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Phase 3, Insights and recommendations

More effective online collaboration, dialogue and interaction?

These seem to be the key insights and recommendations emerging from the final rounds of discussion:

 (a) For enhancing participation and engagement

Consider…

  • the benefits of inviting specific categories of people (e.g. indigenous peoples), and also inviting different persons as actors and contributors. Pay attention to literacy issues – both as subject matter knowledge and ability to express it, to language barriers and to an increasingly shorter attention span
  • a suitable technology and platform; with sufficient time for an introduction to virtual meeting tools. Mixing the tools/platforms helps by introducing diversity. But remember that participants want easy access: "I can engage on an ongoing basis, but only with those that deliver to my e-mail inbox..."
  • the interest of members in the issues to be talked about. A common purpose/product really helps (and therefore the need to make it clear, compelling and meaningful)
  • the role of facilitators in bringing participants on board. Really active and engaging event facilitation helps, just as a champion who "walks the talk" and respond to requests from others, and by doing so builds a strong relationship with them
  • giving visibility to the participation and engagement. Simply knowing that there are others grappling with the same engagement issues in the community can spur people to engage. Feature community members so that others are confident that their messages will be received by (and responded to) people like them. Appreciate your community members as this will always encourage them to participate
  • participants are all busy, and struggling to multi-task (but they will make time and participate if this is important for them)
  • having a very clear structure and questions (as for example this series does). It is better to have a well-designed process over time, structured for interaction and well paced (slow or fast), and with an adapted rhythm. Having planned activities, knowing that a specific conversation will be held during a specific week, allows people to plan and participate. It also helps to deliver content before the workshop / conference as this is about people interacting
  • different modes so as to be as inclusive as possible. Live/synchronous events may privilege those in shared time zones, those with greater technology / bandwidth / uninterrupted electricity at their disposal, people with status, people comfortable thinking through talking or comfortable talking in the language in use. On the other hand, asychronous communication may privilege those who like to read, write, produce or  video/audio; those who need to do some interpretation linguistically, re-watch / reread / slow down, those who go online often enough, who like time to think about things before responding, have low bandwidth, or live in the farthest flung time zone, etc. (Asking and answering questions works great in asych, is forgiving of time, doesn't usually require deeper sense making or even fast relationship building. Synch gives more space for contextualization, sense making and relationship making)
  • having thematic discussion lead into a scheduled conference or webinar. This helps inclusion and diversity of participation, and also helps create momentum for the event
  • the importance of making things low stakes and conversational rather than formal and “on the record” so to speak
  • that listening is also participating, and that engagement is as much what we listen, take away and reflect and share and do, and not just contributing (and that participants also contribute by forwarding messages to others and spreading the word, even if not responding directly to a discussion) - but that it is important to get listeners to signal / provide feedback (but "without being dramatic and threatening to take away that which we do...")
  • that the contribution of one participant (or if another member is not forthcoming, of the moderator) is often a great catalyst to elicit other contributions, and that
  • a large readership can be a big motivator for people to contribute and engage.

 

(b) For nurturing effective COPs

Consider…

  • the organizational setting of the CoP. Do members come from the same organization, or to what extent are there similarities amongst their backgrounds? This certainly has an impact on the level of trust they have towards each other, which is a prerequisite for them to engage in the CoP
  • a critical mass. This is extremely important when the CoP is thematic, and not time- or event- bound. Having multi-sector members (producers, governments, SMEs, researchers, financiers etc.) provides new perspectives and creates new networking opportunities (led to a growth of the community)
  • actively encourage youth to participate in the discussions (bringing in fresh ideas, they are often tech-savvy and using online tools makes it more attractive to them)
  • aligning the interest of the sponsoring agencies in supporting CoPs and those of members of the community The institutional backup is important and a major role that knowledge organisations
  • the importance of privacy issues and the feeling of being judged. Many respondents indicate that they are not comfortable in / used to sharing their thoughts “publicly”, being concerned about other members judging them based on the content of their contributions / opinions or even based on the correctness of their syntax or spelling
  • combining them with in person conferences and retreats (before the start and then perhaps annually), as these are traced back as the root for sustained online CoPs.  Talking on voice calls for sustained number of regular sessions and using check-ins as a process design element can also be a way to ground a new CoP by contributing to the early growth of feelings of community and trust
  • having relevant content. Support and encourage the development of discussions and knowledge products in local language
  • regularly asking all members what they want to discuss and learn (e.g. through short survey monkey forms). If they cannot attend a live discussion, record and provide link in group so they can watch it in their own time (when internet is stable) and jump into the discussion
  • that a number of mentions of your group on different platforms will increase chances of being picked by search engines and always traffic will be directed to your group
  • conducting a capacity needs assessment and developing a capacity development action plan for operationalizing the group. At the same time, consider training different national facilitators (as CoP champions), bearing in mind that capacities and ownership are key issues to ensure post-project sustainability (“don’t invest in the idea, invest in the people behind the idea”)
  • that growing engagement and building trust among members takes time, but also that when the added value and incentives are clear, then no monetary incentive is needed to keep the group going. Repeating/reminding members what the common goals are is also key
  • avoiding duplication and fragmentation. Consider how CoPs can communicate and coordinate better among ourselves, covering all areas of development
  • the need to demonstrate impact. One way can be through single stories and narratives shared by those involved, showing how they have used a COP in their work or for their own purposes (aside from stats and numbers)
  • the need to do more work / support / encourage changes in attitudes towards knowledge sharing and learning – seeing this is increasingly recognized not because it is “nice to have”, but because of the value it brings.

 

 

(c) For using appropriate platforms

Consider…

  • that people are more likely to adopt a platform if it is fun, easy and popular. Use tools that the participants are familiar with, or allocate some time for learning how to use them during the sessions.
  • starting with the simplest approach as a way to let most people participate meaningfully; that can mean no video (or sparingly for introductions), introducing one “shiny toy” at a time, etc. (Remember that it’s not obvious who will be adept at using these tools/behaviours – age, seniority, location, etc. are not reliable indicators)
  • platforms that are user-friendly and which can easily be operated on a mobile phone interface. This is because nowadays most people access the internet with their mobile phone devices. At the same time, all the technologies must work well on lower bandwidth and must be fully compatible to cheaper and affordable digital devices
  • platforms that allow that the material shared is accessible and searchable in the future
  • platforms that allow for conversations, “the most simple interaction may be the most meaningful…”
  • the benefits of e-mails as a system that allows for “my own rhythm and choice of when to participate
  • that many people spend a lot of time on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Zoom, etc., all of which substantially differ from an e-mail based exchange service. It may therefore be necessary to look out for a bridge between social media platforms and formal platforms such as Dgroups
  • that a multitude of platforms, to be used simultaneously, may be counterproductive. “I have a phone full of collaborative applications which are all set to silent mode because it is impossible to follow up on all conversations…”
  • that we engage with frontline stakeholders for whom privacy and secure channels are important -activists, human rights defenders, and the such. This poses further challenges
  • the possible need of working with interpreters. The option of simultaneous interpretation is offered by some platforms, like Zoom, but others are not prepared for it
  • showing and sharing the barriers that you have faced as a facilitator: this helps you be sensitive to the barriers faced by some participants 
  • the benefit of regular inputs from animators (moderators) who regularly inject content, summarize the outcomes of completed exchanges and more, launch calls for action, etc. 

 

 

(d) For learning through e-collaboration

Consider... 

  • the need to start at the individual level, with curiosity about everyone and everything, a conscious effort to 'stay on top of our game' and find out what is going on in the domain we're operating in 
  • the need to build trust and participation In order to “learn from my virtual neighbours”  
  • that we need to learn how to work in situations with low bandwidth and weak connections 
  • how to articulate the benefits and advantages of online collaboration so as to show that in the right circumstances they can be much more than simply a poor substitute for face-to-face 
  • communicating and coordinating better among ourselves, not just looking at our field of expertise but across all areas of development: collectively we shall have maximum impact” 
  • the possibility of connecting different groups, looking for potential shared interests (for which it may be necessary to identify within-group segments that may share this potential interest, and then a few individuals)
  • organising 'structured' reflections on a regular basis at a team level; encouraging team members to share their individual learning in the team; encouraging short feedback loops and documenting that learning but more crucially re-injecting it back into policies, protocols, procedures, processes, activities, practices, behaviours 
  • encouraging learning across teams in an organisation. This is also the level where organisational incentives (e.g. in job descriptions, in peoples' appraisals or reviews or conversations about 'how things are going' matter. And this is where leadership from the management (and embodying that learning attitude) is crucial alongside leadership from all other staff members… 
  • organising a sector-wide reflection process (at the wider domain / network / sector level) with multi-stakeholder platforms such as learning alliances and innovation platforms 
  • that Zoom meetings with small breakout groups are an effective way to build silo-breaking connections across communities and disciplines 
  • that organizational action is needed to facilitate innovative learning across communities and disciplines. The private sector is doing this; government and non-governmental organizations should embrace it, too. 
  • individual innovators and change agents need to make a concerted effort to build silo-busting personal relationships 
  • that it is essential for online groups and communities (and conversations) to consciously work on tolerating more diversity, more orthodoxy and group think. And how important press literacy is here again to get people in those conversations to step aside and reflect at a meta level.
  • that we are still learning… All our efforts have been “learning by doing approach”, and we need to continue testing what may or may not work  
  • the benefits of (collective) visualization, even if this requires skilled facilitators: “when we can see the value created in learning through the reflective and double loop learning process, we are encouraged to keep going…”
  • the indicators, held individually or collectively, that allow us to formally or informally identify the value we are creating together (number of posts, no. of posts we have time to read, links we actually follow, new relationships seeded, ideas applied, etc.).
  • that, sometimes, “the most important thing is just to soak into what’s around us and not get bothered about acting upon it…”

 

 

 (e) For sustaining engagement through time

 Consider... 

  • organising thematic discussions. Just like the one we are now having on dg-dialogue, a planned thematic discussion is a good way to promote an activity for a limited period. It's possible to have several such discussions per year. These can sometimes be sponsored, providing valuable income for the CoP 
  • that moderators can regularly look for and send citations/abstracts of interesting papers, or new items that are relevant to the group's remit - this can often stimulate discussions, especially if the moderator shares their own perspective or asks questions 
  • an iterative process: for example, hold a thematic discussion in the weeks preceding a F2F event or webinar, present the key findings at the event, and then present the event report back to the CoP 
  • that all messages, as far as possible, are potentially useful and relevant to readers - the more enthusiastically that contributions are received by readers, the more likely they will contribute 
  • the need to ensure that the CoP is a safe space where contributors will not be 'put down' or personally criticised by others 
  • measuring sustainability properly. Perhaps we’d need to see if participants developed the necessary skills, interest, conviction or trust, or even learned how to use new tools to engage in meaningful discussions – and if they are doing it. Not with us and not between them as a group, but with others
  • that discussions that stop have not necessarily failed. People have been positively influenced by their engagement, they have been exposed to new ideas, have developed new skills – and are putting this all into practice
  • a COP as a permanent tool for learning has to be designed in that way from day 1, with a clear business case for it. But there may be more to win by joining ephemeral COPs, considering that we may set goals and expectations, but it will still be difficult to know where it will all take us
  • the need to address unexpected issues, and that the focus on preparedness may therefore be more important than the focus on sustainability

 

 

 

 

  

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