The role of the Internet in supporting information sharing among change management professionals
[Chapter 10 in: Allen, W.J. webmanager (at) learningforsustainability.net (2001) Working together for environmental management: the role of information sharing and collaborative learning. PhD (Development Studies), Massey University.]
Time period in which main work on this issue carried out:
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Allen, W. (2000) NRM-changelinks: Improving Community Participation in Environment & Development. Available from <http://nrm-changelinks.net/> (Accessed 4 October 2000).
The use of the Internet for bringing a diverse range of information together is illustrated through the accompanying website, and it is used here as a case study example. The growing need for this sort of support for action researchers is shown. The different approaches to support interest-based communities and peer-based communities with the Internet are highlighted. Finally, benefits that can be gained by using the Internet as a component within a wider networking strategy are discussed.
It is easy to say that successful development can only be achieved by a truly collaborative effort between local community groups, agencies, scientists and policy makers. However, despite ongoing improvements in this area over recent years, we also know that we still have a long way to go in achieving such collaboration -- and effectively sharing the required perspectives, information and ideas.
Another major problem facing the would-be 'change agent' is the breadth of disciplines and areas of expertise that are needed. As previous chapters in this thesis have illustrated, the practice of involving people and building constructive partnerships requires not only a working knowledge of the particular area (agriculture, biodiversity, etc.), but also skills in a diverse range of areas from information management through to conflict resolution. However, what I found during the course of this research was that I had to research these skills individually, and search out appropriate material in each of the respective bodies of literature. For the 'nuts and bolts' aspects of say, managing conflict, or facilitating an evaluation exercise, I had to look in literature which dealt predominantly in these fields in isolation.
It appears that much of the 'participatory' literature tends to be sector specific, and frequently describes efforts used to solve an immediate community problem. This may involve a number of different stakeholders coming together to work on an immediate and visible community problem, such as improving a water supply. The initiation for such a collaborative action may in some case emerge from within the community, or be instigated by an outside agency (as, for example, is the case with many international aid development projects). In terms of science, we most commonly see descriptions of participatory approaches involving researchers and one particular interest group, say farmers. Often too, when the project finishes the different participants disappear from each other's lives, with perhaps the aid workers and researchers moving on to find another group in need of their expertise. Within these situations, community-based process skills in areas such as facilitation and rapid rural appraisal techniques are commonly used.
However, as these case studies described here have shown, when the focus changes towards the more complex issues surrounding sustainability, a wider range of skills are required to be used and linked. These situations frequently not only involve multiple social perspectives, but they also require more emphasis to be placed on information and its subsequent development. Accordingly, my own efforts described here have also required me to learn and apply skills in related fields such as sustainable development, adaptive management, collaborative learning, action research, facilitation, conflict resolution, information systems design and Internet site development. The development of the NRM-changelinks website represents an attempt to provide easy access to on-line material in these areas, and show how their use in practice can be linked.
The initial impetus was a need in July 1998 to sort out the numerous bookmarks I had collected as I went about researching these different areas. Subsequently, I developed some short introductions to these areas using hypertext as a means to portray more accurately how their use in practice was linked. In its first version then, the NRM-changelinks site was posted on the Massey University site in October 1998 as a way of making this information available to research colleagues and practitioners. This site, then, provides an annotated guide to a range of on-line resources providing papers, handbooks, tips, theory and techniques in these diverse, but related, skill fields. A short introduction to each section outlines the nature of the resource links provided, and provides pointers to other topic areas that are closely related in use.
Feedback from users has indicated that people appreciate the advances it has made in terms of bringing together and inter-relating links to information on theory and practice in these different areas. The other innovation that appears to have been particularly appreciated is the provision of an annotated outline with each of the links, which saves people time in on-line browsing.
Moreover, emerging initiatives point to how the use of the Internet in this way is growing. For example IUCN (The World Conservation Union), the Bureau of the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar) and the World Wide Fund for Nature are proposing to use the Internet to establish a focal point and information exchange mechanism on participatory approaches and indigenous knowledge systems (IUCN 2000). This follows a recent survey to collect and review existing information on the collaborative management (CM) of natural resources after which IUCN (1998) noted that there is a felt need among CM professionals for practical information which can be 'used in the field': 'To leverage the capacities of organisations and professionals involved in natural resource management the knowledge generated in the field has to become widely accessible through a global information system fostering effective communication and knowledge exchange among the involved people'.
More recently the World Bank Group in collaboration with a number of other partners has proposed the development of a Global Development Gateway to enable everyone in the development field to share information, communicate more easily, and build communities (GlobalGateway 2000). More detail on this intitiative can be found at the model Gateway site at http://www.worldbank.org/gateway/ .
Over the past 18 months the NRM-changelinks web site (http://nrm.massey.ac.nz/changelinks/) has become one of the larger participatory resources on the Internet in terms of site traffic. Based on statistics between 15 August 1999 and 30 July (Figure 10.1) this site is currently receiving more than 32,000 visitors a year (Site Meter 2000).
Figure 10.1 Monthly visitors to the NRM-changelinks web site for the period 15 August 1999 to 30 July 2000 (Source: Site Meter 2000).
In the area of sustainable development it is the only web site to be awarded a five star rating (against Resource Description, Resource Evaluation, Guide Design, Organization Schemes and Guide Meta-information) by Argus Clearinghouse (2000) -- an independent Internet site-rating agency. Moreover, NRM-changelinks is now promoted as a featured resource by around 150 web sites with some interest in participation (see http://nrm.massey.ac.nz/changelinks/links.html). The largest group of these are mainly development-oriented sites (e.g. IDRC, USAID, FAO, CGIAR, IUCN, WWF), but smaller groupings can also be seen in areas such as action research, biodiversity, capacity development and participatory monitoring and evaluation.
As Stephen Downes (1998) points out, these groupings illustrate the growing trend towards Internet-based communities as collections of people, who although they may be geographically dispersed share a common location on the Internet. What will change in the future is our ability to learn better how to nourish these communities. People will want to do this, he argues because, 'the greater the dedication to the community, the greater the dedication to learning, since learning is the shared experience which defines this community' Downes (1998).
The experience gained in supporting interest communities on-line through the NRM-changelinks example has also contributed to lessons that can help develop the web sites outlined in the other case studies described here. In particular, they show how, by contributing to such websites researchers are not just contributing to the one-way dissemination of material through another media. Rather they are contributing into a linked system, which fosters improved networking, both nationally and internationally. Through going on-line and interacting with different groups and individuals in the course of promoting the site I have also gained a lot of benefits. These not only include the friendships that can develop from on-line contacts, but also through feedback on ideas, access to draft papers providing the latest work of colleagues, and the development of new personal networks.
Equally, not all website use is aimed at interest communities. This will be particularly true in the area of environmental management generally, and will raise new challenges for action researchers. In this regard Downes (1998) also calls our attention to peer-based learning communities, who are in many ways the opposite of interest communities. These will exist not because everyone is vitally interested in the same topic or area of interest (often through work, for example), but because of a shared problem in some particular geographic location. Thus, in these situations action researchers will be involved in how to develop a shared understanding and co-ordinated action around a particular environmental problem. This will not necessarily be done on-line although, as this work has shown, the Internet may well be used as a mechanism to provide structure for and access to needed information.
See also the rest of this website which represents the remainder of this chapter: Allen, W. (2000) NRM-changelinks: Improving Community Participation in Environment & Development. Available from <http://nrm-changelinks.net/>
1. ICTs (Information and communication technologies) encompass a converging spectrum of technologies that have previously been considered distinct -- telecommunications, computing, broadcasting and other media.
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