At the moment, there is a discussion on KM4Dev-l about which online communities offer the best functionalities: Dgroups, Ning, google groups etc. I have been biting my tongue and trying very hard NOT to intervene because I am a bit worried that I sound like an old gramophone record going on and on, although if you are under 20 years of age, you might not know what that is….
To me, it’s not only about the very best technologies and functionalities but also what we think development is about. I’m a great supporter of Dgroups – in fact, I joined the Dgroups Board this year because I think it is global public good, although I realise this may make me suspect – because I think it is really important that development organisations have a platform that they fund together, use in common, make available to others, based on a common vision: low bandwidth access, simple, private, e-mail based. Now Google groups may offer better functionalities – although I’ve used Dgroups over the years to support almost everything I do without any problems – but I’m worried that if everyone goes for functionalities over the common good, then at some point Dgroups will fold, and we will lose that common resource. And there will be lots of development organisations who won’t want to use Google groups, and will start building their own platform, costing far, far more than a Dgroups membership.
As I’m currently writing a paper on communities of practice for a forthcoming conference on learning organizations, today I re-visited a study of Dgroups that I undertook in 2007 and I came across an interesting section (p. 49-50) What would have happened without Dgroups? which is very pertinent to the present KM4Dev discussion:
If the development sector can be divided into two groups of organizations, those who are Dgroups users and those who are not, where would the Dgroups partner organizations be now if they had not started Dgroups in 2002? Although this is a rather theoretical point, it is supported by the experience of KIT with its own online groups (Hardon 2005). In the absence of Dgroups, many of the partner and member organizations would probably have started their own platform for online groups. This is certainly probably the case for the high volume users. This would have a number of consequences. Firstly, these organizations would have spent time and energy trying to determine which technology would be most appropriate: there would be emphasis on the technical aspects of performance. Secondly, they would have spent time and energy in designing their own interface: there would be emphasis on the design and look of the interface. Thirdly, related to these elements, there would be substantial costs involved. Fourthly, cross- organizational cooperation would be hampered, because there would be the drive to encourage partners to use the organization’s own platform to make their investments worthwhile. Fifth, organizations would be using a huge number of different platforms and technology, with different specifications, different passwords, thus substantially reducing their accessibility. Sixth, there is no doubt, based on the experience of the FAO (personal communication, Andrew Nadeau, January 2007) and of KIT (Hardon 2005), that the accessibility to Southern partners of these groups would be substantially reduced. Finally, there are a large number of current initiatives that would be inconceivable without the existence of Dgroups to support their operation. For those organizations who did not start their own platforms or who were unable to piggy-back on the platforms of others, their ability to interact with other organizations and partners would be substantially reduced.
With hindsight, I also think that KM4Dev could never have been started if Dgroups hadn’t been started first. And I can’t even imagine how my life would have been without KM4Dev!