among organisations and within organisations, entering into dialogue and discussion gets more prominent with the goal of learning from each other. The difference between knowledge and information comes into the mix at this stage. In the initiatives studied there is a clear guideline of where knowledge and where information is shared. The definition of information is that it can be easily spread and copied and therefore it exists in static documents or text. Knowledge on the other hand is what people know and have learned and this comes out in conversation, discussion and training courses. This also means that sharing your knowledge by sharing documents or reports is very hard.

The other category of reasons why to start e-collaboration in the first place is about people and relationships. E-tools create the possibility to work closer together, to get more informed about the progress or the situation somebody is in, which make cooperation easier. Overcoming time and space differences are the most obvious benefits of e-collaboration by maintaining or building relationships. Development is about working across borders, so e-collaboration can really help out there. Good relationships are also crucial if knowledge has to be exchanged and people want to learn from each other. People need to have a sense of trust in order to exchange knowledge, so the relationship building should always come before the learning part can start. This is often done by meeting face-to-face.
There are also practical reasons to use e-tools, like money-saving, but improving relations or the information flow and learning from each other are main reasons lying behind e-collaboration. The processes behind that came across in my research can be found in the research rapport. Due to technical problems I couldn't displat them here.

Influences (from the South)

Despite all the benefits people sometimes have to cross an initial barrier. This barrier can be overcome by the enthusiasm and clear vision of somebody else or by experiences with similar projects in the past. The influence of partners in the south is also apparent. If they start using e-tools, then the organisations in the Netherlands will become positively influenced by this. The stimulus thus often comes from others. Although it can be very hard to influence others in their opinion about e-collaboration, it does turn out to be one of the main reasons people start. Enthusiasm is the key. People need to get convinced to start thinking: “wow” this sounds like fun, something new and exciting and the options are endless! On the other hand this thought can also be very scary. I will get back to this when I discuss the difficulties you can encounter.

Design and implementation stage

When starting an initiative about e-collaboration different steps need to be taken. These steps can be very different whether you start from a tool or a problem/process and whether you are on your own or your organisation has taken up the initiative. The budget available also makes a huge difference. I will now discuss different questions encountered.

How to choose the right e-tool?

First of all there is the choice of an e-tool. This question will not appear if the tool is the starting point, but if you want to improve a process or solve a problem, you have to choose a tool most suitable. In situations where some sort of training or course is the issue, the type of tool is quite clear: you need an e-learning tool or online learning platform. If this is not the case you need to start from the process and try to see to what qualifications the tool should possess. Is a synchronous or asynchronous tool needed? Does it have to be accessible at low bandwidth? What features does it have to contain? What is the price? Is it user-friendly? Can the tool be expanded? Is in-house technical support available? And so on.
Concluding from my research there were never real problems with finding a tool. Here you can see that the initiators know their way around the internet or people make use of their own personal network. They start searching for tools and compare a couple of them. Often there is a friend, relative or colleague who has some experience with a certain tool. The smaller organisations often start looking for open source systems or free applications. Larger organisations have in general a larger budget to spend, so they can let something be designed for them or design a system themselves. Most of the time the decision of what tool to use is based on the opinion and experience of someone else. Very often people have tried an application. As soon as it provides all the features needed and it seems to work well, people stick with what they have come across. Continuing to look further as soon as you found something that seems to work does not really happen. This also seems to be the only way to go, as you can never compare all tools available and as long as it suits your needs, you got what you want.
Once you have selected the e-tool, other issues will arise. How do you regulate access, quality, openness, moderation? These are questions that need to be answered and this will come with trial and error. Organisations often try to keep their systems as open and accessible to as many as possible in the beginning, but as soon as quality and safety come in the way, measures are taken.

How can people become involved and motivated?

Once the tool has been selected and customised you need to involve people. New tools have to be introduced to those who will work with them. This can be done by simply providing the tool and let them figure it out themselves, or instructions can be given. Both happen just as often, but it depends on the tool and the people. Most e-collaboration tools are self-explanatory, if you have a basic experience with computers and the internet.
Mostly people are approached with the tool and not for the process to be improved. The introduction of the (pre-selected) technique always comes first. This is a hurdle that has to be taken as people are very often reluctant to try new things. This approach can work for people, because it happens a lot that once people start to use an e-tool they cannot do without after. I have not come across initiatives where people are approached with a process they want to improve. I tried to look from processes in this research, but since I focused on different e-tools somehow, an e-tool always came first. From the possibilities a certain tool can provide I looked at how this could add benefits to somebody's work. This approach is not recommended in the literature. Looking from your own work and identifying obstacles or problem situations is mostly recommended. From there a solution can be sought in e-collaboration. The experiment with proves that the starting position from a tool can work very well, I even think these types of initiatives are very valuable. Tools have to be explored to get the best out of them and people who see the potential are the best in proving their worth. This is only workable for people who are interested, eager to explore and curious about the possibilities.
People can be approached by newsletters, but mostly people are introduced to a tool personally. They will get a face-to-face explanation about how they can use the tool in their work. Providing the opportunity to try it out for themselves is also a way. This can work very well, as people then cross the first technical barrier.
After introducing a tool, people have to be convinced to start working with a certain tool. First of all, if it is about an entire organisation, not all people are approached at once. The people that are very likely to be interested are approached first, so that they can then help spread the word. As I have already mentioned: an enthusiastic colleague can be of great influence. The main goal is to create a positive attitude towards e-collaboration. This is done by introducing the tools in a fun and informal way. Participation is encouraged by positive reactions to contributions which can shape people’s attitude and can form a sense of trust. It is also a way of rewarding people for their effort. Another way is to reward them directly by providing opportunities for them or to show them, in a rating or publication, that their efforts have been appreciated. This also works for people who maintain a blog. Comments can stimulate them to keep going, because that indicates that people read the blog and the topic or opinion has taken their interest. Another important thing is (technical) support. If people can go to somebody when they need help, or if they are connected to somebody with similar usage, like a buddy-system, then people become more comfortable. They don’t have to go trough the struggle on their own. Somebody facilitating the process can also help by adding structure to it.

What questions have arisen for the future of the projects?

Since most e-collaboration initiatives are still in the exploring and experimenting stage, they are still trying to promote the initiatives and have not yet come to the stage where they have to make sure that everything will be kept running. What you can see is that people are starting to think about questions like: How will we expand the group, how can we make the initiative more broadly used, should we assign a moderator, which role will this moderator fulfil and when can we leave it up to the participants? Also rules are being set together, as sometimes the need for some regulation appears. Overall there is a tendency to make e-collaboration more the common way to do things or even to institutionalize the sharing and cooperation with others.
Another common next step is expansion, both expansion with new tools or features, as well as expansion of people. There is never an 'end goal' about the range or time span. People always view the current initiatives as the start for more, which can be a tricky thing, because people will never be satisfied this way and might overlook too quickly what they have accomplished.

Main benefits of e-collaboration

The main benefits people find in their work are closely related to the reasons why people started collaborating in the first place: It saves time and money, information storage is better and information is more easily retrieved. People can get more involved with the work of their partners or colleagues who are far away. It gives the opportunity to have contact with people in other countries working in the same field. People get connected and the available knowledge becomes more visible, because it is stored and shared in online discussions.
Some less obvious benefits are also present. Contacts become more informal and more regular. This results in better mutual understanding and better relationships. Another benefit of documenting information or work online is the value people attach to an overview. For instance, like with the Wiki on the course. It gave the initiator of the course an overview of what has been done there, which can also be easily shared. Besides that it can promote a sense of pride. Something tangible has occurred from the effort made, which can be seen as a kind of reward to people. This is very evident with e-learning courses where the students have a place to show what they have done. Another benefit not always immediately recognised or articulated is the way e-collaboration can contribute to a sense of community. There is a place (virtual although visible and accessible to all) where people come together and create something. This place, the name of the group collaborating and the fact they all share a goal, all create a sense of group feeling. People can be in this group for different purposes: for enriching someone’s knowledge or creating a specific plan or document, but if the group works right, a trust is formed trust, as well as reciprocity between the members. This can be very beneficial in future work, because social capital has expanded and entry points to knowledge or skills are acquired.

The difficulties

I expected that people would have difficulties looking for the right tool. There is so much available today, which makes it hard to decide which tool to take. A lot of the applications available are also for free and it costs a lot of time to compare them all. I perhaps did not hear this from the people I interviewed, because they obviously found the tool they wanted to use. However, they do encounter some technical difficulties sometimes. Problems like bugs or other technical problems like low bandwidth or spam are always obvious obstacles. These have to be solved (or accepted!) before you can see any further.
Another problem I expected was with collaborating with partners over the internet. What I found was that partners are less reluctant to try new e-tools than expected and that they sometimes are even ahead of us. Of course there are bandwidth and other technical issues, but all partners within the initiatives of this research are very positive.
Another thing people come across is the difficulty to make the essentials visible for others. The benefits, the possibilities it offers and all that e-collaboration can offer have to be made clear. These are the visions the initiators were attracted to. Unfortunately these aren’t the most tangible things. In addition to this, a lot of time and effort has to be invested before the results are shown. This can very easily hold people back. They can only see the additional work or e-mails to be read and the benefits seem to lie far away in the future. The fact that benefits are not easily visible and the fact they are also hard to make visible can also cause problems with the employer. Time invested cannot always be justified and this time is often not taken into account in the job applications.
Another issue is trust. Trust is one of the main requirements for building a relationship, according to the theory about social capital. Unfortunately, there is no explanation provided about how trust can be gained or established. What can be seen in this research is that the lack of trust, trust between people, or with the tool or with another culture can result in an incorrect use of an e-tool. This is particularly clear if it is about people’s opinions or thoughts shared in a Wiki or a D-group. People get the feeling that sending a message to a D-group or placing a thought on a Wiki is a form of official publishing. Therefore only balanced opinions or complete thought-through considerations are shared and not ideas in progress, which can really hold back a discussion.

Issues to consider: recommendations

When starting an e-collaboration initiative some things must be kept in mind. They seem quite obvious, but this does not detract from their importance.
First of all: make sure you know what people want, or have a clear picture of what kind of process you want to improve, and how. Is there a lack of information about a certain subject? What subject? Are relationships in need of improvement? And in what way: personal or closer co-operation? More sharing or sharing of a higher quality? These types of questions come first, and then you can adjust your strategy to their wishes.
The next step is to formulate a clear goal and to make appointments clear so everybody knows what to expect and what is to be expected from them. This goal should be specified as best as it can, with a time span, the people involved the quality and quantity of interactions, etc. The tool used must fit the goal and most of all be integrated with the process. If it is not used, then it probably didn’t have a clear purpose or need. Don’t add tools or features just because you can. Every feature must have its purpose or, if it cannot be hidden, the choice to omit it must be made clear.
Additionally, people have to be given proper time. This is time to get used to the tool, as well as time to sustain usage. You cannot expect people to e-collaborate alongside their work, unless it replaces a part of it. The organisation sometimes has to adjust policy in order to create the opportunity to work with these kinds of tools.
Furthermore, make sure the foundations are solid. Do not overload people right away, but start with one or two features and only when people are used to them can you start to expand. A feature-overload has to be prevented at all times. People will get overwhelmed too easily and won’t know where to start. If you introduce e-tools in your organisation, then it works if you start informally and in a fun way. Let people try out the tool for themselves in a face-to-face meeting and don’t forget to emphasise the benefits e-collaboration can bring. People need to have a vision about what it can mean for them and their work and provide back-up and support where people can go for help afterwards.
The initiators in my research always have a positive attitude towards the use of e-tools, but they can come across people with a negative attitude or negative experiences. Even if you are or want to be the initiator, you can have feelings like: I will never get people motivated, it will only cost me a lot of time, and it will never work. In my research I have not met such people, but in the e-collaboration meetings these issues do come across. From my point of view, the point is to keep yourself enthusiastic and keep being inspired by what you see in e-collaboration. Focus on small successes and try to get some people on your side. There are always other people who are into trying some new things and if not, involve them with your enthusiasm. Don’t think that e-collaboration is necessarily a large project: A lot is available, as well as possible and the trick is to choose the option right for you. Just starting to use Skype can already be a big advantage for you and/or your organisation. Do not underestimate this.
Once you get familiar with one simple tool, the step to the next one is very small, but does not necessarily have to happen. The concept is: take what you can use and leave the rest!
You also have to keep in mind that the start is just the beginning and you are still a long way from this once you have implemented and introduced the tools. The facilitation of the process comes next, which can easily be forgotten at the start. This is all about: think about what you are going to do, how you plan to do this and how you plan to keep this going.


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