Thursday, April 27, 2006

Culture: Nancy Dixon on the transferability of the concept of communities of practice

Thanks to Dorine (encouraging me) and John (helping formulate my question) I had the guts to ask Nancy Dixon the following question: "What are your ideas about the transferability of a Western concept like communities of practice to other cultural settings and situations?"

This time I'm not going to summarize what she said because I think you have to listen to it yourself- it's great and really helps me in my thinking. I will just make you curious by revealing she uses an culturally appropriate example :). So a million thanks to Nancy Dixon for being willing to respond to such a question without any preparation during a hectic week in the Netherlands.

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Advising communities of practice: learning starts by asking questions

I decided to add a new stream: the art of advising communities of practice. This was triggered when I reread a book on process consultation (I will blog this later) which made me think about the fact that advisory skills can be useful for 'nurturing' CoPs either as external advisor or CoP facilitator.

On tuesday we had a wonderful day organised by PSO for development organisations in the Netherlands on organisational learning with Nancy Dixon. The theme of the day was learning starts by asking questions. The theme was brought home already by a simple but very effective exercise. In the morning everyone was invited to think of a question they wanted to see answered by the end of the day. The questions varied from "what is a good article on compentency management" to "who knows a baby-sitter in the Hague?" People were encouraged to ask their question throughout the day, and at the end of the day everyone had some kind of answer to their question or tips where to continue their search.

Through high speed storytelling 6 important themes were identified: from individual to collective learning, fostering a learning culture, stimulating reflection, fostering feedback processes, the role of management in learning and putting learning into action. These themes were deepened through a world cafe and small workshops. 'My' theme as a subgroup facilitator was reflection, so I can share some of the highlights of that discussion. All agreed that the level of reflection in their organisations is insufficient, leading to (too often) reinventing the wheel. There are different levels of reflection we are talking about (level of self -team- organisation) and people have various preferential styles of reflection. Group reflections have the potential to create team spirit and inspire the group/organisation. Some of the reasons that levels of reflections are in organisations insufficient were specified: a low value attached to the results of reflections (as it is often invisible), and, linked to this, results are not always translated into action, undermining the trust needed for subsequent cycles of reflection. So you get a downward spiral. The lack of attention for reflection is also linked to the need for development organisations to show their 'results' in terms of achievements towards poverty alleviation, not in terms of learning.

In the workshop we did, amongst others, an exercise with 'question on your back'- see picture. People formulated questions, and got one pinned on their back, but did not know which question was on their back. By walking around and interacting with other people who would respond to their question they had to learn about their topic and guess the question. It was amazing to see how learning was hampered. People were so preoccupied with guessing their question that it was hard to listen to what people were telling them. This is ofcourse what often happens in real life when we are preoccupied with other things in our heads while talking to colleagues, clients, etc.

Though we did not talk about communities of practice, I have always been attracted to CoPs for organisational learning because I think they can offer that protected space for real listening and reflection.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Communities of practice: there's communities of practice and there are communities of practice

Something I learned from Marc Coenders is to make a distinction between communities of practice as a (socially-constructed) learning theory and the 'thing' we call communities of practice. This sounds really logical and evident but helped me to be clearer at times what we are talking about.

The community of practice theory talks about how people learn, and how this learning is linked to being part of a community (socially constructed), working from empirical observations on how learning of practitioners actually takes place. By observing and understanding what happens 'naturally', we may be able to be better facilitators, advisors, coaches, members or leaders of learning processes.

On the other hand there are 'things' (usually groups of people- but sometimes mistakenly used for platforms) called communities of practice for whatever reason. Because the initiators were inspired by the theory, because it sounds nice, or because someone in the organisation heard about the term and introduced (and it stuck). These 'things' may also be called differently, for instance learning circles, and in that case the theory can still be helpful to make sense of what's happening and to see how best to intervene to make the group effective towards its learning purposes (this may not ring any bell to you, but it helped me, so I thought I'd write it down).

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Technology: blogging and curiosity

Josien posted a comment on my blog and a link to her blog. She's interested in communities of practice, web2.0 and management of common goods like water (he, I'm an irrigation engineer :)). Reading her blog makes me curious: she is Dutch but lives in Portugal. She has links to other blogs I read too. And she blogs about when does niche finding become group think :
" Recently I read up on intercultural communication and was interested to see a research where it was found that class barriers are often more important than cultural barriers: a higher class Londoner has more in common with a higher class Indian than with a lower class Londoner. Bloggers all over the world have more in common with other bloggers than with their neighbours." That's definitely one of my big questions too.

I just think this is great about serious, topical blogging, it is such an easy way to stay in touch with the thoughts of so many other people (my number of blogs in bloglines has gone up to 54, I really want to bring it down to below 50).

And blogs are a weird way of slowly getting to know a person. Beverly Trayner talked about her schooling in Kenya. Though I know her through CPsquare, if she was not blogging (or if I would not read her blog) I would still think she speaks English pretty well for a Portugese woman.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Culture: Absolutely intercultural

I received an email in Danish from Susan Nyrop and I was able to read it. It had a link to Absolutely Intercultural a new site with weekly podcasts:

"We’ll be releasing a new episode every second Friday evening, looking at all intercultural aspects of human intercultural communication. For example, we’ll be hearing from students on foreign work placements, looking at intercultural aspects of the forthcoming World Cup, asking how teachers can make use of intercultural exercises and simulations in their classroom and sharing with you any intercultural gossip we come across. ‘absolutely intercultural!’ won’t be so much about passing on information but more about starting an intercultural dialogue between the makers, and you, the contributors and listeners."

I listened to the second podcast which was done like a radio show with a gossip column at the end. It talked about two projects- one on how to teach culture in adult education. Stressing the point that you have to experience it. Another project talked about the development of a magazine on the city of Leon. Unfortunately, the interviews don't go very deep into the intercultural experiences, but it is fun to hear all the accents!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Technology: what blogging can contribute to my country

Ore Somolu, a training coordinator from Lagos, Nigeria, and blogger at orenotes wrote a post for the young caucasus women blog mentoring project wrote a post with the title: What blogging can contribute to my country She distinguishes:
* Blogs as a tool for learning
* Blogs as voices of the people
* Blogs depicting reality of life in the country
* Blogging contributes to locally relevant content
* Blogs as forums for social change

She describes how she posted on her blog on this mentoring project and through the comments, got a group together who will start a blog mentoring project for girls in Nigeria.

It's blogs for locally relevant content that has been on my mind. It seems to be easy for people to start using the web with english buttons (some experiences from projects in Ghana), and they could blog in local languages. There seems to be a group of people who can write and read in their own language in Ghana, but not in English (despite the fact that school language is English).

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Technology: Blogshares

Following back the referrals (something I do quite often, you get to see where people got the link to your blog, that's for instance how I knew I was mentioned here. Today I noticed my blog is on blogshares . My status is available for trade. (nice that they also ask me whether it's available for trade). The value is 10,084,50 $. So what's the process, I sit and wait for my trader to pass by and pay me??

Friday, April 14, 2006

Practical example: the tech forum in Kumasi

Four institutions worked together to organise a tech forum in Kumasi: GINKS, a network on ICT for development, the
Kofi Annan Centre, a center for exellence in ICT, Kwame Nkrumah University for Science and Technology and IICD. The whole idea was to bring people together and reinforce the community of practice of technical ICT people- working from the idea that some informal of a community of practice may exist but is not supported in any way. It originated from the expressed need of technician working in ICT4dev projects in remote areas for more support in their work, as they are sometimes stuck in finding appropriate solutions.

The idea was to advertise via a discussion list and see who's really interested in this - get people who are willing to invest in sharing. This did not really work as it yielded only 3 reactions- possibly because it is a kind of new way of 'recruiting' people for workshops- and the workshop may not have sounded rather vague to people. So the collaboration of the 4 organisation came in handy - we were able to use their networks to spot interested people, making sure all are ICT4D practitioners and aiming for a good balance of people working in urban and rural areas. What was hard again was that you cannot invite people working in large institutions directly, but you pass through the directors, who sometimes may have their own considerations of selecting people for workshops, making it hard to find the people who are interested in a community of practice and who are passionate. From the beginning GINKS had expressed a clear interest to continue facilitating this process as one of their 'nodes', which fits in with their vision of developing the network.

IICD co-facilitated the workshop with a Ghanaian facilitator, in practice IICD's role was to bring in the notion of a community of practice (through a presentation) and (for this group) new methods to get people talking and sharing in a certain way with their practice at the core of the conversation - like tech story telling, open space, and the showcasing sessions. Best appreciated were the story telling and showcasing sessions- open space was considered as too short to get to a meaningfull level of interaction (15 minutes per round). The storytelling worked amazingly well- in groups of 7-8 people, each talked for 10-15 minutes. Even though we had had an introduction session (geek dating), the stories were so telling about the core of the work of the ICT4D technicians, and made it so clear how they worked. It showed some clear connection between people (like all the virus and worm solving stories), but also the variation in jobs- we identified some 6 categories out of it. The methods invoked lively discussions - at some point someone noticed we 'forgot' to do any icebreakers. Some participants mentioned that over the workshop they got some solutions to problems they had been struggling with. The most insightful discussions were generated as a result of the fact of having people from different background- eg. software developers from the private sector and technicians with a development task in an NGO. One of the insights was for instance that NGOs do not have the ideas and purchasing power to commission the development of specific, tailor-made software applications- whereas commercial developers work mainly for the commercial sector- hence the situation where few appropriate applications are generated.

At the end all expressed the interest to continue as a group exhanging both online and face-to-face-and try and enlarge the group. Besides GINKS, who volunteered to take a leaderships role here, 4 people volunteered to place similar roles. GINKS has opened a Dgroup just a week after the event- for online discussion, and it has started up with lots of contributions. This seems to be a group which is very confortable exchanging online and making use of internet groups to get answers to their technical questions.

What I personally learned:
* Though it is hard and complex to organise such an event with 4 institutions, in this case it proved very useful, as all had useful links to offer - for instance the Kofi Annan center brought in the link with the open source community, IICD the link to rural projects, though we could have used more intense communication on the design of the event.
* It seems worthwhile to keep the event short (we had one and a half day) so that the interest is generated but not exhausted.
* It helps to have a common experience during the event like the eclipse :) for bonding.
* It's great to organise this with a group which is not typically workshop-hopping around, but keen on using it to make their work easier.
* For open space to be useful, more time would have to be devoted to it- I have the impression people did not get the chance to find eachother on their passions.
* The chances of success seem higher when you link up with existing initiatives like the Linux groups, the GINKS network- for that it's good to know the field beforehand.
* Finally, I wonder whether we should have identified common projects to work on at this stage. We did not make an effort to pick out a few salient issues or project from all ideas floating around. Let's see what happens.

Practical example: Showcasing your work

During the tech forum in Kumasi participants had the opportunity to showcase some of their work. One example was kasahorow, an open source site which helps translate Akan (Fanti and Twi) and Ewe languages into English. People are invited to help enter data. The example was given that in Ga language there is no direct translation for he word quarter, so the site also works to foster agreement on translations. It reminded me of the sessions with had with our community workers in Mali- translating French into Bambara- they always wanted a lot of time to discuss translations of various terms before going to talk to the people in the communities because they were very unsure of how to translate the french concepts.

Besides being impressed by all that's being developed, it struck me again how communities of practice can provide a space to share and discuss what you're working on and how your working on it, so that others get inspired, and the case owners get some admiration. On top of that, there was really interesting feedback for the developers of the site; people were questioning the need to register first (looks like that is changed already?), and tips like the existence of organisations like the Institute for Languages, which does not know about software, but knows a lot about languages. Though this sounds obvious, it is something which had not yet occurred to the developers. It can improve the quality and usefulness of the work.

I'll refrain from entering my Fanti translations to Kasahorow- I'm still frustrated that my Fanti teacher used to add -oh to an english word and then claim that that was pure Fanti (like office-oh, computer-oh, and bye-bye-oh).

In the next post I'll talk more on my reflection about the meeting. If you want to know the meaning of Kasahorow, you can check it out here

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Communities of practice: Interview with Bill Snyder

At the
Copper website you can find a link to a webcast with Bill Snyder (also called in the same introduction William M. Snyder (?). He talks about what a community of practice is, and how it worked in the case of the Copper group (a CoP in higher education).

A community of practice is a group of practitioners connecting over time to learn and collaborate together. The social component is important as it generates trust and comfort to be able to ask each other questions. He explains the elements of a community of practice: domain, practice and community.

For the Copper group, the domain had been identified during a congress where various campuses could nominate the kind of issues they were interested in, and could rate their interest and expertise to share. Topics were for instance, inclusiveness, service learning and assessment. Various in-campus and inter-campus activities took place like teleconferences, f2f meetings, campus visits and newsletters were produced. The campus visits have an important place because they give a chance to see practice in context.

At the end the interviewer asks how why a community of practice is important, as it takes up time. He answers there are two elements (I heard four):
1. the research component, researching new teaching and learning
2. the practice- translating research into practice, for instance for a new approach to maths, how to apply it in the classroom
3. professional development
4. reputation building

Communities of practice monopoly

Via Bill Snyder who posted a link on CPsquare I found a CoP monopoly gameboard. If you develop your own cards with questions (didn't see a link to the cards, nor a description of how it was used) it would make for a great self-assessment tool for a community of practice session!

For CRDA I once developed a board game on participation - for two NGOs- the non-participatory one would go fast in the beginning, the participatory one slow in the beginning but much faster in the end. It made discussions on participation so much more practical and was fun to play.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Technology: using mobile phone sms-services to blog

I tried blogging from Ghana (Accra in the picture) using my Ghanaian Areeba sms service from my mobile phone. It worked (though I had to approve it, but that's a setting I can change in blogger). New is also the GPRS service with which you can have internet connectivity via your mobile phone. (but which is said to be costly).

Dorine Ruter asked:
"Technologies to connect mobile phones to email to content management tools (such as Blogger) have been around for some time. It can make us all exiting to see the opportunities for content uploading and downloading. I sure know I am! Still, I never heard of anyone seriously using this in a developing country other than western development workers experimenting with tools. Does that mean that it's nice in theory but never will be more than a gadget?"

From my observations in Ghana; the sms to email service is seriously marketed, and might be an interesting application indeed, for instance sending information to a mailing list. sms is so common: I sms-ed much more in Ghana than in the Netherlands (I must admit this is due to my 'age group' not being active sms-ers :)). Personally I'd not be a serious blogger by sms: the fun part of blogging for me is seeing your post appear, otherwise it is really like throwing some text in the air... but the most amazing thing is that things change so rapidly. So talented people might if there is a rationale for doing so.

And nemik responded on my blog: Speaking of SMS, I made a small site over my spring break from university that allows people to update/post to their blogs via sms. It works from anywhere in the world too. Check it out letmeparty. Apparently this is an attempt to blog by sms. I'm curious where Nemik lives...

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Technology: energizing communities in Ghana

In this webcast Mrs. Rosemond Kumah, the coordinator of ISODEC in Tamale, Northern Ghana talks about the way a video attracts people in a community in Ghana and influencing their thinking about girl's migration to the south. I made this webcast because I thought it was an interesting story about the way ICTs can support the work of community workers. Just later I thought it could be nice to blog it as well as an example of the way 'new' technologies can influence communication.

I think technologies in general have the potential to be exiting- and get people enthusiastic. At the same time, it is the art of the facilitator to present it in a way that it is energizing. Access to more ICT facilities can hence widen the range of interventions a facilitator can draw upon.
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Sunday, April 02, 2006

Technology: a Ghanaian bookmarking site

During the Tech forum in Kumasi, Ghana, people showcased some of their work. Amongst all amazing work, Henry Addo (not in the picture unfortunately) showcased his Webmark site, a free (open source) online bookmark manager.
Henry uses mostly cybercafes to access the web, and used to list his bookmarks on one of the computers in the cybercafe. When he found someone using the computer with his bookmarks, he used to get annoyed. Out of this need, he decided to develop an online bookmark manager.

We compared his bookmark manager to the way I use Henry felt delicious is too chaotic and takes too long to load. But he likes the public nature of the bookmarks and intends to work on incorporating that feature into Webmark. The intention is to expand the site, but keep the service free by getting advertisements on the site.

I think this is a great example of appropriating technology design for localised solutions. Even though there is an enormous amount of bookmarking solutions readily available, a Ghanaian developed bookmark manager will suit the needs of the cybercafe visitors much better than some of the readily available online bookmarking systems.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Technology: Young bloggers

This is what Sil (4 years) likes to blog. The dog's name is pluisje and he jumps.