A Guidebook for Managing Telecentre Networks/Communication Strategies and Practices for a Telecentre Network
Communication Strategies and Practices for a Telecentre NetworkEdit
Effective communication is critical to the success of telecentre networks. Without it, people who are not directly involved with network activities will never know about what’s going on, the impact activities that are having, or the value of the network itself. Communication also contributes to network growth, that is, to expand its constituency, nurture existing relationships, attract new partners and open up opportunities for new resources needed to support telecentres.
For the most part, network communications aim to achieve three things:
- Relationship building – generating participation instead of audiences by building bridges to people and organizations, and then nurturing and deepening such relationships on a regular basis.
- Publicrelations and awareness– raising or managing a positive profile of the network, its members, and important issues such as affordable connectivity for telecentres.
- Marketing and influence – promoting specific products, services and influencing behaviour change (attracting NGOs to use telecentres in their communities, for example).
In this chapter, we discuss how to create and put in place a communication strategy that can be useful for a telecentre network. It is important to distinguish between ‘internal communications’ (among telecentres within the network) and ‘external communications’ (for stakeholders and other audiences outside the network). We will also touch on the role of TCNs in strengthening communications capacities of individual telecentre members.
Creating a network communications strategyEdit
In its simplest expression, we may consider that a telecentre network’s communication strategy has two broad dimensions: internal and external.The internal communication strategy serves to facilitate relationship building, nurturing trust, participation and conflict management within the ‘nodes’ or network constituency. Good internal communication practices enable creation and sharing of relevant information and knowledge products as well as useful relationships. Internal network communications may also include supporting the communication needs of individual member telecentres as they reach out to respective communities. This internal aspect of communications constitutes the ‘nervous system’ of telecentre networks.
The external communications dimension deals with people and organizations outside the telecentre network. These include government, civil society, professional groups (such as educators), the private sector, and the general public. Adequate external communications create awareness about telecentre issues (including problems and possible solutions) and the impact of telecentres for national development. This awareness creates confidence among target groups in their work and relations with telecentre networks, which in turn is a key element in building and nurturing partnerships.
Successful network communications will benefit from a well thought-out strategy that has clear goals, objectives, target groups and expected outcomes that can be tracked over the time. The strategy may use specific network activities from which to draw messages to identified target groups, such as bandwidth sharing by a number of telecentres in the country to illustrate the challenges of connectivity and how networking might help.
Elements of an effective network communications strategyEdit
A good network communication strategy needs:
- Defined goals and objectives – with specific reference to timeframe and desired outcomes
- Identified target audiences – to tailor the tone and format of communication activities to the preferences of each audience. Networks may need to engage in some form of intelligence-building exercise to learn more about their target audiences in order to better understand them; that is, what information they may need and are most receptive to, and how they prefer to receive their information (such as text-based or face-to-face)
- Appropriate tools and tactics – that help network reach their audiences more effectively, at a reasonable cost and with high returns. Tools may include news releases, pamphlets, brochures, electronic bulletins, newsletters, CDs, videos, radio advertising, and so on. Tactics are the venues used to disseminate the network’s messages and products such as activities and events.
A simplified communication strategy template is shown in the following text box with related questions.
Generally, for network communication activities to be successful, they must deliver their message in such a way that the intended audience (i) wants to hear it (ii) needs to hear it, and (iii) expects to receive the message.
The first step towards building a network communications strategy involves a clear understanding of the purposes of the network (and thus imagining what success looks like), as well as the identification of the people and organizations the network would like to influence in order to be successful. This may have already occurred in the early stages of network creation, or perhaps it can take place through a necessary review via some kind of participatory network analysis process involving network members and partners. It is preferably done though a face-to-face process, complemented by online communication using discussion lists or free web conferencing tools like Dimdim. This preparatory work should define the goal, audience and appropriate tools and tactics needed to achieve communication-based outcomes. Including an evaluation component allows for fine-tuning as the strategy rolls out, also helping to improve future communications efforts.
Participation in shaping the strategy by the member telecentres will help build support for – and commitment to – the strategy. It will also improve the members’ capacity to manage individual communications activities, which is an added benefit to the network in the long run.
The following set of questions might be helpful to assess communications-related aspects of the telecentre networks. It is important to elicit responses and comments that are as concrete as possible:
- Who are the telecentre network’s members and external stakeholders and where are they located?
- What does the network need to communicate?
- What means of communication are used among members and towards external actors?
- Are these means constraining or fostering the exchange of information and contact among the parties in any way?
- What are the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the network in terms of communications?
- What and where are the main ‘information plugs’ in the telecentre networks? How can they be removed or avoided?
It is important to use the information obtained from the above questions (in addition to any other pertinent ones) to determine the network’s communications objectives, specific communications activities and expected results. It is important to determine some simple indicators to track attainment of the objectives – the simpler they are the more likely telecentre network managers will use them. The following items refer to the key elements in the operational (or logic) framework, as seen in table a logic touch upon objectives, activities and results, as well as the way to track the strategy’s progress.
I think this section deserves a new title here, or at least a sentence or two describing what is about to be explained: OK, I introduced a bit of a bridge (it does follow from the paragraph, but it´s not that clear).
Objectives – Communication is a tool, not a goal in itself. Communications objectives have to be realistic and achievable – there is no point in trying to convert a telecentre network into the telecentre equivalent of the American national news network CNN. Some examples of key communication objectives are:
- To improve communication flow with the network.
- To keep the member telecentres informed about the telecentre network activities and progress.
- To enhance interaction between local communities and their telecentres.
Activities – These activities allow the network to accomplish its communication objectives. In designing the activities, it is useful to determine (i) what (to identify the activity itself: it can help to draw an informative chart, or start a blog, etc.); (ii) who (to identify the person or team that will execute the activity); (iii) when (to come up with a timetable for the implementation of the activity). It is also important to identify the appropriate tools required to conduct the activity, including face-to-face events (like meetings, workshops, visits), documentation (newsletters, publications, web content) and online communication (emails, discussion lists, blogs)
Expected results – These are specific intended outcomes when activities are executed according to plan. Expected results should be achievable, measurable and traceable, for example, recognizing the frequency of a newsletter and not just its establishment. Measuring the progression of results instead of quantifying an indicator at the end of a given period makes monitoring feasible and useful.
Monitoring – An effective communications strategy requires regular updating. For this, telecentre networks need to track expected results against objectives and can ask questions such as:
- Were the intended people reached? What about other (unintended) actors?
- Did target audiences understand the messages?
- What steps can be taken to improve the outcomes?
- How can the overall communication strategy be implemented more effectively?
Table 4.1. A simplified example of how the operational elements from a communications strategy canbe described .
|To improve communication flows within the network.||* Creation of an internal electronic bulletin with a weekly circulation.||* Most of the new information about activities, projects, services and events from network members is circulated on a timely basis;
Even the best communications strategy will lack value if the members of the network do not share its key elements, or if they lack awareness of those elements. Holding special team meetings among a small group of people who are responsible for the execution of the strategy will help to see that it is successfully carried out. It is also recommendable that the strategy is presented and discussed as part of the agenda of a telecentre network’s specific events that involve larger groups, particularly during its preparation, and soon after implementation. The good news is that making the strategy well known will require some of the same communications tactics!
It is important to share the idea that the entire telecentre network is responsible for its communications agenda, and not just that of a few network members, or the staff of a coordinating unit. While leadership of a few individuals will have a significant effect on the attainment of communication objectives, having most people in the network connected and feeding information into it is a more likely guarantee that the network will stay well informed. In this regard, individual telecentres should view themselves as both antennae and broadcasters.
A communications strategy that yields results (which is what any network member is interested in, and not simply ‘chatter’) goes through stages in a cycle, like the one in figure 4.1. Some of the stages in the cycle are also present during a single communication action (such as producing a news bulletin, or organizing a symposium). It is important to recognize the stages, as they will require different tasks and treatment. For example, sharing information can be a unilateral action, occurring quickly and using a computer. On the other hand, negotiation can turn out to be a painfully slow process, requiring the participation of various actors, and using a table, tea and biscuits as the main tools.
While external communication is usually included within the overall communications strategy of a network, it is often done implicitly. External communications may seem more detached from the day-to-day life of a telecentre network, and allows less control over its implementation (where most of the actors are by definition based outside the network). They are directed to very different types of recipients: sponsors, partners, local officials, state representatives, community members and academics, and possibly other telecentre networks too.
The tasks related to providing information to these actors and prompting their involvement are carried out differently than for internal communications. The means used can vary from actor to actor, as well as the language used. After all, the audience for external communications is generally heterogeneous, while for internal communications it is often more homogenous.
That is why the main challenge in external communications is to identify the best means to communicate to each actor. The way to communicate a message to a sponsor, in most cases, will not work with a community leader or with telecentre users. For example, a local leader may prefer oral communication to written communication – let’s remember than even today, at the start of the 21st century, some cultures are based on orality. A development agency or a newspaper will prefer written information because they can process it and save it. At the same time, establishing a relationship with a media outlet is also valuable, and that requires oral communications (phone calls, in-person visits, and so on). Thus, in our information society context, the communications strategy should be able to include a flexible repertoire of instruments: analogue and digital, written and spoken, visual and text.
There is a wide range of communication tools available, many of which are free, to spread one’s message. For example, a distribution list such as a Dgroup can be easily created which facilitates ongoing dialogue among stakeholders; including beneficiaries, sponsors, partners and the community. Not only do distribution lists bring multiple voices to the network, but they also help telecentre network members to provide feedback to the network. On the other hand, a periodic (weekly or monthly) e-bulletin is an efficient means to inform external parties about TCN activities, needs and outcomes. For real-time information dissemination, an RSS (real simple syndication) or Atom newsfeed may be a good idea.
In addition, other web 2.0 tools such as blogs, Twitter, social network tools (such as MySpace, Orkut, Facebook, and ning) allow for a multimedia mix of information to be offered, including pictures and video clips. This provides enormous opportunities. For example, wouldn’t a partner/funder like to see short clips on how its supported telecentre network is working with local teachers to enrich their classrooms with fresh, new content? How valuable is it for a local television station to access content about teenagers from conflictive parts of town who are stimulated to ‘create’ (e.g. videos with their stories, websites, etc.) rather than ‘destroy’?
Choosing a language for communication is very important. When communicating with a sponsor, it is generally a good idea to use more formal language and articulate the results and processes advanced through the telecentre network. When communicating with local partners, on the other hand, it can be useful to adapt a style more closely based on how they communicate.
Candidly sharing lessons learned with sponsors is a way to generate trust with that sponsor, such as why an activity failed, and how learning from that failure will help the network grow. It will also help to sustain a longer-term relationship, as sponsors (particularly development agencies) are aware that all projects find difficulties. Sometimes the outstanding feature about a project is how it went about overcoming its difficulties.
Finally, one can take advantage of electronic and print media as key infomediaries to the outside community. These institutions can help to deliver important messages, engaging new audiences and potential partners. Media organizations are constantly in search of interesting stories that affect human development. Telecentre networks are working with telecentres whose business is to improve people’s lives. TCNs can attract and maintain good contacts in the media using press releases, regular short stories, video clips, etc. about how telecentres are making a difference and providing useful solutions to public interest issues. Local media outlets want to access ‘human stories’, and pre-packaged news bits, with data, quotes, pictures, etc. It is also wise to have network spokespeople available and to provide these spokespeople with key messages to which they can refer should they be contacted by media.
What about communications for member telecentres?Edit
The communications strategies and practices of a telecentre network should also include ways of supporting member telecentres with their own communications needs. Ultimately, as in other aspects of the telecentre network, it is the work of the individual telecentres that determines its success or failure. Telecentre staff seldom has the expertise or time to put together a well thought-out communications plan.
This is one of the aspects where being part of a telecentre network may really pay off. Telecentre workers understand the needs of the local population and their cultural norms, and TCN staff can help workers to build capacity through the following:
- Devising and putting into action a community outreach plan, in effect ‘taking the telecentre outside its walls and into the streets’. This can include visits to schools, civic organizations, business centers, marketplaces, etc.
- Producing content (such as video clips) that can help telecentre staff to better connect with the community.
- Using ICT tools to help them communicate with their communities and stakeholders.
- Generating and extending the TCN ‘brand’ to the individual telecentres, for greater visibility and publicity (and by providing templates, key messages, logos and other materials to help facilitate this).
Telecentre network staff can also help directly organize and implement various communication-related activities, such as:
- Moderating discussion lists where telecentre staff share and debate about communications with their users.
- Generating content that can easily be adapted to local telecentre needs to contact and engage local citizens, such as poster templates, interview scripts, surveys, etc.
- Creating network-wide activities that promote local participation, such as contests, scholarships, or art displays.
The E3 project started in June 2008 to enhance the sustainability of 60 telecentres in Sri Lanka’s Uva province. It was prompted by a monitoring and evaluation process carried out by the national Information and Communications Technology Agency (ICTA), which found that the lack of communication was one of the key issues challenging the sustainability of the Uva Telecentre Network.
Part of the project www.shilpasayura.org involved the creation of a network communications platform developed by a national organization, the E–fusion Regional Impact Team (RIT), with tools used for training and content sharing, connecting key stakeholders as shown in the image found below (Figure 4.2). It also facilitated monitoring tasks for the network. The platform is depicted in the graph below.
A significant challenge was to establish a communications platform where only slightly over half (52%) of the 60 telecentres had internet access. There were also different levels of language and ICT skills within the network.
The E–fusion Regional Impact Team assessed telecentre needs by conducting small workshops, telecentre visits, and questionnaires to help design the communcations strategy. The network communication platform provided messaging services among RIT, telecentres, ICTA and service providers.
Network communication strategies
Transparency and open group communications helped to develop trust among members. The creation of a ‘network think-tank’ increased stakeholder involvement. Connecting members of the telecentre community with government and business helped to increase network reach. Telecentre operators were empowered to represent their centres which increasing local ownership. Periodic monitoring reports helped resolve network issues. All communications were carried out with authenticated identity. Forming a Telecentre Community Association created a front end to represent the network.
Content, tools and channels
Using online tools and e-content in ‘local language’ increased participation and reach. The communication media used were email, blogs, fora, discussion lists, ning social networks, telephone, Skype web-conferencing, chat and SMS messaging to communicate effectively within the network to share and transfer telecentre knowledge. Regular workshops helped to improve inter-telecentre communications, knowledge networking and resources sharing.
Forums, surveys, activity photos, videos, blogging and comments captured feedback to improve the process.
Before the E3 project, each of the Uva telecentres were isolated, individual competing entities. The nine-month duration of the first phase of the project improved network communications to make telecentres truly emerge as a telecentre network. The E3 network communication strategy assisted in the effective delivery of telecentre support services, content, capacity building, advocacy, research and reporting. Advocacy actions motivated the emergence of a Telecentre Sustainability Network (TSN), receiving national and global ICT4D research attention for telecentre sustainability development.
The diversity within Uva telecentres was a challenge for network communications to bring loosely bound individual telecentres into a network. Creating some early benefits helped, such as deploying an e-learning platform to set off joint activities among telecentres.
There were, however, some problems along the way. Some telecentres, even if individually successful, did not contribute enough to the network with their skills and resources. Lack of a gender perspective (as revealed through women’s reluctance to engage in network-wide activities) also affected network communications. Negotiation and awareness improved the situation, but some individuals’ positions did not move much over time.
Effective network communications require openness, use of local languages and effective tools. In a loosely bound network misunderstandings can always occur; hence network messages require careful consideration of content and channels of delivery. For example, if a message with information of general interest is not received by all telecentre, it can negatively affect the entire telecentre network. Therefore, making feedback mechanisms available and having processes for corrective action are a must.
Postal mail, even if not considered ‘modern’, can be an effective network messaging element to involve non-ICT literate stakeholders (and amazingly enough, some telecentre owners may fit in this category).
Open communications help to motivate small players to play big roles in the network and informal communicationsare useful in assessing the effectiveness of network programs.
Quick Tips about Communications Strategies and Practice in Telecentre NetworksEdit
- A healthy communication flow among the members is the energy that keeps a network active and feeds the solidarity and confidence required for the TCN to be successful.
- Nothing replaces face-to-face communication; plan for annual meetings.
- Make sure that the network objectives are well known, and at least generally accepted by the members.
- Use web 2.0 tools, which simplify making contributions and producing content.
- Foster confidence and trust between your users. You won’t openly share things if you do not trust the person you are working with.
- In order to create incentive for communication among network members, it is important to name one or two facilitators that can help you encourage participation.
- Promote discussion fora that will help to keep the network active.
- One of the best incentives is to help individual telecentres better communicate themselves: make this a central part of your communications strategy.
- In case you do not have the level of participation you were expecting, get help! Some individuals in the network may be able to assist you in motivating other members. And even better, revise stimuli to communicate for the members.
- Focus on your target audience and the main ideas you want to communicate.
- Try to personalize messages according to your audience and the goal you want to achieve.
- The message has to be concrete and clear; remember that ‘less is often more’ in public communications
- Your message structure always should have an introduction, message body and conclusion.
- Make sure that your audience has a way to contact the telecentre, and provide a formal, institutional email address (i.e. firstname.lastname@example.org), a postal address, and a phone number. Most importantly, respond to those contacts timely (within 48 hours if possible).
- Create a blog for your telecentre network. It will make it easier to keep your partners and possible donors informed about the activities of the telecentres and their communities.
- In a visible place in the telecentre, prepare a poster with all the information regarding the telecentre, its rules, schedule, etc.
- Keep the community informed about telecentre activities and how it is accomplishing its goals. Also let the community know if you need some help.
- Quality over quantity: how you communicate is more important than how much you communicate.
- Think and communicate positively but credibly: in the case of failures (which are normal experiences and occur regularly) try to emphasize the lessons learned.
- Get the most out of the Web 2.0. Use social networks, blogs, tags, YouTube, web picture albums, etc. to let the world know about your TCN and its telecentres.
References and ResourcesEdit
- InfoDesarrollo is an Ecuadorian portal that represents a good example of how external communication can be implemented within a network. It receives more than 16,000 visits per months and promotes the use of ICT in Ecuador along with other members of the Infodesarrollo network. The website is www.infodesarrollo.ec.
- Dimdim is a free and simple web conferencing tool. It enables long-distance conferencing (using voice), and also enables people from all over the world to show what’s one their desktop, such as pictures, presentations, PDFs, general screen shots and videos. Dimdim also has a whiteboard feature that makes it easy to work online. This is a good alternative for online meetings and working face-to-face. The website is www.dimdim.com.
- Dgroups is another online platform that helps people meet, share information and collaborate in the international development community. It serves as a kind of GoogleGroups or YahooGroups, but specialized for development issues. Dgroups provides features such as mailing lists, a document library and calendar. The website can be found at dgroups.org.
- An infomediary is an entity that functions as an intermediary of information (instead of goods or services).
- This case study has been provided by Niranjan Meegammana, Shilpa Sayura Foundation Sri Lanka