The Knowledge Platform: Where We Are and What We’ve Learned.
Marine Perron and Janet Oropeza Eng
Fundar, Center for Analysis and Research
As social accountability (SAcc) practitioners, we are constantly looking to learn about good practices, how our peers implement their SAcc initiatives, how they adapt SAcc tools to their contexts, and how they overcome challenges they might face. In fact, lately, there has been an increasing awareness in the SAcc field that learning is essential for the effectiveness and impact of initiatives seeking to enhance government accountability. Although we learn a lot from reflecting on our own processes and experiences, we have seen that learning from others' experiences is also very fruitful and enriching for our work.
In this context, in 2013, the Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) envisioned the creation of a Knowledge Platform (KP) that would support their grantees and other practitioners' learning and knowledge exchange on SAcc. Once the idea was conceptualized, the challenge ahead was to develop and launch the KP. This is where we, Fundar, entered into the scene.
After a competitive process, Fundar, a Mexican civil society organization aiming to advance substantive democracy, was awarded with a GPSA grant to design and implement the KP. Although we knew that there were many challenges ahead, we saw many opportunities in working in the creation and management of such a platform. After a few months of designing and planning the KP within Fundar and with the GPSA Secretariat, the KP was launched in April 2014, and, so far, it has surpassed all our expectations. It is now a dynamic knowledge exchange and networking platform with over 1,890 members from 125 different countries, who contribute everyday with materials, reflections, news and events on social accountability. Although it was challenging to encourage participation at first, in the last year, we have seen with excitement that many users are now contributing proactively, either through the platform or by email. This has allowed us to give the turn we wanted to the platform: the members have become the knowledge providers and learn from each other’s work. Since the launch, thanks to close to 30 SAcc practitioners, we have had 14 webinars, 7 expert e-forums and e-learning course; 25 people have written blog posts for the KP; and many others have sent their materials, news and events for the platform and the bi-weekly “Latest News”. From our perspective, these numbers reflect the importance of having such platforms and spaces.
As we have mentioned, both learning and having the capacity to adapt and respond to contextual factors are essential for the effectiveness and impact of SAcc initiatives. Well, in our experience, managing a knowledge platform is no different. In our journey of designing and implementing the KP, we have had to adapt. For us, this constant learning has been really valuable and that is why we would like to share some of our most important lessons learned which might be relevant to those designing similar platforms. Some of these may seem obvious to you, however, they are the result of many months of experimenting and adapting, and we must recognize that it is always challenging to implement changes as you go. We have definitely seen the value of adapting and redirecting our strategies. Hence, we hope that you find useful the following lessons:
Design your platform according to users’ needs, not the opposite
When you design an online platform, be as inclusive as you can in your activities and take into account users’ languages, time zones, internet connectivity, thematic interests, challenges related to communication technologies and limited available time to engage in your activities. You should also consider that there are different kinds of users who will be attracted to different kinds of activities (some like to read, others like to write, others like to listen, other like to network, etc.). It might seem obvious, but we cannot emphasize enough the importance of taking the time to know your users and their thematic interests and challenges, so that you can tailor your content to their needs. Also, be responsive and open to their feedback on the platform’s usability. Users are the best critics when it comes to online platforms, only they can tell you what is user friendly and what is not. For the KP, we have performed one satisfaction survey among users and several in-depth interviews with targeted participants. This feedback has been valuable and has helped us to identify areas and activities that could be improved. For instance, the surveys highlighted the need to organize some activities in other languages, as many users shared that they were not very comfortable speaking and/or writing in English. To address this feedback, in September 2015, the GPSA KP held its first webinar in French called “Ouvrir la boite noire : facteurs contextuels de la responsabilisation sociale” with Hélène Grandvoinnet presenting her research on this theme.
Manage expectations, online participation is tricky.
When implementing online platforms, it is really important to manage expectations and that we understand that generating active participation is a challenge. Evidence shows that active and regular participants on online activities usually do not exceed 15% of the total of members. Low levels of participation can be explained by the “lurking” phenomenon, which refers to the large amount of members that do follow the discussions and benefit from them, but never contribute, or by the fact that all members are not always available to contribute actively.
Given that achieving active participation is challenging, we have learned that much of the work takes place “behind the scenes”. To ensure users’ participation, you might need to be constantly in touch with them and with potential speakers to engage and remind them about the platform’s activities or to provide technical support when they face challenges. For example, in the case of the KP, with a membership of more than 1890 users, we receive approximately 3 to 4 emails a day from users, some of which might be of participants facing technical challenges. We address these queries as diligently as we can because we know that users are our main asset.
To ensure meaningful participation, we have also learned that it is very important to plan your upcoming activities well in advance and to identify and target potential key participants and organizations that work on the subject matter. We have seen that, if you bring motivated participants who work on the theme and are willing to engage, it is more likely that others will jump in.
Get your platform users in the driver’s seat, so that they truly own it.
Our experience has shown us that it is key to convince users that the platform is theirs’, and that they own it. They are the main providers of knowledge – not us, we are only the facilitators. A good way to do so is by acknowledging their participation and putting names, faces and stories behind their contributions. We have noticed that when users are given a space to share their stories and lessons learned and are acknowledged for doing it, they feel motivated and develop greater ownership of the platform. In fact, during the last year, we have seen with great enthusiasm that many users have approached us to explore the possibility of holding a knowledge activity on the KP, either a forum, a webinar or both. Others have offered to write blog posts to broadly share their work. This reflects how users are starting to see the KP as theirs’ and as a valuable space for sharing their lessons learned and stories.
Additionally, we have come to realize that, even when users do not proactively offer to lead activities or share their stories, it is important that we, as the community managers, encourage and support them to do so when their work and knowledge could be of interest to the larger community. Most people would like to contribute and sometimes the only thing they need is a little help.
Several months ago, we decided to reflect participants’ greater ownership of the KP in our bi-weekly newsletter or “Latest News”, our main channel of dissemination that reaches more than 2000 contacts. We created the “Our members at a glance” section, where we feature interviews with “super users” or welcome newly registered members. We have also started to acknowledge users’ contributions to the newsletter.
Identify your value-added and look for complementarity.
Currently, there are different initiatives and organizations, such as Transparency and Accountability Initiative or Results for Development Institute, to name a few, seeking to promote learning on accountability. Many international organizations, such as Oxfam or CARE, have their own learning strategies as well. In this context, for us, it has been key to get to know these other initiatives or platforms and identify what our value-added is, to be able to potentiate it. This way, we have avoided, to the best we could, overlap with other platforms and initiatives and, even better, we have sought to complement them. Given the complexity of governance issues, particularly in developing countries, we do believe that all organizations and initiatives supporting governance and accountability must work together.
Work closely with your IT team, they are the magicians that can become ideas a reality.
The programmers and web designers play a fundamental role in creating and managing an online platform; they are the ones who can tell you what is feasible and useful and what is not; they are those who can make your ideas – even the craziest ones – come true. For the last two years, we have realized that the IT team and the community managers need to work closely together and have a very fluid relationship to address challenges and discuss new ideas and possible improvements. In our case, having an IT team within Fundar has been decisive for the well-functioning of the platform. We can always run to their office as soon as a technological challenge comes up!
A final, but very critical aspect to take into account as well is that IT staff might speak in a highly technical language. For this reason, community managers should make an effort to learn and understand this language, and, vice versa, IT staff should try to conceptualize and visualize community managers’ ideas and requests.
Maintain fluid and good communication with your donor, it can be your best soundboard.
As we mentioned before, we have worked closely with the GPSA Secretariat to design and manage the KP. We hold virtual meetings with them on a bi-weekly basis and this space is a safe one to discuss jointly new ideas and share upcoming challenges. We must acknowledge that many times they have been our best critics and have offered us innovative ideas to improve our activities, as well as flexibility to change and adapt our strategies. They have also been of outmost help in connecting us with possible bloggers, speakers and participants. We do believe that, in the past two years, together we have been able to create a common vision, which has been key to take the KP to the place we wanted it to be.
In sum, we must recognize that, in the journey of implementing the KP, we have learned a lot and have been touched by many inspiring stories, such as the blog post by Bakhadur Khabibov feeling like “a lonely soldier” in his path towards improving social accountability in the water sector in Tajikistan. We could not be more grateful to all the participants who have shared with us their work and projects or who have provided feedback on our activities. We do hope that the KP and all its activities have enriched the SAcc projects and work that members are implementing in their –sometimes complex– contexts and that are critical for improving social justice, equality, and the fulfilment of human rights. We also expect that, by sharing some of our main lessons learned, we can enrich and inform similar knowledge exchange initiatives.
Finally, we invite you to tell us what you think of this blogpost and share your own experience, as we want this debate to keep on going! Visit us at www.gpsaknowledge.org.
 B. Halloran and J. Ross, Funding, Learning and Impact: How do Grant-making Practices Help and Hinder Real Grantee Learning?, GPSA Webinar, June 3rd, 2015.
 A compilation of a Discussion about Lurkers on the Online Facilitation Listserv which features 1626 members provides arguments in defense of lurking. It argues that participants have many reasons for not participating, but that does not mean that they are not learning or benefiting from discussions. They used the term “peripheral participation” to define the phenomenon of participants that are not active in a community but benefit from it.