Monday, January 31, 2005

Open Source Software and Nonprofit Organizations

Doug McKay is a gentleman who has a newsletter for volunteer managers (by the way, most people ask me what a volunteer manager is and what s/he does, so I thought you might want to know more on the topic.. I mean, it's a real job, and it is definitely more than a Human Resource Manager, in that Volunteer Managers also do project development).

His newsletter is a collection of interesting links on topics like volunteerism and nonprofit management that Doug gathers from several thematic listervers.

Open Source Software (OSS) is said to be of interest for the nonprofit world for several reasons:

  1. it is free: this reason is often used as a good one for endorsing OSS, even though nobody really understands (and for sure not me) why the same organization insists to have a free software because of budgetary constraints, while goes on paying pricey nonprofit consultants without blinking an eye...
  2. it is open source: that means that the code, too, is given together with the software you get so that if you want you can modify it. This is an advantage only if your nonprofit organization has software developers among staff or volunteers
  3. its licence: most people are only familiar with copyright, because it's widespread. HOwever, there exist other kinds of licences, such as copyleft and creative commons deed. Main difference between the last two is that while under the latter you can not modify the original work, even when you acknowledge the author, under the former you can.
  4. no discrimination: the software can't be used to discriminate persons, groups, or fields of endeavour (NOT EVEN if it is a for-profit, because yes, sometimes some persons in some nonprofits DO discriminate toward business people).

However, one of the main factor limiting the use of OSS in nonprofit organizations is that OSS often comes with how-tos that are written in technical jargon, and thereby unaccessible to people with low computer literacy.

In developed countries, nonprofits usually have access to technology, but access and use don't go hand in hand (see McDuff & Dwyer-Morgan, 2001). Similarly, Foth (2003) showed how connectivity (in terms of technology access), does not ensure usability. For the same reason, it's braindead to think that just throwing some technology at developing countries will allow them to "bridge the digital divide". Cultural aspects have to be addressed, possibly without cultural imperialism to be involved.

Why are people afraid of using technology?

From a sociological perspective, most scholars, either pro- or against technology, took an ideological black-and-white stand, i.e.: technology is either "all good" or "all bad".

Schuler (1996) took a melioristic stance (that is, belives that improvement of society depends on people's efforts to improve it), highlighting how the consequences of technology has depend on how we shape its use. Under this respect, it's very important to "translate" technical jargon into less threatening (but not oversimplificated) language.

NOSI did exactly this! Its Choosing and Using Open Source Software: A Primer for Nonprofits is a mirable example of non-threatening language making difficult concepts accessible without making the reader feel patronized.

Many thanks to Doug for having brought this link to our attention!

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Love, Maturana and Empedocles

Thanks to Pete, from the com-prac group, I've just come in contact with Maturana's work, which is way too complex and fascinating to be blogged about it in few minutes (or even few days, it takes more chewing).

However, skimming through it, something reminded me of
Empedocles, and how his two forces, philia (love) and neikos (strife) ,ruled the combination/distruction cycle of elements. This too, like Maturana's, can be applied to organizational settings, I believe.

I've always been very fond of pre-socratic philosophers, or the philosophers of nature, because they all postulated how the first principle of everything (archè) belonged to nature. Most of them were scientists as well, and started philosophy of science de facto.

Even thought it is a typical product of Western society, philosophy is almost absent from educational curricula in the United States (with the exception of its by-product critical thinking) while in Europe it is taught in High Schools. That puzzles me to no end, cause I think such technological country without the guidance of good (=logic) thinking, can be a serious danger.

Communities of Practice and "Best Practices"

I was reading John's group and JMH posted a link to a Guide And Toolkit For Communities Of Practice so I got side-tracked and started reading the pdf files I want to comment.

On Part 1 I find a stimulating:
"Clear and visible analysis of the type, range and location of information, knowledge and expertise that the organisation collectively holds."
that reminded me of Miller's and Stuart's wonderful Network-Centric Thinking: The Internet's Challenge to Ego-Centric Institutions I bugged NG with.

On Part 2 I found an astonishing:

"CoPs have four major roles: helping, knowledge stewarding, best practice development and innovation." (p. 2)

Wait a moment!!! "Best practices" OR innovation?

As Etienne Wenger said:
"As a consequence, a community of practice that spreads throughout an organization is an ideal channel for moving [emphasis added] information, such as best practices, tips, or feedback, across organizational boundaries" (1998).

which is in fact what Xerox does, but creating best practices via CoPs is a whole other thing! That is, something meant to fail.

CoPs are communities of:
  • implicit knowledge, as opposed to explicit
  • practice (experimentation): as opposed to academical/theoretical understanding
  • situated learning: as opposed to analytical one
  • people that share, as opposed to personal achievement
  • peers as opposed to (academical/managerial) hierarchies
  • knowledge as opposed to tasks
  • self-selecting people

For all these reasons, CoPs with a task especially when this task is about "best practices" (as an academic I know defined them: what is always best for everybody --- helloooooooooooooo) are a nonsense. Even if they were the best for most people, it still doesn't mean they would be the best thing to do in that situation...

I want to reiterate how CoPs are well-known to foster creativity (rather than "best practices") and unusual solutions (rather than solutions that are good for most people). So again, I can't see why to force them into producing "best practices" when a team would be enough.

I am perfectly conscious that I don't like the term "best practices"... and I don't like because:

  1. It implies that there is nothing better, which is simply impossible, since they were made by humans;
  2. It is discouraging in that, since there supposedly is "nothing better", what's the point in trying to find new solutions (Sounds like Hercules Pilasters: "Don't go ahead, there is nothing after them" YEAH RIGHT)?
  3. It curbs down innovation, shaming anything that goes out of what they are able to understand (same old narcissistic refrain: "Since I can't understand it - and you know how intelligent I am, it must be wrong" YEAH RIGHT);
  4. It reveals a shameful holier-than-thou attitude in who uses and backs them ("I am better than you, cause I follow best practices" YEAH RIGHT);
  5. It is stupid because if something is really best it doesn't have to be crammed down other people's throats (this is what they don't understand, speaking of leadership Dan!!!!).
This one-size-fits-all approach puzzled me a whole deal even when it has nothing to do with supposed (and often self-proported) "best practices".

I also remembered of the work of Dubè, Bourhis & Jacob in 2003 and 2004 and their conclusions... their studies were specifically on intentionally formed virtual communities of practice (VCoPs) and showed how there is no such approach that is valid for any VCoP, but it has to be tailored on that specific VCoP's characteristics.

Anyway, more when I will be reading on :)

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Saturday, January 29, 2005

Qualified to Be Intelligent

I was exchanging emails with NW and thinking about a couple of episodes that happened to me some time ago.... To be exact, that have been happening over and over again. GROWL

Two examples.

A woman, some time ago, read some written stuff of mine that I was writing for USPRA 2005 and that in the end got accepted. Anyway, she read it and started complimenting me for how "intelligent" I was and bla bla bla.

And because I am a provokative b*st*rd, I sent her my pic right after. Can you believe it? She replied by a "from all your writings, I wouldn't have thought you were beautiful".

Now, I am an Italian and my blood was boiling!

That also happens in real life (IRL) when I go having a test and I hear stuff like: "Oooh, goooood moooorning.... is there anyyyything you would like to speeeeak of?". In which case I morph into a snake and rebutt: "Anything belonging to the course syllabus is fine with me".

I tried to avoid going to tests and classes all dressed-up, with make-up and such, scaled down on clothes first and then on make-up. But it's something impossible to avoid during formal speeches.

Yet, the stereotype survives, and I am either treated like a stupid (IRL) or supposed to be ugly until otherwise proven because of "how intelligent I sound" (in online communications).

No wonder I enjoyed Legally Blonde so much.


Welcome to My Scrapbook

It is to keep in touch with Nancy Gaston, Nan Hawthorne, Dan Oestreich, Beverly Trayner, Nancy White and all my many other colleagues and friends that this blog was created.

Given my eclectic nature, it will be a pretty eclectic bunch of stuff as well, collecting all successes and failures, ideas and brain f*rts that come to my mind.

Sit down and have fun. When you feel like to, please reply.