Technology Enables, People Decide

Futurists, as a lot, tend to be technology enthusiasts and see technologies as major drivers of change and sometimes even transformative. I, too, tend to embrace the possibilities although I am more of a fast follower than an early adopter. I wait to see if the technology works and makes sense for what I want to do.

One of the things I really want to see transform is how people use collaborative technologies to learn and interact as associations, nonprofits and communities. This is why I am somewhat discouraged by our early attempts to create online engagement. People are not deciding to use these community platforms as enthusiastically as either the developers or we futurists might hope.  For every headline-making example of some citizens’ movement using social networking to burst out of its constraints and alter the course of events, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of online communities that languish with inactivity or erode into a new channel for thinly-disguised spam.

As a volunteer committee member, I was part of a recent discussion about why our committee doesn’t yet use our community platform to advance our work between meetings. I observed that we may need a culture change before people will collaborate in these forums. As a consultant, I have been posting a series of strategic questions to a client task force using a similar community platform. Again, the level of engagement is less than desired.

Out of my frustration with these experiences, I queried an American Society of Association Executives listserv to see if others could help me learn how to get engagement in online communities.  Mostly the answers reassured me that my experience is not unusual. The replies sorted into three categories: technology, culture and value. 

There's no question usability is important, especially having system features that "push" engagement and are as easy to use as emails and listservs.  Astute executives are first trying to figure out what members want, value and will use.  If we build this, will you use it and how are you likely to use it? I am also checking out what experts advise about facilitating online experiences. I knew intuitively that asking good questions is important; I am reminded that acknowledging and reciprocating those contributions will keep the flow going just as it does in face-to-face conversation.  I plan to continue this learning and work to improve my own facilitation capabilities.

But ultimately the people decide how they prefer to interact. We are creatures of our established cultures and it takes a lot to adopt new ways of interacting. Busy people organize their work in committees, task forces and projects around meeting dates and deadlines.  Asynchronous communication is at a disadvantage when this is our standard way of juggling our commitments.  Busy people have discerned their time is better spent when the group convenes and the learning or decisions will be moved forward.

I still believe these collaborative technologies will enable us to learn and work more effectively together. When the purpose or the content of those discussions matter as much to us as the future of our freedom, the work we love and the people we care most about, we will unleash these new capabilities and learn fast how to use them. Until then, most people are probably making the best decision about how to use their time. They will be like me, fast followers, holding back until the technologies work with the ease and reliability they should and they make sense for the way we want to work.