A Guidebook for Managing Telecentre Networks/Participatory Telecentre Networks

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Participatory Telecentre Networks – A Collective Enterprise[edit]

Olga P. Paz Martínez (COLNODO, Colombia)

Networks are sources of social and organizational support where interactions, exchanges and relations between different actors take place. Partnership networks enable the realization of individual goals which otherwise could not be reached as an individual person or organization. This is precisely why we integrate telecentres into networks.

Establishing interactive networks is not an easy task, due to the many factors that come into play. We have to structure a network, set goals and long-term plans as equitably as possible, which is always a challenge because it involves fulfilling the demands and requests from various members.

When several members decide to join a network, it is because they find value in the benefits, but at the same time they assume shared responsibility and take charge in making it stronger. We have to understand that participation is not an engine that generates profits for its network nodes/members; rather, the participatory dynamic is itself the main potential benefit, where the social capital for these organizations increases as a result.

This is why the management of a telecentre network should include an outline or plan of participation to promote collaboration among each telecentre member through flexibility, freedom and incentives. Bear in mind that a high level of participation will significantly promote sustainability of the network.

We hope that this chapter will help you to discover ways of increasing the levels of participation within your telecentre network. First, we discuss the motivation of members to participate in a telecentre network and how to get these members involved or committed once they are in. We will talk about some aspects of network governance directly related to promote participation (linked with the previous chapter about telecentre network governance). Next, we will explore the issue of a distributed leadership and the principles of a collaborative culture, after which we will identify different factors and methodological tools that can help to make participation more effective. Finally, we will discuss a key issue for telecentre networks that directly depends on their collaborative culture: knowledge management.

Participation as an Engine of Telecentre Networks[edit]

Commitment and motivation to create a telecentre network[edit]

Participation is at the core of telecentre networks. Almost by definition, a network results from the following participation exercise: several individuals and organizations come together and decide on the principles, objectives and structure of the network. But before creating a network, they identify several common motivations; some in their own interest, and others for the benefit of everyone, such as:

  • To build and strengthen political positions for specific actors or situations;
  • To create initiatives and joint projects between several telecentres based on a common goal and for the benefit of members;
  • To share content, courses, knowledge, etc.;
  • To face situations and risks that would be significantly more difficult to handle individually.

These fundamentals of participation and collaboration may be obvious enough for founding members, or at least implicitly felt. But as new nodes or members join the network, the participation base can become diffused or unclear. Therefore, it is very important to communicate to new members the importance of the participation and collaboration principles so that they can fully share the principles, objectives, policies and ways of acting inside the network. It will also help to document the participation and collaboration activities, in order to maintain these goals.

Involving members in the network[edit]

When you start the process of setting up a network, one of the first issues is the process of membership. It is important to have a formal procedure that involves the communication of a request from the member interested in being part of the network. This document has to indicate that the member agrees and fully shares the principles of the network, including in the participatory and collaborative aspects.

Although it is generally assumed that if new members choose to join a network it is because they agree with the principles, some may want to join only because they want the prestige of belonging to the network (especially if it is widely recognized), so they may not have a full understanding of the participation and collaborative aspects.

In this sense, it is worth running an introduction or training session for new telecentres members. This can be done as a talk, a meeting, a workshop or an interactive online workshop where the member telecentre can have the opportunity to ask questions and propose activities to be developed. Also, it would be good to consider doing the introduction or training before formally accepting new members in the telecentre network, so that introduction is part of the procedure of joining the network.

If the new telecentres can understand and share in the principles, values and goals of the network, it is easier to generate good ideas, proactive attitudes and new lines of collaborative work. On the other hand, if new members do not share in the ideas, values, principals and goals of the network, it will be harder to reach agreement and take constructive actions that ensure compliance with the network’s goals. We may actually jeopardize the stability of a network if new members cause a disturbance or are difficult to negotiate with.

Participation and governance[edit]

As the network grows, one of the most important issues that helps to ensure the future of the network is in the way that it is managed. The nature of a network as an organizational structure implies that a network is not meant to be lead, it is meant to be coordinated.

The governance of a telecentre network (as mentioned in the previous chapter) is largely characterized by coordination. Whether as individual or a collective coordination, this implies – almost by definition – that members of the network will work together for the benefit of the network as a whole group.

Therefore, active participation is one of the main indicators of good governance of the telecentre network. The management team of the network must pay special attention to issues related to coordination and governance, such as:

  • To undertake the action plan of the network during a specific time period that is defined by members, in order to facilitate their commitment and interest in planning;
  • To manage and share with new members the network values and principles so they all know how to participate in the network, as previously noted.
  • To design, develop and implement training on how to participate and collaborate on networking activities.
  • To collectively determine monitoring and evaluation methodologies for the network.
  • To include the telecentre in taking on monitoring tasks, maintaining an open and participatory point of view.
  • To encourage member telecentres to promote their visibility through external communications, on topics such as news, projects, event announcements, calls for publications and so on, so that people outside the network stay informed.

In practice, people involved with telecentre networks know that coordination involves a delicate balance between centralization and decentralization. But to maintain coordination does not necessarily imply that decision-making processes are centralized, or that the actions are carried out without the support of members. Put simply, it is important to ensure there is a person or team in place that takes responsibility for general network tasks. If there is a lack of coordination, there is a risk that the responsibility becomes dispersed and therefore that no one takes care of tasks.

To coordinate without centralization means maintaining a healthy balance between taking action and delegating responsibilities, while including the members of the network. This is not an easy balance to achieve, and needs to be negotiated between several aspects:

  • The coordination involves making decisions and the delegation of duties that must be synchronized with the network principles and objectives. There should be a margin of discretion for those making decisions.
  • Members often (wrongly) believe that if there is a person or group in charge of coordination, that that specific person or group has to take care of all networks tasks.
  • Being proactive and collectively making decisions as a team implies a high investment of time and resources, and members are not always available to meet such requirements.
  • The leadership style of the coordinating team should be one that is inclusive, participatory and well oriented. This coordination must be carried out by a network leader who is open to constructive dialogue.

Participatory Leadership[edit]

To ensure that members feel like part of a telecentre network, it is important to avoid any hierarchical planning which works against the horizontal nature of a network, since that is one of the most positive attributes of a network. A network consists of nodes that normally interact with one other with a margin of freedom and autonomy. In this sense, the network is a space where ideas are freely exchanged, relationships are maintained and information and knowledge circulates between the telecentres (and other non-telecentre members who may also be part of the network).

We want to promote collaborative activities and operationalize the desired horizontality of our telecentre networks. But to 'impose' or ‘demand’ participation is not an effective way to encourage collaboration; rather, networks should work towards creating a collaborative culture, which can be done by supporting a participatory style of leadership, rather than one that is ‘top-down’.

Participatory (or distributed) leadership implies 'harmonious leadership', based on common values. It may not be the kind of leadership style that most of us are used to, but there are ways to promote it within telecentre networks. Participatory leadership does not imply sharing leadership responsibilities between network members, nor does it mean that members each have a particular level of leadership to live up to. What is actually implies is described by the following:

  • Various actors in a network can exhibit leadership in parallel, which corresponds to their shared interests and objectives;
  • Taking care that leadership does not become 'obligatory' or 'decreed' for any person or entity; and that
  • Actively building leadership skills among members of the network is critical.

For starters, it is advantageous that telecentre networks are open systems that are continually bringing on new members, while existing members always have the option of leaving the network. Individual roles can change (where formal management tasks may shift from one telecentre to another), as well as leaders, who may change or move around between telecentres.

In the majority of telecentre networks, there exists some kind of entity that governs the network, such as a Coordinating Committee, or an Executive Secretariat, and so on. This entity depends on the effective functioning of the network, and actually makes the coordination easier, especially when the focus is on facilitation (i.e. actions) rather than on concentration (i.e. power).

On the other hand, participatory leadership is useful when the network wants to bring forth a particular action (since the network does not always represent one single actor), or when negotiating actions that encourage the active participation of various members (where certain leadership responsibilities can even be delegated).

In any case, we should avoid comparing leadership and management styles, and neither should it be assumed that people or entities with more leadership skills will automatically take on management or administration duties. Leadership and management styles will vary depending on the characteristics of the telecentre network.

Participatory leadership can also help to resolve conflicts and provide solutions in difficult situations. A network of telecentres can have a remarkably heterogeneous composition, with nodes and members that coexist rather than compete, whereas with others there may be competition and power struggles. A highly centralized leadership can sometimes effectively resolve differences between members. That said, for the sustainable and healthy growth of a telecentre network, it is important that the governance of network take on a participatory leadership style, where many problems can be solved collegially.

Collaborative culture[edit]

To establish a collaborative culture is one of the most difficult – but also critical – points in creating a productive telecentre network. It is difficult (and quite likely impossible) to develop participatory leadership within an environment that does not embrace a culture of collaboration. That is, this type of leadership can help to promote collaboration, but it is virtually impossible to be the sole cause behind the creation of a collaborative culture. On the one hand, it can help to delegate work and distribute activities among members. On the other hand, the first step towards creating the initiative for collaborative working must come directly from members themselves.

The value of a network greatly increases when there is a real culture of collaboration among member telecentres. The more spontaneous the collaborative activities (as a result of the tools, methods and even the possibility of access to funding), the easier it will be to launch joint projects whose results can actually feed into each other and increase mutual trust. This may be an area where a collaborative culture of networks can play a bigger role: in the end, organizations with a highly rigid structure can also work in a decentralized manner (like an army, for example). Networks can create an ecosystem of collaborative working characterized by the freedom, merit and shared visions that often lead to very interesting results – in the area open source software, for example.

A network of telecentres that enjoys a healthy collaborative culture will be a productive one, and most likely sustainable as well. But like distributed leadership, a collaborative culture also requires types of participation that do not negatively impact the efficiency or results of the network.

Effective participation[edit]

It is not possible (nor recommendable) to achieve 100% participation while including all network nodes and members in the decision making process of a network, and even less with respect to specific network-related projects and activities. Participation for the sake of participation alone can risk becoming an aimless process, like a book without words. What we need is a well-designed model of participation, one that is results-oriented, designed to achieve the desired outcomes. For example, the level of participation necessary for the strategic planning of a network of telecentres is not the same as would be needed for the redesign of the network website.

A well-functioning network is not one that maximizes participation quantitatively (measuring the number of participants), but rather one that qualitatively maximizes the products/results achieved in a participatory manner. A network usually distributes its work along particular lines of action, while some members tend to be more committed to the development strategies than others because it is within their particular interest to do so. For example, some telecentres are more able to participate than others in activities such as research, or in the generation of content rather than in the provision of services.

It is therefore important to strengthen and stimulate people’s networking ability, with the so-called 'generative capacity' to which we referred in the previous chapter and which we will also describe in the last chapter. An important function of a TCN is the capacity for building leadership, planning, collaboration, and negotiation skills from a network point of view. In other words, to be able to perform all those network functions within a network environment (for the purposes of our own network and more broadly for the ‘network society’).

In addition to training, another way to generate those capabilities is simply through practice, such as by managing a project or organization that requires coordination and working in a network. Coordinating a network involves a lot of difficult negotiation, like the daily work of a spider that weaves its web and tries to keep it from breaking.

It is critical for the people who take on coordination of the network to promote effective participation, in a way that does not wear out the participants and which generates results effectively and efficiently. One way to achieve this is through the continual identification of opportunities for collaboration through projects, activities, campaigns, and so on.

Additionally, network coordinators tend to be very familiar with each of the network members, and can therefore steer the most appropriate opportunities towards the individual nodes (telecentres) best suited for the work.

Knowledge Management[edit]

Knowledge is one of the main assets of a telecentre network. It can be either tacit or explicit, but in any case it is conditional to the uses and social and cultural history background of each person, organization or community. Tacit knowledge is based on individual experience, skills, abilities, values, judgments, beliefs, viewpoints and mental maps of each person, and therefore is not easy to share with others, at least not in a systematic way.

Explicit knowledge is that which can be expressed in words, a song, numbers, charts, formulas, and so on. It is a kind of knowledge we can find in different learning tools such as videos, books, articles, websites, and we can access in different places such as libraries, hard disk drives, databases, museums or newspapers. The application and use of this type of knowledge is one of the biggest attractions to becoming part of a network. To make the most use of it, it is recommendable to have a knowledge management strategy plan, especially one that can be documented.

Knowledge management (KM) refers to different processes that seek to transform, generate and transfer knowledge. One of KM’s main challenges is to capture tacit knowledge in order to share it with other people, sometimes becoming explicit knowledge in the process. A good strategy takes both tacit and explicit knowledge into account, each involving the most appropriate tools and mechanisms. In this way, the strategy will draw on the most appropriate people, organizations (i.e. telecentres in this case) or telecentre network to involve.

The concept of knowledge management goes beyond knowledge transfer alone, and therefore the concept of ‘participation’ is also addressed in this chapter. Participation is the core principle for network growth. It’s more like a kind of ‘know-how’, a social discursive knowledge that shifts through media and products of knowledge. The knowledge within each node can be expressed in many different ways in the telecentre network, such as through workshops, meetings, books, websites, videos, etc.

A good knowledge management strategy is that it is ‘open’ rather than imposed, and it should be based on the respect for the knowledge of others. Knowledge can be shared in the form of lessons learned, experiences, or best practices and it should always be used to contribute to, and complement, existing knowledge and practices in telecentres – not to replace them.

Knowledge management should consider both live and virtual presence, by taking advantage of ICTs to facilitate collaboration and participation, including:

  • Virtual communities (such as ning used by telecentre.org, or Dgroups);
  • Social networks (including Facebook, Sonico, Tuenti, etc.);
  • Places to share content (flickr, YouTube, Slideshare, GoogleMaps, etc.);
  • Collaborative editing documents, such as a wiki or googledoc; or
  • Virtual training courses.

A knowledge management workplan can specify the tools and communication media to use to share information, as well as frequency of use, structure, design, content production, editorial policies or a style manual.

But the ease of access to these tools should not cause a sea of information and content that can overwhelm members. Just like effective participation, knowledge management must incorporate effective methods for the input/output of specific knowledge available to members: when and where they need it. However, this is without a doubt much easier to say than do; in many jobs, information overload impacts productivity and stress levels.

In order to avoid such problems, and to effectively take on knowledge management within a community or group, it is useful to identify one or more facilitators who can facilitate knowledge flows. Knowledge management is more an art than science, and it benefits from people in the community who know how to motivate others and who can find the correct channels to spread useful information to the right people. Very few knowledge networks can claim success without the constant and dedicated work of these ‘infomediaries’.

It is possible for knowledge to be efficiently managed without using participatory processes; this is something that happens every day in centralized organizations. In networks, however, participation is essential to ensure knowledge flows that do not depend on instructions from above, but rather on collaborative participation where each member adds value to the network.

In summary, the value of a network is a function of the possibility of creating shared knowledge through the experience base of each of the actors.

Case Study – The National Telecentre Network in Colombia[edit]

The National Telecentre Network in Colombia has been informally functioning as a network since mid-2001, with participation from the civil society, business and government sectors.

The aim of the network is to “create an efficient and sustainable model of collaboration between members, with the aim of creating a positive impact on the development dynamics in the communities”[1]. In other words, the network focuses specifically on participatory and collaborative processes.

The strategic objectives of the network are:

  • To strengthen ICT community access centres;
  • To promote information and knowledge exchange (experiences, lessons learned, ideas, resources, teaching materials, methodologies, tools, etc.) between network members and other communication networks, public media and social movements;
  • To promote the consolidation of the national telecentre.org Academy;
  • To promote the development of virtual communities, including both thematic and regional;
  • To encourage the participation of network members in various fora for discussion and learning about ICT and Development, at both the national and international levels.
  • To promote the development of regional networks of telecentres (at state, municipal, and local levels).

The network brings together the people and organizations who coordinate, research, lead, train and assist in national telecentre processes. It aims to open spaces for dialogue between telecentre initiatives that are led by various players, helping to connect telecentres put in place by the national government (through the Compartel program), and those by local governments, private companies, universities, NGOs, research centers, or community organizations.

Currently, the network is coordinated by a Coordinating Committee, which is composed of the following organizations:

Telecentres in Colombia vary according to their financial structure, how they are installed, overall operation and location. However, they all share in their aim to achieve social and financial sustainability and the meeting of local needs in order to positively impact on the community, to achieve development goals.

The network has run National Telecentre Meetings, which have been financed, coordinated and convened by civil society organizations with help and support of national and local governments.

Up until now they have held five meetings. The objectives of the meetings have varied between exchanging experiences to building collaborative strategies and consolidating the network. Although the first meetings were intended to bring everyone together, share experiences and identify lessons learned, and common needs and challenges, they have evolved into active learning spaces through live workshops, discussion forums about public access to ICTs, and debate about a common agenda to strengthen the network.

The main impact of the network is reflected in these meetings and on the fact that they have gathered hundreds of telecentre managers together from different areas of the country. The meetings maintain their purpose as regular spaces for discussion and sharing experiences, learning, training telecentre leaders and creating partnerships.

The conference has grown from 30 participants in the first meeting to over 80 in the second and third, reaching 110 participants in the fourth and 200 in the fifth and latest meeting. The meetings were intentionally focused on being participatory spaces for exchange and discussion rather than academic spaces, particularly to promote the participation of those directly involved in the day-to-day running of telecentres. In the fourth meeting it was possible for the first time to include the participation of Compartel telecentres managers, a new government initiative that has put in place about 1,700 telecentres throughout the country.

Each meeting saw an increase in regional participation. Colombia is divided into 32 districts, and by the fifth meeting they managed to include telecentre leaders and managers from 20 districts, which represents a significant portion of the whole country.

Other important areas of the Colombian national network’s emphasis on participation are:

Knowledge Management: To facilitate access and improve communication within the network, the following activities are encouraged:

  • The creation of virtual communities for knowledge sharing and dialogue;
  • The exchange of teaching materials, methodologies and tools on various issues that may impact the telecentre development;
  • The participation of network members in various scenarios of discussion and learning about ICTs and development;
  • The reflection and discussion of new proposals for community communication, new technologies for virtual interactive meetings, at the regional and national levels.

Information and Communication: The goal is to build a communication strategy that strengthens network information channels by promoting interaction and dialogue among members. The main network spaces for information and virtual communication on the internet are:

Education & Training: The network strengthens the skills and abilities of people who manage telecentres through a process of in-class and virtual training. The first virtual training project is the national telecentre.org Academy. For in-class training, local and national telecentre meetings are held.

Each of these lines of work is undertaken in a collaborative way. While the leadership for each of these processes lies in the hands of a member organization (according to its individual mission), attempts are made to include members from different parts of country in their implementation.

In order to undertake more network-related activities, more information about the network was gathered, including the total number of telecentres in Colombia, their associated characteristics, and where they are located. Further, it is hoped that in the future:

  • Hundreds of telecentre managers and leaders will formally confirm their participation in the network;
  • The telecentres will be mapped geographically (available online);
  • Effective channels of information and communication between members to publish information through the virtual community;
  • An online library of materials and resources will be created;
  • There will be a continued production of free tools that all telecentres in Colombia can use, in order to improve their skills and performance;
  • A user registration system will be created.

Through the participation of our members we have achieved the following things as a network:

  • The consolidation of the national telecentre.org Academy, where more than 350 telecentre managers and leaders have been certified via virtual training courses.
  • The organization of five national and regional telecentre meetings, which have been attended by more than 400 people in total who are all associated with the telecentre movement in Colombia (particularly telecentre managers and leaders);
  • The creation of information and communication media for the network, such as the portal that includes the experiences, materials, resources and virtual community for more than 40 telecentres with more than 350 people registered.
  • The mapping of 864 telecentres, of which 131 are online and the rest are near to completion.
  • Influence on ICT policy in Colombia. One example refers to the implementation model for 1669 new Compartel telecentres operating from within educational institutions and which will use a methodology for social telecentre appropriation designed, tested and published by the network;
  • The recognition of the network as a leader in telecentre issues in Colombia. In fact, when completed, the new Compartel telecentres will be joining the national network.

One of the most important lessons learned is that the network will not function without an organizing agency to guide it and lead activities in collaboration with other members. Despite the initial successes, particularly with respect to the national meetings, it through the managing committee that many beneficial activities were brought about for telecentres in Colombia, also incorporating decision-makers at the local and national levels.

However, it is nevertheless a challenge for the managing committee to become much more involved in telecentre work, not just as beneficiaries but also as executives. For collaboration between members to really be strengthened, communication channels need to be relied upon, including virtually, as well as through face-to-face exchanges such as workshops, meetings and forums.

Quick tips about participation in telecentre networks[edit]

  • A collaborative spirit and constant support from those members who wish for a network of telecentres should be pursued deliberately – it does not usually happen by itself.
  • Most decisions in networks must be come about through consensus, in order to enhance the process of negotiation and compromise.
  • Trust among members and transparency of actions are some of the core requirements for participation to take place.
  • Training on networking activities helps to improve teamwork and productivity and therefore encourages participation.
  • Collaborative cultures are not achieved in the short term, but must be gradually advanced and taken into consideration in the medium-term.
  • One should always ask ‘what can I do for the network?’ over ‘what can the network do for me?’
  • Proactive collaboration between network members contributes significantly to the sustainability of the network.
  • It is essential to prevent competition between members, nodes, projects, or events in the network. The role of the network is to encourage complementarity, not competition.
  • It is necessary to strengthen channels of communication and information and to have a fluid flow of ongoing communication with members.

References and Resources[edit]

Note[edit]

  1. From the National Network of Telecentres Action Plan document 2009