Saturday, March 31, 2007

Vlogging in Ghana

I'm introducing the network GINKS in Ghana into the art of vlogging (not that I'm a specialist but I'm one step ahead of them). It's amazing that a vlog will solve all the problems they had with the management of their website! (uhm, those problems will still not be solved, but the blog is bypassing all the complex constructions and negotiations with the website host and gives them direct control over content management). I've had several requests to share the process and I will later.
As part of the process, I made one video myself during a conference on e-governance organised by CTO. Vikas Nath explains his idea that empowerment of women in governance using ICTS should pass via supporting women to increase their incomes via ICTs.

My question at the beginning is not right question, but apart from that, I think it is a great video because of the background, the vivid colours (it is nice to look at) and the focussed topic (it is only 40 seconds long). At one point, Vikas explains his point quite passionately, that's what I like about it. There was a discussion on gender and ICTs during the conference, and I liked the point Vikas made. The next day, I asked him to explain it again. Since he knew what point I was refering to, it doesn't matter that my question was not the right question. More about the technical options we are working with lateron.

You may ask how many Ghanaians have broadband connection to watch vlogs. I think the use of vlogging in development should go with equipping intermediaries with video ipods too, but to get the process going, we might as well as on the content production side. On the other hand, we should not underestimate how fast this process has changed for professionals in Ghana (a lot of them do have access to broadband connections) so for exchange between professionals this may work (let alone for people in the north who are interested to follow what's happening in Ghana).

I'm in the field

Last week I met a researcher who asked me about my work. He asked whether I was 'going to the field'. I replied no, but when I dropped the word Accra, while talking about my work the conversation became very confusing. It appeared the researchers considered all work in a research country as 'field'. As an irrigation engineer, I'm raised in the conviction that anything to do with office and not sufficiently muddy, is not 'field'. Hence my firm No-reply. A good example of the fact that crosscultural communication is not only between nationalities, but also between professions.

So in his language I'm now in the field (Accra). See in the picture that being in the field for me now means driving in cars (sometimes while colleagues are all talking to their own mobile phone)... Though I can understand this definition, deep down, I really disagree with this definition and miss the real fieldwork of walking in the rice fields and talking to farmers.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Social bookmarking NPtech and NPK4dev

In Ghana (all flags around to celebrate the 50 years independence see picture) I finally have the time to catch up with my bloglines, missed CPsquare teleconferences and blogposts in my head. Though I couldn’t download the audio file (it would take 5 hours...), I read the chatnotes of a teleconference call on the community formed around the NPtech social bookmarking experience with Beth Kanter. I was interested in it because of our work with the NPk4dev tag (see feed in the sidebar of this blog). Something that has puzzled me is whether a tag can really form a community. Tagging seems so superficial in terms of knowledge creation, it is more a flow of information. Can we say there is learning going on or is it just sharing information more rapidly? If people start tagging can we all that a community of practice? So: off to the chatnotes.

In the chatnotes of the teleconference the metaphor of the firehose was mentioned. At first I didn’t understand it, but at the second referal I understood it this way: when you are thirsty, a firehose can not help you to drink. Internet is now considered as a firehose of information by many. There was also mention of fear of putting your keyboard into your mouth - I didn't get around to understanding that unfortunately….

A question discussed was whether the community formed around the tag or whether the community formed around three individuals. There is a transition between the "people are the hub" versus "the tag is the hub”. The difference between the librarian approach and tagging was described as: every book on the right shelf vs every book is on every shelf. Actually a great way of explaining the different rationale between tagging and categorizing. (which reminded me of a discussion I had about resistance by librarians to some of new ICT developments). Then there was a remark that there are hunters & taggers, not everyone has the same role.

All this inspires me to reflect on the npk4dev tag process, a feed with materials tagged about knowledge management in a development context (aggregated on superglu). First of all, this is the initiative of one person (Peter Ballantine) who invited three others to start an experiment. I knew about the nptech case through a session in CPsquare (with Beth). And through her, I joined the NP (non-profit) tagvocates and we decided to rename our tag into npk4dev. The case was described on the e-collaboration group blog. We announced the tag once through the km4dev discussion list. We set up a blog which is still empty, because no one really had the energy to pull that process. The next step will be taken during a face-to-ace meeting of the latter group.
Now what's the role of tagging in community formation in this case? I think it strengthening the collaboration between the initial 4 persons and in this case, they take the tagging experiment hopping along various groups (in which they are already active), learning here and there. In a way, the tagging experiment has brought a new member into the e-collaboration CoP, a person who might be an fanatic tagger (?). I don't think we can talk about a ‘tagging community’ because it is rather the other way around that the experiment could leverage various existing communities of practice. People who would not know could from the outside think that this is a tagging community though.
This case shows that use of a certain new tool (like tagging) can apparently bring about new connections and new members into a community of practice, or might encourage others to become active, because a different skill/interest may be aroused. Some tools seem to encourage the formalization of a certain level of membership (like signing up for the Dgroup). The constellation of CoPs as represented by the formal Nten, Netsquared, CPsquare, km4dev and e-collaboration communities is probably also worth a study in itself!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Software success in Ghana

The BBC posted an article on software success in Ghana. (I copied the picture from there). What you see in the picture is the way it works. Guido Sohne, a Ghanaian software developer (through his blog I learned he has some German blood somehow) developed the software for this system. If you make a picture of this black and white design with your internet-enabled mobile phone, it will give you all the needed information about the building in the background, linking you to wikipedia.

Guido played a role in developing the semacode necessary for this technology. From the article: However, any example of African-created technology being used in Western cyberspace still proves the exception rather than the rule.
"If the size of Africa's IT industry corresponded to the edge of a wheel," Sohne says, "each turn would show just how far and how fast we are being left behind."

It is a nice example that it is possible to design technical software solutions in Ghana. So I'd love to see more appropriate design for the Ghanaian context, probably by linking development workers and software developpers. But who is going to pay for that?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Movable Distance, technology and remoteness

Via Cindy I read a long blogpost on Ideant; Movable distance, technology, nearness and farness. The first heading is: detours on the road to abolishing distance. While technology may facilitate being near things once considered far, more than technology is required to bridge the existential gap between the knower and the known. The essay has distance as its topic and argues that we need to think of more than the old temporal/spatial distance, as information technologies make it irrelevant whether we communicate with our colleagues next room, or someone at the other end of the world.

I really appreciated how ideant describes how a lot of talk about online communication carries an implicit judgment about online communication, with a bias towards face-to-face communication. "What do we lose?" Instead of: "what do we gain?"
The implicit assumption is that mediated conversations introduce impurities, because we use lesser senses. Yet, as the essay points out the mediated communication can provide kinds of knowledge not available through face-to-face communication. An online conversation can be 'near' when ideas are congruent with mine, while a face-to-face conversation can be very 'far'.

Now that I write this down, it sounds all too logical to me, and it seems everyone in the world would agree. On the other hand, I do experience that for a lot of people online is less and a substitute for 'real' communication because it is too expensive to travel and meet. I think that's a different mindset from knowing what various types of communication can be fostered and how it impacts the results. Somehow we need to become smarter as using various means without letting ourselves be driven by mere personal preferences. What's the advantage of talking on a blog rather than face-to-face? How does it shift the conversation? Without being aware of this, we will probably not invest in new types of conversations and continue on the same old roads.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

CoP as space rather than a group

Marc Coenders, Maarten de Laat and myself are doing an online course 'facilitating communities of practice' and we are asking the participants to reflect upon what they learned. I'm not sure we are asking them the right questions and I'm thinking that I learned a lot, but that it's not always easy to formulate what you learned.

One of the new things I have learned through the various conversations is that you could see communities of practice as a space, rather than as a (variable) group of people. It's an important one to me, and one of the things that make me think deeper about the relationship between the CoP theory and group dynamics. I have the impression there is not much convergence between the two areas of expertise so far. I think the usefulness may be in knowing about group dynamics in relation to the start up phases (after all, you start with a group of people), during events, and for the core group. In the end, it might be a huge difference to see the CoP as a space where people can find each other, it becomes independent of the people who make up the space. Food for thought!

Another one is how learning moulds relationships, where I assumed relationships preceed learning, in fact, there might be a on-going mutually reinforcing process when people are communicating between learning and the relationship (feeling close, trust, friendship) between people.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Ning: just what I was looking for?!

Via my husband and Checklist, a Dutch blog, I found Ning. Though I don't even try to keep up with all the new tools that are thrown on the internet, but I must say this looks just like the kind of tool I was waiting for. It gives you the opportunity to build an online platform in a super-user-friendly and easy way! You can choose to add or leave out features like video, blogs, etc. and you can choose whether you want a public or private platform. Erwin Blom created a Dutch one if you want to have a look. If you want a 12 minutes instruction you can watch this video:

Considering my recent experience with customizing a microsoft sharepoint environment for an online workshop (which needs technical expertise etc.) Ning sounds like an amazing innovation. With sharepoint, after all efforts, you get very un-userfriendly features; there is no email alert with content, there is no way to see a whole thread at once without clicking about 10 times, etc... A disadvantage of Ning could be the advertisements, but if you pay some money, it will be removed.

The funny thing is that they call it a social network (build your own social network). Whereas I would call it build an online interface FOR your social network. I may be old fashioned because I see the first useful application of Ning for existing groups. With the public version, you can choose to build a ning around a certain topic that may attract new people, so in that sense it might be a tool to build a social network too. (still can't believe that works well with starting with an existing social group or network)

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Pipi Langkous and story-telling

Some time ago, my daughter had to dress like Pipi Langkous for her teacher's birthday. Since she didn't like it (she has red hair and is sometimes already called Pipi) she refused to do so. She was the only child not dressed like Pipi but didn't care at all.

On Friday, I was flabbergasted when there was a discussion at the schoolforum about the information sheets that my daughter's school sends home to the parents. One person illustrated his argument against the sheet saying that one girl was not dressed like Pipi because her parents had lost the information sheet.

Though I'm not 100% sure, I think he was talking about my daughter. I'm always surprised how easily information gets twisted or used for somebody's own benefit and purpose. Another story: I had a problem with my foot in Kenya in 1989, I left Gem Rae for the Netherlands with the problem on my foot persisting. When I came back in 1990, the farmers were surprised to see me walking. The story had gone round that I lost my foot!

This brings me to my surprise about the strong advocates of story-telling. Stories are promoted as a way of capturing tacit knowledge. I agree with the fact that stories are powerful ways to convey ideas. On the other hand, stories in themselves are not good, holy or what ever. They can work to replicate or consolidate certain power relations. The content of the stories matters a lot.

So when can you use stories as an advisor for communities of practice? I get the impression people think that you are a good trainer or advisor when you use storytelling, its sounds cool and participatory. I think it is not as easy as that. It may be useful to be able to detect when stories get distorted and misused by the core group of a community of practice for instance. And you have to know when storytelling is not the right intervention. Who (mis-)uses stories and why is a good question though!

If you still want to use storytelling, here's a good storytelling guide developed by SDC.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

We're too much in a 'to do' mode

I know Maaike Smit and I'm proud that she has written a very revealing paper with a very explicit title about learning in the development sector: We're too much in a 'to do' mode (the title reads almost like a conclusion and recommendations at the same time :).

She did action research amongst development NGOs in the Netherlands, and investigates how they 'think and talk about learning, which influences the way they shape their organisational learning. Organisational learning remains a vague goal without 'hands and feet'. Most organisations categorise themselves as having an activist learning style. Joint reflection on experiences in not common practice. Reflection is mostly informal and project-related.'

She takes the stand that self-knowledge — understanding how you learn — is an essential first step in improving your own learning processes. Supporting people and organisations to reflect on their own learning processes and capacity is central to assisting them to learn. I think that's a brave and clear stand.

On page 18 there is two things that struck me, as I have been thinking about them for long. The first one is that new staff entering the organisation was mentioned most often as a factor promoting learning as it brings in new expertise and a fresh, critical view. I fully agree with this, but also see that potential is rarely leveraged. So probably finding out about how an organisation deals with the input of newcomers, will tell something about their learning abilities.

The second is that monitoring and evaluation were hardly mentioned as enabling factors for learning. Nancy Dixon was the person who talked about separating learning from accountability during her master class in the Netherlands, which seemed very refreshing after all the struggle to 'force' people to learn from monitoring efforts. As monitoring and evaluation is part of the accountability system, it is hard to get fully honest data on the table. When data do not match people's gut feeling, they do not really learn from it.

Having this information about learning styles of the development sectors (though the 3 cases already show how hard it is to generalise!); what consequences does this have for communities of practice? Does it mean that in the start up phase, you have to make sure you respond to the activist preference? And how and when do you introduce more reflective elements? Or will a community of practice automatically mould itself according to the preferential styles of the sector and are they not the best vehicle to deal with learning disabilities? (some of these questions I have tried to inject into a mini-project group of the english foundations workshop, so I'm waiting for them to give the answers...).