Community, Democracy, and IT work


ANOTHER FAMILIAR SCENARIO: Those of you from the IT world recognize this room: PPT up the old wazoo. But then it’s over and the work plans that have been listed on slide 17-23 (if not 117-123) are slated to become deliverables. The listserves get busy, the telecons are scheduled. Perhaps your IT group tracks tasks on BaseCamp and pings you whenever someone else has completed something. But if your not in the critical path, you might not know what others are doing and what your next step is. You might be able to volunteer a couple hours this week, but how do you know where these are best spent?

There might be a couple hundred people like you in the virtual organization (VO) that surrounds this particular project. Some were brought in to advise, others because of a current interest. At the core, decisions are being made and money spent. But the whole idea was that this was more than a distributed project among a small group of  paid Co-PIs. Most of the room was excited about helping move this forward, looking at the outcome as their payback. The workshop cost the government agency $100k to put on, and spent up three person-years in a week.  It had the carbon footprint of a small town.

The feeling of engagement that many participants experienced at the meeting lasted a few days. The funded Co-PIs went back to work. The larger VO languished as everyone else’s calendar’s filled up. Opportunities to pull in the talent and skills of the larger community passed by and dried up.

This doesn’t have to happen.

What is the answer?

One answer is, of course, cash. Spread the funding around and more people pay attention. But that is rarely possible. Another answer is community: grow it, use it, let it manage the work. And give it just enough funding to help people work together.

Be warned: when you let the VO community run the project you invite a range of voices into the room. You have to deal with competing interests and conflicting priorities. The good news is that these interests and priorities were there hidden (more or less) all the time in the VO, so dealing with them is something you can now do and move on. Otherwise you face these same issues when the project of over. To succeed, the VO community will need some form of internal governance. Since you are working with IT professionals, you’d better treat them like peers.

Your peer-based VO community will demand something that looks a lot like a democracy. Do not be afraid. You know that’s not how business gets done. At least you think you know that. In VO communities, democratic governance paves the way for volunteer participation, for leadership, for constructive criticism, and for active attention to the goals of the project. Try getting things done without it.

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