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Building e-communities: facilitating the facilitators
Christina Haralanova | 20 July 2006

An online course about building e-communities has just passed. Here you can find the impressions and feedback of one of the participants, as well as links to different e-tools for facilitating the dialogue online.

The most essencial lesson learnt for the community is to have a clear purpose, shared values, and ideally a product or series of products in mind. The centre is the community and their needs, not the technology, which is only there to serve those needs.

Cultural sensitivity, warnings about the lack of body language, care over communication among people speaking different languages, and paying attention to increasing the number of the usually few women-members are important factors, too. Communities offfer the chance to boil down, filter and evaluate the massive resources on the internet, and make recommendations.

There are many kinds of community: for example communities of interest, of practice, of teams for a defined task, communities for learning, and communities meeting on-line for a time-limited "conference".

E-communities are great at collecting, filtering and distributing information, identifying issues, and common interests, as global "eyes and ears"... but remember there can be competing interests in your community.

What do communities need?

- A defined scope of interest or domain.
- Solidification of relationships and trust through shared task or experience.
- The catalytic effect of a person or organization who has a driving need for the community.
- Personal connections - initial connections based on shared interest, reputation and identity are important, especially for relationships that are initially computer mediated.
- Shared values - in an NGO, shared values can be a "glue" that transcends slightly divergent domains or agendas.
- Shared needs - motivation to achieve a goal beyond organizational boundaries.
- Community - a sense of belonging and engagement can be missing for practitioners who are the only one "of their kind" in an organization. It can be missing in diffuse networks. The sense of "we’re in this together" provided by a defined group can be a strong initial motivator, helping launch the community’s online efforts.
- Skills - groups and communities who face a lack or low level of skills are motivated to increase their access to expertise and advice to build their own internal capacity. Initial members secured from the wider networks with needed expertise are critical, not only for reputation, but for quick, tangible results from knowledge sharing and building.

Key points for successful e-commiunity:

- People have limited time or internet access, and an e-community must be clearly useful for members to stay involved;
- Effective e-communities are driven by a shared purpose, and act to put

their ideas into practice.
- Analysis and dissemination of conclusions should be decentralised, to encourage a sense of "ownership" and empowerment.
- E-communities often lack women: they should be actively encouraged.
- Communities can advocate policy change. Informed advocates are powerful advocates. Motivated communities and sub-groups can be directed to extra tools like collaborative bookmarking, blogs and wikis.
- People in the community should feel they are meeting others they need to know, and find themselves creating partnerships. The community should strengthen social relationships.
- Communities should offer opportunities that are unavailable or difficult to realise for individuals working alone.
- Collaboration should allow members to test ideas and get feedback.
- Successful discussions are often time-limited and goal-oriented.
- If the philosophy of the e-community is to be "communication for development" go for bottom-up knowledge and wisdom more than top-down teaching. This can help merge local with global knowledge.
- Summaries should be made, and ideally translated into several languages.
- The community and its conclusions should be promoted externally, and linked to traditional media, locally and more widely. Link with existing media to widen the network. Newspapers, magazines, community meeting halls, coffee shops, and telephones are still the "killer" communications applications for farm families in developed countries like Canada.
- Communities need some stake in the governance of the list - members could be invited to be co-moderators. There should be local "champions" of topics.
- For the sponsor and for feedback to the community, there needs to be some way to evaluate the success of the exchanges. This implies a defined goal.

The role of the facilitators:

The role of the facilitators is very important for the success and effectiveness of the work in online community. Here are some conclusions:
- Experts are needed in the group to offer good advice, but the facilitator should recognize that everyone has something they can teach others.
- Facilitators should introduce topics for discussion, but there should be care in the choice. They must provide a substantial amount of content. They should paraphrase, think ahead, formulate hypotheses and initiate discussions.
- Ask yourself: are members prepared to discuss this topic openly, or do they have a reason for secrecy?
- Facilitators must balance control and direction with letting the community grow naturally.

Some critical success factors

For the community:
- A theme that energizes a core group
- A skillful and reputable coordinator
- Involvement of experts
- Topics that address details of practice
- The right rhythm and mix of activities

For the sponsoring organization:
- Strategic relevance of domain
- Visible management sponsorship, but without micro-management
- Dance of formal and informal structures
- Adequate resources
- Consistent attitude

Ressources and tutorials for further reading

  1. Define the role of the moderators (PDF format)
  2. Creating discussion areas
  3. Facilitating and Hosting a Virtual Community
  4. Networks, Groups and Catalysts: The Sweet Spot for Forming Online Learning Communities
  5. The e-conference concept guide
  6. Online Discussions: Benton’s Lessons Learned
  7. Building Online Communities: Transforming Assumptions Into Success

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