Welcome News for Your Science Agency: The benefits of not funding the work of this virtual organization


Science agencies fund science.

Usually this is done directly through funding research. Sometimes new facilities are funded, or larger centers.  What I want to talk about are some important science-related activities that cannot, indeed must not be funded in order for them to succeed.

If you are guiding a science agency, then the notion that you can achieve certain high-value science goals only by not funding them may be news to you. It should be welcome news. In fact there are enormous ROI potentials you can only realize when you can refrain from adding money to the mix. There is a caveat here. While you cannot fund these, you also cannot manage them. Instead, they will govern themselves.

What I am referring to here is a new form of volunteer science/data virtual organization. Drawing their members from a broad swath of experts, led by the community they build (through a governance they own), and powered by volunteers, these associations offer agencies and the academy new forums for scientific discussion, knowledge management, and collective intelligence.

The oldest and best of these that I know about is the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners, sponsored by NASA and NOAA in the US. More recently there is the global Research Data Alliance, with significant sponsorship from Europe and elsewhere. The NSF is also spinning up EarthCube in the geosciences.

Let me be clear. These organizations still need support. All of these organizations require sponsors to pay their staff and expenses; there are websites and teleconferences, and some face-to-face meetings: all the tools of communication and collaboration. But the activities, the occasions for trust building, the growing sense of community, and the actual work: these are accomplished by the volunteers for themselves without being paid.

Volunteers in these organizations also realize a return on their investment. In fact, each and every volunteer should get more than they give. This math is driven by the network effect and some other stuff. That’s another blog, I’m afraid.  Here I am writing to you: the agency manager who can finally get something for almost nothing!

Here are Seven Things…

…your science agency can get only by not funding them directly, but through supporting a community-led virtual organization of scientists/technologists:

  1. Your agency gets to query and mine a durable, expandable level of collective intelligence;

  2. Your agency can depend on an increased level of adoption to standards and shared practices;

  3. It will gain an ability to use the community network to create new teams capable of tackling important issues (also=better proposals);
  4. Your agency can use the community to evaluate high-level decisions before these are implemented (=higher quality feedback than simple RFIs);
  5. Social media becomes even more social inside the community, with lateral linkages across the entire internet. This can amplify your agency’s social media impact;
  6. Your diverse stakeholders will be able to self-manage a broad array of goals and strategies tuned to a central vision and mission; and,
  7. You will be able to identify emergent leadership and potential new employees.

Bottom Line: Sponsoring a community-led, volunteer-run science organization offers a great ROI. There are whole arenas of valuable work to be done, but only if nobody funds this directly.

Disclaimer:  The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the contributor alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of EarthCube’s governance elements, funding agency, or staff.

What is an online community architect?


I was recently asked why I call myself an online community “architect.” A fair question. My use of the label “architect” is meant to highlight how intentional communities, such as virtual organizations, can design, assemble, and use cultural practices to become more effective at achieving their goals and their vision.

The “unintentional” communities that we find ourselves belonging to (or resisting) in our society, from our neighborhoods and schools to our language groups and nations, use cultural practices that are grounded in longer histories and broader social structures. These represent the culture we are submerged in from birth; often they are the practices that represent our sense of identity and position in society.

These practices (and associated beliefs) are what anthropologists call “culture.” They remind us that much of this is learned and then used unconsciously, as habits and behaviors that come naturally to the enculturated members of the society. Intentional communities are made up of members that carry their own cultural habits from their society. On top of these habits, an intentional community agrees to add practices that are mutually agreed upon and available for discussion and revision. 

Some intentional communities are created as counter-cultural groups, where their practices are designed specifically to conflict with those of the larger society. But many more intentional communities, from workplaces to voluntary societies and virtual organizations simply want to define their core values and to design governance practices to support these.

Often, corporations and networked communities fail to recognize that they need to develop an intentional culture to support their collaborations. They rely on the unconscious cultural habits of their members and on imposed management schemes to compel participation. Management practices can seem more effective and cheaper than the expense of building cultural practices and governance. However, in situations where corporations need to pivot quickly, or where virtual organizations need to rely on volunteers, there is no substitute for shared values supported by governance practices.

The literature on the costs and benefits of a robust corporate culture is quite large. But how can organizations gain expertise in developing intentional cultural practices? Just as a building architect is used to create an efficient and effective envelope of space, a community architect can help an organization create an envelope of practice. Every effective corporate culture is based on shared intention and honest design. It is the role of the community architect to become familiar with those design patterns that can help a new virtual organization build a robust cultural fabric to support its vision and its goals.

Photo Credit: “On The Saturday Before That” by Thomas Hawk on flickr

Beware of Zombie Democracy in your VO


Some digital organizations want your enthusiasm, and will suck this dry with offers of representation and feedback. How do you know your interests are being represented when the social network (SN) or virtual organization (VO) sets up a feedback system? What if they create some kind of users committee? What if they ask you to vote? All of these look like democratic practices. But the real test comes when decisions are made. Remember that democracy is a form of governance. If your feedback form, vote, representative delegate has no authority within the governance system, it’s just a zombie practice. It looks vaguely like democracy from a distance.
Most VOs and SNs are RUN BY SOMEONE… someone with their own interests. Someone being paid to do so. And that someone is probably not you. If they conjure up some kind of democratic shell game, demand to know how decisions are being made and where the money goes. If they are honest and tell you they want your feedback because it’s valuable to them and it might help them serve you better–you know where you stand.

Photo Credit: Ateo Fiel on Flickr. used with CC atribution license

Questions Virtual Organizations don’t usually ask themselves


What does it mean to be a “peer” in your peer-based organization? Who gets to initiate teleconferences? How are opinions and criticism handled? What active feedback do you collect? Who gets to see this? In what ways can your peers self-identify with your organization?

At the center of your project, PIs, Co PIs, and staff are tasked (and paid) to do work. How much extra (unpaid) work is required to actually move the project along?  How are the other people of the organization (advisory committees, workshop participants, developer community members) attached to the work of the core? Why should they contribute their time and expertise?

You’ve just gotten a multi-year grant to create a “community-based, collaborative” research VO. Do you know how to recognize “community” within the population you have targeted to collaborate in this effort? Do you know how much and what type of community is sufficient to support your “community-based” effort? If you need to build community, do you know how to do this and when to start?

Your cyberinfrastructure VO has a stated goal of creating a sustainable software service layer to support virtual collaboratories. You need to choose from among four possible software standards to start this effort. How do you make this choice? Why should the final user community agree with you?

photo credit: Timothy Volmer

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.

Picture source: http://www.gpwu.ac.jp/~biddle/new_pa7.jpg

This is cyberSocialstructure: discussions about Virtual Democracy

Anti Iraq war demonstration
Anti Iraq war demonstration

Cybersocialstructure.org will be moving to a Drupal-based website later. In the meanwhile, the discussion about how much democracy is needing for your Virtual Organization (VO) can continue.

CyberSOCIALstructure is destined to be a space where many people add their voices to discussions about the role that social practices (and theories) play in creating and sustaining cyberinfrastructure and CI organizations.
CONTACT: Bruce Caron   bruceATnmri.org
New Media Research Institute, Santa Barbara, CA

CyberSOCIALstructure (CS) looks at the social issues implicit in cyberINFRAstructure (CI). This discussion reverses the usual conversation about the impacts of the Internet on global politics and eGovernment. Instead, CS looks at community and governance as necessary social aspects of building and sustaining VOs.
PHOTO: http://www.stopwar.org.uk/photos/iraq27demo03_05.jpg