Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Everyone is a non-profit?

This month's question of Netsquared is: What do you think the role of nonprofit organizations is in the changing world of social media? They start off with this video of Clay Shirky answering the question. Well, if Clay Shirky has answered it, what can I add?? He is basically saying that the lateral connections that are possible as a result of social media are far more radical than the changing relation between non-profits and their members. So the question for non-profits is: What do you do about those lateral connections? Which are beneficial to us or to our cause? Suggest to them that you, 15 people, could get together and work together. You can watch Clay Shirky explain it in the video below.

So what do I think? I can answer this for development organisations, as that's the sector where I have experiences. In a way social media make it easier for each individual to become a non-profit. We can all start a fundraising session on our blogs, we can organise a twestival for a charitable cause. Is this an important change that development organisations should watch out for?

To answer this question it may be good to look at the private initiatives by individuals and the professional development organisations. Initially development organisations ignored the private initiatives, but they have slowly realized that it has its powers and needs to be cultivated because it is so important for creating a broader commitment for development cooperation. So in the Netherlands, joint initiatives like Linkis and Impulsis were started by development organisations to support the private initiatives. Lau Schulpen of CIDIN did a study into private initiatives in Ghana and Malawi. Some of his findings:
  • The private initiatives work in splendid isolation
  • There is lack of sustainability of the intiatives
  • There is little accountability over results. Learning levels are low.

This is ofcourse a different situation than Clay Shirky talks about. These private initiatives are not using social media. Are not connected and are not sustainable. So what could be the role of the professional non-profit development organisations? Now some thinking outloud; there could be two ways if professional organisations see a role for themselves to create synergy:

  1. They could leverage social media (like helpalot, a social network for charities or Nabuur trying to get people north and south to help) to facilitate connections around themes and geographical areas. This is probably in line with what Clay Shirky says, but the difference is that a lot of people are NOT yet participating through social media. In this case the non-profits need to think strategically what to look for, how to create communities around certain causes- align energy- link private initiatives and (paid) professionals, with the professionals as experts. Get private initiatives online and share, but this needs to start face-to-face and it is a cultural change from the current isolated initiatives. What can we gain from this? A wider understanding of development work, more private funding better aligned to certain causes probably.
  2. You could also see the private initiatives as charities, working on welfare, and the professional organisations as working on development issues. In this case, it is better to create separate lateral connections. Maybe help private initiatives to use social media to communicate with their charities in the south. Stimulating learning between professionals is also happening by organisations like Agri-ProFocus and PSO.
  3. Taking Shirky's view that fast lateral connections ARE happening online through social media, non-profits could also start with listening online to what's happening. Did you know about twestivals? Do you know global voices? Beth Kanter has a good blogpost about listening. Organisations and individuals north and south are sharing more online, but are we listening or are we only sharing? How much time do we want to invest in this? How to avoid becoming overwhelmed? After listening ideas for facilitation may come up, with their mission in mind. But keep in mind that this is a minority group.

I'm not sure this makes sense to the original question or is too specific to the development sector. I guess in our case we cannot assume that we are all a non-profit. But we can also not ignore the fact that we might all become a non-profit in the future, working voluntary towards causes we have some emotional ties with.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Launch of communities and networks connections website

Tony Karrer and Nancy White have been collaborating to make the communities and networks connection website which brings content from various places the web together on the topic of communities and networks. Today is the official launch. My blog will be part of the network of blogs feeding into the website. I'm happy that I'm part of it because I seem to be doing a lot of different things, but this is the core of my work and expertise.

The site is similar in structure to the elearning site. I'm not sure how I will use the site, but I guess I will add the feed of the site to my RSS reader. As Tony mentions: "it is a network to form something that's not quite a community. I see it as being aimed at the 95% of people who don't subscribe to blogs but are interested in this content. It's a way they can more easily find that content. It's also an aide to bloggers in terms of organizing their content."

Ofcourse you can also use the search function or the sidebar to find bloggers you didn't know yet, like the endless knots weblog. Or search on the left sidebar to find content on a particular topic like twitter. Just click and try!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Do wikis change development work?

Friday 13th was well and safely spent in Utrecht where ICCO organised a session with David Weekly, the founder of Pbwiki. I wrote a somehow faithful summary for the icollaboration weblog (which is starting to look more like my blog than a teamblog...but never mind since I believe in making what's happening in the group accessible online!).

I will use this space to elaborate more on my own thinking and my sceptism. Though I'm a social media adopter, I also have my reservations. For one thing, it was interesting to understand from David Weekly what the online wiki niche is. Large companies have their own online packages and stuff (like sharepoint) but that wikis like pbwiki come in handy for cross company collaboration. People in large companies are setting up wikis because the other applications run behind firewalls that are not accessible to partners in other companies. In development, this is a different case. Large organisations may have applications, but smaller development organisations in the north or organisations in the south may not have invested in any systems. Wikis (free or for a small sum of money) are then a good solution that empower people to set up wikis to collaborate with others online. If you know how to work with wikis and have a certain level of access to the internet that it. Easy and free= empowering?

However, I have the impression that so few people like working with wikis and are comfortable working with wikis that the real revolution that Shirky promised, worldwide collaboration at scales we have never seen, is still very far ahead for development. The wiki examples are more online libraries build by a few enthousiastic persons than representing a new way of collaborating. It looks cool to put a conference online is a wiki, but how does it support learning and decision making? Maybe I'm putting my expectations of wikis too high in a way. And we may not have investigated it enough.

My worry is that if development organisations set up wikis to do the same work they used to do- it might not change anything substantially in the distribution of powers in the current development process. I guess that needs more, a vision of what to build or collaborate on (like wikipedia had ofcourse a great vision of becoming an online encyclopedia), and a process to bring stakeholders together around that vision in a new manner. Or the other way around, having a spontaneous collaboration. But maybe a much larger group needs to be comfortable working with wikis and other collaborative tools before that happens. Being overoptimistic may be counterproductive.

Ofcourse a wiki is only a tool, like a hammer, and anyone is free to use it as he/she wishes. But somehow the tools seems really powerful in the hands of a community. Like the km4dev wiki is a growing resource and dynamic repository. But it's not easy to stimulate people to make their hands dirty. And many may learn more from the verbal interactions than looking at the wiki so we should not overestimate the importance. It's a gut feeling that we should not measure change by the number of wikis, but by how the wikis changed the participation in the processes, and the truth is that we might exclude people too. I'm fearing too that partners organisation may start wikis because they have the feeling some donors are suddenly into wikis. But that may be diverting attention from what we should really focus on. Any ideas? Do you share my concerns?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Networks for Humanitarian Aid

On Saturday I did a session about networks and communities of practice for the alumni of the NoHA masters. The NoHA masters is an eighteen months course in international humanitarian assistance, co-organised by 7 European universities. Since their interests in networking were very broad; including personal networking strategies, network facilitation and working with networks in the field of humanitarian aid, I started with an exercise about self-organisation and an introductory presentation. In the exercise I asked 10 volunteer to line themselves up according to ascending age. This was easy for them to do, and shows the self-organising power of humans. If you understand this, you will work differently with networks.

After this, we discussed in smaller groups on the basis of various questions. How are we using networks in our work for humanitarian aid? How could we leverage them more? What are the pitfalls? And what are our personal network strategies? In my group, I noticed that not everyone is convinced that you can learn how to network. I don't consider myself a natural networker, but I've learn to network professionally. An interesting case was shared of a coordination meeting between humanitarian aid organisations that continues for years, and doesn't not seem to yield much value to the participants in terms of learning and innovation. Ofcourse, coordination is necessary, but it would be an interesting challenge to see how we could make more of those routine/boring gatherings that all participants see as an obligation.

Afterwards I had nice discussions with the leading committee of the alumni association. Their biggest challenge is to foster ties between the different years and to focus on the practice when members are working at many different levels, varying from field to policy level. Miguel from Spain raised the cultural differences at national level. Cultures (at national but also organisational levels) differ in their inclination towards professional networks and associations and the types of networks you invest in. In Spain for instance, the kinship networks (families) are very important and people invest quite some time in those. In the Netherlands, associations thrive and it is common to take up a voluntary position.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Learning from mistakes versus learning from feedback

On the knowledge management for development list there was a discussion about learning from mistakes. Matt Moore pointed to the mistakebank ning platform. I decided to join because I was curious to understand whether you can really learn from mistakes. Some of the examples I felt were rather blunders. For instance, I bumped into another cyclist today- that was clearly my mistake or rather blunder but nothing that you can really learn from, unless maybe to watch out more carefully but hey this is life... so you just say sorry.

And can we only learn from our own mistakes or also other people's mistakes? Through the mistakebank I found a blogpost citing Eleonore Roosevelt who said "learn from the mistakes of others, you can't live long enough to make them all yourself" which was contrasted with the idea that you can only learn from your own mistakes. That would imply we can observe others, their mistakes, and incorporate that in our own practices.

However, most mistakes are not as obvious as bumping into another cyclist. Most mistakes may go unnoticed, may not be recognised like mistakes by the mistaker (did I hear someone mention Bush??) or only by some and not by others. Or the effect of the 'mistake' may take long to become visible. I went back to Kenya where I worked and found out the whole irrigation scheme we built was flooded again because the water levels had risen. And at times it is easy to label something as mistake in retrospect.

In terms of changing practices, learning from honest feedback may be more important, in the form of spontaneous feedback or in organised processes like After Action Reviews. Today I got positive feedback about my blog by being mentioned in this list of knowledge management bloggers. I also got positive feedback after a meeting I conducted "may I give you a huge compliment for this meeting" someone said spontaneously. Since I became freelancer I got much more positive feedback than when I was an employee. I have the impression it is much harder to create a culture of feedback in organisations, after all, it is quite sensitive and may alter your relationships. I also got feedback recently I don't recognize. Hence, it's important the receiver recognises the feedback in order to act upon it, by giving clear examples.

Maybe we need to distinguish levels and types of mistakes? Or rather talk about experiments? Or is it more worthwhile to improve feedback? And how do we learn from mistakes as organisations?