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Critical factors for more effective online collaboration, dialogue and interaction in development

Last Friday, 50+ people joined a virtual workshop to share insights and experiences with online collaboration, dialogue and interaction in development. Part of the KM4Dev 20 years event on 2 and 3 July, the session applied an experience capitalization approach to identify ‘actionable knowledge’ that improves our practices in this area.

Starting points …

We started off with 4 guest speakers sharing short lessons on the 4 critical online collaboration factors identified by participants in an earlier KM4Dev Knowledge café:

  • Riff Fullan (Helvetas) about online collaboration platforms and technologies: what should we consider? – view his slides
  • Nadia von Holzen (Learning Moments) about online facilitation and leadership – view her slides
  • Yasmin Klaudia Bin Humam (World Bank) on community online engagement and participation –view her slides
  • Saskia Harmsen (Oxfam International) on trust and safety in online communities – view her slides

Although talking about platforms and technologies, Riff reminded us that collaboration is about people, so they must be our starting point. While there are many different platforms – email-based, web-based, single/multi-functional – choices need to suit all the users expected to be part of the community. Observing that “no platform is perfect, but most have their evangelists”, he recommended we assess them according to our needs, what can be added, what capacities are required, any security/ safety considerations and a platform’s future-friendliness [watch the video recording of his presentation].

Nadia continued the focus on people, calling for us to make 3 switches in our community facilitation: Bring people and interaction online, and not content; maximize engagement through involvement; and treat online facilitation as a creative challenge and not as a technological one. As she sets out in her blog post from the session, good online facilitation and leadership start with clarity of purpose. With it, we can get people to interact by: 1) bringing a process online, combining the various elements; 2) structuring it for interaction, participation, and engagement; 3) playing with rhythm and pace; and 4) using plenaries for framing and breakouts for conversation [watch the video recording of her presentation].

Yasmin shared engagement and participation approaches and lessons from the FinEquity community that advances women’s financial inclusion. She highlighted two engagement types: 1) regular sharing and conversations among members; and 2) time bound ‘dgroups’ dialogues on specific issues and topics. To sustain community engagement, her community posts regular ‘asks’ on specific topics, empowers members to take initiative and enhances the value of the community to its members. Inclusion of diverse perspectives is an important consideration for which she says they prime the community to be aware of this, prepare co-hosts to proactively engage everyone, identify and motivate key participants and actively facilitate to include everyone [watch the video recording of her presentation].

Drawing from experiences in the Charter for Change (C4C) initiative and network, Saskia explained how trust facilitates online interactions among NGOs on ways to change humanitarian aid so it enables more locally-led responses. She explained how using the C4C dgroups communities have helped generate and reinforce a sense of belonging and shared purpose. Members can build pressure through collective voice, save time and resources to participate, come together on equal ground, facilitate cross-learning and take up of advocacy at global level. She pointed to a few ‘power’ pitfalls to avoid: Recognize the different capacities and support that participants have to avoid the best-funded and best-prepared dominating the interactions; similarly, poor connectivity of some participants can reduce their ability to effectively contribute. Equally important is to avoid information overload and use of jargon or sophisticated language and concepts that create insecurities in some participants [watch the video recording of her presentation].

Icebreaker - Dgroups session at KM4Dev20Years event

Conversations …

Energized by the short presentations, participants formed groups to identify and discuss critical factors shaping their experiences with online collaboration, dialogue and interaction. Some of the points shared:

  1. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to consider online collaboration approaches and events, opening new possibilities and demanding new skills and processes. In particular we are seeing short-form seminars, workshops and meetings translated to virtual webinars, zoominars and meetups.
  2. Perhaps reflecting the current boom in online events, attention to group and event dynamics emerged as a critical factor, covering everything from prior preparation, facilitation styles and culture, group size, purpose, simplicity, connectivity, IT configuration, time zones, languages, participatory formats, tools for harvesting, effective check-in, encouraging reflective thinking and listening as well as talking …
  3. Escaping silo’s and building connections and learning across communities and groups is important; linked to this is the idea that conversations continue over time and different events/platforms, building out and encouraging better (and more inclusive) collaboration.
  4. Inclusion of diverse perspectives, across time and space, from grassroots to boardrooms, multilingual, multicultural, and across digital or other divides (gender, age, race etc) emerged as a particular concern. As technical opportunities to participate expand, we must ensure we don’t leave anyone behind; and processes and engagement/facilitation of online events and groups should not exclude community members.
  5. Trust was again emphasized as a critical factor. It contains aspects of inclusion, creating equal opportunities and ownership, and listening. But, participants wondered: Can you build trust online, in a short time window? It is hard to get without some face-to face interactions to establish and reinforce relationships.
  6. Conversations on community platforms covered many aspects, from appropriate documenting software, simple and lower bandwidth email platforms, time requirements to learn and use platforms, the set of functionalities, technical capabilities and attitudes of group members, the value of technology-driven ‘pain’, overcoming resistance to change, and the need to often learn and relearn different new tools as they keep changing.
  7. Under facilitation and leadership, some key factors include: Clarity of purpose and directions – this is what brings people together; thinking through with people what you are trying to achieve and work with technologies to help you to it; leadership from the top that makes it flow to the middle and bottom levels; starting where people are; process literacy, linked to facilitation skills; co-creation; choosing the right platform (links to diversity: access to tools, use of language); invite diversity, being comfortable with disagreement within collaboration; and active facilitation – discussion and interaction doesn’t happen organically.
  8. For effective engagement, time commitments of community members is important (think of the pre-engagement, the engagement, and the post-engagement follow up); find ways for people to interact; pursue coherent strategies; engage wider process owners in our organizations to co-create/co-develop policies and programs; set ground rules of engagement from the start; encourage and reward active participation; ease of engagement; meet demonstrated interests; show the VALUE members get from the community (not just what they can offer); people are the content – and conversation is in the centre. But: Not everyone is ready for continuous learning and it is more difficult to collaborate effectively online when people don’t know each other in person.

One group identified some elements that do not work: setting engagement targets and then closing the community if these are not reached, despite some members benefitting; incompatible/different IT skills and platforms; lack of face-to-face opportunities – you have to ‘smell people first before you trust them’; insufficient trust; or the idea that it is easier to disengage behind a camera than in a room.

Looking to the future …

A second exercise asked participants to look 5 years forward to the specific changes we want that will most enhance the ways we collaborate and interact online in the wider development sector.  Five years from now, some of the changes we hope to see are:

  • Most development collaboration will take place online. Online meetings will be the norm, but we will need to overcome real issues of inclusion, affordability and connectivity. Technology will continue to advance and become cheaper, becoming more ubiquitous – but what about bandwidth?
  • Development work will be collaborative, co-designed, co-created, and without silos. We will have adopted agile and collaborative approaches, and the mindset among development practitioners will change towards curiosity, openness to change, iterative and flexible approaches, and open to experiment, try out and fail forward together.
  • Connected facilitators and communities, e.g., global health communities, will collectively link up and add value across sectors.
  • Funding for communities of practice on a level equal to funding for in-person meetings. All parts of societies will be represented into the development space/dialogue/policy, and we will see a reverse power balance: local communities to lead/facilitate talks following the partnership vision.

Words of advice and next steps …

The session concluded with a piece of km4dev advice derived from the discussions: “Engagement builds inclusion and impact”, but at the same time we all agreed that we need to continue the conversation.

From 13-31 July 2020, the Dgroups Foundation will organize a follow-up e-conference to document and capitalize on experiences with online collaboration, dialogue and interaction in development:  Join the discussion!

Report compiled by Peter Ballantyne and Jorge Chavez-Tafur