Monday, December 19, 2005

CoPs at UNDP

Hello dear ones,

today I found in my inbox a link to an article The knowledge sharing approach of the United Nations Development Programme for practitioners, and this is the actual abstract:

"This paper shares practical experience gained in establishing and implementing communities of practice (CoPs) – referred to as ‘knowledge networks’ within the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – as entry points for our knowledge management initiatives. The paper outlines the history and evolution of CoPs in UNDP, placing them in the broader framework of knowledge management and practice architecture. The paper also describes how CoPs have generated cultural change within UNDP, taking the organisation from a situation in which staff could not send e-mails without clearance by senior management to one in which staff today are rewarded for sharing rather than owning knowledge. In addition, the paper identifies the ingredients of a healthy CoP, successful operating modalities, methods to promote participation and ways to link CoPs to policy outcomes. It also looks at what has not worked: pitfalls to be avoided in establishing and managing CoPs. Finally, the paper examines our experience with adding new procedures and tools to this initially successful approach, such as enhanced collection and codification, which have yielded mixed results."

Guess what? The "key ingredient for well-functioning CoPs is to
have moderated or facilitated communities" -- DUH!

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Virtual Volunteering As-Is Can Not Fly

I presented a paper in the Research-In-Action section of ICVA2005 and it was a review on online volunteering. A polished version will be published by the Journal of Volunteer Adminstration later on in 2006, but that is not the point.

Online/Virtual Volunteering does not fly. Jayne Cravens herself wrote (in a document uploaded in UKVPM group):
"My presentation marked the first time the majority of attendees had ever heard of online volunteering (and all were shocked to learn how old the practice is)"

It is about time that we, as Volunteer Administrators/Leaders, ask ourselves how come it does not fly (yet, hopefully).

Yet, OV is a well-identified trend since 1998, but it somehow is still considered "new" and non-profits do not practice it extensively. I argue that this is not because ICT resources are lacking. In fact, many studies (Cravens, 2000,
2003; Harrison & Murray, 2002; Harrison, Murray & MacGregor, 2004; Murray & Harrison, 2002)) showed that nonprofits in North America (United States and Canada) do have access to such resources, but they don't use it...

In my review, I showed how most online volunteering manuals and info started as collections of practices on how to manage online volunteers. With the exception of the papers addressing open source developer volunteerism, those suggestions are not based on research findings, but on bona fide observations that haven't been tested in over 7 years. But that's not why people aren't using them...

The "old" fad "if you build it they will come", re-ashed in many of those guides, is a gross oversimplification of human nature in general, and of human nature of volunteers in particular. Not just it makes zero sense from a human-computer interaction perspective (concepts as sociability and usability are what determines participation in virtual environments, NO MATTER how much the "cause" is good -- and no, it's not "just me" affirming it, ask Jenny Preece for one!). As for any other human, volunteer managers do not use OV because it does not make sense to them in the way it is described, packaged, and "sold" to them.

So, what is that keeps them away from OV? They perceive it as "difficult". After my speech, I had many persons telling me:
"I have the technology but I don't know how to speak to virtual volunteers"
. And you know what? They are right, because, in those guides, NOBODY addressed, EVER, how to interact with volunteers through computer-mediated communication, aside from a long list of "donts".

Some suggestions are - I beg you pardon - laughable, like "Discourage volunteers from disclosing their home address or phone number to others.". The ones of you that are in any profession do know the value of networking. The ones of you that do not have a consulting business, still wouldn't take seriously any persons/workers/colleagues refusing to share their name, address and phone number and hiding through a NICKNAME. Would you go to your butcher if s/he called him/herself "shiningknife" rather than, say, Charles and refused to give you his/her address and phone number? N-O-P-E.

As much as some persons might be uncomfortable with it, social needs/interactions still are:
(a) one of the ways we learn (see, Bandura, 1997, and Vygotzky, 1987)
(b) one of the reasons we start volunteering (see Omoto & Snyder, 1995)

As for any technology, people adopt it at different rates in different ways. But I don't think that innovation diffusion theory is the whole issue at stake. Like with telephone, some people are afraid of whomever they can't see because, I believe, they can't adapt to subtilties (say, because they tend not to be verbal learners) or belong to cultures where everything has to be clear, explained ad nauseam, and possibly task-oriented (low context cultures, it's a fact that high context populations tend to buy and use telephone more than their low context counterparts, even if phone is a less rich medium than face-to-face communication, and that's precisely because they don't need the repetition of cues that low context folks seem to need).

From all these hints, you might understand how online volunteering, as well as online communication, aren't just about "get a power line, get a pc, get it running, get a software, put up a site, match your needs with a volunteer and vaia con Dios" kind of a thing. It's precisely because it is popularized in this way that people stay away from it.

Oh, the last thing. Here you can find some practical suggestions about OV. And yes, in case anybody was wondering, my next publication is about cultural nuances of computer-mediated communication *grin*

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Albert Ellis Affaire

I got prompted by a friend's post to dig more into what happened between Albert Ellis and the Albert Ellis Institute. Of course (and as usual) rather than siding with one of them I managed to get an opinion of my own *grin*

Let's start with the very basic notions, so to set the record straight:
1) A non-profit is a corporation: just like in any other corporation, board members are liable only if they make a mistake out of neglect or "bad intention". If the mistake was made in good faith and it was a honest mistake, board members can not be liable. This concept is known as limited liability and it is the main reason for folks incorporate. Corporation activities are disciplined by their by-laws;
2) A non-profit corporation has benefits in terms of income taxes and permission to fundraise;
3) Some non-profits are 501(c)3 bodies: that means they have some additional fiscal benefits and donations are tax-exempt. In order to gain (and keep) such status, the 501(c)3 organization can NOT: (a) lobby and (b) the earnings of such organization may not benefit any of its members;
4) Disqualified persons: this terms has nothing to do with the morality of the person that is disqualified, it is just a description of a category of persons that cannot or should not have financial ties with a non-profit corporation (such as a substantial contributor, a foundation manager, and their family members, such as spouses, descendants and their spouses, etc);
5) Board members are volunteers. As such, they might have their transportation expenses repaid and other benefits awarded, but they cannot be paid for their work, no matter how much they donated, fundraised or contributed in any way.

I am positive that, after reading these lines, many of you will understand what I'm about to say.

Apparently, Section 3 of the Albert Ellis Institute by-laws state
"Removal. Any Trustee may be removed at any time for cause by a vote of a majority of the entire Board at any special meeting of the Board called for that purpose, provided that at least one week’s notice of the proposed action shall have been given to the entire Board of Trustees then in office."

It basically means that the Albert Ellis Institute Board is allowed to remove any board member, Albert Ellis included, provided it calls a special meeting for this reason. Apparently, in the many rebuttal from AEI, nobody said the meeting was called for the specific reason of removing Albert Ellis. So, the removal per se may be not legal and Ellis could be reinstated.

The reason for Ellis was supposedly removed was the "excess benefit" transaction due to the fact the AEI paid his medical expenses. If you get a free account to GuideStar and read the AEI 990 form (2003's), you'll see how it states (verbatim):
"the organization paid for medical expenses for Albert Ellis, President. These expenses are expected to be reimbursed subsequent to year end."

Now, this might mean only two things:
(a) the Board knew Ellis had to reimburse the money but didn't tell him;
(b) Ellis knew he had to reimburse those expenses but didn't say he wouldn't, or thought he might talk them out of that.
One thing is certain: at least one of the parts knew he had to reimburse them TWO YEARS AGO (the 990 form dates back to the end of 2003).

With the incoming end of this year and Ellis not returning that money, the folks at the AEI must have freaked. From the IRS, on excess benefit correction (verbatim):
"A disqualified person [which Ellis is, as substantial contributor and foundation manager, as well as his wife, as spouse of a substantial contributor and foundation manager] corrects an excess benefit transaction by undoing the excess benefit to the extent possible, and by taking any additional measures necessary to place the organization in a financial position not worse than that in which it would be if the disqualified person were dealing under the highest fiduciary standards. The organization is not required to rescind the underlying agreement; however, the parties may need to modify an ongoing contract with respect to future payments."

In these conditions, therefore, it makes sense to kick Ellis out of the board, so that he wouldn't be a disqualified person any longer and, in that capacity, he could still have some form of financial support.

Therefore, for all the aforementioned reasons, what happen would probably be:
1) Ellis will be reinstated, because he was fired through a procedure that was not in compliance with the by-laws;
2) Ellis will have to repay the AEI, unless he is willing to see the institute loose its tax-exempt status.

Some more thoughts on the many "rebuttals" I've seen on the web:
a) it makes ZERO sense to compare Ellis' medical expenses to Broder's salary: Ellis is the President and a volunteer, Broder was the ED and an employee!
b) it does make sense to question the practice of appointing a Board Member as the ED of a corporation, because of the conflict of interest of having a double hat.
c) the two board members supposedly on Ellis' side spoke only after the "damage" was done and they were given reassurance that they would incur in no liability for disagreeing, which does not speak for their integrity and consistency.
d) Ellis himself donated a lot to the AEI. But the AEI is no offshore corporation or retirement funds and cannot be expected to jeopardize its tax-exempt status (especially regarding the building it is located into... that would evaporate its revenue in taxes!) just to take care of him.

Remember the three irrational beliefs as Ellis stated them:
*“I absolutely must succeed in work and/or love, else I am pretty worthless!”
*“Other people must treat me kindly and fairly or else they are no damned good!
*“The conditions under which I live must provide practically anything I want, or else the world is a horrible place and I can’t stand it!”

I do hope that this affaire would get settled in a way that can satisfy both AEI (that accomplished so much good) and Ellis (that did so much for so many persons), but I think Ellis should think a little bit more about his irrational beliefs and take one little step back.

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Managing VCoPs

Most studies on VCoPs simplicistically equate them to CoPs, while there are
some that doubt that a CoP could even exist in a distributed form (Harasim,
1993; Hung & Nichani, 2002; Lueg, 2000). I do not agree with them, but they
point out some interesting perspectives one has to be aware of when dealing
with a VCoP.

Johnson wrote "A survey of current research on online communities of
practice", that analyzed the state of the art of research up to 2001.

Dube, Bourhis and Jacob extensively wrote on VCoPs.
In 2003 they published "The impact of structural characteristics on
intentionally formed virtual communities of practice"
on the site of the HEC
Montreal (which they work for). This very same article, polished to get to a more scientific outlook, has been published in 2005 and is available from EMERALD database:

These articles analyze which characteristics of VCoPs are related to a
favourable outcome of their launching. They also give you some ideas on
which metrics to use to define "success" in a VCoP. An important part is the
concept of structuring characteristics, already considered to be a focal
issue by Neus in 2001.

Dube et al also published, in 2003, a much needed "Toward a typology of
virtual communities of practice
", digging more into the managerial aspects and wrote
"The success of virtual communities of practice: the leadership factor"
(2005) and ""Structuring spontaneity": the impact of management practices on the
success of intentionally formed virtual communities of practice

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