Good Practice in e-Collaboration – The Diplofoundation Experience

October 26, 2010 | bit-wartung | Methods & Tools |


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Dejan Dincic Diplofoundation 201004Lsb1On the occasion of our 9. Focal Point Workshop under the title of “dynamic e-collaboration through effective moderation of SDC networks”  and the subsequent f2f event of the network facilitators’ group, we had the chance to draw from the expertise of Dejan Dincic, Technical Director of  Diplofoundation. In today’s guestpost, he underlines key factors of e-moderation, and takes a critical look at a typical concern of  SDC networks: growth.

By Dejan Dincic – Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the 9th SDC FP workshop and the subsequent Network Facilitation Group workshop. Far from a routine presentation, it was a great experience for me. It proved something I mention whenever I talk about online collaboration: every context is different. Until these two meetings I hadn’t fully appreciated the different dynamics, challenges, and opportunities facing SDC networks.

Why is this variety of contexts important, you might ask? Good collaboration and moderation require tailor-made solutions:  we cannot simply apply various guidelines and recipes without adjusting them to a given context. For me, good practice in e-collaboration always starts with situating the online activities in a particular context. These activities rarely stand in a vacuum, isolated from our other work. Whether we want it or not, they relate to our other activities, our responsibilities, the way we think, how we communicate… We need to consider this relationship seriously in order to maximise our learning from online collaboration.

Understanding the context and the social dynamics of e-collaboration groups is important from a practical standpoint. It helps us to plan learning activities that will be relevant to our work and bring a value-added element. What we learn through online collaboration should inform our practice and/or help us with particular challenges that we meet while implementing our programmes and performing our concrete tasks. Even when online activities are reflective in nature, enabling us to stand back from our daily routine and think strategically about our practice, they relate in some way to our particular context.

Important as this is in a well-established group, it is even more important when starting a new collaboration or a network. Early online activities in such settings could demonstrate the value of e-collaboration and inspire future activities. There is nothing wrong with choosing simple and practical topics and objectives for a new collaboration. For example, identifying an upcoming conference or another face-to-face event of importance for the group, and planning online activities around preparations for this event will build on the participants’ existing focus and dynamics. It could facilitate initial engagement with the e-collaboration and produce some tangible benefits for everyone.

From planning to actionBlogImage1small
On a very practical level, there are some things that you, as an e-moderator, can do in almost every context, including semi-structured e-discussions. You can start by creating a welcoming atmosphere when initiating a discussion. Use a friendly tone. The tone and style of your opening messages are particularly important when a new online group is meeting for the first time. Other participants will see your messages as a model of appropriate communication for that particular online context and will usually respond in a similar fashion. Normally, a friendly tone somewhere between the formality of traditional academic writing and the informality of speech will create a good atmosphere for a constructive discussion. You can also adjust your tone closer to either end of the spectrum once you’ve taken into account the particular cultural aspects of your group.

If a discussion is to be highly ‘technical’, keep in mind that not all participants will have the same degree of familiarity with the topic. Re-assure those with less experience that their participation is welcome and useful – their questions may help clarify some issues for everyone, or even open new avenues of exploration for well-established topics. Before the discussion begins, make sure to clarify the jargon that might be used in a specialists’ discourse.

Another factor that shapes structured e-discussions is pacing. Remember, participants are taking part in the online activity while also handling various other tasks. They might be dealing with an urgent report or might have to travel during some segments of the activity, which may affect their ability to participate during that time. The challenge is to plan activities that provide sufficient time for everyone’s contributions (probably more than two weeks), and yet don’t take up too much time. In the context of the networks and e-discussions mentioned in the workshop, it seems that four weeks would be a good compromise when it comes to the duration of a typical e-discussion.

But pacing is not just a question of overall duration. It is shaped by other time-based constrains that you build into the activity plan, such as asking for initial contributions by some specific date, for responses and comments by another date, etc. It is also shaped by the frequency of your regular communication with the group. The common weekly cycle that we observe at work is a useful measure:  send weekly summaries on the same day each week, plan different phases of the online activities to start at week boundaries, etc.

After the workshop…
One question asked by workshop participants left me thinking: how much effort should we make to motivate and include as many participants as possible?  If people are busy with competing priorities, is it our responsibility, as moderators, to figure out a way to engage them? In my daily work with online communities, this question is rarely put forward. In those contexts, inclusiveness is either an explicitly formulated requirement or an implicit assumption. I simply assumed that the diversity brought by many participants would enhance the online collaboration, even if some of them require extra motivation to fully engage with the activities. But this question has made me wonder about the limits of these assumptions. I will certainly reflect on this some more in the coming days and weeks. Meanwhile, I wonder if Riff’s blog post about participatory approaches in face-to-face meetings hints some possible answers to this question…


Comments to“Good Practice in e-Collaboration – The Diplofoundation Experience”

  1. Riff Fullan says:

    Dejan, I like the way you interweaved the three threads of situating an e-collaboration in its context, facilitating with a friendly and supportive tone and starting with simple and practical topics. There are of course many additional thoughts in your post, but these together are a powerful combination for me.

    Why? Because they touch on the complexity of an e-collaboration situation – sometimes it is quite difficult to know just what the context is, how people will react (or if they will react!) to an invitation to dialogue. Even though we need to appreciate this complexity, we do not need to be frozen in place like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car: if we think of the simple topics that we know are relevant to people’s work and/or interests, we can make small steps that build on each other in an iterative way.

    As long as there is common interest in a group, in an iterative process others will join in keeping the momentum up, and before we know it, there may well be a thriving community in place. It does not happen every time, but when it does, it is a wonderful thing to see :-)


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