A dialogue on lessons learned using technology in communities of practice

Deborah Byrne and Geci Karuri-Sebina. Picture: John Paul Nembambula/Japsta Jupiter

The Civic Tech Innovation Network (CTIN) relies, in part, on using digital technologies like email, web and social media to communicate and to grow our community. Geci Karuri-Sebina, who is the national organiser of the CTIN and also a former senior manager at the SA Cities Network and Deborah Byrne, an experienced organiser who recently organised the Making All Voices Count community of practice in South Africa have many years of experience between them in convening communities of practice. At the recent Civic Tech Innovation Forum they shared their experiences of community building — online and offline.

Online reach vs offline depth

Geci Karuri-Sebina. Picture John Paul Nembambula/Japsta Jupiter

Karuri-Sebina’s experience was that while online communication often formed the backbone for sharing information, engagement could weaken over time. Inviting members to a breakfast meeting could re-ignite participation.

This resonated with other people at the talk. “Technology can recruit people quickly but it doesn’t induct them well [into a network] and keep them engaged,” said Struan Robertson from the Seriti Institute.

Deborah also drew on the history of social movements in South Africa to highlight that, online and offline, strong networks needed to enable the voicing of disagreement. “One of the greatest strategies used in social movements was to encourage people to be vocal about their disagreements even when dialogue became volatile and help them find a way to come together. ”

Deborah Byrne speaking at the Civic Tech Innovation Forum 2018 at the Tshimologong Innovation Precinct. Picture: John Paul Nembambula/Japtsa Jupiter

Some people felt that dealing with such conflict required face-to-face interaction. Technology could give people safe spaces to convene around common challenges but it also often shielded them from complex dialogue on difficult issues and provided very little room for healthy criticism.

There was some consensus in the room about how technology could function optimally when fundamentals like rules of engagement were established and defined to ensure mutual respect among participants of communities in practice. People often intuitively ‘knew’ the shared ‘rules’ when it came to participating in (physical) meetings but were less clear about them in online spaces.

These lessons have come up in the work of the CTIN. At our first Forum in 2017, participants were adamant that there was a need for regular face-to-face meetings as well as newsletters and online communications. This year we aim to explore more ways of interacting online without reducing our commitment to events.

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