Learning from our peers – How FAO and SDC use Dgroups

The second Dgroups Online Peer Exchange took place on 16 April 2013. As in the previous session, two Dgroups partner organizations presented their experience in using Dgroups for online networking, knowledge exchange and communication to support their work. Some 30 people participated in the session, with an interesting debate following the presentation by Kristin Kolshus and Julien Custot from FAO and Carmen Eckter and Carsten Schulz from SDC.

Supporting the Food for Cities global network

FAO has been a long standing Dgroups partners; indeed, this tool has been essential in supporting the work of the organization for technical discussionsknowledge networks,workshop preparations and follow-upsteering groups,online consultationsclosed discussions and much more. To date, FAO counts around 9700 members in the various Dgroups it supports – almost double compared to one year before. A good example of the practical use of Dgroups is the online community associated with the “Food for the Cities” multi-disciplinary initiative.

The Food for the Cities Dgroups was set up as outcome of the “Food, Agriculture and Cities” workshop (September 2009), where  participants “decided to put in place an email discussion list to foster further collaborative work”. The main objectives of this list is to bring together people working on different aspects of urbanization challenges for food and nutrition security, agriculture and management of natural resources.

The membership of the group is very diverse, including participants from  the public sector (national and local governments, municipalities, and international organizations), as well as from the private sector, academics, NGOs and civil society. From 100 members in 2009, the group counts now over 1900 participants from different domains and positions.

While it started as a simple discussion list, for both informal information sharing and structured conversations, the Food for Cities Dgroups has slowly been evolving towards an open knowledge platform and a community that provides common ground on“food systems approaches” and tries to connect other networks/initiatives working on these issues, within and outside FAO.

In terms of achievements, the Food for Cities Dgroup can be considered an effective global network for information sharing on meetings, preparation of visits and reports. It has also been used to facilitate the writing of the discussion paper Food, agriculture and cities (2011) and the development of a local food system approach.

In spite of this, some challenges remain and should be taken in consideration when using Dgroups. First and foremost, developing an effective list requires trust from the participants, and this needs time to be developed and established. In the case of Food for the Cities, it took up to nine months to get the list really active and the members to contribute and engage in online discussions.

Moreover, Dgroups at the moment doesn’t allow easy integration with other online collaboration tools, and this seems a bit of a limitation as group members are increasingly asking for an evolution of the Food for the Cities communities towards more collaboration.

Dgroups for learning in SDC thematic networks 

The use of Dgroups in SDC is also well established and increasing, especially after last year roll out of the new redesign of the platform. A variety of business functions are supported by Dgroups, such as preparation of events and meetings, ad hoc discussion and thematic exchanges, just to name a few. The presentation in the peer exchange focused on the use of Dgroups for learning in SDC thematic networks, exemplified by the case of the Employment and Income Network.

SDC thematic networks are set up around a focal point, a core group of thematic experts and the wider ring of network members, formed by a diverse group of SDC collaborators, practitioners, consultants, as well as members from academia and think tanks. The Employment and Income Network is used to facilitate thematic discussion and exchanges amongst group members to foster their learning on the issues related to private sector development and vocational skills development. By the same token, the members use the network to improve their development interventions and share good practices.

The group is quite big compared to other SDC facilitated networks. The discussions are not moderated but rather facilitated by a good team of online facilitators. Messages are not censored but group facilitators provide synthesis of the discussion for making them more digestible and of immediate use by network members. Having resources for the facilitation of online discussion in the network is a key element of its success, and one of the take away messages from the SDC case.

As in the case of FAO, some challenges remain in the use of Dgroups in the context of SDC thematic networks. While the new online platform presents some new, good functionality for networks administrators, not all members know how to make the optimal use of the platform. For example, not all members complete their online profile, resulting in a loss of information for network administrators.

Additionally, being the evolution of the IT environment and of SDC and cooperation offices as such, may require in the future the deployment of different tools that could present a better fit for the work to be done.

Finally, and related to the point above, the current multi-platform approach that currently support SDC thematic networks may have to evolve to a one single  platform approach in the future to foster a more focussed communication.