Outsourcing Management of CoPs

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Idea: to outsource the basic facilitation functions of the community (granting access to web space and e-network, serving as helpdesk for questions, referring inquiries to focal points within the community, sending major announcements and distributing key material) to a third party.

Does anyone of you have experience with outsourcing CoP maintenance/facilitation? Do you know any service providers which specialize in this? What other mechanisms did you find useful in ensuring managerial sustainability of communities over time? johannes schunter

A1 doable, roles, profile In previous organizations I worked with, the moderation of a CoP was outsourced to external consultants. It’s very doable. One was assigned to do basic editorial things, post news and background materials and respond to technical questions (web-master) and another one as subject matter expert who, in collaboration with the organizational unit/ staff responsible for the CoP, triggered discussion and debate and responded to ‘content’ questions.

(you need to)....find someone who understands CoPs, moderate (e)-discussion, subject matter expertise, can create enthusiasm, and so forth. This kind of expertise is often not part of the offering of an IT outsourcer daan boom

A2 facilitation from within the community Another possibility which I quite like is to think about continued facilitation from within the community itself. If there is already enthusiasm and engagement, then the maing challenges are: - identifying a partner who is interested in and has the capacity to facilitate well - avoiding creation of competition/jealousy among partners (this can be tricky, but with transparent processes can be managed)

I think if you have a CoP that is going well and is well-facilitated, then building in a transition where the existing facilitator can work with an incoming facilitator over a short time (depends on the context, level of activity, etc., but maybe over one or several months) can help to ensure continuity and relevant capacity is there. The key thing for me is to the extent that facilitation can come from within the community, it will be more likely to be sustainable and there is already familiarity on both sides (i.e facilitator and community), which is a good thing. riff fullan

A3 needs for specific facilitation; life cycle I'll chime in that this is doable and communities do it. some strategic questions:

  • What level of trust will membes feel about an outside community facilitator? Will this enliven, or dampen the communities interactions and learning?
  • How much subject matter is needed? What I observe is that in some communities, deep knowledge is required. In others, the skill of noticing and connecting members and information is more important than deep SM expertise.
  • How much internal knowledge of the community is required to be effective -- this is both a matter in choosing internal or outsourced, but also in terms of the time it takes for the facilitator to get up to speed. More often, the knowledge of how the organization works (if a community is internal) is really subtle but critical. Again, however, the outside perspective may find ways to avoid the org pitfalls and build on strengths. This is when outsiders are useful - they hold up a new "mirror" for the community to see itself in a new way and this can be energizing. (Or fully kill the community!)

So for me, it is not a matter of "should we outsource or not" but "where is this community in it's lifecycle, what are its needs and what sort of facilitation is needed now and going forward". nancy white

A4 example Though the content was deliberately left to the participants to structure according to their learning needs, I had a holding role: I provided resource materials and links, held a vision of the overall progress of the set, brought in process observations where I thought they might be helpful, and introduced a framework for self- and peer-assessment at the end of the set. That left the participants freer to build their community and shape their learning experience; john gray

A5 example, lifecycle, cop resilience As someone who once played the role of outsourced facilitator it was crucial for my initial credibility to have been there at the beginning of the lifecycle – in some ways the facilitation was never outsourced, it was always being done in partnership with another organisation as this was felt to be helpful to broaden the COP’s potential membership.

However, the issue of succession was not solved by having an external facilitator. As the COP lived on (and is now almost 10 years old) it was necessary to plan for succession within the outsource organisation! The succession also proved to be a strength as it enabled the core skills of the facilitation function to change to respond to the changing needs of the COP itself.

So perhaps one of the keys is to build capacity to change (resilience) into the COP and its facilitation through horizon scanning, member feedback, mentoring future facilitators etc carl jackson

A6 differentiate between roles key question is what parts of the community administration process can be commoditized?

administration is critical to sustainability - regardless of community's purpose, strategy, topic, size, or traffic. Remove administrative functions and a community falters in a short time - Yet, no organization in international development can cost-effectively do it My conclusion is that the community administration process must be commoditized. Once commoditized, certain parts of the process can be implemented into software itself, and certain parts could in time integrate into staff training processes. Probably one or two independent organizations could fund part of their existence from offering such services on a large scale as Josien suggested.

This approach is not opposing the "promote within" view of self-sustainable communities, nor does it obviate the need for experienced facilitators/consultants. Even if one promotes a participant to facilitate (when it makes sense), such move would relate to subject-matter knowledge others outlined; equally, an experienced outsider-facilitator's time is much better spent focusing on the subject matter, stimulating discussion and making connections, than on administering logins and other process related-matters. Yet, we don't expect that participant or a facilitator to pay for hosting and maintain the software, right? Someone will still have to perform these functions (many of which are built into self-service platforms, or are taught in standard IT staff training courses) - in the same manner one can implement community administration as well, as all three are prerequisites for virtual community sustenance.

Would love to hear from others what challenges you see in commoditizing community administration? As a first step - for the purpose of this discussion - would it make sense to differentiate between community administration and facilitation? Damir Simunic

A7 roles I think it makes a good deal of sense to identify the range of activities that support distributed CoPs. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • facilitation (group process, social and content related - events, etc. Can be very diverse)
  • technology stewardship (selection, deployment and useful practices in the tech a community uses, including noticing and spread good practices (can be from simple to very complicated. If simple, probably lumped into administration)
  • administration (membership, help, cleaning up things, etc.)

nancy white

A8 roles optimally there is a fourth function which is as synthesizer/outcome optimizer, whose job it is to draw out nuggets of use beyond just the people talking, who help to gently channel conversation to be more useful to the broader objective. These folk ("moderators?") are tasked with making the whole much greater, and longer lived, than just the sum of the parts. Most important these folk need to be subject matter folk, not collaboration specialists or application wonks. They COULD be wrapped up in only one person, but that's unlikely.

- he/she is seen as a peer substantively by the community. That means that 1) his/her summarizations/syntheses will be trusted and 2) she/he would be capable of knowing what's important and what's not. I find that facilitators may know the various techniques for getting people to talk, but they may not know what in fact matters substantively. This isn't as important when the topic itself is facilitation, collaboration or KM (because in that case the facilitator IS potentially on top of the subject matter of that discussion), but I think it really matters when the community is sector or issue-specific. tony pryor

A9 example of outsource company (ngo)

Picture this – a young woman in a village in Southern India whose parents sell vegetables from the roadside gets up every morning, takes a bus for an hour and comes to a small office in the nearest town. She sits in front of a computer (with a broadband connection) – and begins dealing with pending new member requests to a Community of Practice. A year ago, she had never touched a computer; now she sits confidently in front of a LYRIS / DGroups list admin screen and sends new members welcome messages. She looks at a recently completed discussion thread on Outsourcing Management Communities of Practice, and compiles all the responses into a single page on a MediaWiki platform, documenting the country of origin of each contributor, and creating a Google map of the discussion, leaving a space for the Discussion Summary to be filled in by the network member who started the discussion.

This is not just a scene inside my head! This is how our virtual Management Practice communities in the United Nations Development Programme are supported in a ‘win-win’ outsourced arrangement whereby an NGO in a small town in South India helps motivated low-income people learn computer skills through on-the job training. This began as an in-house initiative (by myself) that led to the creation of an NGO with the mandate of bridging the digital divide through such on-the-job opportunities. Over a couple of years, the NGO in question has now provided services – both one-off and ongoing - to UNDP Offices in India, Bhutan, our Oslo Governance Centre, and various units at UNDP Headquarters in New York and Copenhagen.

The logic is simple – outsource the basic tasks at low cost so that the community Facilitator can focus on more strategic and value-added outputs. And in the process, a focus on “Pro-Poor Outsourcing” leads to a direct development impact as a nice positive externality. And in the next few months, we’re going to explore a very exciting possibility – that the workers at the India Centre go to Bhutan to train people from similar backgrounds to provide the same services directly to the UNDP Office in Bhutan. True South-South cooperation to lapse into jargon – no fancy Sheraton hotels will be involved; transport will be by train and bus, and it will be the experience of a lifetime for a couple of youngsters who may well have never been outside their home state let alone to another country.


I would like to share my experience with outsourcing some of the more mechanical aspects of supporting communities of Practice – with particular reference to 4 very active ‘problem-solving’ communities within the United Nations Development Programme (1500 members each across 130+ countries; 50-100 messages a week on each). The communities I refer to are in internal management topics – Human Resources, Finance, Procurement and Project Management and are all email-based (on a LYRIS platform, just like DGroups).

As many of you know, the day to day aspects of managing virtual communities often involves a lot of fairly mechanical tasks (adding new members, keeping profiles up to date, etc., reporting statistics on membership, contributors, etc). And this is particularly true of our Email based communities. Some of this work can be automated, but this requires the committed support of one’s IT department, which may not always be available.

I have outsourced the following functions, some related to managing a LYRIS-based group, others in connection with building a knowledge base, etc.

· MEMBERSHIP: Review pending new member requests twice a day – add and send Welcome Message

· REPORTING ON NETWORK ACTIVITY: On a weekly basis produce a summary of: Number of Queries; number of replies; number of “Corporate’ Replies - i.e. replies by headquarter specialists on particular topics – these are done by manual inspection of emails against lists of staff who are corporate resources in specific topics within HR, Finance, etc.

· NETWORK TRAFFIC: Combine short messages into a single “multiple contributors” messages; archive individual un-posted messages to maintain a complete record of contributions; categorize messages as INFO, REQUEST FOR DOCUMENTS, Q&A – from simple inspection of the query.

· DEAL WITH ATTACHMENTS: If messages in the moderation queue have large attachments, save them and re-create the message with a link to the attachment

· BUILD A UNDP ‘WIKI-PEDIA’: Convert Network queries and Discussion Threads into a consolidated Wiki page on our pilot internal Mediawiki platform. Provide basic categorization of the Wiki page including message topic (HR, Finance etc.), and Country asking the query. There are now 2,000 plus pages awaiting the more value-added input of Management Sub-Topic categorization from staff who asked these queries in the first place.

· WEEKLY SUMMARY: Create a summary table on a Google Document of all subject threads in a week, categorized by message type and linking to the consolidated thread / Wiki page of each query. Generate an email to HR, etc. focal points with a link to all unanswered queries for the week.

In addition, other manual tasks as and when they come up such as:

· Maintain IP addresses lists of all network members (for automated access to E-Resources)

· Transfer new member information from sign-up forms at community events

· Create basic Surveys on-demand using the LYRIS survey tool

You get the general idea! I know there are many systems people in the km4dev community who will have endless nightmares at the thought of (heaven forbid!) MANUAL processes when they could be automated! And automation may work in many instances. But automation can only go so far, and the advantages of using actual people are many, and the satisfaction of building capacity (to lapse into some development jargon) cannot be matched.

The costs by the way- a grand total of $2,400 / year / Management Community (1500 members per community; 50-100 messages weekly) for around 2 hours a day of support - 365 days a year to do all of the above listed tasks.

LONGER-TERM VISION: I have developed a project proposal to set up a network of low-cost “Pro-Poor Knowledge Management Support Centres” globally across different time zones. If anyone is interested in this concept, and/or possibly partnering on it, or in piloting some outsourced KM support, let me know and I can provide further details. satish vangal