Organizational Development 101: Community Building that Works

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Laura Breeden
Cynthia Denton

A potential pitfall for organizers of community information is focusing on the problems of community networking rather than the process of community networking. This session focused on some of the process issues that can make or break community networking initiatives.

Speaking at this session was Laura Breeden, an independent technology consultant in Westford, Mass., and former director of a multi-million dollar federal grant program designed to demonstrate the benefits of the information superhighway in the public sector; and Cynthia Denton, community networking director for networking Montant and project director of the Reach for the Sky Project.

Breeden presented a list of some common pitfalls encountered by organizations and suggested that awareness of these pitfalls can help smooth the development process:

The speakers solicited the audience for examples of problems they've encountered, and also related their own stories. Denton said two of the major players involved in her community network were approaching the project with different goals in mind, and it took time for the two groups to understand where each was coming from and to unite for a common goal. Conflict and communication problems about goals was a familiar scenario to many in the audience.

Sara Behrman, director of the Mideastern Michigan Library Cooperative, told of the difficulty of getting librarians and computer experts to communicate clearly about software and organizational issues and the leadership of the community network. Eventually the librasrians stepped down from the Free-Net board; this allowed them to gain distance from the problems but kept the lines of communication between the two groups open.

Breeden emphasized that the community network's leadership must have the trust of the organization, and must keep sight of the larger goals at all times. Denton added that it is essential to find leaders representative of the community, and to make sure that each constituency has respected and well-qualified representatives.

Another common problem was lack of user response. Many found that users were reading postings directed to them and not responding; participants agreed that it's difficult to know how to elicit a response. Breeden said it isn't always true that since we have access to computers that we're in communication with each other.

In summary, Breeden stressed three points:

  1. Volunteers. They come to community networks for a variety of reasons, and it's very important for the organizational leaders to understand why people are getting involved. They need to feel recognized and appreciated or they drift away.

  2. Organizations are like people. All organizations and groups go through stages, from newborn, to two-year-olds that need lots of attention, to mature organiations that need a kick in the pants.

  3. Every organization has to deal with these issues. Remember to articulate your goals, and make deeply held values explicit. Every organization has a leadership strucutre, every organization will have conflict. Know that it's a worthwhile investment to make.

Breeden listed several books of value to community networkers:

Denton included a checklist of things to include in the process of establishing a community network. Included in this list were:

The session was concluded by reminding community networkers that they're selling communication, and that communication must fill a need.

May 15, 1996

Reported by Jennifer Stone