Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Communities of practice: dynamics of CoPs in the Netherlands

When I met Marc Coenders on Tuesday, who has written a book about communities of practice and has extensive experiences with CoPs in the Netherlands, I decided to pilot my first interview (to be honest I had carried my camera two times before without daring to ask the interviewees for an interview..). I was interested to know more about the dynamics of CoPs within the context of the Dutch culture, as I just realized that each national culture may bring its own specific dynamics to the art of cultivating CoPs, which may be more important to realize and learn to work with than generalizing the dynamics of 'southern' CoPs.

I asked him: 'what are the specific dynamics of CoPs in the Netherlands?' The interview is roughly 3 minutes and he explains partly in Dutch and summarizes in English towards the end. He stresses that every CoP is unique due to the self-organising nature and that it's hence hard to craft general rules. According to Marc, the Netherlands culture has strong positive and negative characteristics that do influence the functioning of CoPs. First there is a drive for results, to be productive, concrete and pragmatic. But with little room for philosophying. He misses sometimes attention for reflection and some long-term perpective in thinking.

(it was easy to do and VERY easy to upload with castpost!! except that you cannot choose the coverphoto. For my next interview I have to think of how to start, with or without the question and should try to avoid laughing)

Culture: sinterklaas goes digital

For everyone who is not in the Netherlands: you can also put your digital shoe. Between 17.00 and 20.00 hours Dutch time you click on 'zet je schoen', click on 'nee', choose a shoe, put your name and address, choose a room to put your shoe, put your shoe in the room, add water and/or a carrot if you like, click on 'schoen zetten'. The next day between 7.30 and 16.00 you can see what's in your shoe. For the real sinterklaas feeling.

At work, we celebrate it the traditional way where you draw a paper with the name of one person for whom you have to buy a small present. But what's more important you make a poem about the good and bad characteristics of the person....

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Communities of practice: reification

Dorine asked: Do Wenger et al. also outline some ideas on HOW to bring balance to situations where there is too much emphasis on reification?

I'm very scared that I interpret the theory differently as intended summarizing it so much :), so her question gives me the opportunity to explain more as I read it. Wenger writes in communities of practice, meaning, learning and identity:

Reification can take a great variety of forms: a fellting smoke signal or an age-old pyramid, an abstract formula or a concrete truck, a small logo or a huge information-processing system, a simple word jotted on a page or a long silence, a private knot on a handkerchief or a controversial statue on a public square, an impressionist painting of a butterfly or a scientific specimen in an entomological collection. What is important about all these objects is that they are only the tip of an iceberg......

An an evocative shortcut, the process of reification can be very powerful...

But the power of reification- its succinctness, its portability, its potential physical persistence, its focusing effect - is also its danger. The politician's slogan can become a substitute for a deep understanding of and a commitment to what it stands for. The tool can ossify activities around its inertness.

I find this part very important because I have seen it happening so many times that a tool (eg. PRA tools) start leading their own life and the whole idea behind the tools and methodology is not understood. For people who do not possess sufficient knowledge and skills about a topic, tools are very appealing and gives them something to hold onto. But the danger is that they do not understand the deeper levels of practice. So tools can never replace a thorough understanding and knowledge of a subject. And the development arena seems to be particularly fond of tools and toolbooks. (what a great opportunity to get this out!!). To answer the question: so reification is never a substitute for connecting people in practice and this may often mean working together or allowing people to come in an observe and observe.

Another example: at my posting about my daughter's school exercise there was a comment to add it as a good reason for homeschooling. Whereas I'm a big fan of the Dutch schoolsystem and would never be in favour of homeschooling!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Practical example: using technology to work with ICT4DJamaica

I'm working with ict4djamaica; a network of organisations working in the field of ICT for development in Jamaica to assist them in the development of a sustainability strategy. I'm doing this from the Netherlands, without traveling to Jamaica. It a bit of an experiment and I'm surprised how easy things seem to flow and fit together so far. I had discussions by mail and telephone (skype did not work, probably due to the speed of their connection) to co-construct the questions, process and expected results. When my colleague travelled there, I drafted a session plan for a face-to-face meeting for the board and a few members to kick-start the process which was facilitated by another consultant in Jamaica, and was apparently a very lively and energizing session. Now we continue with an online discussion in Dgroups, a discussion space they are all familiar with. I'm just surprised how comfortable everyone seems to be with working with a person at such distance. I asked them to introduce themselves with their name, organisation, what they like about their work and someone they would like to send an email and there are some great replies which make me laugh.

Not too long ago I discussed with someone the possibility of working with some organisations abroad and the person responded that she did not want to travel. Through her response, I realised I had assumed a collaboration at distance using various technologies. My participation in the Foundations of communities of practice workshop and the Online facilitation course have changed my perception about what is possible working at distance (not just online, also using teleconferences), I think you have to experience this once to believe it. Apparently for the people of ICT4DJamaica it not too hard to be at ease with the option of working at distance with trust. But OK, we just started, will tell you more in February when we will have finished the process :).

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Culture and snow

So countries with snow score lower on the power distance dimension than countries which do not have snow.. (probably shuffling the snow requires self-managed teams).

Culture and how it will influence CoPs

The last onion: how might national cultural dimensions influence the functioning of a CoP in that country?

Hofstede lists countries with a high uncertainty avoidance and explains that in these countries it might be harder for people with opposing convictions to be friends. So in CoPs in countries with high uncertainty avoidance (Guatamala, Uruguay, Portugal, Greece, France, Belgium, etc) it may be more difficult (in general, in can imagine there are professional sub-cultures!) to get people to explore their diverging views on practice and get a healthy level of diversity. Hence, CoPs in these countries may tend to go for more formalisation than in countries with low uncertainty avoidance where CoPs may remain more informal and organic?

I'm wondering how a high collectivist dimension would influence the functioning of a CoP. People of highly collectivist national cultures tend to find their identity in their social network, so would easily identify with a CoP but keep their other strong social identities. These cultures tend to go for harmony and avoid direct confrontation. So this might make it harder to stimulate diversity of views and as a result the innovative capacities of the CoP.

One interesting point on organisations is that organisational cultures are not determined by values of its employees but rather by shared practices. Factors like nationality, age, education, etc. are more important to determine a person's values rather than the organisation they work in. Yet values of the founders do play a role in determining the practices within the organisation.

Tough to think this through, hope to find more practical examples!

Friday, November 25, 2005

Culture: cow, grass and chicken

At anecdote there was a great post about the chicken, cow and grass, an exercise from professor Nisbett. Apparently westerners tend to put the cow and the chicken together (they are both animals) and Asians put the cow with the grass or the chicken with the grass (cows and chickens eat grass). The explanation is that westerners are more obsessed with categorisation while Asians are more in tune to relationships. I put the cow with the grass, but that could be logical Dutch way of connecting I hope. I may try to do some tests with it with colleagues and in Ghana.

It reminds me of the exercise whereby you ask people to indicate with their hands how large they see the moon. Women tend to indicate a larger moon than men. (forgot the explanation of this phenomenon but try it!)

Culture: Hofstede on culture embedded in management theories

From the same book by Hofstede as in the previous post (lots of onions today): people who think up theories are products of their countries, families, schools and employers as well and hence bring their own cultural dimensions to theory. For instance Fayol was a french engineer whose theory about authority distinguishes formal and personal authority. The importance he attaches to authority in organisations matches the higher power distance dimension of France. Apparently the matrix organisation has never become popular in France.

The communities of practice theory (he calls it rather a social learning theory) has been developed by Etienne Wenger (and others?) (by the way I just saw a new picture of him on his website so I'll have to readjust my mental image of him abruptly, I always knew the picture with the moustache :)). He is Swiss, but lives in the US. I don't feel in a position to point out the cultural dimension in the theory because it would also imply rating his individual cultural dimensions somehow. Switzerland scores low on the power distance scale (34 out of 100), higher on individualism (68 out of 100), very high on the masculinity scale (70 out of 100) and average on uncertainty avoidance (58 out of 100). So in how far is does the theory reflect the cultural dimensions of Switzerland and/or the US? And for which countries would that fit more/less easily?

What is very interesting is that in development work we often talked about Western cultures versus Southern cultures, but the research of Hofstede shows there are huge differences between countries like Germany and the UK for instance. Germany scores very high on uncertainty avoidance, and the UK rather low. Uncertainty avoidance is the level to which people feel threatened by uncertain situations, which translates in tensions and a need for formal or informal rules to increase predictability. Similarly, there are huge differences between for instance Brasil which score very high on uncertainty avoidance and Jamaica which scores very low on uncertainty avoidance. So if communities of practice work in eg. India, it does not mean it may also work in for instance, Mali, because the national cultural dimension may be very different. Or they may work in a very different manner.

Culture: Hofstede and intercultural sensitivity

Another onion. This time I read Culture and organisations, software of the mind by Geert Hofstede (I read the Dutch version: Allemaal andersdenkenden). I understand his ideas and research much better reading a full book rather than all kind of short articles. I had some questions about the fact that his research included only IBM employees, but the reason is that all other (non-cultural) factors are equalised as far as possible.

One thing I drew from the book is that the intercultural sensitivity starts with understanding your own cultural values, followed by understanding the other cultures. And that cultural integration like in international collaborations (think of mergers also) should be carefully guided, it will not be something happening automatic and if not guided can lead to lots of difficulties.

I was very happy with his warning against stereotypes, as I felt his work on national cultures could lead to stereotyping. He explains that the dimensions of national cultures are averages and can not be applied to individuals or smaller groups. Even though Japanese on average are less individualistic than American, Mr. Suzuki from Japan may be more individualistic than Mr. Jones from the USA. Also, power distance varies according to the level of education. Lower educated people had a significantly higher score on the dimension of power distance (power distance is the degree to which people expect and accept that power is unevenly distributed). Funny is also that he found a relations between power distance and geographical place (higher latitudes less power distance). Now I can see the advantage of knowing the general dimensions of a culture, so that some differences can be anticipated.

He is not of the opinion that cultures will grow closer (though with globalisation and coca cola all around it would seem easy to think so), but does think intercultural collaboration is more and more important. Since the main research took place between 1968-1972 it would be interesting to know more about how cultures evolve. (over the 4 years he did not see any evidence of converging of cultural dimensions, rather diverging).

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Practical example: UNDP in India

Steve Glovinsky from UNDP reported in com-prac about the communities of practice for development practitioners in India. The communities are across organisations. Even though he anticipated cultural resistance this did not occur. The UN platform lends the site impartiality and network moderators who are respected in their own fields and provide lots of encouragement. Some explicit design parameters have been put in place like the absence of titles in the names. The site where the community 'meets' can be visited here. Let me try to interview him by e-mail to get more information!

Technology: blog, vlog and visual learners

Powered by Castpost

In the video you see how my daughter (and a friend) have learned how to read and write the word HUT. In school they use a method which includes a sign for each letter to accomodate for the visual learners amongst the children (I guess). This was not the case when I learned how to read and write (I learned it nevertheless). I can see the use of vlogs or video podcasts to accomodate for visual learners (and even illiterate people?). Just yesterday a colleague mentioned that it makes such a difference in workshops at all levels if you have visual materials (talking about Burkina Faso). I wonder how if there are example of CoPs who used it to support their learning processes?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Technology: turning a blog into a vlog test

I tried to upload a video to turn my blog into a vlog... using the freevlog tutorial. Though the tutorial is fun and every step explained in detail with a video it did not work. The uploading of the video in for storing purpose did not work (empty screen). After trying all kind of things I gave up (frustrated) and asked Beth who pointed out a list by techcrunch with sites where you can store videos. Then I used castpost which worked like a miracle and with a few clicks.. (see next posting) Where would I be without Beth? (not in blogosphere at least..)

Culture: coffins in Ghana

In Ghana there are very special coffins in all kind of forms (planes, beer bottles, Nokia cellphones see photo). You can visit them in Teshie amongst others. But you can now order them online as well from eshopafrica. The story of the development of eshopafrica can be found on iconnect-online website.

Communities of practice: the basic theory

Dorine Ruter mentioned that she liked my blog, but that it covers a wide range of topics (she is interested in learning about CoPs). This made me think that I could add a fourth stream: communities of practice inserting both older articles I liked and new ones.

The basic theory is covered in three books: by Cultivating communities of practice Wenger, McDermott and Snyder which is a very good guide for practitioners, Communities of practice: learning, meaning, identity by Etienne Wenger and Situated learning by Wenger and Lave. I read cultivating communities of practice first and this gives a very practical introduction to all issues around communities in various stages of community development. I later read the other two which helped me amongst others to understand the concept of legitimate peripheral participation (a form of apprenticeship whereby people are learning by participating in the practice of the CoP) and reification and participation. (difficult to explain in short but roughly reification is when practice gets defined in forms, documents, instruments, etc., participation is when people interact.) These two concepts help me to analyse situations where there is no balance between the two (for instance where there is a lot of written materials, but people do not read them or really engage with the content, there is too much reification and too little participation and learning gets obstructed).

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Technology photographed: Bernd and Hilla Becher

Bernd and Hilla Becher have spent all their lives photographing industrial artifacts like mine shafts and silos all over the world. In an exposition in the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin these photographs were displayed according to countries; 9-15 artifacts by function together in a group per country (see pictures, each picture is one country). As you can see, the displayed waterreservoirs have very similar features within one country, but look amazingly different across countries, showing the 'vernacular' in engineering. The question is now whether bringing together the engineers and letting them work jointly would have lead to an enriched device and practice? Or they all serve their purpose well enough within their own context? At least it shows there is not one single way of building a waterreservoir. (as there is no one single technology design to support communities of practice)

Technology and Culture: the introduction of the milktank in the Netherlands

The story of the Suri in Ethiopia and the introduction of guns reminded me of the introduction of the milktank in the Netherlands, which made a lot of impression on me when I read about it during my studies. Milk used to be collected in milkcontainers, which farmers put by the road side. But when the milktank was introduced (around 1975), the factories stopped to collect the milkcontainers and farmers had to use a milktank on their farms. The farms which had about 5 milkcows and practised mixed farming were forced to specialize: either invest in a milktank and specialize in milkproduction or specialize in agricultural production (wheat, sugarbeets, etc).

An example of how a technological change (the invention of the milktank) can influence practice (need to specialise and scale up milk production to cover the milktank investment). So choices in technologies to support communities of practice may also influence and drive the communications of that community (and culture of the community?)

Culture and technology: The Suri in Ethiopia and guns

Zapping on television I landed in the middle of a documentary of the BBC: Tribe I had already seen once before. Bruce Parry lives for about a month with isolated tribes and participates in their activities and rituals in a very playful and respectful way. This documentary was about the Suri in Southern Ethiopia (a part of Ethiopia I have never visited). They practise ritualised violence -the men’s have their donga or stick-fighting battles to train themselves in dealing with enemies, and it works as an outlet for aggression. Since I had seen it before I mostly remembered the part where there are gunshots. And that part came. During the ritual, which is a huge party for all involved, with lots of drinking, suddenly there are gunshots. Bruce get scared and runs. Some of the Suri later complain that the ritual has changed since the introduction of guns into this society. Before that conflicts during the ritual were settled easily, but with the introduction of guns, men who are drunk, start to misuse them and levels of violence during the ritual are escalating. More on Bruce's motivation here. In one of his responses to various frequently asked questions he says:

"Change, if not managed, can bring about a complete social upheaval, loss of cultural identity, famine, disease and manipulation by corporations and national authorities including theft of natural resources and traditional environmental knowledge."

"It is human nature to want an easier life and modernization seems to bring this. I like many of the new developments and changes in my own world. I like instant electricity, central heating, mobile phones, good movies…if that’s what they want too then its patronising to deny them that desire? The problem comes when change isn’t managed and the community is not warned of the various pitfalls such as commercial predation (like selling their land), or loss of cultural identity, pride, language, traditional environmental knowledge etc."

"Cultural dominance or intolerance is a very destructive premise in a rapidly shrinking world (e.g US in Iraq). There are plenty of practices that we take for granted as right and acceptable which other cultures find disgusting. Saving the contents of one’s nose in one’s pocket; using paper rather than water to go the loo; putting old people in homes to die alone; owning land which is meant for all; taking trees with little regard for the future. Are we so superior? It can only be a good thing to question one’s own culture before looking down on another."

Friday, November 18, 2005


Fortunately I found the text in English and here's the tune you will sing:
'Zie ginds...'

Look there is the steamer
from far-away lands it
brings us Saint Nicholas
he's waving his hands

his horse is a-prancing
on deek up and down
the hamers are waving
in village and town

Black Peter is laughing
and tells everyone
the good kids get candy
the bad ones get none

Oh dearest St. Nicholas
if Pete and you would just
visit our house
for we all have been good

(lost track of how THIS relates to CoP4D but how about seeing it as an experiment in exporting traditions across language areas by means of blogs??)

Practical example: community of practice on e-government

(Picture: One of the ministry buildings in Ghana)
The World Bank has embraced communities of practice as an important strategy for knowledge management. They have a question and answers section on communities of practice. November 15 they organised a videoconference session for a community of practice on e-government. The two-hours webcast where participants from Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Ghana, Rwanda, Kzakhstan, Moldova and the USA exchange experiences on their e-government projects is available online. (Ghana starts at 1:32 minutes :)). I must say I admire the fact that these kind of webcasts make these project very transparent. On the other hand, it is very raw information, and I rather had a good article on their projects and lessons. I did not hear so many interesting things, and tried to read e-mail, the newspaper, cook and pour drinks for the children at the same time. I can imagine a face-to-face meeting would have provided much more opportunities for participants to exchange and dig deeper. I visited the videoconference facility at GIMPA in Accra (also described in the Iconnect story on Ghana) and the manager told me some people regret the fact that videoconferences reduce the opportunities to travel around the globe....

Ghana reported that it is working on an enabling regulatory environment, including policies and a Telecom Act. And it has set up an information and communication agency. To come up with concrete projects and programs they have surveyed the MDAs (goverment bodies) and found a specific interest in revenue mobilisation, business registration and payroll applications. Public-Private Partnerships are seen an important way to implement more projects with less funding.

The World Bank mentioned that they see this group as a community of practice. I'm very curious to know how the community functions beyond this type of videoconferences. I got the impression there is much more communication between the World Bank (weekly teleconferences were mentioned) and the individual country participants than amongst the countries themselves. I haven't found many case descriptions from the World Bank describing the community of practice nurturing process (but haven't dug their whole website).

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Culture: Again Sinterklaas (even deeply embedded traditions are dynamic)

In the newspaper, a puppetplayer complained about the sinterklaasjournaal, which is a daily program on television for kids on sinterklaas. Traditionally (read: in my time), sinterklaas would arrive by boat from spain on television mid November to disappear apart from a felt presence through the chocolate sigarettes you would find in your shoe. He would visit your school by December and on the 5th the whole event would peak by the sudden appearance of a bag full of presents. Now, there is a lot of drama added to the event by the daily edition of the sinterklaasjournaal, there is a movie, pop music, etc. The puppetplayer is especially worried about the use of cliffhangers in this program, whereas toddlers need short stories. (don't know about this, my children seem to like it a lot..) Also by seeing sinterklaas daily on television, children tend to notice the difference between the one of television and the one they see face-to-face, taking away part of the mystery around sinterklaas. (I recognise this from nasty questions about the colour of his eyes!).

Anyhow, this shows that even deeply embedded traditions do change to go with overall changes in society (in Den Bosch, see picture, the music played has a carnaval rhythm :)).

The dynamics of tradition reminds me of my visit to a village in Ghana where we met a female chief. Since we were always tracking the numbers of female mayors in Ghana (thinking of the traditional authorities as something static and male), I was curious to know her story. She explained that she had been very involved in development activities in her village, so when the old chief died she was invited to become the new chief (traditionally, one of the eligible men of certain families will be chosen). Everything can change.

Culture: gender roles (and the mystery of how they are transmitted)

Yesterday my youngest announced that she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. Before I could say anything (this a big step up from her aspirations to be a mother or a fairy) my eldest daughter said:
"No! You are not a boy! Boys can be doctors! You can be a nurse!"
I can't figure out where she gets these very strong beliefs, as in Ghana, I had a contract and my husband was at home... so we thought we were the perfect role models :). And I know the teachers at school are not telling her these things either, neither television. She has the same strong ideas on football, boys should play football and girls do ballet. So is it genetic after all?? 1-0 for nature versus nurture in the ongoing debate.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Technology: Iraqi bloggers

Cecile Landman and Jo van der spek wrote about the work with Iraqi bloggers for the incommunicado conference in Amsterdam in June 2005. The streamtime project started with radio transmissions in Iraq, but this became impossible mid 2004 and so they decided to dedicate to linking with Iraqis in Iraq and the diaspora. Bloggers were linked by the streamtime site. The blogs are interesting because they offer insights, information and stories and cover a wide spectrum of opinions. Streamtime reposts a daily selection, and encourages exchanges between Iraqis (even face-to-face). The Iraqi blogosphere is attacked by rough and aggressive comments, forcing some to close down the comment sections. The challenge of streamtime is reported to be about moderating different perspectives; the editiorial guideline is for instance that unarmed resistance is justified. By linking to every blogger, mailing and chatting, streamtime has started to work as a real network. The latest development is to propose collective posting on one subject on the same day, as well as phone calls for weekly web-transmissions.

I think it's an interesting example of how you may facilitate a blogging community and some practical ideas of interventions (collective topic on a given day, linking blogs on a website). The article does not say whether the Iraqi bloggers were already blogging or whether they were stimulated to do so.

Technology: blogging and development

I searched to find out about the number of people blogging in the South. The blogherald reports on over 50 million blogs in April 2005. Counting local services it's reported that there are 2 million in China, 1 million in South America and an insignificant number in Africa, though there is a growing number of bloggers in South Africa (must be due to Brenda who started there :)).

BlogAfrica is a collection of weblogs by Africans, both on the continent and living in the diaspora, as well as non-Africans writing about Africa and is reported to be undergoing a move from allafrica, a news site to Global Voices Online (the world is talking are you listening?).
In KM4Dev someone linked to Will blogs change development thinking? by Tim Harford and Pablo Halkyard (if I knew the trackback function I could use it, I'm really lazy in finding out these kind of things, I still have to start using RSS feeds). Anyhow, they are quite optimistic and think blogging can improve the quality of debate. The technology makes it easy to see who is citing similar ideas to you. New research and opinion-forming analysis is quickly disseminated and discussed. They argue it changes the terms of the development debate too. Being a big organisation counts for very little, what counts is quick, relevant content. They conclude by stating people all over the world are talking , but only now we can hear what they're saying.

Such an optimistic view almost leads me to place a more critical remark: all tourists flying all over the world do not automatically listen to a local view, and often our own views gets confirmed because of the process of selective interpretations which works to confirm our own assumptions. See Ladder of inference. So wouldn't that be even more true for blogger opinions from the south (that we end up reading only the blogs which confirm what we already believe?). Uhm, have to start reading myself (but time?!).

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Technology: ICT4D in the Netherlands

Wim de Bie mentioned his first videoconference with students at a school in Etten-Leur in the Netherlands at his Bieslog. You can see the one hour session (in Dutch) here. Its part of a program called the expert at a distance whereby students can interview an expert by videoconference. This is amazingly new in the Netherlands. Even though the technology had probably been available for a long time, it has not been explored much to bring expertise closer to the classroom.

Culture: Dutch views on development cooperation

I struggle a bit with what falls within the domain of communities of practice, but OK some wandering off... Good, old SNV (with whom I spend almost 9 years) organised a great reunion for its 40-years anniversary. The minister of development cooperation, Agnes van Ardenne had the most visionary speech. She talked about 1965, the time SNV started to send out volunteers to the 'third' world. The world was orderly from a conceptual view: the first world getting wealthy, the third world as poor (where the volunteer were coming to aid) and a second world where you don't mingle. This has changed and the boundaries between first, second and third world have blurred and problems are more complex and intertwined. She proposed that SNV could use its expertise to bring parties together around concrete societal issues ('connecting people's capacities) in the South to do exactly the same in the Netherlands. I think this is great because it departs from an assumption that the problem on living together and dealing with diversity in society are universal (and that we are not ahead of other countries). For instance, I have always admired the way Malian society accomodates various ethnic groups (and all cultural practices around it). As long as you look down upon others, you will not learn from them.

The second great comment was from Jan Pronk, talking about the need for organisations to listen to the people in the south and not going by hypes alone. He stressed the need to retain the voluntary spirit in development cooperation amidst all 'professionalisation' and 'result/efficiency orientation'. I can relate this easily to communities of practice where practitioners are connected who are passionate about their field and work. Without this commitment, its much harder to connect and innovate.

To add one anecdote: when my husband talked in Unicef about his experiences with FAO in Ethiopia, it was reported in a magazine that he worked to 'eradicate hunger'. So if you work in a supermarket in the Netherlands would you be reported to 'enhance food security'? Sometimes work in development cooperation gets mystified.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Culture: Sinterklaas is coming..

My daughters have put their shoes already. Nice try, girls, but Sinterklaas is still on his boat....

I wonder if blogging about Sinterklaas every day would help spread this tradition? :)

Friday, November 11, 2005

Practical example: analysis questions for a community of practice of ICT4D trainers

Beth Kanter asked (by the way this is not Beth in the picture, this is the REAL Sinterklaas): What types of analysis questions would ask at the beginning of a COP project assessment? I am a bit slow in responding, because I had to figure out how to deal with comments. I'll try and respond in this post.

I was involved in a community readiness assessment for a potential community of ICT4D trainers in the south for IICD with John Smith of Learning Alliances. The idea was to assess whether it is possible to form a community of practice of trainers to ensure a continuous social learning process linked to the Itrain online website, which is full of training resources. Even though there is no single best way of doing a community readiness assessment I think it's good to share our experiences, even though the official research brief for public use is not ready yet. We did an online survey, followed by a 4-weeks online focus group discussion to deepen the findings of the survey. Amongst the main topics of the assessment were (starting from the basics of domain, community and practice):
  1. Work profile
  2. Knowledge areas
  3. Group identity in terms of expertise
  4. Ease with technologies and languages
  5. Existing networks/informal networks
  6. Interest in a community of practice and to play certain roles in the community

We did lots of brainstorming and thinking, as well as a pretest of the survey in Zambia. Looking back I would say the focus group was really an important follow-on of the survey, which helped to make the findings more dynamic and tease out some of the difficulties of nurturing such a community. Next time, a southern trainer could be part of the assessment team. As soon as the research brief is ready, I'll try and link to it. But one of the findings of the assessment which amazed me was that this group (we had a good response of almost 100 trainers) did not have such a problem with access to the net, some working over 40 hours per week with their computers (on and offline), and had lots of experiences with online discussion groups. Of course this is influenced by our method (an online survey) but nevertheless. During WSIS the partner organisations will discuss the results.

A summary of seven principles for cultivating communities of practice by Wenger, McDermott and Snyder can be found here

Technology: more Web 2.0

Nancy White reacted on my posting on web 2.0. My first critical comment :). I like it, because that makes you think (and it made me think I know very little about all these issues, but having a job related to ICT for development gives me a good excuse to read and learn more). In the newspaper (Volkskrant) was an article about the upcoming 'revolution' at Microsoft. The new products Windows Live and Office Live will be available at every moment from every location. (similar to the idea of writely where you can write jointly in a document on the web I imagine.) But the revolution I can understand easily is that most of the new services will be for free. Even though the design is not purposely done with southern end-users in mind, it may by coincidence suit them. (like Gmail seems to suit the needs of people in eg. Ghana perfectly).

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Culture: sinterklaas

The sinterklaasjournaal has started!! I'm a big fan of sinterklaas so don't be surprised to find only sinterklaas pictures on my blog till December 5. He will arrive Saturday in the Netherlands in Sneek. In the newspaper (Volkskrant) there was an article by Peter Giesen on traditions and how they change. For instance, mother's day was introduced in 1925 in the Netherlands, and is now fully incorporated in Dutch culture (that is: children in school are preparing some presents and songs for mother's day). He states that the number of such traditions seem to augment (Halloween starts to slowly enter the Netherlands too though it gets twisted and celebrated in different ways). With globalisation and looser social groupings, people cling more to these kind of traditions. Well, I cling only to Sinterklaas.

Practical example: per diem and learning

(cartoon text: salaries, options, car, pension, I think we have a deal! .....One more thing: on my first workday I want to be dropped by a helicopter on the parking lot)

I started working at IICD, the International Institute for Communication and Development as Knowledge Sharing Officer (I had always wanted to be an officer :)). I'm very happy having colleagues again, and such an international team as well. During lunchtime, the hard topic of payment of per diem or daily subsistence allowance came up. It is customary practice in most development trainings, conferences and workshops to pay participants a per diem. It's such an engrained practice that it's hard to go around it. And it an important additional to their incomes for participants. In one event, participants from the south came to Europe and were given a per diem under the assumption that it would enable them to socialize and have dinner with fellow participants. But they ended up eating take-away food in their rooms to save the money.

It's a practice which influences learning processes negatively because people may participate for the per diem rather than the topic. And within organisations the question of who participates in a learning event becomes politicised, because it is not only about learning, but also about additional income. It makes it much harder to get people to take their own personal learning processes in hand and become active learners rather than training or workshop attendants. Whereas a Community of Practice thrives on a personal connection with the domain of the community and passion for this topic.

By the way, I noticed the same difference in a training for which I paid for myself and others had it paid for by their employers. I was more fanatic in getting everything out of it. Sometimes lunch conversations touch upon the core of all issues, more easily than formal meetings....

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Culture: Hofstede

I had never read a book by Geert Hofstede, but had come across his 'onion' on layers of culture a lot of times. As well as his indexes on national cultures. I always wondered if it's useful to look at national cultures if there are so many sub-cultures in one country, and how to avoid stereotyping. You can compare your country with a host country on this site.

I finally read a book he wrote with his son Gert Jan Hofstede (you can find out how to pronounce his name here) and Paul Pedersen who has a site with practical exercises. The book I read is called 'werken met cultuurverschillen' (in English 'Exploring culture: Exercises, Stories and Synthetic Cultures' and is a practical book with lots of exercises. What I learned is that the core of working across culture is learning to separate observations on what people do or say from interpretations (which is easier said than done). The book includes a description of the five basic dimensions which can be used to describe a culture. Interestingly, they link the collectivism dimension (as opposed to individualism) to poverty, as a cultural adaptation to scarse resources and individualism as an adaptation to wealth and abundance. The same for hierarchy, they link a high power distance to poverty (but the link is less strong than for collectivism).

And they do state that regional, ethnic, class or other differences lead to the forming of separate groups with quite different subcultures. Another important distinction is between culture and personality, it is quite easy to misinterpret behaviour as bad intentions or difficult personality, whereas the underlying reasons may be cultural differences.

So if countries in the south are -generally speaking- more collectivist oriented, how does that affect communities of practice? Will it be easier because people are used to live and feel part of groups? How will the preference for harmony affect the innovation in the knowledge domain of the community? and will the expert/reputation building in a CoP be different? Hope to get more practical cases!

Culture and technology: grandma on the phone

Thinking about new technologies and why people may or may not use the technologies, the story of my grandma keeps on running through my head. She used to speak some kind of dialect from the north of the Netherlands. But on the phone, it was impossible for her to speak dialect and she would resort to 'correct' Dutch. The phone never became so comfortable that she could be at ease and speak dialect. It seems that it really takes time for people to get used to new technologies and be comfortable with them. Though it may depend how different the technology is from known technologies (like telephone may have been the first disembodied communication experience for my grandmother, but skype may be closer to normal telephone).

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Technology: web 2.0

So here's technology again.... WEB 2.0. I have to admit I was ignorant about the term till last thursday. Even though I had come across the term I had happily skipped it; thinking that it was another software application... (to cope with information overload I'm applying optimal ignorance all the time). Till thursday when John Barben did a great tooltour for the foundations of communities of practice workshop in which I'm a mentor this time. He explained the difference between web 1.0 and web 2.0. You can find it explained by Tim O'Reilly in an article here. Tim O'Reilly and Dale Dougherty seem to have coined the term to indicate the shift in applications on the web since the dotcom collapse.

The shift he talks about is from the web as a platform for information updates and scheduled software releases on the basis of proprietary control towards the web as an 'architecture of participation', with services acting as brokers connecting the edges of the web and harnessing the power of the users themselves. These applications get better the more people use it (eg. the more people use skype, the easier it gets to phone all your friends with skype and forget about the phone). Web 2.0 giants have used the power of the web to harness collective intelligence by the use of hyperlinking, associations becoming stronger with repetition or intensity. Examples of innovations are the peer (and free) productions of wikipedia, flickr and open source software. And of course blogging as creating dynamic content versus the more static webpages. Uhm, so much more to explore... The mindset behind it seems to be one of sharing ideas and experiences freely in public, with a different definition of trust. John Barben has a blog as well.

Why I was struck by web 2.0 is because I can see the potential of web 2.0 applications for development. Harnessing collective intelligence by linking southern views. And the opportunity for northerners to listen to southern views and vice versa (though I realize the opportunity to listen does not mean that people will be interested in listening, they need a rationale first) . For instance, southern bloggers (think of eg. NGO leaders) could help partners organisations in the North to understand their realities. But blogging needs time, ease of writing and a certain mindset of freely sharing thoughts. So blogging may seem a luxuory to southern NGO leaders (and for a blogging community to emerge, bloggers need to read each other's blogs as well, which makes it even more time consuming). Maybe I'll try and trace more about the number of southern bloggers.

By the way, Beth's suggestion on my previous post to introduce the sentence 'my mom is a blogger' into Dutch school books reminded me of the school's project on mail, where they invited a postman and walked all children to the postbox to send a letter to their grandparents or friends. My suggestion to link the theme mail to email as well was well appreciated :-). So I'm not sure my daughter's teachers would even know what a blog is (and neither did I till last February... ).

Friday, November 04, 2005

Culture: Dutch mothers sewing trousers

I wanted to blog about web 2.0, but that would be technology again, so culture (which is everywhere... ). My daughter is learning to read and write in school this year. This morning she showed me her work from school. They had to read a sentence and say whether it is right or wrong. One sentence said: My mother is sewing my trousers. So she said it was wrong (the poor girl never had trousers sewn by her mother). And the teacher corrected her that it was right. Another sentence read: In the freezer you make icecream (in Dutch it makes more sense: in de ijskast maak je ijsjes). And she said it was right (because just the day before we had gelled drinks in the freezer to make icecream). But it was wrong.

In community of practice terms it might be that reifications (school exercises) are static and expression of a certain practice. In reality practice is changing and moving on. Or the materials are made by people who do believe the mothers are still sewing trousers.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Practical example: Thailand

David Mould has posted something in with regard to his experiences with communities of practice in Thailand:

I recognised especially his important point about the extensive social networks (from the countries I worked in), which are very effective in getting questions and answers across. He states that the community of practice has to add additional value to be an alternative to this system. I wonder about the differences; the social networks are not typically centered around a certain practice. I also wonder how you may use the power of these networks for CoP purposes? (nice question to take along on my trip to Ghana and it reminds me that I read an article on social networks in Ghana I may review. It also reminds me that I may read old messages of com-prac to see which other practical examples of CoPs in the south are shared...)

technology: e-collaboration

During this day on e-collaboration for development organisations (I mentioned in the last post), lots of interesting experiences came up. The most striking ideas/observations I gained from all discussions :

* A virtual conference with southern partners in 1999 was evaluated and time rather than language or technology was the limiting factor for participation. Looks like there is often a perception that online is fast and cheap and something you do in your own time: not taken as serious work like face-to-face meetings for instance. (same came up in the online facilitation workshop I mentioned in the last posting!). The MSN group also mentioned that MSN is frequently used for private conversations but not at work.

* Dgroups ( as an interesting example of a platform designed specifically with southern users and demands in mind. I wonder what other examples are there of designs specifically for southern users like dgroups. (maybe lots of linux groups in the south actually do??). Specific design differs from general designs (like skype or Gmail) which happen to match southern users' interests. However, the example of a training/coaching experience with limited interaction within the group made me also wonder whether the Dgroups features would make it more challenging to facilitate intense interactions (f.i. because discussions are not threaded?) in smaller or larger groups.

* The question whether sometimes southern partners are not ahead of northern partners in adopting some distance communication technologies (especially for easy-to-use, free technologies like skype) came up several times. Which raises a question for me: do northern partners find it difficult to learn from southern partners in this regard, do they feel they have to lead?

* It matters whether you perceive some of these technologies as cost-reducing and a bad substitute for face-to-face contacts, or whether you can see the different modes of communication as a source of creativity and a means to stimulate various ways of communications and create new links (and hence something which can enrich conversations and learning). Interesting in this regard was the discussion of the price of an online workshop/conference. Whether you see it as cheap or expensive depends on your perception of the value it brings and whether you equal its value with a face-to-face workshop or not.

Technology: post-it exercise to introduce the dynamics of asynchronous online communication

Today I could not get into my own blog :( and I really wanted to get my experiences out so I felt frustrated. Already addicted?

Yesterday we had a full day on e-collaboration for Dutch development organisations (organised by PSO/ICCO/IICD). In my 'round' we used an idea that I picked from my recent workshop facilitating online interaction : to use post-its for simulating the experience of asynchronous online communication in a face-to-face group. It really worked well!! When the 'facilitator' started to ask questions, they also started to ask each other questions. Amazing how a really short experience can draw out so many of the aspects of online communication (eg. the speed of communication, importance of clarity, no interruptions in your communication, the excitement when you post leads to a thread (or the reverse), the insecurity when you don't get response, etiquette, role of moderator in asking good questions and modeling behaviour, difference in defining and monitoring participation, etc.). We used it as an introductory exercise, but if you make it longer, you could probably use it to go much deeper into some of the aspects of asynchronous communication. I can think of using it with different groups in the south to get people to talk about how it feels for discuss online (for instance this group did not mention the fact that it is difficult to express your thoughts in writing as they may be used to doing so).