May 2009


I always enjoy reminiscing about the way things were before the advent of the mobile phone or the Internet or thumb-size music machines… and I usually think to myself, in a corny fashion: Isn’t technology amazing?

Now, if you’ve been collaborating with colleagues (whether in your office or across different time zones) on reports, projects, events and meetings, you’re probably aware of the frustrations involved. One immediately springs to mind: email exchanges that involve logistics, participant lists, activities and, most annoying of all, documents that appear in various draft stages from different senders – it’s enough to confuse anyone.

On that note, I have to say that collaborative writing has evolved in ways that have left me in awe. When you need to work with several people to produce written documents, such as agendas, reports and proposals, emails are the least productive way to go.

Granted, the humble email has done a lot for collaboration between people in different locations, but there are now more effective online tools that can help you with collaborative writing in the research arena. Not only do these tools enhance your writing experience within the group, but they also reduce the ridiculous number of emails that make it hard for you to retrieve the correctly revised versions of documents from your In-box.

While collaborative writing can make us more efficient and effective, several issues need to be addressed: the imbalance in contributing to content, the lack of interest, the subtle hierarchies which hinder real collaboration, and also the difficulty in relinquishing autonomy or control over the written word.

So be warned, we are now moving into a truly ‘democratic’ zone of collaboration. Ready to let go of the control panel? Read on!

Tools for collaborative writing

Wikis: the word originates from Hawaii – ‘wiki wiki’ means quick. Wikis let you create your collaboration environment online very ‘quickly’. What this means is that you can actually create your own wiki site, place your content on it and allow access to any number of people to see, add to or edit it in almost ‘real-time’. A history of revisions is maintained online, so you can check back on earlier versions.

Ideally, a team member can add to or edit an existing draft, with equal measure. The focus is on content and not the person who contributes. So your team will need to comprise people who are willing to contribute to the content subject, who enjoy the stimulus of sharing thought processes collaboratively and who also do not feel too much pressure from having their colleagues edit them. So, wikis may not suit everyone.

It would also be wise to have an editor or person-in-charge to maintain and update the site – this is called wiki gardening, for obvious reasons. Pages will need to be linked, content may need to be removed if not relevant anymore and indexes will need to be created.

When to use wikis
Wikis are worth using when you want to build a body of knowledge online, such as a handbook, a toolkit, raw data sets, even a book chapter, but with collaboration from others. The most obvious example is Wikipedia, a web-based encyclopedia that lets just about anyone with access to the Internet add or edit content. However, there are many uses for wikis. Check out the KS Toolkit page on wikis and see for yourself!

Wikis are also excellent for planning events and documenting meetings. Once you have your team members in mind, you can create a wiki site and allow access to them. Being a collaborative tool, a wiki site lets you and your team prepare agendas, activity lists, proposals and reports collaboratively. Whatever the content, new pages can be created by anyone in your team and linked, ensuring that all documents are found in one site.

How to get started with wikis: there is a wealth of wiki tools, go to wikimatrix.org to find the one for you.

Examples

Google Sites: originally based on wiki technology, Google Sites has shortcuts and improvements that include website management features.

Taking the wiki a step further, Sites lets us choose from different page types, such as a list, a file cabinet, a dashboard, announcements. Google documents, spreadsheets and presentations – as well as videos, maps, calendars and all the goodies you can build with Google Apps and services, all of which can be easily embedded into a Google Site. Collaborators can add comments and attachments. A site map is automatically created. And voilà! You have a ‘website’ for your collaborative writing.

When to use Google Sites
Google Sites is perfect for all non-techies out there who need an online collaborative environment to write, share and collect different types of information in one place, while maintaining a semblance of order.

Examples of public sites on CGXchange 2.0 (Google Apps for the CGIAR)

Google Docs: well, you’re probably wondering what took me so long to get to this, and chances are that you may already have tried this tool out.

In case you haven’t, Google Docs lets you and your team collaborate using text documents, spreadsheets and presentations online. While it is similar to wikis and Google Sites, Google Docs is used for collaboration on one specific piece of content at a time. This content can then be exported and used in blogs, reports, proposals, etc.

When to use Google Docs
Google Docs is best used when you have one document requiring input from others. You simply prepare the document and invite collaborators (anyone with a Google account). Any revisions made will be kept online, so nothing gets lost. In addition, spreadsheet documents allow real-time discussion between collaborators, thanks to a built-in chat room.

Don’t expect the formatting power of Word or PowerPoint, or the computing power of Excel. The point is … this is not the point! The formatting is so basic that Google Docs just lets you focus on what you want to write, and helps you collect and refine the collaborators’ contributions. Then, when everything has been finalized, you can export the content or copy/paste it into the final destination format.

Examples
Docs are usually not public (with exceptions). Here, on the ICT-KM Program blog, the Social Media Tools Series posts are developed in Google Docs: Meena writes, Antonella contributes, and Mary edits. When the content is final (and it is in HTML from the start, which helps a lot), it is pasted and given final formatting in WordPress. Another great example is Silvia Renn’s post on Using Google Docs for Proposal Writing.

How to get started with Google Sites and Docs: all you need is an account with Google (i.e. sign up for Gmail): these tools are available to Google account holders.  CGIAR Staff can get started  by requesting an account at CGXchange 2.0, where they will find a fully managed set of collaboration tools included in Google Apps.

etherpadEtherpad: Taking the term ‘real-time’ literally, this is probably the next step in collaborative writing. It’s a kind of wiki but easier to use and can accommodate up to 8 participants typing at the same time. While changes are updated every 15 seconds on Google Docs, Etherpad updates a document every half second, thus providing a dizzying combo of wiki and chat (see what Etherpad looks like). Isn’t technology amazing?

Updated: The next generation in collaborative writing is close at hand. As early as end of 2009, we may be able to collaborate in absolute ‘real-time’ as Google Wave promises today with ‘live’ transmission collaboration. 

Examples
Check the Use Cases on the Etherpad site. One of the sessions in the Real Time Virtual Collaboration (RTVC) experiment, held last May 9, was run on Etherpad: check the RTVC mindmap also for other examples of real-time collaboration tools.

So there you have it! Some tools to help you get started with collaborative writing. In a nutshell, these tools can benefit you by:

  • bridging geographical distances, allowing people across continents to collaborate with regard to event/project development, information gathering and knowledge management;
  • uncluttering your email box along with the email boxes of your collaborators. While some may be content to use email for their communications, many people are looking for ways to reduce their email load. Whether working on project proposals or creating a knowledge base, these tools eliminate countless email transfers and, along with them, bits of information scattered in several different messages. These tools also house content at one location online, with researchers being able to access and collaborate on a living document.

Nonetheless, the process of writing within a team is challenging on its own, and the tools only provide a conducive environment. Getting past the hierarchies and the defensiveness requires tactful handling.

It would be a good idea to establish rules for collaborative writing, nothing set in stone, just simple guidelines on what is expected of the team, the purpose of the collaboration, and respectful editing practices that help the team to negotiate during discussions between collaborators when changes are needed.

Engaging collaborators at the very beginning, clarifying the objectives of the collaboration, suggesting a set of rules and encouraging them to add to it, may foster a sense of ownership and accountability. After all, technology can only go so far!

Till next time…

P.S. My thanks to Antonella Pastore, whose collaborative input made this blog post possible.

This morning we had our first conference call with 14 social media workshop participants.

Nancy's clock notes from the call

Nancy's clock notes from the call

We went around the clock (see the method described in our KS Toolkit http://www.kstoolkit.org/Teleconference+Clock) to have a chance to introduce us quickly and share the type of social media tools we are already using for personnel or professional purposes. Almost all the tools we will be discussing over the next three weeks have been mentioned: Twitter, Yammer, Blogs, Facebook, Slidesharing etc. Nancy compared this group’s feedback with the initial comments we got when we launched the first knowledge sharing workshop early last year. “It is incredible how much more tools you are using and it is only one year later”, she said.

Nancy also made the point that it is quite easy to get overwhelmed with the number of tools that are out there. “Over the next 3 weeks we will try to get to know those tools, and think about the strategic path each of you might take. The tip is to focus on what matters to you. You don’t need to look at all the tools” Nancy suggests.

We then spent some time on participant’s examples. Florence Sipalla who is a Communications Officer with the CGIAR Gender & Diversity Program tells us about the AWARD fellow ship blog which tries to “reach out to more people more frequently then the newsletter”.
Salomon, World Agroforestry’s Web coordinator seemed excited about the Slide Share site where the center shares its presentations.

Talking about slide-sharing: Social Media is indeed a lot about sharing: It is based on the assumption that you don’t have all the content yourself and that using and re-using of materials can improve the content but it can also help adapt the content to specific user groups.  Another important characteristic of social media is that the emphasis is less and less less technology, to become each day easier to set up, learn and use.

The obvious downside of social media is the bandwidth problem. “Users with low bandwidth are having a hard time in accessing some of the tools,” Nancy states: “But people are also getting creative in the way they address low bandwidth issues”. There are a series of tips and tricks that can help and that we have to learn. One example is to share on a blog a link to a power point presentation rather then to embed the presentation into the blog which makes the page faster to load.

Another participant raised the sometimes difficult choice of reaching users through email versus social media: Too much in peoples email box leads to overload and there is a need to balance. Participants seemed to agree that “email is still essential”

Maria Iskandarani from the CGIAR Secretariat asks if blogs are good discussion tools. Nancy thinks that in general discussions are difficult because of the ‘dominant role” of the blog author. A blog doesn’t put the reader and the blogger on the same level. A comment on a blog is more like an input to an author than a conversation. Also Nancy emphasizes that the adoption of a blog can really take time, as the ICT-KM Program blog https://ictkm.wordpress.com/ shows which needed almost a year to thrive including trying out different techniques, fine tuning ownership issues, getting the whole team on the blogging board, as well as adding a marketing component like Twitter.

The final issue raised was about security related to our digital identity. Nancy suggests being careful when you share information related to your location, your personal telephone numbers etc. “If you just start now with social media, choose a secondary email when you sign up.” Antonella Pastore from ICT-KM shares a great link with us:    http://security.ngoinabox.org/ Tools and tactics for your digital security!

Stay tuned….

change blogI have talked in earlier posts about the blog “Embracing Change” that supports the sharing and documentation of the organizational change process of the CGIAR.

In this post I would like to look closer at the learning curve and the progress that I have been observing and talking about with the team over the last 2 years or so.

Learning curve step 1: The blog started in June 2008. At that time the CGIAR Secretariat had been tempted to do a blog for a while but it was really the beginning of the CGIAR change process that provided an ideal opportunity to experiment with this new media.

Step 2: The beginnings were filled with uncertainties and questions: Who will blog? What should be the tone? Do we need an editing process? How often do we need to update the blog? How official is this site? And so on. These were all legitimate questions and ended up being answered with a relative conservatism: Let’s publish official messages from the CGIAR Chair Kathy Sierra! The advantage of this approach is that many people are interested in what the Chair has to say, the inconvenient being that the message has to go through a complete editing chain, and looses the personal tone to become very institutional which– the experience proves– doesn’t really make a blog thrive.

Step 3: To boost the frequency of messages and subsequent traffic, it was decided to hire a blogger for some of the key CGIAR change events, the first being a stakeholder meeting in the Philippines in September 2008. Indeed the number of visits increased dramatically. In a related post, the event blogger Sue Parrott from GreenInk stated: “The blog, as a new channel and trendy media, generated interest among the meeting participants who responded very positively to my interview invitations. I could work very independently also I would almost have liked interviewees to be more controversial.” Due to the little experience everybody had with the blogging process, the team felt at that time necessary to revise the blog posts before posting them. The blog started to mix nicely photos, and videos with the interviews.

Step 4: The experience was considered positive and pursued in December to cover the Annual General Meeting 2008 of the CGIAR in Maputo, Mozambique. Now, Sue Parrott could post her stories without revisions!

Step 5: The Strategic Communications Meeting of the CGIAR included a great opportunity to meet with the CGIAR change Transition Management Team (TMT) and to talk about the best ways to communicate the change process. The need for a more personalized tone was emphasized by a lot of participants. This led the TMT members to follow the suggestion and write more frequent updates and to post those on the blog as TMT Journal updates. The recent donor meeting in London was another opportunity for live blogging. And new features appear on the site, like the Flickr photo gallery.

That is where we are in our learning curve right now: The blog got more ownership, and became less formal in its tone; the statistics prove the concept, as the number of visits is growing. There is still a small number of comments, and sometimes it might seem discouraging, but from our ICT-KM blog experience it is urgent to be patient: People need time to find you, and they need time to feel comfortable enough to jump into the cold water and expose themselves to “everybody”.

The next steps could include an agreement among the bloggers on who replies (more quickly) to the comments as this encourages other readers to contribute (Learning curve step 6: Always reply to the comments you get). The blog posts could also deal with and link to partner and center sites where related topics are discussed (Learning curve step 7: Cross linkages increase readership and help to raise the profile). And finally “somebody” should take over the flagship and listen to what others say about the CGIAR change process and related topics on the web, go to those sites and start an online conversation through comments and links. (Learning curve step 8: Social Media Listening is key for engagement online ).

Congratulations to the blogging team for taking up the challenge and continuous improvement!

social mediaThe second social media workshop of CGIAR’s ICT-KM Program kicks off next Monday with 35 participants from 10 different organizations, among those IFAD, CTA, IRG, and CARDI.

The facilitators team Nancy White, Meena Arivananthan, and Simone Staiger-Rivas also welcome participants from 2 Challenge Programs, 6 CGIAR centers, as well as eco-regional and systems-wide programs, and the CGIAR Secretariat.

In this edition we are also happy to have a workshop mentor: Jonathan Thompson from the World Food Programme.

We are looking forward to three weeks of social media explorations and discussions. Pre-workshop preparations include a short survey that invites the group to share existing IDs or set up accounts for the social media tools that we will be learning about (Skype, Fickr, Twitter, blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) The three weeks have each a different focus:

  1. Thinking About Your Social Media Needs
  2. Exploring and Picking Tools
  3. Social Media Strategy and Implementation

The workshop menu includes also 2 optional teleconference calls and discussions on the internet platform Moodle. The facilitators provide the group with discussion starters, tools introductions and related links, and will refer to the KS Toolkit as central resource. Watch out this space for summaries of the event!

Photo Credit:  Matt Hamm

webThis year CIAT’s annual meeting, also known as KS Week is … unfortunately a 6-day power point event but I must admit that the level of discussion is good and that people seem engaged.

The innovation comes this time from the documentation and reporting side. The visit from ICT-KM’s Enrica Porcari and Peter Ballantyne to promote availability and accessibility of research results came timely to get CIAT’s communications unit started in the use of social media tools.

CIAT has set up a Web page with links to several social media channels. Have a look at:

  • The photos. Neil Palmer recently joined CIAT as a public relations officer and proved to be a very talented photographer
  • The video interviews
  • The presentations and more then 100 posters that are part of an exhibition
  • The blog, available in Spanish and English, where we collectively capture as many sessions as we can.

The communications staff is encouraged by the increasing number of visits: 600 in less then 3 days.

Congratulations CIAT!

Photo Credit: Neil Plamer, CIAT

CIATKSW09I write this from CIAT, where at the Knowledge Sharing Week of the Institute we have been presenting approaches to increase availability and accessibility of CIAT’s research outputs. CIAT was the second center where we carried out AAA benchmarking. The results of this exercise were presented to the participants in the Knowledge Sharing week, where scientists from all over the world reviewed data showing the availability and accessibility of the results of their work.

At the meeting we showed some pathways, that we have been developing with other CIARD partners: from Copyright management, to building repositories, to using social media

ruben echeverriaGood news: such is the support to the results of the benchmarking, that a plan of action with the committed support of the Director General is being prepared. Concrete actions to ensure the results of the hard and valuable work of CIAT’s researchers get to the hands of those who need it most.

Next we are moving to Bioversity, where the benchmarking exercise has started! Stay tuned.

In a previous post we said CIAT’s Knowledge Sharing week, was introducing innovative ways to communicate what is happening here. From pictures on Flickr (great photos!) to videos on Blip,tv, to all presentations on Slideshare. Excellent ways to stay true to their commitment to opening

Visit CIAT’s blog. Highly recommended! Well done to all of CIAT’s colleagues!

The April-June 2009 issue Rice Today contains a great article about rice science in the digital age.

The story essentially introduces some of the pathways used by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to maximise the accessibility of its research outputs.

These include adoption of a creative commons licence and publishing on several platforms – Google Books, Flickr, and YouTube. A presentation by IRRI’s Gene Hettel ‘Adopting and Utilizing Creative Commons to Facilitate the Dissemination of Rice Knowledge and Technology’, available on slideshare gives a vivid insight into IRRI’s approach to licensing and shows examples from the different platforms.

Congratulations to our colleagues in IRRI for moving forward the agenda of putting research in the hands of those who need it most!

Thanks to Peter Ballantyne for bringing this article to my attention

This is the presentation by Simone Staiger-Rivas to CIAT 2009 Knowledge Sharing Week, delivered during a session yesterday on The  importance of communication

CIAT’s Knowledge Sharing Week (KSW09) started today here in Cali, Colombia. This is one of the Center’s most important annual events, gathering scientists from Africa, Asia, and Central America, and providing a unique opportunity to exchange and discuss experiences with colleagues at headquarters.

Taking advantage of web 2.0 technologies, KSW09 will offer interactive coverage including a daily display of photos in Flickr; RSS so users can subscribe and receive updates; and a blog in both English and Spanish. Tools such as Slideshare will also be used to facilitate the access to all the materials resulting from this event.

Stay tuned by checking CIAT’s Blog

When I was in university, I had an ingenious way of bookmarking important facts/points from articles: 3×5 inch white, lined cards! I would use one side to write out a key point and the reverse side for a citation of the relevant book or journal article. What can I say… it was the 90’s! My 300-odd cards were so valuable to me that whenever anyone wanted to borrow one, I’d watch them like a hawk – till I got it back. Not that I’m averse to sharing, but the time and energy spent bookmarking key points, and the fact that I was relying heavily on them to complete my literature review, made this resource too valuable to lose.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and enter social bookmarking. Filling a niche need for Internet users who navigate their way through websites, social bookmarking is like a little storm in a big teacup – a storm that it is growing bigger everyday.

Some of us may already be saving links to useful websites we visit by ‘adding’ them to our ‘Favorites’ or Bookmarks in our preferred browser. While this means these websites are pegged or bookmarked, the time it takes to retrieve these ‘favorite’ links and the fact that you will need to use your own computer to access the websites, limits this organization tool.

Social bookmarking takes you, the user, to a new level of organizing your precious research, whether it’s a useful restaurant review or a comparison of pathogenic plant viruses. Social bookmarking services such as del.icio.us let you save and store your favorite online resources in a single location that is accessible from any computer with an Internet connection. All you need to do to organize your web links is to assign keywords (tags) that will help you recall the link when you need it. Bookmarks on del.icio.us can be shared publicly, for others to see and add to their resource lists, and vice versa. What a great way to filter through the information overload on the Internet!

How can you within the CGIAR benefit from social bookmarking?

Well, first, online resources can be shared across your Center between scientists and their peers. All that’s needed is a bit of thinking when tagging favorite website links with specific keywords.

As one participant of the Online Social Media workshop put it, “I can see real value in using social bookmarking to create ‘validated’ libraries of information sources on the Web. Choose a topic, set a ‘Network tag’, sign up a bunch of people interested in the topic and away you go. You could post the link to these ‘libraries’ on your own or your organization’s website.”

When you start using network tags, that’s where you really see the power of social bookmarking. Here are some simple instructions provided by Nancy White, online communication expert and lead facilitator at the Online Social Media workshop.

1. Choose a tag. This is a key practice!

2. Recruit Taggers. Here is my rule of thumb. In a group of 20 people, having 2 taggers will make a difference. It doesn’t have to be everyone. Some people are better scanners/taggers than others. I find people who are fast readers and global thinkers make great taggers. First I try and find out if anyone is already using del.icio.us and tagging. Then I ask them to consider tagging for the group as well. I always encourage people to install the little tag bookmarklet on their browser.
I REALLY love it when people don’t just tag, but they add a short annotation of why they think the link is valuable and add other tags beyond the shared tag that help further define the tag.

  • A tag should be somehow obviously related to the topic. People need to be able to remember it.
  • If it is related to an event, add a year at the end. So if we wanted to identify the CGSocialmedia resources to this year, we could make the tag CGSocialmedia09
  • If you need it to be unique to your group, you will have to work harder to make the tag unique. The tag socialmedia is used by many people so it is too generic.
  • Some caveats: Tags that are too long, have slightly weird spelling or too obtuse tend to have challenges. People forget them, mispell (and thus mistag) them. So bottom line, keep it as simple as you can while still being unique.
     
  • 3. Make the tag feed visible to users. So this may mean you are recruiting users, or simply making the fruits of the tagging visible to an existing group. You can pull the RSS feed (Meena: coming soon, I promise!) and embed it in a blog or webportal page or any site that allows simple scripts. You can find the RSS feed for any tag at the lower left of that tag page on del.icio.us.

    Social bookmarking and scholarly literature

    Maybe you don’t use 3×5 inch cards, maybe you’ve been trying various free or licensed software to keep track of your references on your personal computer. How about a web-based application that allows you to do exactly what del.icio.us allows, for your scientific literature, with no more than a mouse-click?

    There are too many web-based/social bibliography management tools out there that try to meet the needs of the scientist, created by various sources from esteemed journal publishers to PhD students. I’m going to highlight just three here, namely Connotea, Aigaion and CiteULike. Not for any other reason except that Petr Kosina of CIMMYT sent out a little question on Yammer (see post on Microblogging) asking which of these three online reference management tools would be suitable for geographically distributed research institutions – which would apply to the CGIAR.

    A quick scan of Connotea, Aigaion and CiteULike reveals:

    • All three software are free: CiteULike and Connotea are hosted services, while Aigaion is a web application that needs to be installed on a server
    • You can save and organize your links to references found online
    • Your bibliography/list of references can be easily shared among colleagues/peers
    • Use any computer to access your list of references anywhere, anytime
    • CiteUlike allows you to store your pdf files for easy access from any computer
    • Aigaion enables you to export references to other formats, like bibtext

    (Updated: Here’s another bibliography management tool, Mendeley, which indexes pdfs and manages bibliography in Word – courtesy of William Gunn)

    As you can see, your choice of online reference management software will depend on your needs. Shop around and check out some of the links below that make more detailed comparisons.

    If I can sum up the utility of social bookmarking sites, I’d say it’s the wealth of useful links you can get from having access to your colleague’s list and vice versa. Cutting out unnecessary trawling, it is time-saving and leads to the discovery of new, subject-relevant articles. Also having all your useful website links online just makes it easier to shed a few pounds off your travel gear. It’s just one more way to lose your notebook when you travel!

    Till next time….

    Examples:

    Resources:

    Two ICT-KM supported activities were among those selected to be showcased at the Science Forum in the Poster Competition:

    Well done!!!!

    The full list of posters is in this EGFAR E-News

    CGMap, a System-wide application that enables users to navigate easily through information on research and research-related activities that the CGIAR Centers and Challenge Programs publish in their Medium Term Plans (MTPs) every year, recently teamed up with the CGIAR’s Regional Plan for Collective Action.  Their goal?  To put active research projects in East and Southern Africa firmly on the map.

    Read on for a rare glimpse into the workings of the CGMap application. Although this article is a little technical, we’ve tried to keep it as simple as possible, in the hope that it will guide you towards a better understanding of what goes on in CGMap’s navigation room. (more…)

    My colleagues Meena and Antonella started a great blog series on Social media tools that complement the KS Toolkit and will serve as input for the upcoming social media workshop. Antonella wondered at the beginning of this week how we know if social media is working, and mentioned social media listening as an important practice.  Here is a little bit more about it:

    Good conversations require us to listen actively

    Les Causeuses de Camille Claudel

    Les Causeuses de Camille Claudel

    “Social Media is not about technology. It is about conversations enabled by technology.” I used this quote, which can be found in many presentations, in a recent social media presentation I gave at CIAT.

    So if Social Media is about conversations, we need to have at least two actors alternatively talking and listening. This is a critical point that is often questioned by social media sceptics. Just the other day, I was copied in on an email from an IT manager of a CGIAR Center who was wondering about the real level of interactivity of many blogs. Indeed, Nancy White states that only 10% of the social media content is truly interactive. The other 90% is dedicated to dissemination without any visible reaction through online comments.

    Listening as a way to market our research

    We can do better. Social Media Listening is a great opportunity for us to engage with stakeholders and possible users of research products, people we probably wouldn’t meet anywhere other than online. While we think about possible ways and alternatives to get our messages out more effectively, through different channels, and in different formats, we also need to keep an eye on what other organizations and people are writing about those issues that are related to our research. Reading, following and commenting on other people’s work and thoughts is essential if we are to engage with stakeholders of all kinds, and should be part of our Social Media strategies. If we want to make our media interactive, we also need to take the time to interact with others online. And all social media tools allow us to interact with authors through comments (i.e. blogs, photo and video sharing sites, wiki discussion pages etc).

    In addition, social media listening is an excellent way of talking about our research processes, products and achievements.

    What we can expect from practicing Social Media Listening

    Social Media Listening is a new way of raising the profile of our organizations, projects and even ourselves as we gain visibility by adding value to online conversations related to topics that we care about. It should also help us find new partners, networks, research ideas and, perhaps, even new donors. By participating in online conversations, we leave footprints in the Internet sphere that raise the probability of us being found and contacted. Finally, we can hope that this practice leverages our impact paths by accelerating the effective dissemination of our work.

    How to practice Social Media Listening

    Comment field on a blog

    Comment field on a blog

    Start by following information on the Internet that is related to your work. As Chris Brogan states “Google is your front page whatever happens”, but there are other ways to find opportunities for valued added conversations:

    • Technorati is a good site to start searching for related blogs.
    • Go to Twitter and search for tweets that might be of interest. You will be surprised how many interesting links you will discover.
    • Subscribe to the RSS feeds of the sites you find interesting.
    • Join listservs and communities that tackle your or related issues.
    • Ask your colleagues and peers about their favourite professional social networking sites for you to consider.
    • Start contributing with comments, questions, answers and links to your own sites.
    • Work hard on composing and refining keywords for your own sites and searches. Keywords allow you to find the hidden treasures.

    Who should practice Social Media Listening?

    While all of us, researchers and research supporters alike, can gain from keeping up to speed with the latest innovations and developments in our respective areas of expertise and interest, social media listening should be practiced by all communications professionals, especially those working in the field of public relations.

    Resources:
    Beth Kanter and Chris Brogan are two geeks covering this area. Have a look at these:

    Practice Social Media Listening and start a conversation now:

    • What are your first reactions to the practice of social media listening?
    • What would it take to make this a permanent and strategic activity?

    ICT tools have become crucial to the accomplishment of the organizational missions of the CGIAR Centers. The average CGIAR employee uses word-processing and spreadsheet programs, communications tools such as Skype or Communicator, media creation, management software, and online information management systems for documentation, finance or research. When these systems fail or become unreliable, the CGIAR suffers in its ability to accomplish its missions and meet its targets.

    During the initial phase of the ICT-KM Program’s Second Level Connectivity (SLC) project, it was discovered that many regional, country and project offices of the CGIAR receive poor ICT support. With the majority of research and administrative work relying on ICT, this means that there is much inefficiency in the way staff work and a lack of coordination both within the regions and with CGIAR HQ offices. This has led to poor implementation of standards and procedures, loss of data and information through poor data management and lack of access to important resources on the intranet and Internet sites. Local ICT support is usually provided by contracting local ICT professionals following the advice of a regional specialist.

    Regional ICT Specialist

    In an attempt to rectify this situation, the SLC project implemented a 10-month trial to provide a regional ICT specialist to coordinate and carry out ICT support within the East and Southern Africa region, with technical backstopping support from the joint ICT Unit of ILRI and the World Agroforestry Centre.

    The ICT specialist was responsible for:

    • Coordinating the local ICT support provided to the CGIAR offices in the region, ensuring the required quality was provided and maintained and that the CGIAR standards were implemented.
    • Providing ICT Support, advice and guidance, both remotely and during site visits to the CGIAR offices in the region.
    • Acting as the link between the CGIAR offices in the region and the respective CGIAR HQ Offices on technical ICT issues.

    The goal of the position was not to provide hands-on, technical support but to ensure improvements in the ICT standards, conditions and practices in the region.

    At the end of the 10-month trial, the pilot project’s effectiveness was evaluated via email, an online survey and interviews (conducted by an external evaluator) with CGIAR staff ranging from local users and office heads, through regional ICT staff and administrators to Center HQ ICT managers.

    The Benefits

    The evaluation highlighted certain practical, technical benefits arising from the position:

    • New shared VSAT satellite systems for IITA and IFPRI in Kampala, ICRISAT in Bulawayo, and CIMMYT and CIAT in Harare
    • Inventory of ICT status of offices in the region and development of improvement plans following discussions with office heads (Chetedze and other locations)
    • Improved backup procedures for local ICT staff (Chitedze, Harare and Kampala)
    • Assistance to WorldFish in remote locations (Maputo and Zomba)
    • Improved understanding, by staff and management, of ICT challenges: careless use of bandwidth, and efforts to address anti-virus and data backup needs

    Organizationally, the benefits included:

    • Development of a mailing list for ICT support issues
    • Improved ability of ICT staff in the region to liaise with their own HQ ICT staff
    • Development of relationships between the ICT specialist and regional managers and office heads and the initiation of discussions about developing common ICT staff or services in areas where CGIAR Centers share common premises
    • Improved standardized systems and practices in support of mobility for traveling CGIAR staff and visiting researchers

    In offices where the ICT specialist was able to contribute to visible improvements (such as improved bandwidth and ISP services and, in some cases, assistance with developing terms of coordination between local CGIAR offices), there is broad support for such a position. A number of staff interviewed felt that the value of strategic and planning advice is more important than the technical skills of the specialist. Even in the case of two small offices where the experiences of the office with the work of the specialist were not entirely positive, there is, nevertheless, extremely strong support of the concept of a regional ICT position.

    The Challenges

    Of course, employing an ICT specialist on a permanent basis won’t be without its challenges, chief of which relate to the following:

    Geography – The position needs to be located in a place from which travel is most effective and as inexpensive as possible.

    Finance – With only one exception, the HQ ICT managers supported in principle a financing model whereby they support overhead costs for the position, including one trip per year to each CGIAR office in the region, with the local offices paying for any additional visits or work they request or require.

    Management – the specialist and his/her supervisor must both be comfortable and skilled in the use of communications tools and be in the habit of initiating communications between each other about successes, problems, changes or initiatives as appropriate.

    Collaboration – The specialist must demonstrate an ability to work collaboratively, both in person and remotely, using such ICT collaboration tools as are shown to work well in the region.

    Looking ahead

    The major benefit to come out of this pilot project is a rare and encouraging display of unanimity across a broad spectrum of staff, offices and locations that a regional ICT specialist position is very important and central to their ability to accomplish their work efficiently and productively. More importantly, even when this support was offered with caveats about the implementation of the post, no one questioned whether or not it should exist.

    At levels from local or regional offices to HQ ICT managers, there is broad agreement on a cost-shared funding approach. In addition, there is an existing model for cross-Center ICT management that provides possible guidance for a management model. One CGIAR programme director described cross-Center services as “the future for such things as ICT support”.

    Indeed, the biggest risk to ICT management as a consequence of this pilot might be that it not result in a permanent post for the region, which would likely bring to a close several promising initiatives and practices coming out of the project to date and would respond poorly to the many comments about the importance of the post.

    All it takes is just one specialist.

    InterPressService recently published an article Development: Make use of African Skills which struck a chord with me.

    My take-home message from the article, written as the Third Knowledge Management Africa conference is taking place in Dakar, Senegal: “look within the continent to find solutions!”

    To find ways to apply vital information to the basic question of improving the lives of Africa’s people, you need not look beyond the boundaries of the continent.

    This statement is a corollary to our thinking in the way we are shaping AGCommons, our program to provide location-specific intelligence to solve real problems.

    As the implementation phase is designed we are looking into helping establish a stand-alone, Africa-based,  service bureau organization so that  AGCommons can contribute to improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers on a sustainable basis into the future.

    “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. The ancient Chinese proverb goes.

    With AGCommons we are looking into empowering the men and women of Africa to use geospatial tools to solve problems they know best!

    So to build on the Chinese proverb: with AGCommons we are handing over the ‘nets‘.

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