Thursday, November 02, 2006

To support and manage people

Dgroups, or ‘Development through Dialogue’ is an online home for groups and communities focused on international development. The platform provided is simple, non-commercial (no ads), respectful of privacy, and targeted at low bandwidth users in the South. It currently hosts 1884 groups with 66,589 members.
Dgroups was created in 2001 by a partnership of development organisations who share a joint vision of the need for a common platform for development-related online communities. Current members of the Dgroups partnership include: CIDA, Hivos, IICD, ICCO, IICD, Danida, FAO, KIT and SNV, among others.

The next interview took place at August 31, 2006 with Sarah Cummings from KIT.

“I have a very wide variety of roles in Dgroups. I am a researcher, creator, representative of a member within the partnership, facilitator, passive and active member of Dgroups, all at the same time. At the moment, I act as moderator for 2 groups and am an active member of about 8-10 groups. I have been interested in online communities for the past few years and have done some research in the past. Now I am starting a research project about Dgroups themselves.” What are your points of interest or main focuses in your research? “It is still at the design stage but the main focus is on investigating the function, role and effectiveness of online knowledge networks in development, looking at Dgroups. I will be building on some research undertaken in 2004 but I think Dgroups are being used more strategically than two years ago and that should also prove interesting to investigate. I’m planning to look at: who are the members and the facilitators, how is gender visible in the groups and does use vary depending on continent. I am going to take a survey monkey as my main method, complemented by interviews and case studies of individual communities.”

Positive attitude

How are Dgroups used at KIT? “We have about 20 groups here, which support specific projects or are used to keep in touch and cooperate with partners. We notice, for example, that new members of online communities are often reluctant to share their opinions, because they feel every word will be judged.” With your mixed role in Dgroups you must have a lot of experience with how the system works for people. Do you have some tips for people who struggle with aspects like motivating people to post their reactions? “I would suggest that, if you start a group, you should have a clear goal of what you want to achieve with it. Then everybody will know what to expect, and what is expected of them. Next, begin with a round of introductions so that people can get to know one another. If a new member comes in, a personal e-mail with a word of welcome will offer encouragement. Your messages should also have a clear structure. Start your e-mail by briefly mentioning the subjects you’re going to talk about. This makes it easier for people to scan the messages and avoids the impression of information overload. I would also advise taking a positive tone. It’s important not to be critical, particularly in the beginning with inexperienced members, but if you must be critical, make it constructive criticism. If you share your opinions, try to be as clear as you can so as to reduce the chance of misunderstandings. In a discussion, it’s important to make your position clear and not be afraid of making a fool of yourself. These ‘tips’ seem very obvious, but they’re useful to keep in mind. Some people seem to have a knack for clear-cut responses, others rapidly get disorganised or write very long messages. In the end, the most important thing is that participants should realise what e-collaboration can do for them. If they don’t see what they can get out of it, they’ll simply say they don’t have time or don’t need it. Some people might even consider e-collaboration a sort of threat, because it means getting knowledge and information out in the open.”

Getting information out

In Dgroups a lot of information is shared and knowledge exchanged. What do you think of the ways this knowledge is shared with people outside the groups? “I really like the Wiki used by KM4DEV. I even used it in parts of my research as it yielded such brilliant information – pearls of wisdom! – which I would never have been able to find anywhere else. One of the reasons that the KM4D Journal was started was to share the deliberations of the community outside the group.” Could Dgroups be improved to stimulate knowledge sharing even more? “It would be nice if you could link different Dgroups more easily or could share files among groups. This, and many other ideas to stimulate knowledge sharing, are things that the partnership are working on at the moment.”


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