A while ago, my friend Peter Kaminski wrote something that was so terrific, I said “May I blog that?” He said yes. So it is about time I share this (emphasis mine):
I just wrote elsewhere: “The trick with wikis is to think of them as a substrate for community, and to work on the community, not the wiki. A wiki is like a table in a meeting room. It doesn’t create the meeting, or the discussion, but does enable it and create a place to spread out, organize, and retrieve information.
The other thing is that most people aren’t good at using wikis; you need 5-10% of the participants to be “wiki gardeners,” specifically tasked (and constitutionally able) to keep the table somewhere in the middle between sterile and a terrible mess.”
And, “Remember not to fetishize the tools; rather, use them as part of enabling people to work better together.”
There is so much goodness packed into those words. I might add “remember, not to fetishize community!” 🙂 And a great reminder as we gear up the online part of the UDGAgora project and Project Community. (I’m going to share this post over at our Project Community faculty blog as well!)
I am frequently asked about “the best collaboration” platform or “the best web meeting” tool and I am always at a loss to offer a clear, specific answer.
The reason? Context. Each group works off of a different set of base tools in their day to day work/life and it is always disruptive to ask them to change or add. One of the biggest disruptions is the flow across tools made difficult by many usernames and passwords (most of which I personally forget!) So I was intrigued when I saw mention of this technology which bridges across tools using one’s mobile phone number.
Thinking specifically of people I work with in international development contexts where mobile phone access and usage is more frequent and pervasive than desktop and laptop computers, I wondered if this technology can also serve as a gateway to a variety of mobile apps. I love this ideas of technologies that are “bridges” between other technologies. The more we can work seamlessly, the more time and attention we have for the other aspects of collaboration — such as paying attention to each other, getting work done and getting RESULTS!!
The group I’ll be conversing with is a group of 12 people who are involved in learning and change processes in their organizations or with their clients. (This reminds me of Beth Kanter’s Peeragogy.) They are on an 8 month learning journey and have been exploring things like social media (which reminded me of this post on how I use social media – albeit a bit dated), communities of practice, online communities and the like. Now is the time to start weaving across those technological and process areas. So a perfect time for community technology stewardship!
As we prepared for the webinar, some of the random potential bits for discussion included the practice of tech stewardship, the pros and cons of “hopping across technologies,” the tension between thinking about the platform AS the community instead of the people — especially distributed communities, what it means to ‘be together” as a distributed group, more on online facilitation, and how to identify community activities and tools useful in supporting those activities. The webinar will focus mostly on the latter and we’ll use the Activities Spidergram from “Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities,” as a learning tool. But to set the stage, I wanted to write a bit about the other topics. Sort of a lead in to the activities conversation. At the bottom of this post, I’ll link to all the artifacts we’ll use next week. And if someone prompts me, I’ll return after the webinar to post an update in the comments! (That means — show me you are interested/care!)
What it means to be together using technology
Groups, communities, pairs, networks are all about people connecting, being together in some way. In the “olden days” this meant being together face to face augmented by these artifacts which carried documentation of our being together called books, and letters that we slowly exchanged with each other via land based transport. Today we spend time with each other online — not just face to face. That may look like reading, replying to or retweeting messages via Twitter, interactions on Facebook, email, blogs, Skype, YouTube, Pinterest or any of hundreds of web based platforms. These platforms convey and hold the artifacts of our interactions. They are the digital traces of being together. But the EXPERIENCE of being together is something we create in our own minds as we navigate these artifacts. Without conversation with others, we may find our individual experiences of “being together” are, in fact, not at all similar. So the first key here is that being together, even technologically mediated, implies that we have to reflect – at least a little bit – about shared or different experiences. Otherwise we may not be “being together.” Sense-making is critical. So if I’m designing or facilitating a social strategy using online tools, I had better darn well design in process to facilitate reflection, sense-making and other similar types of conversations. Yes, conversations, which implies active listening — something you can’t always see or have in pure social media actions.
One of the tough things about all this is how to understand what is working. Is there really connection? We tend to compartmentalize the tech into things like page views. But does that tell us about our quality of being together? Of learning? Of getting things done? Not really. So in thinking about being together in this age, we need new frameworks for assessment. A nice intro to thinking about communities and how to evaluate them comes from a short video from the USAID KM Impact Challenge
Hopping across technologies
If you accept my first proposition that being together requires some sort of sense-making/reflective aspect, lets add on a layer of complication: hopping across different tools and technologies. So not only are we not face to face, but we don’t necessarily interact as a full group, nor on a single communications tool and this may (and usually does) vary over time. Community’s technological configurations change over time. Let’s pick this apart a bit.
1. There is rarely just one tool. From Digital Habitats we framed the idea of configuration this way: “By configuration we mean the overall set of technologies that serve as a substrate for acommunity’s habitat at a given point in time—whether tools belong to a single platform,to multiple platforms, or are free-standing.” For example, we may have a NING site, but we talk to each other on the telephone and no one every identified the telephone as an official community tool. 😉 Look around. Our configurations are rarely as simple as they look. Observe and notice what people are using. Explore if there is a shift from the official platform to others and use that usefully, rather than as a distraction.
2. Togetherness does not imply only full group interactions. Side conversations and “back channel” are an intrinsic and important part of a community’s communication ecosystem. We talk about “capturing” knowledge and having everything in one place, but the reality is that communities have all types of conversations and interactions. Some should stay small and private. Some should be captured and shared. And some will just happen. The key is that people are connected enough so that they DO happen. The interaction has primacy over the container or the captured artifacts … even if this seems counter-intuitive at times.
3. People start where they are technologically comfortable, and move to what serves them over time. Now this may seem like a repetition of #1, but what I’m getting at here is change in technologies is actually part of the life-cycle of many communities rather than an aberration or fatal disruption. (Though, yeah, it can be fatal, but less often than we might expect!) The key lesson here is start where people are “now” and let the needs of the community, its appetite (or not) for experimentation and change drive the platform evolution.
4. A change in technology may intrinsically change the interaction. In our research for “Digital Habitats” we noticed that not only did technology change communities, but communities changed technologies. When members wanted or needed something, they invented new ways of using tools or scrounged for new ones. When the motivation to do something together becomes more urgent and compelling than the platform, it’s affordances or constraints, you know something good is going on. So attention to the community’s domain, community and practice (see that video above!) should be front and center. Technology supports.
So if technology changes what it means to be together, if technology choices change over time, it is logical that stewarding that technology becomes part of the life of the community and there is an association between the people who do this and a role — a role we call technology steward. Technology stewards are people who know enough about technology to help scan for, select and implement tools and enough about their community to know what they need and what they want/can tolerate. This is not the traditional IT person or pure geek, but someone who straddles these two domains of knowledge and practice. They are bridgers. (You might enjoy this 6 minute audio from Etienne Wenger, John Smith and I on tech stewardship. ) For example, consider the person who can observe how others use a tool (even if it is different than how they themselves do), notice how it can be valuable to the community and share that practice with others. (An ethnographer!) You have to know the tool, but to observe and understand the practice — that is the magical sweet spot. (For an example, see John Smith’s post on Skype.) Most of us who find ourselves in this role are in it accidentally. I think that is significant!
Community activities and their technological support
So this leads me to the bridge to our webinar next week. Flowing directly out of this idea of technology stewardship is the need for ways to identify important community activities as a precursor to selecting and deploying tools. In the work writing Digital Habitats we identified 9 community orientations which comprise sets of activities that we found happening pretty commonly across different kinds of communities. This slide deck gives a brief overview.
A couple of key things the spidergram exercise has taught me are: 1) observe your community with an open mind rather than through your own preferences. I, for example, love asynchronous conversations, yet in many of my communities, they would not thrive without telephone calls. 2) You can’t prioritize all 9 orientations all at once, but they may shift over time. This impacts community leadership, facilitation, and technology. So as always, this is not primarily about the tech, but about the community. That seems like a “no brainer” yet time and time again we fall into the technology seduction trap! That leads us to community facilitation, but we’ll have to save that for another day!
I’ll be asking the group to read Chapter 6 of Digital Habitats and then begin to fill out a spidergram for a group or community they belong to or work with. I’m also inviting them to post questions here or over at their group blog. But for the rest of you, what sort of advice would you offer for those trying to steward technology for their community? Post in the comments, please!
Cleaning the messy office. Cleaning closets. And reviewing my personal technology configuration. In my current case, I’m talking more hardware than software! That’s what I’ve been doing over the slow weeks of early January before client work tends to kick in (and yes, I’m available!)
After cleaning up my office (lots of paper recycled and still two drawers of articles printed off from the net that I can’t quite let go of, organizing accounting stuff, etc…) the next thing I had to deal with is my internet service. I’ve had DSL, orginally through the beloved Speakeasy, but now part of Megapath. I loved the localness and great customer service of Speakeasy, but after about a year of their VoIP service for my phone I started having problems. And they said I needed to buy more bandwidth. I was stubborn. They sold me the package based on the level I bought and it SHOULD work, right? So I dithered for another year, contemplated moving to Quest Fiber, but once CenturyLink took over the complaints scared me away. That left me with Comcast. Sigh. I resisted for years. But we have Comcast for TV service (I am married to a television fan). So after researching, I took the plunge.
But, if I canceled my old Speakeasy internet and phone for my business, I still needed phone service. Comcast pitches the old “six months at a reasonable price,” then it balloons. And I don’t use my phone THAN much. So I decided to follow the advice of Eugene Kim (now at his new venture, Groupaya) and port my business line to GoogleVoice, then use the OBI110 device (Amazon associate link – full disclosure) to bridge Google Voice to my regular phone handset (not needed the computer to be on for calls). There are a few little twists to this process, which Eugene has generously captured on his wiki. This link is particularly helpful if you have to port a land line into Google voice via a mobile line, as Google does not port land lines.
So far so good. I purchased the required cable modem as directed by Comcast (Motorola SB6121 SURFboard DOCSIS 3.0). Check. Bought a new router as my two year old router has been needed more frequent resets. (Linksys E3200 High-Performance ) Check. Scheduled install of Comcast 20MBS service for yesterday. Check. Clean out the stereo cabinet where I hope to put all this equipment (and free a little more room in my micro-office.) Check.
Delay leaving for meeting Sunday afternoon to be there when the Comcast tech arrived and … Comcast was a no show. Somehow, it seems, our appointment was cancelled. Now rescheduled for Thursday. Grrr. Am I going to regret this choice?
Today I still went ahead with the line porting. I got a cheap TMobile pay per use sim card, popped it in my old Tmobile handset (unlocked that I use for travel), and ported my business phone to my mobile. That took about 2 days. Today I started the porting process to Google Voice. Now I have to learn the ins and outs of GoogleVoice, how to get voice mail and all the myriad of options. Mamma mia. It ain’t simple.
Then I set up the OBI110 and tested my phone with it. The audio quality was terrible with lots of breakup, but I suspect this is an exacerbation of the problem I’m having with my VoiP from Megapath, so I can’t judge the sound quality until the new internet service arrives. Yes, I’m impatient. I also need to assess if the headset I’m using is fried, further deteriorating sound quality. I’m hard on headsets.
But wait- that’s not the only change. I have been frustrated a the current limitation of our home audio/video system. I want to stream music from my computer, I want to get rid of half the devices cluttering up our tiny living room and I want to bring more music into my daily life, not just when I’m at my computer. So we bought ourselves an 28th anniversary present of a Sony home music system (Sony BDV-E780W Blu-Ray Disc Player Home Entertainment System which we got on sale much cheaper than the current Amazon price – yay! But it still hasn’t shipped. Boo. ) which will replace the Roku box, the BlueRay DVD player, the old Onkyo tuner and trigger my husband to finally remove the VCR that isn’t working from the stack! The five small speakers will replace the huge, ancient (well used, loved and now not so great) speakers, freeing up more space in the micro-living room. We’ll be Freecycling the speakers.
The router I bought has a USB port and I plan to put a large external hard drive on that as my file back up (and if I can configure it with some of the constraints I’ve heard about Comcast) be able to access some of my key files from the road. Then I can also transfer all my audio library so I can stream to the new wifi enabled stereo and play on another remote speaker that, natch, came free with the stereo set. I understand that there are some format constraints with Sony (and which almost caused me NOT to buy it, but it was a weak moment, what can I say.)
The final part of my configuration update will be a new desktop. Since my computer is essential business equipment, I tend to replace it every 2-3 years, donating my old computer to Interconnection here in Seattle. They make it free and easy. Thank you, folks! I bought an iPad2 last summer – my first Apple product — and I hate to admit it, but I love it and use it. A lot. Which has me considering an Apple product to replace my pee-cee. For years, the money I invested in PC software was a major barrier, but I’m doing more and more in the cloud. I open Office much less often and everything else I can use on a Mac. So should I do it? What is the migration path? I have gone to the Apple store a few times considering MacBook pros hooked into my existing ViewSonic 21 inch monitor. Or the slimmer MacBook Airs. But to be honest, where I travel in my work, I rarely have secure places to lock up computers and I hate carrying that much money around. So I travel with cheap netbooks. So do I need a laptop? Why not an iMac all in one? SOOO many decisions. I have not decided on this last step and missed my December 31 deadline (for accounting purposes) so I’m sitting with the question. There is no urgency. It may, however, impact how I set up my remote drive on the hub. Hmmm…
It is no wonder my mom calls me every time she needs to change her tech configuration, or why my husband has me do most of it for him. This takes a lot of time and consideration. Technology stewardship is not for wusses! Even for me, who helped write the book.
How do you manage your personal technology configuration? Any tips or breakthroughs? Please, SHARE!