Saturday, May 27, 2006

Technology: blogging popular amongst arab women

(Photo: Wereldomroep) Oneworld had an article (in Dutch): webloggen populair onder Arabische vrouwen. Women in the Maghreb and the Middle East, especially young women, are starting en masse to blog. For the women they are a chance to express themselves publicly, and for the public it's a chance to know what arab women are thinking and experiencing.

It gives the example of an Iraqi women blogger, blogging under the name Riverbend who used to work as a programmer, but had to quit her job because of the war. "Three years and the security situation has gone from bad to worse. The country feels like it's on the brink of chaos once more- but a pre-planned, pre-fabricated chaos being led by religious militias and zealots."

When women started blogging in Iran, some spoke of a social revolution, but now enthusiasm has waned as not much seems to have changed for women (said the press release- I wonder, I'm sure it will have brought about lots of changes in terms of connecting women with like-minded ideas).

Friday, May 26, 2006

Technology: David Maister on blogging

From Maaike Smit I got this interview on blogging with David Maister on Management site (normally in Dutch, but this time in English). He took on blogging and says:

At first, the thought of putting something relatively new or fresh down many times a week was scary, but now, three months later, I find it
exhilarating. It’s a perfect place to share “smaller” thoughts that do not yet deserve an article, and quite frequently, you get really helpful and stimulating reactions from people around the world. I am learning a lot

There’s an old writer’s joke that says “You don’t know what you know until you write it down.” I am finding that to be true. The mere act of committing to writing on a regular basis is forcing me to think more clearly, and also more deeply about my work experiences. I am now writing at least once a month, and posting a blogpost four or five times a week. Readers can subscribe to these at no cost by registering on my website.

I definitely share his experience of learning/organising your thoughts by writing them down. Especially writing down what was capturing in an article is very useful. But probably that depends a lot on your style of learning.

Technology: Netsquared conference

Britt Bravo asked me to post this on my blog about the Netsquared face-to-face conference, but you can also participate remotely:

On May 30-31st in San Jose, CA the NetSquared Conference will convene early adopters, technologists, corporations, philanthropists, and nonprofit and non-governmental leaders to discuss and take concrete steps towards using social web tools like blogging, vlogging, tagging and podcasting for social change.

You can participate in the conference remotely in 3 ways:

1. Participate in the NetSquared chatroom where speakers like Mike Linksvayer of Creative Commons, Scott Heiferman of and Robyn Deupree of Bloglines will be sharing info. and answering questions.

2. Chat it up in the Conference Hallway chat room. We're using for both chats which is super easy and user-friendly.

3. Post a question to be asked at a conference session, or write a blog post to start the conversation online. Just peruse the conference sessions (link below) and click on a theme and session topic that interests you. At the bottom of the session description you can add your question or blog post.

Also, we will have folks recording the conference for you on our blog: podcast: and vlog: you don't have to miss a moment!

For more information contact

So I'll definitely try to get involved somehow if I find some time, if only view the podcasts

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Communities of practice: from fishermen guilds to the global village

Miguel Cornejo Castro has written an article called Revisiting Communities of practice, from fishermen guilds to the global village. He attempts to revisit the basic concepts of communities of practice with the goal of updating it, to ease the fitting in of contemporary communities (specifically refering to online communities of practice).

Going online changes the breed of communities by virtue of the following changes:
- Shrinking cost of communication
- Rise of information longevity
- Universal access
- Differentiation and competition in the global village

He describes various changes which are characteristic for (large) online communities of people who find each other via the internet.

I agree with the described changes, on the other hand, I don't think it is either/or. I think he describes a particular kind of community, which works for people who are fast working online and know what they are looking for (and probably works best for explicit knowledge). I think there will still also be other types of CoPs (smaller, localised, closed). So I'd disagree with tagging one type of CoP as 'traditional' and the other as 'modern'. And of course there will be a hybrid model, of communities of practice using both face-to-face and online media (open or closed will make for a large difference). What will be the difference in influencing the practices of a community of practice?

It's a good question whether the basic theory of socially-constructed learning is useful for the changes brought about by the internet and web2.0 'thinking', which comes with imported trust, more openess and faster exchange and networking. Is it still useful to talk about CoPs or are the dynamics so different that the theory looses its explanatory and predictory value?

Communities on flickr: the finished mural

On the sidebar of my blog I have the photos labelled with community (see on the right side). I often click on interesting pictures, and many times it was related to a mural. It is now finished. I don't have a clue about the mural, but it's become a beautiful piece of work!

Culture: stereotypes

From Dorine Ruter I got these stereotypes in my delicious inbox! I just stumbled across my own inbox because Jack Vinson had a game whereby you have to post an interesting resource in his inbox (which I did of course, mention game and off I go..).

There are no stereotypes about the Netherlands in the map. Probably because it is so special, you can hardly stereotype it. That americans dislike walking is new to me. The german punctuality is a stereotype the germans in Berlin really confirmed when most of their answers included 'punktlich' (which seemed to be there first criteria for measuring something good). So a stereotype map is useful while travelling!!

Communities of practice: online workshop in Dutch

I'm working with Maarten de Laat and Marc Coenders to prepare a Dutch online workshop about online communities of practice in September. We meet every month face-to-face to talk through the design, which is slowly cristallyzing. We involve two mentors and former participants in the design phase. In between, we use the online workshop space and skype sessions to discuss. Marc and Maarten have already facilitated an online workshop together, but I haven't, so we really need this time to get used to each other and become a team. What helps, though, is our common base in CPsquare as our own community of practice which seems to represent a sort of being at ease with chaotic, creative processes; apart from a shared base in theory of course.

Even though I get worried at times whether we are suffiently on the same line of thinking I do think we are a strong team in terms of complementary and overlapping knowledge areas. This is something I start to recognise in good teams: people not only complement eachother, but there should be a right balance in shared knowledge and complementary knowledge. Through CPsquare we can tap into the experiences of other online workshops as well.

Interestingly, the reaction to the price (1250 euros for 7 weeks) are very mixed. Some people think it's cheap, others think this is amazingly expensive. It probably depends what you compare it with. If you compare it with the experience of a face-to-face workshop (which I do) it is reasonable. If you compare it with online course, which are self tutoring and where you download standard materials, it may sound expensive. This workshop is a completely different overwhelming, highly interactive experience, which demands intense facilitation.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Culture: Hirsi Ali/Magan

There has been a lot of commotion in the Netherlands around Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I don't want to describe all the ins- and outs of the case, but I do like to point out to an intercultural aspect of the whole affair. For the Dutch people, it was a shocking detail to see that she had changed her name (from Hirsi Magan to Hirsi Ali). In Somalia, there is no such thing as a family name, but there is a long line of names going back to your descendency. As she explained in a press conference "I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, who is the son of Magan, son of Isse, son of Guleid, etc." So there the use of names is much more fluid; and using a different name may feel less of a 'crime'. (I actually think the timing of the news and her general position played a much bigger role than this -minor- intercultural element).

Naming conventions differ alot. This weekend my friend could not check in because they had booked her on her first name (booking done in China) rather than her second name. I had many problems in Ethiopia where they could not understand that my passport has two Christian names (Gerberig Johanna) rather than my 'roepnaam' Joitske. So I became very careful in using my Christian names in all official communications.

Technology: Electronic conferencing and gender

There are gender differences in the use of internet. The potential and use of electronic conferencing: a study of women's involvement in a global context looks at steps that can be taken by e-conference organizers to promote greater participation by women in the south. The article starts from the premises that there is a link between information and empowerment, and women should not miss out on the benefits offered by the information revolution. The internet is seen as a male tool with opportunities for women to adapt it for their own uses and benefits. In one case girls involvement in classroom discussions was enhanced by using electronic media, as there was time for reflection and they could determine the pace of the discussion in spite of their more dominant and outspoken classmates.

The study looks at e-conferences in the field of water supply and sanitation in Kenya, Columbia, Russia, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, India and Ghana. 41% of women had subscribed to e-conferences but never sent messages, as compared to only 17% of men. On a positive note though, 3 women from South Africa felt that they enjoyed a greater degree of confidence online as compared to a physical forum. The hurddles were that women would be the last to be given access to the internet (physical access), women's percepton was that e-conferences were male dominated domains, and lack of confidence as e-conferences were seen as a large public arena. Technophobia was perceived more as a problem for women than for men.

So there is a potential strength in the medium of e-conferences to draw in women, but it needs careful attention, starting from the promotion stages. Female chairpersons and moderators may be of help as well as skillful facilitation by prompting women. I can also think of using smaller groups in which women may feel safer.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Communities of practice: creativity and innovation

My uncle-in-law (or how do you call the uncle of your husband?) is a piano player in the Dutch Swing College Band. The fact that we have never gone to hear them play will show how much we care about jazz music... (he is the fourth from the left side). If you want to listen to their music there's a webcast from their appearance on Barend en van Dorp. The person who forced us listen to jazz was Nii Ofuso in Takoradi, who was our Fanti teacher and had an hour jazz on the radio on Monday evenings. He would often tell us to listen because he would send us greetings on the radio.

But that's a long introduction to a really great article on Creativity and improvisation in jazz and organisations (I forgot where it was posted; I printed it and took it later from the pile of papers). I'm intrigued by the power of CoPs to stimulate innovation and creativity (it may even be the only reason why I'm so attracted to CoPs). And Frank Barrett neatly unpeels some of the dimensions of creativity in jazz and translates that into very solid recommendations for organisations. His parallels are really good.

He looks at
- provocative competence
- embracing errors
- shared orientation towards minimal structures that allow maximum flexibility
- distributed task
- reliance on retrospective sense-making
- hanging out in a community of practice
- taking turns soloing and supporting
(but these terms will not tell you much unless you read the paper).

For instance, the deliberate attempt by jazz musicians to guard against reliance on habits and patterns that worked in the past is his inspiration to point at the compentency trap: the tendency to become competent as an organization and to loose the edge of experimentation. Breaking routines (and that's what some technologies can do as well!). Organisations should encourage small disruptions and incremental re-orientations to sharpen perceptions and activate thought processes.

He also notes that most studies of organizational behaviour have a rational-cognitive orientation. The experience of synergy etc. would warrant further study, for instance the role of supportive relationships in drawing out one another's latent capacities.
" To foster learning, organisations must see beyond conventional, anonical job descriptions and recognise the rich practices themselves." I thinkthis is true for so many professions today, where managers are not sufficiently in touch with the practices or fail to see them.

He provides all kind of advices for organisations like "organisations must go beyond merely inviting new voices, but must also create processes that suspend the tendency to criticize, judge, express disbelief that might kill a nascent idea"

I will definitely add this one to my favorite articles. In a meeting somebody suggested a delicious tag called top10; I could start using that to be able to trace your favourites easily over time.

Technology: automasites

Via the bytes for all yahoo group I found

"It seems to be a very useful tool for civil society groups. They allow to created one's own
website by filling a simple online form. The form will automatically send an e-mail to one's email address, containing all the information
necessary to proceed. The application is based on the free and open source software (FOSS) publication system Spip."

I really feel like trying it out, but then suddenly I would have a website...? And would need to update it? Anybody interested to have a new website?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Culture: organisational learning masterclass with Nancy Dixon

Sarah Cummings blogged about the masterclass with Nancy Dixon we both attended. This photo is from the vodcast I did with her afterwards. Reading Sarah's ideas, I thought it would be nice to blog my own. First of all it is so different to attend a master class as compared to reading one of her books called common knowledge. Even though I could relate very well to the book, the 'live' stories made me see different things, as I started comparing them to the way we often work.

The underlying principles of her organisational learning work are:
* Problem-based- working from a specific issue or problem (not learning for the sake of learning)
* Peer to peer - most learning takes place between peers
* Conversation-based rather than written (same reason as above, most learning takes place through conversations)
* Learning before, during and after- an event of sequence of events
* Working with small groups- for effective learning
* Using life connectors - necessary to connect and link people, rather than using databases
* Have a sufficient understanding of the industry- in other to be able to understand the ways they work

I was particularly struck by the different of working from problems- onwards to learn as compared to the regular organisation of workshops and trainings around themes, as is customary in development work. Working from actual situations, learning is so much more situated in practice automatically.

Then I was triggered by the remark she made not to link learning processes to monitoring and evaluation processes meant to account to stakeholders. In development, a lot of effort goes into thinking how to combine the two- with the obvious inherent dilemma that evaluation processes for accountability purposes undermine trust and focus on what doesn't work. So I found it refreshing to hear a completely different opinion.

Finally, at the end of the Master Class everyone was asked to present one thing they learned during the session back to the group. The answers were so wide apart... So you learn (and take out) in connection to your own learning questions. Since this group of people hardly knew each other (uhm.. apart from some people- was nice to meet some of the ecollaboration people!), the answers will logically be wide apart. In the case of a session with a mature CoP- the answers would likely be closer.

Practical examples: birthday cakes

Actually I just want to show off the birthday cake I made for my daughter's seventh birthday (it's an awful lot of work for 5 minutes before it's eaten), but since I have such a serious title for my blog I'll make a story out of it..
The cake is a nice example of how practices spread- when we came back in the Netherlands, we were at a friend's children's party with a home-made coloured 'moon' cake. So we borrowed the cake books and the coloring stuff for our daughters' birthdays. They choose their own cakes (now it was not a moon or football, but barbie etc.). Since then it has become a tradition (including the borrowing of books and coloring stuff); long before their birthdays they start asking each other which cake they will choose from the book and my sister-in-law has purchased the same books to be able to do the same.

Similarly, at a cousin's party, the girls played a game to determine turns in present giving. The visitors all had their names on a paper inside a balloon. The host then let one balloon burst to see whose turn it was to hand over the present. Since this was such fun, we now do it as well, and it got copied again by several friends at their parties. Let's see if we can spread this across the ocean to Beth's kids.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Advising communities of practice: Process consultation revisited

I reread Process consultation revisited by Edgar H. Schein. When I first read it some 5 years ago, it was one of these books that seemed to describe what you are doing (or rather trying to do ...) but would never have been able of describing it this way. I just reread it. I actually never thought of linking it to communities of practice, but I starting realizing that advising communities of practice deserves its own stream in my blog. The reason is that I'm exploring what it takes to advise a community of practice in such a way that it will grow to be more effective in fostering learning and innovation. Knowing the theory is one, but advising CoPs/CoP leader is another.

There is often confusion on what a process consultant does, and Schein explains that very clearly by contrasting it with the expertise consultancy. Process consultation is the creation of a relationship with the client that permits the client to perceive, understand and act on the process events that occur in the client's internal and external environment in order to improve the situation as defined by the client. The principles he outlines for a process consultant are:
  1. Always try to be helpful
  2. Always stay in touch with the current reality
  3. Access your ignorance
  4. Everything you do is an intervention
  5. It is the client who owns the problem and the solution
  6. Go with the flow

Particularly number 2 is important for capacity building in development; lots of workshop allow people to reflect and talk outside their organisations about their organisation, but Schein argues that a consultant cannot be helpful for a client system if there is no diagnostic information to the client and consultant about the here-and-now. The here-and-now means talking about actual situations and giving feedback, which translates in actually sitting in and observing eg. meetings in an organisation (in contract to just talking about meetings).

He moves on to explain that in human communications we have a strong, learned sense of what is an appropriate and fair exchange ('learned rules' for communication). Face work is what both parties engage in if the relationship should be sustained in spite of an disappointing interaction (eg. laughing when someone makes a joke). The reason for face work is to reassure one another that we are acceptable; without face work, the world would become too unpredictable and dangerous for people. It is important for a consultant to be aware of his/her own filters/biases - in order to be able to build a trustworthy, constructive helping relation where the client can discover their real problems. Often this problem is unfolding itself only after a longer relationship. If the consultant is not aware of his/her filters, there is a risk to misinterpret the situation. (I actually think doing a lot of work across cultures helps to sharpen this awareness of your own filters- you become more flexible in postponing judgements in a situation).

Schein labels some major groups of interventions in the service of learning: deliberate feedback and process interventions covering task processes and interpersonal processes. Schein argues that there is the most potential for help in the processes (task, decision-making, boundary, interpersonal), as this is where most organisations derail as process effects on the quality of content discussions are underestimated. This is where I think the whole set of interventions (and considerations of where to start) would apply for advising communities of practice and you could probably 'translate' them towards that specific situation. I think an external advisor can help a community of practice on a process level, rather than on the content level. Often, a process consultant will start from the task process (reason for being called in) but intervening at the other levels when there is clear evidence that they are harming the group's effectiveness.

It might be a nice (but thorny) exercise to make an inventory of consultant interventions with communities of practice. I get the impression there are more books and articles analyzing and describing the beast (CoP) rather than critical interventions to make them work better (which is what I find myself struggling with now).

Last but not least the book is full of great examples, which are both recognisable and make the theory very practical.

Practical examples: CoPs in Ghana

In the vodcast with Nancy Dixon, she said that the theory of communities of practice derived from various anthropological studies and hence is not a Western concept. Afterwards we discussed whether the concept may have touched upon some universal principles of learning, which might also explain why it has become such a popular concept. John Smith commented: Doesn't it take a really deep understanding of the concept to transfer the external trappings of a community, though? The way we organize and support a community in different settings varies a lot! I agree there and think you should not only understand the concept but also the ways of working and learning of the professionals you work with. Sometimes I have the impression the ways of working and learning of professionals varies almost more between professional groups and sectors than between countries.

When I work in Ghana I am conscious of the fact that I don't know the context as a Ghanaian would and try to give different options when I propose something and ask for ideas and feedback. During the tech forum in Ghana I did a presentation on communities of practice and
we asked for questions and examples of CoPs in Ghana.

The participants could easily identify with the idea of social learning and mentioned various examples of CoPs in Ghana:
* Accra Linux User Group- people with an interest in the same thing come together voluntarily
* Informal women’s groups – shea butter, micro-credit (informal networks, meet to discuss issues)
* Ghana Agric Information network System (GAINS)- researchers sharing information on agriculture, open membership, voluntary, not just libraries

We also asked them what makes CoPs in Ghana work successfully and got the following ideas:
* Common goal exists
* Driven by a common interest
* Varied levels of experience at member’s disposal
* Willingness to share and learn – go out of your way to share
* Belief in what you are doing- I tried this and it worked, so why don’t you try?
* Linking to others that what you know can help
* Learning from masters of work- others can solve the same problem in a few minutes
* Ability to derive social or economic benefit from participation: social- identification/association with the group; economic: learning new skills enhance your economic outlook
* Identification of an issue that people have been struggling with- advocacy and campaigning together eg. linux as alternative to Microsoft
* Clear need to find innovative solutions to solve common pain

Questions we discussed were:
- What is the difference between CoPs and Dgroups?
- Looking at power relations with regard to being a custodian of information, how do communities of practice relate to this part of the world? – ICTs for democratizing information
- Open versus closed membership structures
- Can associations such as GNAFF be considered as a community of practice – an organisation with formal structures versus an informal organisation with learning objectives
- Guilds impose standards versus CoPs defining own standards based on shared practice, expertise/experience

Technology: offline tools

Now that I have a broadband connection, I almost forget how I used the web in Takoradi (with an unreliable dial-up connection). Basically doing as much as possible offline and hoping you'd not have large attachments (or when there were large attachments, hoping the connection would not be broken).

Via Kwami Ahiabenu I this information about a tool which enables you to search the net while being offline. It sounds very appropriate for unreliable internet access situation, and is called Webaroo. Kwami said: "You need to download packs of data into your library. I downloaded the "world news" pack (about 64MB), then disconnected my machine from the network and did a few quick searches. Firstly, most of the news was sourced from the US or UK, with most major news outlets were present in the search results. Secondly, what was quite handy is that Webaroo keeps a cache of the full-story pages so you can see them as they appeared on the site they come from. You can set your account preferences to update automatically when your computer is online, so that takes a lot of the hassle out of the update process. Webaroo also supports mobile devices. As a frequent traveler to places with little or no connectivity, this is a great tool and I see myself using it a lot. "

Nynke Kruiderink shared another tool which allows you to search the web by email: web2mail
"Web2Mail Lite even enables you to search the web by email. For example, to search for "peanuts" send an email to with the subject "search peanuts" in your email message. We will use a popular search engine to perform your search then reply to you with your search results, usually within 5 minutes. "

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Communities of practice: IMARK course building electronic communities and networks

From Nathaniel Heller I got the link to the new Information Management Resource Kit (IMARK) which has a new module on building electronic communities and networks developed by CTA, APC and FAO. You can register and do the module for free at your own pace (total is 26 hours).

It looks very practical. I registered and did one question: Trupti needs help getting information and staying informed about a wide variety of issues related to her work in women's economic empowerment and bamboo. Which of the following things would be useful for her? (to be very honest I got very annoyed when I had the answer wrong for about 4 times.)

I actually think the self-tutorial mode of teaching goes against the principles of learning in a community of practice by, and I don't think it would work for me personally, I think it might work for other people. It's good that it's available online and you can also request a free CD-rom with the same tutorial.