Sunday, October 30, 2005

Technology: ICT, poverty and development

In July I was in Ghana to work with a network on ICT for development called GINKS) and met Janet Kwami, an interesting researcher for the London School of Economics and Political Science. She was involved in an ethnographic study in one urban and one rural location in Ghana, part of a larger research in four countries (Ghana, South Africa, Jamaica and India). I haven't got a hold of the full research, but found one article based upon the research
It talks about the 'communicative ecology', defined as all processes of communication and information flow in a community in Ghana. She found that the most important ICTs in the region are trotros (busses), cars and human bodies, communication flows are channeled by trade (market gatherings), business and family ties. There is considerable expertise in coordinating movements and information by passing along information from person to person (followed by telephone, radio, film and DVD). Introduction of computers and internet should be integrated with the existing local communicative ecology. Eg. radio browsing (where an announcer surfs the net in response to listeners), or teachers sending requests for teaching materials to a computer center by travelling along the road, or laptops which are mobile. So roads, photocopiers and audio-cassettes can become part of the ICT mix. The point is to work with the existing structure rather than trying to restructure communications in terms of a new ICT.

Dr. Don Slater has written about this research in
Sociology Research News He points out that development work is looking for direct impacts and causal links between ICTs and poverty reduction, but he concludes that the most important relations between ICTs and poverty are indirect, contingent, unpredictable and long term.

The most important lesson I draw from this research is the importance of looking at existing patterns of communication, and link/add/build on the existing pattern rather than introduce some new alien media. This is true for CoPs as well as ICT projects. Actually similar to looking for existing informal networks. That means investing sufficient time for analysis before starting to support any CoP.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Practical example: Communities of practice at CARE International

I worked with CARE from 94-97 in Mali, first in Dire, then in Macina, both location at the border of the river Niger. I missed the whole thing about the introduction of the internet there, as we did not even have a telephone connection. We had radio contact with the other CARE offices. The mail from the Netherlands would arrive via the Dutch embassy whenever there was a car coming up from Bamako. Visitors who came up and 'forgot' the mail would never be able to make it up. But important information would travel amazingly fast between villages!!

I found a very good article about recent developments at CARE with regards to knowledge management. For the past two years CARE has been engaged in various initiatives guided by the Learning and Organisational Development Unit in Atlanta. The article talks about a pilot to create two CoPs with members from CARE offices in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka. It highlights the fact that a development organisation like CARE is highly distributed so that it is not likely that spontaneous communities of practice will spring up, so it tries to look for a balance between design and emergence. Trying to create social identity and encouraging the use of narrative language.

Since this type of development organisations operate under tight resource constraints, immediate value in areas of strategic importance is needed. CoPs need to effect an organisational transformation as knowledge sharing is not the norm. Project priorities typically encourage a narrow, dedicated approach. So participation in a CoP will also be a personal transformation for members as they begin to articulate what they bring to the work, rather than focussing on the execution of the project logframes. The solution tried in this case is to create a single, intense, facilitated face-to-face event, bringing together participants working on common themes. A structured approach, called the 5 D-model was used (discover, dream, design, document, disseminate) adapted from the appreciative inquiry approach. The idea is that individuals can not engage in a CoP unless they explore their own journey around their practice, and lots of story-telling is used. There is not yet enough data to say whether these communities will thrive, but the idea is that the intense workshop will form a core group which will allow for expansion.

In my own experience, it is difficult to work with a concept of 'voluntary' membership in CoPs in development organisations with distributed offices if the CoP relies on intense workshops as there will issues of budgets, travel approval, etc. So there is a need to design diversified ways of participating outside the workshops, or virtual exchanges. (the paper does not talk about this aspect)

Thursday, October 27, 2005

I like blogging so far!!

It's such a funny experience to get comments on your blog.. (unfortunately I don't have a dog, otherwise the dogfeed comment would have been useful as well :-)). I blog for myself to order my thoughts in the writing process, but then sharing the URL and reading comments is exciting, especially when it triggers new thoughts! Makes me feel I want to reply to the comments, but that's hard (have to figure out the trackback) and puts some pressure to write 'smarter'; yesterday's post was finished in a hurry because I had to go. While blogging you do have some sort of audience in mind, because you have to make a decision about about the level of explanations you give.

Beth Kanter drew me into a discussion on interaction in blogs and I liked the definition of blogging communities:

Blogging communities are collections of individual blogs (potentially tens, hundreds, or thousands) tied together by a larger common value or theme. Conversations can occur on the individual blogs, between the blogs, on a common messageboard that binds the invidudal blogs together in a community, or across other blogs in the blogosphere.

( I must admit I haven't started reading other blogs regularly, maybe if you would, you would get some cross-pollination of ideas? But that really takes time...

Blogging has started to invade (or dictate ?) my life already: when I cycled yesterday, I was thinking on my post of today (thought it had to be practical example on CARE-International). And I started to classify my paper articles in the same way as my blogdivision. (practical examples, culture, technology, they used to be all over according to projects).

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Technology- where is the action in virtual communities of practice?

By the way, this is not my office, but a library in one of the ministries in Ghana. I just thought it's nice to continue with a picture for each posting.

I have some articles I read which I found interesting, and the blog is an opportunity to review them and draw out the main points. One of my questions on technology is whether you can reach a level of virtual community of practice with a substantial impact on actual practice of the members. (I seem to doubt this). The article by Christhopher Lueg with the title as in this post is very useful for this question. He argues that the transfer of a concept that is deeply rooted in the lived-in world (like community of practice) to the virutal involved conceptual problems, such as the question where learning and doing are to happen in the virtual world. He looks at the newsgroup de.rec.bodyart which has similarities with communities of practice in that learning how to behave, developing a certain attitude and knowing about specific aspects are important for being a full member. Examples are shared anecdotes like pierced and inked persons denounced as disoriented by the German government (he, Germany again? still subconsciously influenced by my visit to Berlin? :)). Anyhow, in addition meetings are organized where members meet physically to discuss mostly bodyart-related topics. Yet, it would still be a virtual community of practice as the main medium is the newsgroup. Knowledge acquired online is manifested in the real world. Yet, it makes it unclear whether there is a 'shared practice'. His conclusion is that careful investigation is required when interpreting virtual communities as communities of practice and where learning and doing are located in the virtual.

I would indeed like to know more about where the virtual learning actually takes place and how it transpire into the real world. I think it depends on the practice of the community how important face-to-face interactions will become for learning. When interpersonal skills are important for the practice, I can imagine face-to-face interaction is more important to create really a form of shared practice.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Culture- Ampelmannchen

Last week we visited Berlin. In Berlin it's hard to escape the story of the 'ampelmannchen' at the trafic light. The traffic light man (the right picture) of former Eastern Berlin was designed in 1961 by Traffic Minister and psychologist Karl Peglau. He wanted to create a figure kids could identify with and be drawn to. East German schoolchildren sang songs about the Ampelmannchen during their school lessons on traffic safety.

After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, East and West Berlin were reunited in 1990. In 1994 Berlin began pulling down all the Ampelmanns and replaced them with the West German version (the left picture). Though the decision was based on the outdated electronics of the GDR’s traffic signals rather than aesthetics, the move quickly came to symbolize the tendency to discard East German society. Easternerns have become angry and a sort of protest movement started. The figure has now survived and been commercialised.

See for a story by Laura Koetter of 4 weeks research into perspectives on the reunification. What's interesting in this story to me is that it seems that a general feelings by Easterners of cultural domination by the Westerners is channelled through the symbol of ampelmannchen. Though after the fall of the wall, the easterners were craving for anything western, today, many easterners reevaluate the achievements of the communist era like the entitlement for women to hold the same jobs as men. So the fight for ampelmannchen may represent a deeper inter-cultural conflict. A true reunification must recognize the contributions of both cultures. And this is the same for learning processes between cultures, there should be appreciation for all cultures involved.

At though, another perspective is stated: the media like the story of the ampelmannchen to demonstrate the difficulties of East-West Berlin's reunification. It could also be seen it as a commercial movement by AMPELMANN GmbH (an Eastern company selling all kind of ampelmann stuff).

Monday, October 24, 2005

I did it!

After thinking and hesitating about blogging for a long time, I finally opened my blog! (thanks Beth for pestering me :-))

I will not blog about my bicycle tyre punctures and the weather (but for those who would have been interested in this: today no puncture but yes, rain..) but about communities of practice for development. I intend to use this blog to track and record some of my reflections and found materials, without having the pretention that it will be exhaustive about everything happening in that field.

My three main questions are:

1. What are practical examples of how a community of practice (CoP) perspective has been employed for learning and innovation in the development sector? What can we learn from those examples? (corporate cops and inter-organisational cops, north-north, south-south and south-north-south)

2. What are the cultural assumptions in the CoP theory which align or don’t align with other cultural settings? What are the practical implications of this?

3. How are technologies employed to nurture CoPs for development? How does this impact the functioning of the CoPs? How to mix online and face-to-face collaboration?

Or in short:

1. Practical examples

2. Culture

3. Technology

I'm really curious about blogging and want to experiment and see whether it stimulates me to actively look for information and reflect systematically on the topic. (...?)