Thursday, October 21, 2010

Online Platforms: Engage is the motto!

A fully booked Small Auditorium (more than 30 participants) hosted the Wednesday session on Online Platforms facilitated by Peter Ballantyne.
TECA (Technology for Agriculture) and TECA Exchange Group Uganda, the KDID (Knowledge-Driven International Development) Portal from USAID and the FSN Forum (the Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition) were some of the platforms introduced during the session by their facilitators through punchy 5 minute presentations. These introductions aimed to point out the challenges for online platforms to be effective.

Max Blanck (FSN Forum, FAO) said the FSN Forum’s objective is to achieve larger interconnections worldwide and increase the number of active participants (as opposed to the “passive” participants that follow the discussions without providing contributions).
Of course there is nothing wrong with using a forum without contributing, unless the recipient refrains from doing so by the idea that “all has been already said” and nothing original could be added. What is also preventing from active engagement is reluctance generated by hierarchical barriers and sylos. “Should my contribution be cleared by my organization?”, “What if top management does not agree it?”, “It might be inappropriate for me to contribute if my boss does not”… This mentality deprives online platforms of precious ideas and possible drives for development.

Bruce Kisitu (TECA Uganda Exchange Group Facilitator) explained that the TECA platform is a pilot project to test the sharing of technologies for smallholders in Uganda. He mentioned that one of the main challenges that he has faced is to involve researchers to share technologies because they cannot find an immediate and direct benefit in sharing knowledge. He also added that for the moment, members of the exchange group provide feedback on their experiences in using the platform and lessons learnt are compiled. Lessons from the Uganda pilot will help to set up and facilitate similar exchange and discussion groups in other countries, and to improve the thematic discussions or exchange groups which, like the one on beekeeping, has already been started.

Silvia Sperandini from IFAD raised the issue of how to involve in the discussions people at grassroots level and promote exchange mechanisms within rural communities. She added that other key elements are to keep the interest in the platforms alive and strengthen linkages. Although sometimes linkages become so strong that they abandon the virtual space and become private causing a loss for the community.

USAID mentioned the technical barriers. Make a platform easy to use and produce content which is accessible is fundamental to encourage participation.

How to really engage users, then?
To brainstorm about the issue, Peter divided the participants into groups, each group referring to a different platform's moderator/manager. While the platforms'moderators/managers left the Small Auditorium to discuss among themselves, each group came up with several challenging questions for them. Once they were back in the room, they answered the questions from the group they were assigned to and then shared possible solutions with all the groups together.

Develop a good social media strategy, increase visibility, and partner with other organizations were the ideas put forward by some. Others mentioned the importance of demonstrating effectiveness, of adopting ad hoc promotional plans for the different participants and, as Estibalitz Morras Dimas (TECA Facilitator, FAO) underlined, of organizing the online discussions by themes to allow better targeting of the audience.

Time flew during this fast paced session, discussion could go on and on, and participants seemed unwilling to leave the room at the end of the meeting. Everyone collected good food for thought and concrete suggestions to elaborate more powerful strategies.

Addis Share Fair
ILRI Campus
20 Oct. 2010

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