Tag Archives: communityenablerkit

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Re-visiting the challenge of networking civil society as Khub closes

News that the Local Government Association is closing its Knowledge Hub as part of a £2 million savings plan provides a reminder of how difficult it is to maintain big one-stop-shop knowledge-sharing systems. And smaller ones too.

Dave Briggs has launched a rescue bid, and I’m sure Dave has the skills and helpers to develop a lighter version if he can persuade the LGA (and users) to collaborate in a handover, and can develop a new business model. There’s the rub.

It may be the Knowledge Hub, with 18,500 users (correction – apparently 150,000 registered but not clear how many active) could have continued if LGA hadn’t faced a big cut in support from Government, but I suspect there is more to it than that. Knowledge hubs take a lot of work not just to manage the technical system, but also to continue to recruit users and facilitate interactions. I know that Michael Norton and others at khub have been excellent in doing that, and have attracted many compliments amidst the news of closure. But it is a skilled business, and it costs. You can recruit some volunteers for different groups, but they need support too.

Steve Dale, who designed the Communities of Practice predecessor to Khub, and then conceived the new design, has recently been writing about Social Ecologies as a a different sort of architecture to tackle “the key challenges and opportunities for anyone who wants to survive and thrive in this emergent social ecosystem”:

  • Social media is generating enormous amounts of unorganised content: how to make sense of that.
  • Social networks enable a wider range of connections: how to find people and develop relationships.
  • New forms of collaboration are made possible by social media and networks: how to organise and manage.
  • There are a bewildering variety of methods and tools: how to choose and learn to use.
  • The new ways of making sense, connecting, collaborating, and using technology throw up the need for new skills: what are the new roles and the new skills?
  • The emphasis on open access and sharing changes where value may reside: so what are the new business models?
  • Social capital is becoming increasingly important in establishing trust and credibility in the virtual world: how do we increase or measure our social capital?

Steve and I have discussed this a lot, and I drew on that for a paper with Nick Wilding last year for the Carnegie UK Trust, about the future for rural networking. Part of the challenge was how to develop new business models for smaller Communities of Practice, like the Ning-based Fiery Spirits system that had been supported by the Trust. Because of a change of emphasis in their work, they were looking for a new home for the system.

My conclusion was fairly blunt: it is difficult to see how that sort of system can be maintained independently without a lot of funding, or volunteer effort. I know the latter is difficult to maintain from my own experience with similar systems. The alternative, I suggested, is that it can be part of a bigger system of online networking associated with an organisation, if they are going down the route of becoming a Networked Nonprofit on the lines described so well by Beth Kanter and her co-authors.

The Plunkett Foundation has now taken on Fiery Spirits and I hope they are able to integrate it with their other ambitious developments. That would be a good demonstration of migration from old to a new organisation-based model.

I don’t know what model Dave in mind, but do know of his past work in online learning, where people are prepared to pay fees, so perhaps there’s an option for blending free and paid for.

I’m interested in looking at things from the other end – that of helping people become their own knowledge hubs within the wider knowledge ecologies Steve Dale explores in an excellent second post on the topic. As well as developing personal digital literacies, in the social ecology we’ll need digital curators to help make sense and join up conversations and people: what I’m calling social reporting. Digital curators are working “in the wild” rather than as online community managers on knowledge hubs, which of course raises another business model challenge. How do we earn a living? And how do the curators cooperate within a field to make things as easy as possible for others? That’s for another post.

Meanwhile I have been exploring alternatives to the knowledge hub model in recent posts, prompted by ideas for a sort of civic Facebook or similar system developed by the new Lobbi initiative. The original vision there has been for a system to connect politicians, officials and citizens to tackle local issues and revive local politics. I love the enthusiasm behind the idea … but if a big outfit like LGA can’t make a knowledge hub work with fairly digitally savvy professional users, with shared culture and practises, is it realistic to think it possible to do something big with a far more diverse set of users?

In any case, whether or not sustainable knowledge hubs can be maintained, they won’t do everything, and anyone aiming to use digital technology for social good will need a set of personal literacies and tools to do that: hence my exploration of Creating a whole kit (and caboodle) for community enablers and agents of change and What’s digital life like for a community enabler?

I did write in an earlier post that I thought whatever challenges Lobbi faced in developing a platform, it could have an important role in acting as a convenor and catalyst for a wider movement for social technology for social impact, linking politics and local social action. Maybe it’s time for a get-together around the new architectures, roles and skills needed to meet The Challenge of Networking Civil Society, as I wrote a year back. It’s not getting easier.

Update: I’ve just come across a post by Steve Dale, initially the lead consultant and architect on knowledge hub, setting out what it was meant to be. It looks a if cut-backs during development removed integration with other social media, and led to poor user experience.

Update 2 Steve Dale provides more background and a vision of what a user-controlled knowledge hub might be like here

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What’s digital life like for a community enabler?

Following my rather theoretic post about developing a how-do kit and networks for community enablers I’ve had a couple of exchanges that fill out the reality. Here’s an amalgamation of those, combined with my experience and workshop discussions.

The voluntary sector community enabler’s story

I’m a development manager in a voluntary organisation that supports local groups, so I work with colleagues and volunteers on training, providing information, helping with fundraising, dealing with the council and programmes funded by Big Lottery and other agencies. Life is too many meetings, too many calls, too many emails, too much paperwork.  I enjoy it, but would love to find ways of using technology better to be more effective.

We need to be on top of the latest information nationally and locally, and already use sites like KnowHow NonProfitKnowledgeHub, Locality, Getlegal, Directory of Social Change for advice. Then there’s Zurich’s Community Starter site for groups planning action, and Community HowTo for digital tools.

Despite all that it is really difficult to put together help for people that I support – and manage my own personal information. I’ve got an iPhone but know I only use a fractional of what’s possible, and on my computer I’ve ended up with collections of bookmarks, lots of pdfs in different folders, spreadsheets storing contacts. I know I should transfer to our website and share with others, but there’s never the time.

Communications online is a mess. One large project is using Basecamp, some groups have Facebook pages, and Twitter is OK for quick messages, but not for groups. Mostly we end up with lots of cc emails.

I’m interested to see what Urban Forum found in their survey of social media use, and might try Yammer when I have a moment … but it’s no good if others won’t use it.

As well as managing our own communications we have to try and help some local groups who have been told that they must set up blogs to report how they are using funding under one of the big national programmes. That’s pretty challenging for volunteers who may be excellent at face-to-face relationships and newsletters, but just don’t have skills or confidence to do much online beyond email and standard websites. A few did manage to use the simple Posterous site, but that was bought out by Twitter and closed and they had the nightmare of trying to transfer elsewhere.

It’s tempting to think that some sort of new platform for everything might help … wasn’t Your Square Mile aiming to do that as part of the original Big Society plan? The problem is getting people to move from the familiar, particularly if their friends aren’t there and they are doubtful whether it will be maintained.

I would love to see someone trying to develop useful ways to help people like me and the groups I support – and would do what I can to help.

But it can’t be one-size-fits-all, and it shouldn’t duplicate what’s happening already. We need better connecting of existing resources, and ways in which people can pick and mix the simplest set of tools they need, with some confidence that they will continue to be available. Of course it’s not just about the tools, it’s about developing digital literacy as well as all the other literacies we need in this sort of role.

Where can I find other people like me interested in learning together?

Does this ring true? As I wrote yesterday, enablers might be councillors, community organisers, people running local groups, citizens developing a campaign and/or generally working to revive local democracy. Do please drop a comment, or email me and I’ll fictionalise if you prefer. Then we can run a workshop like this one.

I have embedded links to most of the references above, but they aren’t showing up too well. I hope to fix that shortly.

Thanks to the enablers who shared their digital lives. More please!


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Creating a whole kit (and caboodle) for community enablers and agents of change

Discussion at a strategy group about the new Lobbi initiative prompted me to write yesterday about an online/offline kit for local change agents, with references to my previous work with colleagues on kits and the use of social tech for social impact.

Here’s the first of a series of posts on what that kit (and caboodle)** could be, as a set of resources for people I’m calling community enablers, with added networking. That’s the all-important caboodle.

As I said yesterday, enablers might be councillors, community organisers, people running local groups, citizens developing a campaign and/or generally working to revive local democracy. This account is a bit of a ramble, but if I try and get every nuance right it won’t get done. Comments welcome. I’ve put most links at the end.

I’m not suggesting this would necessarily be a Lobbi kit, since it develops from other work I’m doing with colleagues anyway, and the Lobbi vision is still emerging.

First the local context as I see it. Whether under the banner of community development, organising, enabling, building, volunteering, or social action lots of people have been doing good stuff locally for decades – and of course before that without the labels. Councillors and professionals work in support of this, and in addition councils and other public services mount extensive programme to consult and engage with citizens. There have been stacks of how-to kits, lots of consultants and nonprofit networks, but resources fall out of print, websites wither, people move jobs or burn out, networks fold.

David Cameron wanted to encourage more of what he called Big Society (without really acknowledging it was fairly big already), but then cut many of the support systems developed over the past decade or so without enabling alternatives effectively. There are good programmes like Big Local and Community First, organisations like Locality, innovative programmes like Transition Towns, to name only a few. However, coverage is patchy, and there’s a tendency to brand rather than share how-to resources because everyone is competing for funding.

This is just the sort of situation in which social technology, coupled with good curation and facilitation, could help in gathering resources, enabling people to share, promoting both peer-to-peer networking and direct agency-to-citizen support. A group of us tried, as volunteers, to do a bit towards that vision under the banner of Our Society, using an online platform, but without resources it was too much of a struggle to maintain. I should offer congratulations to NatCAN for keeping going, but generally I don’t think the conversation/knowledge hub model works too … about which more later.

Now to the real purpose of a kit. I should emphasise that I’m using kit as shorthand for something that would help anyone seeking to organise or enhance community activity using a mix of traditional and more recent tech-enabled methods. Blogs, Twitter and Facebook groups  are no substitute for newsletters, meetings and knocking on doors. Not everyone has access or is confident online, and some stuff has to be done face-to-face.

At the same time it is waste of enabling power not to use technology as a bigger part of the mix in finding and sharing information, telling stories, collaborating between meetings, crowdsourcing funding and so on.

Unfortunately I see something of a divide between those with deep experience of community action who tend to favour face-to-face, and those who see and use the potential of online organising but may not be so comfortable on the door-step or in the community meeting. There are shining exceptions to this distinction working at local level, including my colleague John Popham who has just announced a WOW bus to take some digital enabling on tour. There are many digital enablers operating in larger organisations and as social entrepreneurs, but I think it fair to say digitally savvy community enablers are thinly spread around the country.

So – what could be done to help anyone acting as a community enabler blend tech into their work, develop digital literacies, and also help others do the same? And how could this also be a way to help enablers and others access scattered resources about traditional methods, share experience with others, and build confidence in new ways of doing things … and keep up their motivation? I think it involves development at several levels, personal, organisational, and systemic, with an understanding of communities, technologies, development processes and networks.

What’s the real value of a kit (and caboodle). I believe that addressing the issue of how to enable enablers, by adding some social technology, could help at several levels.

  1. The most obvious is that it would be a way to bring together scattered how-to resources, and add some technology tools to the kit, provided there were support in developing digital skills – something the Big Lottery Fund is investing in more widely. Maybe there could be support there.
  2. However, a how-to kit with added tech won’t do much unless it also helps develop some common ground and frameworks among the various organisations working in this field, who are each creating their own kits and methodologies. There are differences between community organising as promoted by Locality and Citizens UK, ABCD community building, the Transitions Towns and others – but there are bigger areas of similarity. Teasing out a framework to underpin a kit would demonstrate how they all involve similar aspects of process with different degrees of emphasis: listening, mapping assets, building relationship and networks, organising events, raising funds etc.
  3. The further benefit could be networking with the common challenge of learning about tech. Toolkits don’t necessarily enable action on their own. Some people are happy just to read the manual and apply it … but I guess most of us like to have someone to ask and help.  A framework for community enabling (point 2) could provide the basis of shared practice. Learning about technology could provide a further shared interest and common ground. From that it might be possible to add the caboodle – the networking of enablers, or more probably networking of networks.

What could be the contents of a kit. At this point the temptation might be to gather together the various kits, and sites about community action and enabling, add social tech how-to, create a networking site and launch. Or rather, put together a funding bid first, hoping that the funding agencies have forgotten how kits and networking sites have failed many time in the past to make much impact.

I suggest instead taking one of the strongest lessons from community enabling and applying it to a process of developing the kit and caboodle: stuff works best if people have a hand in designing and developing, because it is then what’s needed, and they own it. One way to do this would be to build on the work that Drew Mackie and I started last year, when we invented the town of Slapham, with its neighbourhoods, organisations, enablers and citizens. We ran a workshop in which we all invented some enabler characters, the challenges they and the citizens of Slapham faced, then played through how enablers could use social tech as part of their work. We’ve done this subsequently for real with an organisation recruiting community enablers, and it worked really well.

The next step is to do a bit more work on Slapham (which we are renaming Slipham since that’s a bit less in your face), fill out the draft components of a kit, and run some more workshops to develop content.

At this point the objection might be raised – isn’t this going to be a very big kit, which people won’t read or use? In development so far, we have been working on the basis that the front end of the kit can be as simple as a set of cards, like those developed by the Transition Towns network to support their Companion, or the set created by the Group Pattern Language Project, with ideas and help on running creative events. We’ve used a similar approach in the Social by Social social media game.

I’ll develop more ideas in a later post about the kit, cards and what in the past we’ve called a social app store of back-up how-to resources. I see the kit as an open source/creative commons resource, so people can rework the material for their own purposes, with attribution and links back to the original.

Now for the caboodle. You’ll see in the links below a lot about the challenges of networking, and building knowledge hubs. The problem – as I reported in a briefing paper for the Carnegie UK Trust – is that it is really difficult to get people to move to a new platform when there are so many online spaces already; it takes a lot of professional resource to facilitate and manage a site if you do get people there; and there aren’t easy ways to generate revenue. I raised these points in a post about the initial Lobbi vision. A further post here will be on the idea of instead facilitating social ecologies, which is being explored by Steve Dale.

Meanwhile, if you are interested in being involved do drop a comment or get in touch. This post is by way of setting the scene. I hope things will make more sense as we draft some of the kit, and run a workshop.

** The whole kit and caboodle: A kit – is set of objects, as in a toolkit, or what a soldier would put in his kit-bag. A caboodle (or boodle) – is an archaic term meaning group or collection, usually of people.

Earlier posts on the community enabler exploration

Big Society, Our Society and networking civil society