They call you a Peer, but treat you like a Peon


ANOTHER FAMILIAR SCENARIO: It’s one thing not to get paid, that’s part of the deal when you volunteer. You’re getting paid anyhow to work on the IT projects for which you’ve been contracted. If you work in a government lab, or a university, a non-profit, or a commercial lab, your own deliverables come first. In the world of IT, however, there’s always some reason to look outside your current project to the next project or the next technology that might leverage (or squash) your current work. So, you join the listserves and the professional societies and you pay close attention to the larger picture. That’s why you went to the workshop for this new project that is pushing the envelope on some piece of IT technology or standards close to your interests.

At the workshop you were invited to join the “distributed, community-based” research effort. Now there’s an email from someone you don’t remember asking if you can do this or that (can you evaluate the wording on this standard? can you join a teleconference next Thursday?) and you have to decide if the email gets trashed or answered.

When you volunteer to serve on a committee of a virtual organization (VO), your time is still valuable to you and your organization. The last thing you want to do is somebody else’s work for free.  What reasons did the VO give for asking you to participate? If you can’t remember, the email will go in the trash. Who made the decision to create this standard? If you can’t find out, the email will go in the trash. You don’t mind volunteering, but you need to know how your contribution will be considered and acknowledged. If your child’s school asked you to come over on the weekend to help paint the new computer lab, you’d expect the same.

If the virtual organization is going to call you a peer, they should mean this. If you are working among equals, you should have equal access to information about the decision making process and equal input into it’s practices. If they do the telling and you do the work, your volunteer enthusiasm won’t last long.

Adding another listserve, WIKI, or content management system to the mix just ups the overhead without answering the question: what does it mean to be a peer in this peer-based VO?

If the answer to this is not provided up front and then maintained with rigor, then your VO is under-governed and bound to shed volunteers like a tabby in May.

The Answer:

Before they invited you to come to the workshop, the VO should have set up a governance structure that gives you stature in the organization and information on demand. This doesn’t mean you can demand access to resources. You can’t just cut yourself in for a piece of the grant. But you should be able to follow how the advice you give, or the work you do is used by the core team, and you deserve attribution for your efforts.

All of this can be done through the software services the VO sets up for communication, and the democratic governance practices it adheres to when working with volunteers. Note: the VO might have other practices it uses to demand work from its paid core. Governance and project management practices work together but are not identical.

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