Archive for July 2011
(Image courtesy of the ever excellent xkcd)
Those of you who follow this blog have probably (like me) been distracted by playing with Google plus for the last couple of weeks. But the vast majority of people are still probably thinking “”Google what?”
I’ve held off writing about Google plus for a little while until I had a chance to figure it out a bit beyond the initial “ooh shiny” that makes me try out all these things, be breathlessly enthusiastic and then lose interest (my own software adoption hype cycle). Now I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks I think I’m in a better place to be able to share some thoughts on how it is as a tool and how it might possibly be used in aid/development work. (Note: many others have written much more extensive analyses of the product itself and its market positioning)
In looking at new social networking tools it’s important to consider two things:
1. The tool itself
2. The network and type of conversations it attracts or is likely to attract.
Often reviews focus entirely on the first of these overlooking the second. But starting with the tool:
Google plus has a nice clear fairly intuitive interface with status updates, links and photo sharing, individual profiles and an activity stream to look at the latest updates from those people you choose to follow. You can also “+1” or share a post you like made by someone else. For those people already used to using facebook and twitter and other social networking tools it will seem fairly familiar. But it does have a few novel features:
Circles – Instead of having symmetrical relationships such as friends in facebook or connections in linkedin, or having an asymmetrical list of people who you follow like twitter, G+ asks you to assign contacts to “circles”. These circles are groupings of people that you can manage however you like. Common defined circles might be “family”, “friends”, “colleagues” or topic based such as “ICT for Development” or geographically based like “Africa”. The idea behind circles is that you can use them as a quite sophisticated way of deciding who you share your content with – is it just with colleagues or industry peers, or with family. That way my boss doesn’t need to see my family photos and by personal friends don’t need to hear me banging on about the UN. I can also use the circles to filter content shared with me. You can share content with named individuals or make it “public” so that anyone who has added me to a circle or who views my profile can see it. The circles are private so you can’t see if I put you in my “close friends” circle or in my “ignore these windbags” circle.
The circles functionality is a little complicated to get the hang of, and generally most things I still share as public, but it is quite powerful in that it allows you quite a fine grained way of sharing content and organizing contacts.
Huddles and Hangouts – these allow you to join a group live text chat (Huddle), or group video chat (Hangout) with people in your circles. These are quite novel and powerful ways to allow you to communicate with others in real time. The video chat allows up to 10 simultaneous participants – much more than skype and so people have been raving out its possibilities for organizing training, or for organizing “fireside chats” with the CEO or live communication with major donors. While I think there are a lot of great possibilities with this – I think the best ways are still yet to emerge as most people seem to be just playing with it at the moment. I think the best uses for this are for very informal and unstructured interactions – but possibly organized at regularly scheduled times so people know to turn up for them (e.g. we’ll be chatting about “Smart Aid” every Tuesday so come join the hangout). The structure of the hangout is very democratic (anyone in an invited circle can see the hangout and join/leave at any time – you can’t manually add or remove anyone) so they are probably not good if you want to use them for something highly structured. You also can’t (yet?) share your screen which limits the use for training.
G+ also has integration with other Google products including working well with Chrome and showing G+ notifications neatly in G-mail – and having a nice top bar that quickly links you to other google services. Apparently there are still some issues with interaction with Google Apps for those companies using these – but these are being worked on.
G+ is still under development and they have been quick to seek and act on user feedback so I expect the platform to get better and more full featured in the coming months – but there are a few things which are currently missing which include i) a published API to allow third party add-ons (this is in the works), ability to easily cross post to/from twitter and facebook or to share web pages with G+ using utilities such as hootsuite, tweetdeck or addthis (although there are a few nice chrome extension already such as “surplus” which allows you to post your current page to G+). Also a few things such as being able to create publicly visible/shareable circles (to use as contact lists), would be very valuable.
As to the network itself: G+ is still available on limited invite only (although with over 10 million sign-ups already it can hardly be considered exclusive anymore). Thus far it’s mainly lots of technology people and “early-adopter” types, with an increasing number of tech-savvy international development people. In this regard it feels much more like twitter than facebook. The content that I see is more news/work related rather than the more personal sharing that you tend to see on facebook.
Whether this becomes more broadly used in the development world will depend a lot on what happens after the first wave of adopters. My feeling is that after an initial interest when it is fully opened, growth of use will slow considerably. There is already a crowded field of social networks and so despite some of the technology pluses – it will be a harder sell to broader audiences, if they don’t see a clear advantage over twitter and facebook. It is a bit more complicated, and slightly less intuitive to use than either of these and so casual users of these tools may not see the benefit of joining, especially if the people they want to hear from are already on their current networks.
Another issue will be the level of marketing in the developing world. Although the trial phase is obviously atypical, membership seems heavily skewed to North America and also apparently thus far male dominated. This will need to change sooner rather than later if later joiners are to feel welcome. Bandwidth for the “hangouts” and ability to contribute via SMS will also be challenges.
This means in the development field its use will more likely be for professional networking collaboration and knowledge sharing, and less for public broadcasting and fundraising with broader audiences. There’s might also be a niche for not for profits to reach out to major donors, volunteers and activists – although this is likely to be a different and more narrow audience than can be reached through facebook at least for a while. Also that for a while at least this will be among the tech-savvy rather than the many development workers who struggle with the idea of using new technology more generally.
It will be interesting to see age-demographics for G+ users. Will it be adopted by young people as a possible tool for digital activism? I haven’t seen any reliable data on this as yet (it’s probably too soon to tell) but this will be an interesting dimension to watch and will have a big impact on its potential in the developing world. Already it seems that early adopters are overwhelmingly male, which is not a good sign, although this imbalance may be diminishing as sign-up increases.
Overall, I think the Google team have come up with a promising product that looks good and works well. It includes some of the best of the features of existing networks, and although it looks more like Facebook, it might actually function more like an enhanced twitter in terms of how it is used and who is using it. I look forward to seeing how it gets adopted by the development community – it has great potential – IF it can get beyond being a silo for the technology and social networking elite and start penetrating broader audiences, especially in development agencies and NGOs and more importantly in developing countries.
The wider challenge is that adoption of social media among the groups that aid agencies are trying to work with is still very limited, and I’m not sure if the introduction of G+ will do much to change this.
For a comprehensive overview of G+ and how it works check out this excellent resource from Mashable: Google+: The Complete Guide
For some good tips on applying G+ to not-for profit work check out this blog post from Amy Sample Ward.
And come circle me on G+ as I figure it out: http://gplus.to/ithorpe
Last week I blogged about how aid organizations should do more to make learning a part of their brand (both their communication, but more importantly how they act).
I had a conversation yesterday about a new piece of work I’m hoping to be starting soon, and had an opportunity to think a bit about how this might be put into practice.
A major objective of this assignment will be to look at a specific area of work of the UN system to try to pull together evidence of what the UN has achieved in order to to better understand and also demonstrate and communicate the impact of the UN’s efforts.
A good start to this would be to look for success stories, to gather and verify evidence about the impact of this work, and from this to identify good practices, and write them up and share them widely. This could then be used both to communicate the work the UN is doing and the results it achieves – but also to disseminate and hopefully spread the use of the good practices identified.
This is already good – supporting both our brand but also sharing what we have learned, and is more or less what we currently do with our work on innovations and lessons learned. But to really maximise our learning we can and should take this a step further. What we also can do is to look at both our successes, but also where we have been less successful so that we can identify not only what works – but what doesn’t work, so that both good and bad practices can be identified and disseminated so they can be replicated and avoided respectively. In fact in any case study, even a highly successful one, there are both positive aspects and less positive ones – and for a full learning it is important to acknowledge and learn from both of them.
Another aspect of learning from our experience is that learning should be ongoing, an integral part of how we work – not just something which we try to bolt-on post facto. This means that reflection on our experience and continual improvement based on that reflection needs to be built into project design and monitoring.
Another aspect is that any examination needs to incorporate both “hard evidence” from data and evaluations, but also soft data from experience and stories which help us to understand context and the meaning of the impact. They also need to look at both internal assessments – and also external ones – in particular from the point of view of stakeholders perception of the value and impact of the work.
Similarly, and “good practice” that is identified in this area should not only be documented as a one-shot deal – but that practice should be replicated elsewhere to test its validity in other contexts -adapted and improved based on this new application and the documented practice refined and any relevant improvements reapplied in the original context from which it came. This way there is a continual cycle of refining and improving good practices rather than considering the a static “best practice” that is blindly reapplied.
The advantages of this enhanced approach are that not only do we identify what works and what doesn’t but through this approach the improvements are continual – not just represented by an episodic analysis of performance and selective sharing of successes. This is both more honest (we don’t pretend that everything we do is perfect) and thus more credible, but also leads to continual improvement.
In my next conversation about this upcoming project I’m going to push that we take this approach. Wish me luck – and watch this space.
This week we have had colleagues in town from IDS who are working with UNICEF on an innovative approach to documenting and communicating lessons learned and good practice in social protection programmes, which combines use of video with more traditional approaches (more on this in a future post once the video and materials are available online).
One quite important reflection they brought us was about the use of communication tools for sharing knowledge with external partners. In particular the tension in communication between promoting ourselves and our work, as against conveying the situation as it is. They suggested to us that we should try to find a way to make knowledge sharing and ongoing learning part of our organizational brand. This is possibly easier for a think-tank like IDS whose brand is built around knowledge than for an operational agency that requires public funding. Nevertheless it’s an intriguing idea worth exploring.
Much external communication in many development agencies and not for profits is dominated by fund-raising, brand building and advocacy. This leads to marketing that tends to follow two main approaches:
1. Emotional appeal – Creating an emotional connection to a problem or issue, and then identifying the organization with this issue and support of the organization as a way for people to do something about the issue. Examples are this are messages such as “every day 22,000 children die from preventable causes”, or “here is the story of Stella and how getting married early affected her life” followed by an appeal to please support us to help make it better.
2. Competency appeal – using communication to convey the idea that we understand the problem and have the skills and knowledge to address it (if only we had the requisite resources). This leads to to talk about our long history, our global presence or our well known success stories. It also leads to communication such as “for $10 you can protect a family against malaria”, or “here is our best practice for public finance reform”.
Both of these approaches are valuable in raising awareness of issues and in gaining material or other support for an organization. They are widely used because they are successful (many not-for-profit organizations have collected the evidence to prove it even if much of it isn’t externally published). After all most people want to support a cause they care about and work through an organization that proven to be successful.
But there is a third type of communication that is less well used that I’d certainly like to see more of from development organizations which can be both more reflective and self-critical thus helping us improve development practice, but at the same time be used to help organizations market themselves and the issues they work on.
Imagine that we make ‘learning” a part of our brand, part of who we are as an organization and how we choose to talk about ourselves. This needn’t replace traditional forms of communication but rather complement them.
Here the message would be along the lines of “we don’t know how to fix all problems in development but we are working with partners to try out new approaches so we can know better what works” or “we constantly reflect on and learn from our experience and the feedback of the people we work with so we can continually improve what we do”, or “whatever we discover about improving the lives of children we will share freely with others to help them multiply our own efforts”.
There are some tensions in that we would need to admit that sometimes we don’t (yet) know the best approach to a problem, or that whatever we are doing now, we might find a better way later and change our approach. But if we can find a way to do this in our communications with donors and have them still support us – then it will also make space and create incentives for us to be more reflective and self-critical about our work , be more willing to accept criticism internally and externally in the interests of continually improving ourselves and improving development work more broadly.
This way we would be communicating knowledge (from research and from experience) not to support our own agenda but to open ourselves up to examination and also to advance the greater good.
Am I dreaming, or can we do this?
I recently participated in an interagency teleconference organized by the ITU on “E-participation”, which in this context basically meant using technology to allow people to engage in meetings remotely.
The participants in the meeting (which was of course held virtually) included a wide if eclectic range of participants from international organizations including UNFCCC, OECD, UNHCR, Council of Europe, WTO, WHO, in addition to UNICEF and ITU. Several of us presented our experience with virtual participation in meetings internally and externally.
In UNICEF we don’t have a formal policy or strategy for e-meetings and are using a number of technologies and approaches, but our IT Division invited me to present on behalf of UNICEF about our practical experience, probably because I’m one of the most active (but very far from being the only) user and advocate for such approaches.
If detailed official notes from the meeting become shareable at a later stage I’ll share them, but I wanted to share my presentation as well as give a few personal reflections.
Here’s my presentation (very telegraphic I’m afraid) from slideshare:
Some of the points that came out from the discussions around our various experiences were:
1. Most international organizations are experimenting with use of virtual meetings, but the majority were at early stages of testing out the approach, often without any specific strategy with only a very few who were using them systematically with established practices and procedures for doing so.
2. The interest with the approach was fuelled by the fact that new technologies offer a range of potential benefits for remote participation in meetings which can have a number of important advantages over regular face to face meetings in a global organization. These can be both efficiency focussed such as reducing travel costs and time delays, but also effectiveness focussed – such as including new voices in the conversation whether allowing greater internal participation, or providing opportunities for greater external transparency and incorporating stakeholder voices.
3. Virtual meetings are a new kind of interaction and require new rules and culture change within the organizations that use them. This aspect is often much more challenging than identification and setup of the technology itself. The challenges range from overcoming the reluctance of people to use the technology, to working out rules for formally documenting meeting outcomes or for calling on remote and local participants in an eve-handed manner. And while there is a great potential for organizations to use virtual participation or webcasting to open up their governance processes to partners or the broader public, this poses the greatest cultural challenge of all – are we ready to show the outside world the sausage making machine that is UN decision making? Which meetings should be shared externally and what level of external participation is desirable and manageable, and what about those who don’t have the ability to access a meeting online?
Another cultural challenge is that e-meetings are often recorded which is great in that people are able to really hear what was said by whom afterwards – but this also poses a challenge to those used to carefully crafted meeting reports that might reflect the eventual sanitised agreements but not the full content and dynamic of the meeting. And if you know you will be recorded and broadcast does this change how you behave and what you say in a meeting?
4. Virtual meetings actually come in a variety of different flavours from simple broadcasting of a meeting with no opportunity for feedback, to video conferencing and telepresence where the attempt is to make everyone’s participation experience as even as possible. And there is a wide range of options inbetween. A few possible use cases are in my slides. It’s important to think about the type of interaction and participation you really want and how well the technology set-up supports this – also in terms of managing expectations about the type of experience and level of contribution and interaction remote participants will get.
5. It isn’t like being there. There are important social interaction dynamics which are very different in virtual meetings to in person meetings. In particular there is always a degree of asymmetry in virtual participation in that remote participants don’t get the same experience as those who are present in the meeting room. To run a meeting successfully you need to watch the “virtual body language” – can people hear you?, are they following and engaging with the conversation?, or are they tuning out and checking their e-mail (after all you can’t see them to tell if they are paying attention), do remote participants feel they are getting a fair opportunity to contribute?
6. The technology still mostly sucks (well that wasn’t how it was expressed in the meeting) – and there is always a good chance that some aspect will go wrong – so you need to manage expectations, and always have a plan B in case it doesn’t work. It’s also important not to lose sight of the purpose of the meeting and the type of interaction/input required while trying to deal with the technology challenges.
7. Participation isn’t only the meeting itself. It’s useful to think in terms of how to engage people before, during and after the meetings – in particular to link meetings to online communities or discussion forums to allow people to start to engage before a meeting, or to continue the discussion after the formal meeting has finished.
If you want broader participation you need to plan to promote your event and motivate people to join. During the meeting it can also be useful to make use of tools like Twitter (or Yammer if you want to keep it internal) as a backchannel to the meeting itself and also as a way to share soundbites from the meeting with those who aren’t able to join the virtual meeting live. After a meeting is over it’s also important to quickly share the meeting recording and presentations with both participants and relevant non-participants, and to quickly carry out any follow-up using online tools if necessary in order to keep people engaged and active in the next steps forward.
Within the UN at least I think we have some way to go to make use of some of the online tools to support collaboration outside virtual meeting tools such as twitter, online communities and chat-rooms or live document collaboration (such as using wikis or google docs in real time).
8. One issue we haven’t really dealt with in UNICEF and that is logistically very tricky and costly is that of real time translation/interpretation. For internal meetings we can probably muddle by but for external meetings especially relating to governance and policy we will need to find ways to allow participants to be able to contribute and listen in other languages -and how to weight up cost, translation quality and speed of interaction.
9. Not everything can be done virtually. Sometimes it’s important to meeting in real life. In particular some kinds of meeting require both face to face trust building as well as highly interactive meeting methodologies for sharing and interacting that can’t easily be simulated virtually. So we need to recognize when not to use virtual meetings and not imagine we can do without real meetings altogether.
The meeting didn’t end in any specific decisions on how to work in this area in the UN but I think it will be interesting to see what are some of the emerging good practices and use cases that come up from across the system.
Bonus: here’s something I wrote earlier on how to make meetings and conferences better – a lot of it focusses on the face to face aspect – but making sure there is an online piece and getting it right can go a long way to making meetings more productive too.