The Communication Initiative

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Background information for Topics from Deborah Heimann, the Director of Editorial Policy & Content at The Communication Initiative. They're very excited about working with the class, and wrote up this problem statement in the hopes that a student group will want to work with them.

The Communication Initiative (The CI) – an online process focused on the use and support of communication for economic and social development - has a large network (over 70,000 total) of members all over the world who provide us with information for our website and electronic magazines, receive our various electronic magazines, visit and use our websites, participate in our discussion forums and polls, and interact by reviewing each other’s work (page reviews). We cater to a varied community – from those in the USA with very high-speed internet connections to those in remote communities in Vietnam whose only access to the internet is a single very slow connection in a central location in the middle of town; from those whose focus is researching communication for development to those whose focus is practicing communication for development; from executive directors to social workers to students to radio talk show hosts.

One central principle of The CI process is that it is the person accessing and utilising the knowledge within The CI who decides what is most important, relevant, and valuable to them in their context and for their strategic priorities. What is required and valuable in a barrio in Cali, Colombia for people working on decision making access for citizens is likely to be very different to that required by a small organisation in rural Malawi working on micro-economic development.

Over the past 10 years of our existence, engagement with and within the network has been chiefly achieved via email – through the e-magazines and various niche mailings. We know that people are interacting with each other; they have told us they do so and they have cc’ed us on their communications. But the interactions are mostly happening outside of the realm of our web processes. We email information – people read it, have bilateral conversations with each other (through the contacts they find on our site), and have internal organisational conversations about what they read. Many use the website regularly to access content and occasionally vote in a poll, comment on a blog, or send in a contribution to an online discussion. While website visits are growing and have reached a substantial level of about 300,000 per month, we feel we have not yet “cracked the nut” of web interactivity within our niche network.

The CI is currently focusing on: expanding and deepening discussion and debate within our network; engaging our network to interact through our website and relying less on email; and, ultimately, enabling the network, through interactive web and email processes, to distil the information that we have gathered from them into several policy documents that reflect both what they consider to be the leading approaches and the core learnings from that overall knowledge.

We have considered the possibility that the needs of our network are being fully met by our information dissemination/content focuse. But we are not satisfied with that answer. The challenges we feel we face include:

  • A network that is perhaps not yet, nor do they perhaps need to be for their main work, “web savvy” [motivation]
  • A network that is grouped into what we call “communities of practice” based on region and development issue of focus [separation]
  • A network that has had 10 years of us doing things one way [consistency, expectations]
  • A network located within different contexts [accessibility]
  • A network that is full of people without a lot of “extra” time [time]

Given the challenges above, how do we guide and engage our network more through our interactive online processes instead of through email?