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)

Monday, November 20, 2006

You can now subscribe by e-mail to this blog!

If you look on the right side of this blog, you see Enter your email and Subscribe me!
(right under the green block). And if you enter your email address there, you will get every new post of this blog in your email inbox....

I think it is a nice service to offer different ways of subscribing to your blog, especially if you expect readers from low-bandwith areas. I have used feedblitz for some time on my personal blog to offer email subscription service and I am happy with it, so I decided not to analyse any other email subscription service but go straigth for feedblitz again.

The process of adding an email subscription service to your blog is quite straightforward. When you go to the feedblitz page, you can register and enter you URL address. Feedblitz then creates a piece of code that you have to copy and paste in the template of your blog. When I first did this, I felt very proud that I had managed to paste a piece of code in my blog! For this blog, it didn't work at first. When I clicked on preview of the changes (important while changing the codes, because then you can still decide not to confirm the changes), I saw that the whole sidebar of the blog had moved down. After some different try-outs to make the code line shorter, which once worked with a different problem, I decided to delete part of the code (with the width specifications) and that did the trick! So now I'm even more proud that I can change html codes (I am not an IT person and never learned html coding...). It shows that you can learn alot when you are no longer afraid to try things out and when you have some time at hand.... But you have to be prepared to continue when you are frustrated in case it doesn't work immediately (and that happens a lot).

Anyhow, feedblitz had a new chicklet that allows you to monitor the number of subscribers, so it will be easy to see whether many people use the option or not. So please subscribe if you want to follow this blog and don't use an RSS reader or blogreader!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

After reading the previous post on e-collaboration I was a bit puzzled. In the report the following conclusions are being drawn: The main driving force for e-(collaboration) is determined by the personal interest of one (or more) person(s) in an organisation. It also becomes clear that each organisation (or person) more or less designs by trial and error and needs to ‘re-invent the wheel’. This means that much depends on coincidence and not on appropriate research. This raises questions, at least on quality control.
The two main reasons mentioned to start e-collaboration are information sharing and building or maintaining relationships. However, much of the content in the report reflects on the technical issues of using tools, and on implementing them (the organisation or even a person selects a tool and introduces that to the partners).
Basically, what I miss is the part of collaboration, which is so prominent in the title. Is using Skype a form of collaboration? Or is it just a communication tool and nothing more? For me it is only a communication tool just like a telephone or e-mail. And yes, some form of collaboration can be achieved by using the communication tool, but it is not collaboration by itself.
So what do I think e-collaboration is? In the past we, at The Network University, have encountered this question many times. This originates from us offering collaborative e-learning for many years now, and especially in the first few years we did this (1997-2000), people had no clue what we were talking about. To go into this some more, I will first post an explanation before continuing with my question.

How TNU thinks about collaboration
Collaborative learning programmes are not based on individualised reading and a single final examination, but rather on multiple interactions leading towards common and negotiated understandings, based on differences in ideas, knowledge and attitudes amongst the participants and the coaches.
At TNU we believe that the educational experience should be process and not just product oriented. In order to achieve this we promote active learning. In other words: we expect our participants to ask themselves: 'What do I need to know to solve the problem at hand and how do I gain access to this information?', rather than: 'What is it that you are going to tell me today?'
The collaborative learning experience is structured primarily through assignments. In our online environment students are asked to work together in order to complete the assignments at hand. The focus is on constructing an individual knowledge and skills base within the context of a wider group. Participants are required to actively take on different roles within the group. In fulfilling their different roles they have to take into account their own knowledge level and understanding as well as that of the audience. In order for this to be effective, participants need to take an active approach to learning as well as take responsibility for how someone else understands things.

In this latter aspect the sense of ‘community’ is vital. The shared responsibility is increased by the fact that all contributions are added to a communal knowledge pool (hosted by the organisation but maintained by the group itself). Collaborative learning, we believe, promotes active learning and increasingly thoughtful participation in the learning process, leading to a greater understanding of the issues being tackled.
So what is central in our opinion of e-collaboration is an online community. Although such a community has to be created and maintained, we see it as a surplus with the courses we offer at TNU. Our participants are from all parts of the (mainly southern) world and therefore can enrich each other with different approaches and solutions to certain questions.

And it is especially this part of e-collaboration that is missing in the report. First of all I see a north-south approach in the collaboration, while, as is mentioned in the report, sometimes the southern partners are more equipped (in knowledge on e-tools) than the individuals in the Netherlands. But what in my opinion is missing most is a ‘social plan’ of the use of such tools. The impression is that choosing and experimenting with the tools is the goal, while it should be the collaboration (and the tools a means). In the past I have seen many projects which started under these premises and not only did most of them withered away into oblivion, it also left the partners who were invited to participate in a total confused state. What was their role, what was expected from them, and what was the purpose of the exercise?
To conclude, my advice is to always start by thinking of the goals of the usage of any tool for e-collaboration, and the social process that directs its use.

I am looking forward to your comments!

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.

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.”