Sunday, January 20, 2008

Time, Technology and Tangibility

Last week I had the opportunity to talk to Frits Hesselink, who has recently completed a Toolkit on Communication, Education and Public Awareness (CEPA) for the Convention on Biological Diversity. Toolkits are very much the fashion right now and we were interested hear more about what Frits had learned in his process, which featured over 100 inputs from members of an international, distributed expert Commission linked to my organization (the Commission on Education and Communication, for which I act as the staff Focal Point). From our conversation three things struck me as particularly relevant to further Toolkitting activities: Time, Technology and Tangibility.

Time: For Frits, time was a major issue, and a resource need that had been wholly underestimated by all parties. The deeper the consultation, the better the product, and the more time this takes. For this toolkit, Frits did not simply request a group of editors to prepare set chapters or send out a prepared document for comments. He sent out web-based surveys which needed in many cases follow-up interviews with longer discussons to develop fully. He found that he needed to follow up with people quickly, within 10 days or less, to keep momentum and to keep people from forgetting the nuance of their survey responses. This created bursts of intensive time allocations. In addition, as this is a large network which was queried for the project, to keep his request from falling through the cracks and to attract people's immediate attention, the personal connection was important; so in many cases, Frits used his personal links with experts that he knew were working in the field of CEPA to encourage a concrete and timely response. This involved many individual messages, responses and person-to-person linkages rather than the typical all-network broadcast. Time, time, time.

Technology: For the final toolkit authors/editors group, Frits, and one of our IT colleagues, set up a technology platform for collaboration; a bespoke tool to upload documents, share commentary, etc. However, in the end it simply did not work. Frits was the only one who took the time to learn how to use it (the project started 2 years ago and the tool was a little too clunky), and other authors never had the time or enough incentive/need to get on top of it. Frits learned that technology must be easy, intuitive, and people need a strong incentive to learn a new system, rather than falling back on usual technologies like email. (We spun off here on an interesting tangent on age; perhaps our network needs that injection of young people for whom these new technology tools are second nature. We faced the possibility that our network is "too old" for some of these new tools, and that a little reverse mentoring through a cross-generational "Buddy system" could go a long way).

Tangibility: The final point that we talked about was how to make a Toolkit more than a book. We saw the proofs for the hard copy of the CEPA toolkit last week and indeed it looks like a book. It was first a website, then a CD-ROM, and now it is a book. There are of course good reasons for the hard copy, but these days it could perhaps be more useful for longer as a living social site, where people could upload more tools, experiment with them and share their results and questions. That would make it a real toolkit. But there is still, in some corners, the expectation to have a physical object as a product. Something you can hold in your hands, pass around, send in the mail. It also perhaps gives the sense to the partners that the project is "completed", and that the toolkit is "done". But perhaps it is more interesting these days, to never actually "complete" a toolkit project; not to freeze the knowledge at any point, but let it flow, go on percolating, updating itself, and spinning off into new areas when needed. This Web 2.0 option however demands monitoring and perhaps some facilitation at the onset to keep the quality, which takes not only money, but time - and that takes us right back to where we started from...

The last time you did an interesting project, did you learn something new? How did you share your learning with others?