Even though our focus is knowledge networks today, I’m really here to talk about the value of connecting voices to share information, learn from each other, and ultimately improve our work and our impact.
First, let’s start with the foundation for sharing – whether it’s our experience or knowledge, or creating a space for capturing and documenting information.
How many people feel like the word community is used so often you don’t even quite know what it means anymore? And network? Exactly. There are so many words like these that barely make sense anymore or hold any specific meaning. But, they do actually mean something!For the sake of this graphic, I put “your organization” as the focus in the gray circle – but you can put yourself there, or anything else. The Community, then, are the people you already know and can already connect with. You know their phone numbers or have their email addresses, you’re friends with them on facebook or see them every month at offline events. The Network is the next layer – people you don’t know directly, but you can make some educated guesses about who they are. You are connected through the community – it’s the friends, family, colleagues and professional connections of you community. Lastly, the Crowd is even beyond that. You don’t know nor are you connected directly with the crowd as it’s everyone else beyond the network, the world really. We usually think that most of our energy is spent on, and knowledge is shared with, our community. Often we are actually sharing with everywhere, all the way to the crowd. Every time you post a comment on a blog, share a review of a restaurant, or even reply to the general inquiries at work, you’re sharing knowledge, experience and feedback online. Just like the example of Patient Opinion, it’s a matter of recognizing how these different layers are already sharing with each other, and could be sharing with you, then building on what already exists.
Now, what does that engagement look like? It could be anything. Depending on what you’re looking to do, the tools that are appropriate will change. The one element that is the same, though, is community-centered design. If you want to build something for the community for engagement – however you want to define engagement based on the programs or goals you have – then you need to do more than simply generate a plan, a platform, an online group or a new email list and then release it, expecting people to jump right in and thank you for all your hard work. Unfortunately, that’s just not how it happens. With community-centered design, there are many ways to put your community into your process to help create whatever tool or platform or product you generate together. I like to think of it this way: you, your organization with your staff and your capacity and experience, are the car. The community needs to drive. You can be the map, the radio, and even the road trip snacks. But, unless your community is driving you forward, your car – or, your program, your content, etc. – you aren’t going to go anywhere. Our services don’t serve unless people are involved, our organization can’t change our neighborhood or state or even the world alone. People like to use the word “harness” – they say they’re going to harness the power of the crowd, or the internet, or social networking. What that really means is create strategies and programs where the community is empowered and supported to drive your work and impact forward.
But, you can’t exactly put someone in the driver’s seat of your car and expect them to drive you to the office if they’ve never driven before, or what if they’ve never even seen a car? That’s the same feeling many of us experience when we’re presented with a brand new tool or project and expected to start using it. And the same feeling we give to our community when we release a new platform, application, or service without having their involvement. You know who you’re community is, and maybe it’s the people in this room. Ask which tools they already use, ask where they share information already, ask why and how they share, and ask what they wish they could do. If you’re looking to bring volunteers together so they can use each other for feedback, insight, and exchanging tips – be sure that you ask which tools they already use and where they’d want to check in with each other before you set up a new email list or wiki. Maybe they are all already on facebook and use groups there to work on other projects or stay in contact with friends. Maybe it’s just a matter of setting up a private group on facebook and letting them drive the action instead of creating a new group on a different platform that would require them to go out of their way to engage there.Again, just like with Patient Opinion, when they talked to people about what they wanted, people didn’t say they wanted to complain or rave about medical services to their friends and they didn’t want to tell the doctor. They said, instead, that they didn’t have an easy way to give that feedback to the right people, and they didn’t feel that if they did, their feedback would go anywhere. So, they built a platform that made the feedback and the learning process transparent and public. People can post anonymously or with any amount of information, and others can see it – but the medical professionals can also respond, publicly, sharing updates on their changes, asking for more information, or simply saying thank you.
Building with the community, instead of for it, can feel strange to some people and is an awkward experience for some organizations. But working with the community in this way, letting them be the drivers, is a process that can foster organic and authentic engagement and tools. I like to use the metaphor of a gardener and a landscaper when talking about community building. A landscaper surveys the area and then goes to work, designing and detailing how he will build and sculpt the plants, flowers, and other features. If something doesn’t grow, it’s replaced – if something grows a lot, it’s cut back. Online communities don’t thrive this way. They thrive with a gardener. Someone that is able to see what’s working and help spread it, and see what isn’t and try to support it. A gardener doesn’t have a master plan that has to be maintained, but is open to moving a plant to the other side of the yard if it needs more sun, or adding more water if it’s needed.That’s the same approach you can take – perhaps the goal is to create an online space where people from across organizations can share their successes and failures and updates in between, that goal is like creating a garden. Your goal isn’t to have a wiki or a facebook group, just as a gardener’s goal isn’t to have 5 rose bushes and 3 pear trees. The goal is the garden, and the opportunity is to build it together with your community of users so it matches their engagement and you have that engagement from the start.
None of this is new – we aren’t just now realizing that we can share knowledge, experiences, and ideas with colleagues; the internet didn’t open up this new opportunity for us. Online tools have, though, made our options more dynamic, valuable and scalable.
As humans, we are social creatures, but technology has helped us evolve the way we share, document, explain and look for information. We’ve moved from analog, to digital and now to a social stage.
First, the analog stage. In this era, knowledge is our currency; it’s how we can get ahead or survive. Knowing where the best fishing spots are or how to avoid something bad wasn’t something to broadcast usually as it meant you had the advantage over others. Sure you may tell those close to you – whether it’s about eating a certain plant or creating efficient processes at work – but it wasn’t in your best interest to make the information public. Technology in the analog phase supported this decision. What was the technology for analog behaviors? Paper and pen. Long hallways of filing cabinets filled with documents you probably don’t have the time to parse through even if you needed to. Maybe we used the phone, or maybe we had a meeting – but the information shared there was siloed. Our methodologies were analog, too. We gave feedback or suggested an idea to the one person we were talking to, or those in the meeting. Sometimes it was just a matter of writing things down, never intending to share them.
Next, we entered the digital phase. This is where knowledge was more freely shared because it was how we established a reputation – both as an organization and as individuals. As our communications became more digital, we were able to share beyond our community and more to the network and the crowd. Though, this was always possible and happened in the analogue period, but it wasn’t traceable or visible. It was word of mouth, like a game of telephone before. Now, people could see your article or website. You could pull your thoughts together online or push them out around the web. The digital era was filled with the desire to share, but most often with our names and status as an expert or at least participant attached.Digital technologies reinforced this behavior: blogs are the perfect example, with an author or sometimes group of authors setting up a space where they can post as much and as often as they like. We could even take more analogue type products, and make them digital, like a PDF or Word document, a white paper you wrote for example, and now upload it to the internet, place it on your organization’s website or your own blog, and then circulate it, allow others to link to it, and so on. The knowledge or content is being passed through the community and network and even the cloud.Our methodologies took a similar turn. We embraced the web, but in a reputation building manner. Our websites were brochures, the information or knowledge shared was approved, edited, and formalized. We were still operating much like the analogue phase, but with a bit more scalability and measurement of our reach.
And finally, we’re in the social phase. This is where we let go of knowledge or ideas or our feedback being something we want to carefully craft and keep, but something that we actively share and let others build upon. It’s important to note that elements of previous phases do not disappear, we don’t replace the previous period entirely; instead we add to it. Instead of holding a meeting and then moving on, maybe we take a video of the new project to post on our blog or even a YouTube channel and garner feedback on or we make the event information public to allow others interested in participating to attend. Our technologies help us with this transition, too. We create ways for people to engage – through comments on our blog and website, to posting on our social media profiles and engaging with us in online conversations. We are also able to document and archive the social elements of the knowledge and content so that not just our own contributions can continue to be valuable and sharable by others.The methodologies we employ continue to evolve as well. This is where we start putting the community in the driver’s seat for pushing us forward. This is the phase where we would consider opening up our meeting or project planning process to those we hope to serve. Where we reach out to organizations who’ve tackled a similar issue to see what they’ve learned and share the responses.Right now, we are in the social period, while still having elements from the analog and digital phases that we can incorporate and build on. The fun part now is the real sharing that can take place, and the new solutions we can create by allowing the community to participate in the process with us.
So, what does that sharing really look like though? Honestly, it look like all kinds of things. I want to highlight just a few examples to show how different the options really are.
A sprint is most often organized around a certain platform or program. People come together for a couple days to see how much they can plan or build together, quickly. There are sprints, for example, that focus on the Wordpress open source platform where programmers come together to build out new functionality or designs. There are also sprints for documentation – both technical and practical – where groups of people knowledgeable about a certain topic come together for a few days with the plan to write as much as possible about a certain topic, as quickly as they can. The editing and the supporting materials to be worked on later. The sprint’s focus is helping people make time to just get all the ideas and information down on paper when we often don’t make time for it.Sprints also take the shape of large-scale community action events – like putting together a new park in a weekend, or doing city-wide clean up days. Whether you’re designing for community engagement or to reach out to the crowd, sprints can be a good option because of the time-bound nature, the collective action, and the participatory nature. They need to be promoted well in advance and support materials or information provided to ensure people are ready to dive in as soon as it starts.
Hackdays are similar to sprints, except they usually rely on the pairing of builders and users. This could mean bringing together designers with people who have physical disabilities so the designers can better understand just what the people using their products want to do, and the users can have a direct role in shaping the tools they rely on. Or it could be organizations and web developers, families and school administrators, and so on. Your organization has the opportunity to be both a participant in a hack day and the convener.
On the other end of the spectrum, knowledge sharing and collaboration may look like a project management space. This is a screen shot of a tool called basecamp, but there are many different options out there. Using something like this for all your projects, all your teams, and even with your partners and volunteers has the benefit of actual project management, but also documentation and the social side of knowledge. From your messages and comments through to your actual archive of planning materials, your use of project management software can be a huge resource capturing how you’ve done things, what you learned, what you changed, and so on. It is probably not shared publicly as an entire system, but new staff or partners can jump in and learn how you’ve done things and what is happening with a project at any time. And you can use materials from this space to develop publicly shareable updates about your work or things you’ve learned about your process. Even taking snapshots of your milestones and sharing those publicly can help engage your community around the project, keep your progress and plans transparent, and invite feedback at key stages.
Knowledge sharing can also look like a wiki. Here’s a screen shot of the We Are Media wiki where many people in the nonprofit technology sector came together to document examples, best practices, and resources for various kinds of social media and for the strategies that support them. I’ve seen wikis used for events to give participants a place to start introducing themselves and the topics they’re interested in exploring at the event and then adding to that in real time once the event starts. I’ve seen them used for planning and for reporting, for neighborhood groups and large networks, for technical projects and by non-technical people.Beyond the flexible content options for building out a wiki to share and document information, pretty much all wiki software includes social elements now like discussion and commenting functionality, RSS so people can subscribe to updates, and various permission levels so that you ensure people can read it even if you don’t want anyone in the world editing it.
Bookmarking doesn’t have to be a personal thing – you aren’t limited to saving websites and online resources to your computer. This is a screenshot of a tool called delicious that allows you to save your bookmarks online with all of the applicable tags or key words that you like, selecting whether they are public or private. You can then access your bookmarks from any computer, at any time. Everyone in your organization could select a tag or a couple to use collectively as a way of constantly adding to your internal resource library – we tag things at NTEN, for example, with NTEN-roundup whenever we find blog posts or news about our members and then use those bookmarks to write a weekly blog post highlighting all that members are up to. You could also use it to find information by searching for things others have tagged publicly. In addition to the sharing and public nature of delicious, you can use it in many other social ways, like: connecting it to a twitter account so that any time you save a bookmark (or a bookmark of a specific tag) you will post the title and link to your twitter feed automatically, or you can enable your blog to watch for your bookmarks and when you’ve saved a certain number, maybe 5 or 10, it can publish a blog post for you automatically as a round up for your readers.
Lastly, sharing may take the shape of an online community. Within that category, the options are diverse. You could use an online social network like facebook or build your own using Ning. You could use forums or a discussion list. You could even set up a community or group blog with as many authors as you’d like. You also have options for the purpose of the online space – whether it is all about knowledge, or it’s about your work in general; maybe it’s about just one program area or maybe it’s for all your volunteers. It’s especially important for working with online communities to engage your community ahead of time, establish some parameters about what they want to do and how they want to do it, so that you’re building a space where they will actually participate.
So, if there are so many options and opportunities for sharing, why aren’t we doing it? Great question!
The first reason is a myth that we are all so very different, and this is something that affects every sector. For example, when working with libraries, I have heard before: I’m a university library, so I can’t learn from or build on the work from the community library because it is just so different here. I agree that every organization, city, region, and culture have differences that make us unique. And I’m glad we do. But when it comes to ultimately changing our world, we hold ourselves back from making impact, creating collaborations, and starting movements when we assume we are the only ones doing just what we’re doing or reaching those we’re reaching. We all have a great deal of experience and knowledge and inspiration to share with each other, even if we are in different states or on different continents.
Another major barrier to this work is our tendency to jump from one new, shiny object to the next. Just because there may be a new application that does something cool, does not mean you need to feel obligated to use it. Before adopting new technologies and especially before investing in building something, evaluate what you already have and the options for making those tools or platforms better. Maybe it’s a matter of creating some leadership opportunities for community members to drive content creation or engagement, elevating them as community organizers or key contributors, instead of trying to build up community engagement in another place again.
How many people have felt this way before – that there’s simply not enough hours in the day? Me too! But the feeling that we just don’t have the time for it sharing is a real barrier. If this is the case for you and your organization, then the problem isn’t Old Man Time, but that your tools or processes aren’t a part of how you do your job. If the only way you can share some of the great news about your community is through your blog, but you don’t have the time to write up that blog post, look for tools like delicious where you could simply save news articles and blog posts and even videos as you come across them and let the blog to the posting for you. When we are pressed for time, it isn’t a matter of pressing back, but just of building the tools we need into the way we work.
Lastly, we do have a bit of a fear of succeeding, of actually sharing all of our knowledge or getting the community completely engaged. Back to the library example, I often hear things like: If we promote our space, everyone will try to come here; if we promote our services, everyone will try to use them. We don’t need to be worried about all the great things that will happen if we’re succeeding, nor do we need to be limiting our impact by holding on to the analog way of working. Instead, let the greater impact you could have inspire you to continue sharing and building ways for more social engagement. If that library was packed, or service at capacity, we could then engage our community to help participate, grow it, or even transform it. If it isn’t being used, we don’t have the engagement or the case to make for those changes.
We’ve covered the foundations of sharing, some examples, and some barriers, but the real conversation and the really fun part, comes after we close today. I don’t mean to pile on any more ideas or wish list items to the long list you’ve probably already made these last two days. But I do hope to add just two things.
Please ask questions! When we’re asked what we know or what we’d like to share, our minds go blank. But if someone asks us if we’ve ever tried editing our website, we know the answer and can share what tips or lessons we have. It’s always easier to share when there’s a question, so be the first to do it. Put the question out as soon as you think of it and lead by example. Just as knowledge itself used to be the currency we could build a reputation on, it may now be questions – positioning yourself as the catalyst and conversation starter from which many others benefit and learn.
And to compliment the questions, I hope you will all share, too. As others around you, either from those in the room today, from the larger network of practitioners, or your communities around the US start asking more questions, please share. And be proactive in identifying ways that we can all share and learn from each other that’s part of how we operate. Building in that sustainability will greatly impact our successes, small and large, for sharing and changing.
My father is a construction foreman and his rule, even as the foreman, is to not ask his crew to do something he wouldn’t be willing to do himself. I’m here because I really want you to succeed and I’m willing to help make it happen. If you have a phone or a laptop you can send me a message right now – and if you don’t, then you can write down my email and send me a message when you have a connection later. But, I invite you all to make a commitment for something you’ll do this month to contribute to our collective knowledge network and building opportunities for sharing in your community. It could be a simple commitment to ask more questions, or it could be writing down some of the tips you’ve learned recently and sharing them. Whatever it is, if you send me your commitment, I’ll follow up with you at the end of the month to see how you’re doing, if there’s anything I can help with, and so on. I’ll give you a minute now to jot down your idea.
Thanks so much for having me here to share some of my thoughts. I’d love to hear from you, take your questions, and hopefully have a bit of a discussion before we depart.
Knowledge Sharing Networks
Knowledge Networks<br />
The value of connecting voices to share, learn, change<br />
ORGANIC GROWTH<br />Operate like a gardener, not a landscaper:<br /> “The Gardener creates an ecosystem open to change, available to new groups, and full of fresh opportunities to emerge naturally. The approach is focused on organic collaboration and growth for the entire community. The gardener is simply there to help, cultivate, and clear the weeds if/when they poke up.”<br />