A Guidebook for Managing Telecentre Networks/Telecentre network governance

Telecentre network governance – setting the playing field for a network cultureEdit

Maria Teresa M. Camba (PhilCeCNet, Philippines)

Management challenges of telecentre networks often spring from the network formation; the decisions and actions the network leaders preferred to take. After years of network building and mentoring, we can point to a number of key aspects for successful telecentre networks. While most of these are decisions and approaches often undertaken during network formation, a telecentre network may, at any stage of its evolution, incorporate these perspectives in order to strengthen what it is already doing. This chapter examines key components of telecentre network governance such as instilling a clear vision, setting and tracking objectives, network structure, leadership, norms and accountability, resources (e.g. financial resources).

Dimensions of Governance for a Telecentre NetworkEdit

Governance refers to the common norms or rules that define the actors, procedures and accepted methods for collective action. Governance may be about the whole of society (which carries a more political connotation), whereas in other instances it may refer to specific areas such as internet – therefore called internet governance. ‘Good governance’ is understood to refer to an institutional system (and a collective culture) that stimulates the efficient and responsible behaviour of a set of actors.

Through governance, networks articulate reasons for existence, targets, how to manage resources, formulate and implement policies, and how to deliver services. Strong network governance depends of good relationships amongst members, skilled people, appropriate structures as well as clear rules and practices.

The impetus and momentum for the birth of a telecentre network can spring from a variety of situations — spontaneously and informally or from a more deliberate and intended initiative. Whatever the origin, the process begins with interaction between people during which the rationale for the network starts to take shape, coalesces and solidifies until the conscious decision to form it is collectively made.

The initial stimulus that sparked and sustained this interaction provides the first indispensable element for effective network management that must be addressed.

A clear shared visionEdit

Telecentres generally have a common vision in coming together as a network — the growth, advancement, and sustainability of their facilities as well as increased capacities to serve the needs of their immediate communities. In other cases, a network may emerge on just one of the so many issues that telecentres face. For instance, a network could be founded on the need to increase availability of local content or reliable and affordable internet connectivity.

One of the primary challenges at the early stages of telecentre network management is to define and clarify a shared vision that the membership can identify with. A clear network vision is useful when a network starts the process of identifying services, resources and partners to work with. In some cases, the network vision may change as the needs and priorities of members change or because the original problem has been addressed. A dynamic network may then choose to recreate itself over another issue. The important thing is that telecentre networks need to hold their members together through a shared vision and purpose or their members will simply slide away.

It is highly recommended that a formal statement of network purpose is made and institutionalized. This will facilitate the network’s accountability and communication with new members and partners. It will also help the network when exploring the potential for a formal structure later and the adoption of formal commitments and responsibilities towards the shared vision, in case it does not start as a formal institution.

Reinforcing the interactionEdit

Networks require a critical level of sharing and interaction amongst members to ensure that the shared vision remains in focus for all and operational. Details of how to facilitate knowledge sharing within the network and engaging the membership are discussed in Chapters 3 (on Communication) and 4 (about Participation).

A telecentre network needs to have a communication platform through which members can interact. Most networks have discussion lists and forums for this purpose. Sharing accomplishments, issues and concerns, suggestions, and resources in a common helps a network to build and demonstrate its ‘network value’. Members get to know one another in the process, and as a result are more likely to commit to helping one another with pressing issues in the future.

Setting and tracking the objectivesEdit

The objectives of a telecentre network spring from their shared vision. Different telecentre networks, though perhaps sharing many facets of their visions, will have specific objectives that may differ. Therefore if the objectives are concrete, there are more chances to create locally relevant services.

Objectives may be classified as organizational in nature, which is, bringing telecentres under one sustaining and supportive federation to enable concerted efforts and unified representation, or strengthening the collaborative capacities of individual telecentres. They may be content-oriented, seeking to establish uniformity in certain operations, standards and services provided to member telecentres, or community approaches. Then there may be resource-specific objectives, seeking the growth of the network and sustainability of members through resource mobilization and sharing, supporting human resources throughout the network or generating a pool of network resources.

A network may have one of these types of objectives as priorities or a mix of them to describe the avenues for achieving its vision. Whatever a network chooses as the parameters for achieving its vision, these have to be arrived at collectively with maximum participation of all members to ensure a corresponding degree of acceptance by all.

It is ideal, but not mandatory, that individual telecentre objectives are aligned with network objectives. The participation of a telecentre in a telecentre network may be justified if even just a handful of the telecentre objectives display that alignment – as long as the other objectives do not enter into specific contradictions with what the network does or how it operates. For instance, a telecentre may wish to provide ICT training for its community (an objective) for which it will benefit as a member of the network. But if the business model of the telecentre does not allow it to share some materials (e.g. because of intellectual property considerations), it may be difficult to join a telecentre network where all members can openly share their training contents.

The other way around is a little different: all telecentre network objectives must be based on individual telecentre objectives (as functions of their needs and opportunities). That is the basis on which to formulate the network’s objectives. While TCN objectives cannot be expected to pertain to all telecentre objectives, they should be defined to maximize the value to the member telecentres. In addition, part of the work of the network may be directed towards indirect objectives of some telecentres (such as when it involves policy actions that affect telecentres but do not feature among their most pressing needs).

What does this duality mean in practice? It implies that a telecentre network has to make sure it is tailored to the collective objectives of telecentres (bending over backwards if needed), while for the telecentres it is not mandatory to adapt to the network. However this does not mean that members may not need to consider certain changes in order to better participate in the network. In fact, some telecentres may well find it worthwhile to strengthen some of their capacities to better benefit from the network, whether instrumental (for example, installing and utilizing Moodle to gain from e-learning opportunities available via the telecentre network), or generative (e.g. to create joint projects with other members through the network). We will discuss the latter in the last chapter, as part of advanced network management strategies.

Objectives serve as the directional signs for a network, and as we discuss in the final chapter, provide the true bearings in the network’s typically unstable navigation. Though many objectives may be defined for the mid and long term, they are never permanent fixtures. When a destination is reached, objectives should be revisited and sometimes replaced by new ones. Part of the function of telecentre network managers, as we will see in the Monitoring and Evaluation chapter, is to track the attainment of objectives and be ready to change them or identify new ones at the appropriate time.

Shaping the networkEdit

The structure a telecentre network takes largely depends on a number of factors such as size of membership, and certainly by the objectives it seeks to achieve. A network that self-identifies itself as small in terms of membership, geographical scope, or the range and reach of its objectives may not need a formal structure, in contrast to diverse and complex networks. A smaller network may use a flexible, less formal network governance approach that allows it to achieve its objectives, enables the participation and involvement of its members, as well as provides for its growth and sustainability.

An important consideration in shaping the network is the promotion of equal representation allowing proportionate participation in network decisions and operations by all members. Whether this is achieved by shaping the structure components or by staffing the leadership and membership of these components is a decision to be made by network members.

Whatever the choice, a structure is functional and productive when it allows network membership parity in the share of authority and participation in network operations. It should thus allow leadership the means to effectively and decisively steer the organization towards its objectives while at the same time providing space for members to participate.

Leadership in a telecentre networkEdit

The issues of network management style and leadership are inevitably intertwined. While leadership inspires change, management promotes stability. Many networks start with a highly consultative process where leadership changes frequently according to issues and resources required. As the network idea solidifies, leadership may shift less often and rest within the most active and most resourced members.

An example would be the need for a dedicated facility and staff to take on the duties of a network secretariat or hub where concerns and support services for the network are addressed at the outset. This was the case in the Philippines with the NCC-CICT (National Computer Center of the Commission on ICT) that had the reach and the resources for the Philippine Community eCenter Network (PhilCeCNet) to get itself on the launching pad, as presented in this chapter’s case study. The organizational member who contributes the most to creating and operating such a facility usually finds itself in the leadership role at that point in time, a phase usually characterized as the transition phase before the network formally defines its structure, policies, and operations. A consensus for leadership is essential at this sensitive point. Such a consensus may be easy to arrive at when members recognize the need, and willingly allow leadership to be determined by means and capability. But in cases where similar means and capability may exist together with a certain rivalry among some members, the general interest of the network must come to the fore. In such a case, the strategy of leadership rotation by tenure may be adopted, and may be maintained as a leadership policy even in the general management of the network. When the network matures, the management style and leadership must be rooted in the original climate that gave birth to the network – participatory and multi-sectoral. Aided by equal representation and leadership rotation, it enables the network to remain true to its essence.

Network management, especially the day-to-day aspect of administration and support, requires that an extent of decision-making be centralized in the interest of speed, effective response, and manageability. It would be impractical to expect that every decision the network has to make is to be derived from general deliberation.

An effective and practical organizational structure helps this process, where a leadership component such as a representative executive council may be effective in handling decisions of a level and priority that need not be submitted to the general membership for approval.

Of course, one of the main points of decision-making refers to what kind of decisions are made, and where. A highly decentralized network that has agreed on a minimum set of rules but which uses consultation among the telecentres will in effect have a highly decentralized decision-making scheme. We will reflect on what this entails further ahead in the concluding chapter, when comparing ‘aggregating’ and ‘enabling’ network styles.

Some quick additional points to consider on network leadership:

  1. The network leader must see its role as facilitatory to be able to work their ideas into the network, searching for kindred spirits who want to share their pursuit.
  2. Networks do not require personal relationships between all members but a central issue is the coordination of the network leader. The leader or the leading organization must have good ‘chemistry’ with the members.
  3. It is common to have a formal agreement on the conditions of the relationship.
  4. Network leadership, as compared to traditional organizational leadership, tends to be more value-based than control-based. Trust becomes the central tenet to take advantage of the flexibility and agility afforded by networks.

There are several other factors that influence network management. Culture is one such factor. Some cultures are more collaborative-oriented while others may lay claim to fierce individualism. It is important to understand such external influences and appreciate how to align them harmoniously for the benefit of the network.

Norms and accountabilityEdit

The mentioned strategy of leadership rotation as well as the desired balance between centralized and general decision making are examples of certain norms and defined processes a network must arrive at to achieve effective network management.

Norms cover a broad range of organizational concerns that may include:

  • Membership eligibility, types, and responsibilities
  • Codes of conduct
  • Delineated roles and functions of network components, officers, staff, etc.
  • Internal network coordination
  • Monitoring and evaluation methodologies and related tasks
  • Selection of officers,tenures and rules of succession
  • Decision-making procedures
  • Disciplinary/conflict resolution procedures
  • Merit recognition
  • External relations

There may be other areas where norms and processes may be developed for an effective governance system.

It is vital that norms and processes be developed after consultation with members. The diverse membership of a telecentre network requires that certain social, cultural, religious, and political sensitivities be considered carefully in the crafting of norms and procedures so as to avoid the obvious pitfalls. What may be acceptable or tolerable to one group may be offensive and insulting to another.

While the developing rules and procedures require consultation, the formalization of these rules may be the task of a special group formed for the purpose. Call it a charter, rules and guidelines, or a code of conduct: an explicit statement of these norms and processes may prove invaluable to a network's effective management.

Financial and other enabling resourcesEdit

A telecentre network can determine its structure, formulate its objectives, craft a common vision and even enjoy an outstanding leadership. But it can dissipate fairly quickly if the appropriate enabling factors are not set in place. Key amongst these factors are financial resources, support human resources, technology, facilities and access to expert knowledge in areas of network concern.

The chapter on Financial Sustainability treats in some detail the challenges of ensuring necessary monetary resources and some of the means to get them. In this section we simply highlight some aspects of governance that are intimately related to financial resources.

The network start-up effort where members with the means and the most to contribute assumed temporary leadership to get things off the ground is often a curtain-raiser to the realization that once the network gets underway, that interim arrangement will cease. Telecentre network managers then have to identify resources from external sources and/or from their own members, weighting the realistic possibilities that each option presents.

The second (internal) option is directly within the control of the network and can be activated from the start. It will entail some rules regarding member financial contributions resulting in formal commitments binding on all concerned. But the first option of external resource generation will probably demand much more attention from a telecentre network manager.

Often, the chronic scarcity of resources steers a network to prioritize a culture of collective volunteerism in network management. The network is not a revenue-generating business enterprise that can support a salaried management team. But it needs to find a common basket of support sources, as the Financial Sustainability chapter discusses.

As a telecentre network matures, it often moves towards more stable management schemes: professionalized, salaried and specialized. Business models will include a combination of sourcing. Institutional agreements may be reached with government entities, such as in government-led national telecentre or information society programs, covering management and operational costs of the network. Funding special projects from external sources may enable the recruitment of certain specialists or support staff to ensure success of the projects. Members may pay membership fees and a subsidy for some of the services provided by the telecentre network (e.g. technical service). Telecentre networks may offer services to outside organizations (evaluations, research, and so on) that could also help it to mobilize resources.

Finally, it should be pointed out that for many telecentre networks, especially those whose members are either struggling to generate a positive revenue stream from services to sustain operations or whose operations seem to have stalled due to resource scarcity, membership in the network may carry the hope that additional opportunities will arise to find new answers to their needs.

Why do some networks fail?Edit

In this guidebook we are examining a plethora of factors related to managing telecentre networks that can help a network succeed. Some of them are in the realm of TCN managers – those ‘popular’ individuals are fully dedicated to the success of their networks. Many are applicable to the member telecentres.

But learning often comes from failures, and it would be wise, or simply realistic, to acknowledge that much of what is covered in the guidebook comes from the arduous road travelled by the telecentre movement worldwide and which caused many telecentres to close over the last two decades. This, together with issues inherent to networked modes of organization, can help us reflect on some of the main causes of telecentre network failure.

The following points are simply stated to make us think and to further the debate among telecentre networks:

Fading vision — When members of a network get over the first euphoric phase of networking and see that nothing much has changed and nothing new has taken place, the spirit of a network wanes and the exit of involvement and participation spells the end of a network.

Unequal interaction and benefits — some members get more out of the network than others. Some have difficulty sharing and interacting. Language problems, technology problems, resource problems, cultural and social barriers, or a combination of these may lead a number of members to conclude that the network may be suited only for a select few. Some members who are unable to establish an identity or find their place in the network may wander away and thereby weaken the network.

Poor leadership — when leadership fails to build trust and commitment, when it cannot be perceived as ethical and results-oriented, or when it fails to sustain the created culture of cooperation and sharing that is born with a network, the network withers.

Excessive control — if those tasked with coordinating or managing the network end up taking and imposing too many decisions, or if the power in the network is perceived to be too centralized or concentrated on a handful of nodes, the network will suffer in terms of shared commitment – and some members may quietly sit on the sidelines or simply step out.

Cliques and rivalry — another failure of network leadership involves the existence of dysfunctional cliques that undermine the essential spirit of the network. It worsens when leadership itself is perceived to belong to a clique. Rivalries that are allowed to flourish can sap the unity and cooperation within the organization. The sense of ‘betrayal’ that sets in is toxic for the network.

Resource famine —when a network is perceived by members as being unable to meet even the most basic of its functions due to inadequate resources it might be a good time to leave the sinking ship. If network leadership fails to show positive results for resource generation, and even the most basic network maintenance tasks falter, the network also fades away.

Network fatigue — It may occur when a members feel overwhelmed by the demands of the network (and this is a rather relative perception based on one’s own capacities) or from involvement in one network too many. When network fatigue sets in, members become silent spectators – without giving much of a clue about their relative withdrawal or inactivity. .

Inadequate monitoring — Sometimes an organization is run with little concrete information on what it is actually doing, or about how is it operating. In the case of a network, with its predominantly horizontal relationships, the absence of ‘traditional’ control by authority mechanisms make it even more important to base decisions on information and feedback. Telecentre network management should have a clear picture of what the needs of the members are (and some vision as well about the opportunities).

Case Study: The Philippine Community eCenter Network, Inc.www.philcecnet.phEdit

Sometimes, there's no stopping something once the ball is rolling. When the National Computer Center of the Commission on Information and Communications Technology of the Philippines initiated a series of Knowledge Exchange Conferences (KEC), bringing together all key players, operators, and managers of 755 telecentres in the Philippines in 2005, the momentum started for what would become the Philippine Community eCenter Network or PhilCeCNet. The network idea didn't come immediately. But it arrived soon afterwards – before 2006 had even ended.

As PhilCeCNet began to take shape, it did so systematically. It drew up a charter for the network and positioned itself as an implementing partner for the Philippine CeC Program and its mandate for responsive, efficient, valuable, and sustainable Community eCenters, a role highlighted in the CeC Roadmap for 2008-2010. It also helped establish the telecentre.org Philippine Community eCenter Academy (tPCA) as the network’s capacity building arm.

With members from eight different telecentre initiatives in the Philippines, PhilCeCNet’s general assembly, the highest policy body, was organized into nine sector clusters: National Government Agencies, Academia, NGOs, the Private Sector, Media, CeC Managers, CeC Users, Funding Agencies, and Local Government Units. Each of the sectors nominated three representatives to the Executive Council to represent each of the country's island groups – Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. The members at large then elected from among the nominees a sector representative to an Executive Council, which led by a Chairperson, implements the network’s initiatives.

Four committees corresponding to the four thrusts (or lines of work) of the national CEC program currently prepare work and implementation plans that are evaluated and approved by the Council. These Committees also draft revisions to any strategies formulated by the Executive Council and recommend options. Special committees on resource mobilization and membership development are also in place.

PhilCeCNet's administrative operations are handled by a National Secretariat. This Secretariat is led by an Executive Secretary who oversees day-to-day operations and carries out Council mandates. All CeC member concerns and affairs pass through this clearinghouse and are routed to the appropriate respondents for their information and action.

Secretariat staff keeps a close eye on PhilCeCNet's network hub website (www.philcecnet.ph) which is a beehive of sharing about CeCs: what they’re doing, what’s happening to them, and what’s coming up. People asking questions, others posting answers, information exchanges, and communication to network management mainly take place here. The website is a dynamic news board for all that concerns CeCs and was recently a semi-finalist for the Philippine Web Awards. This is the hub that actualizes the interaction-sharing aspect of the network vision.

PhilCeCNet made its debut on April 3, 2008 — and it is expected to play a vital role in realizing the Philippines’ national vision of “A Community eCenter in Every Municipality” by 2010.

Quick tips about Network GovernanceEdit

Network governance presents many challenges, especially when we consider that network organizations such as telecentre networks are not the same as traditional organizations in terms of structure, scope, culture or stability.

In light of what we have stated, the following tips emerge as brief reminders for telecentre network managers of priorities to keep in the back of their minds - and at the forefront of their actions!

  • Nourish the vision — the lifeblood and spirit of the network must always be visible, vibrant, and given life through progress-based results.
  • Strengthen the interaction — A sustained effort to build a culture of sharing and cooperation within a network shows that the network is true to its intentions and binds members to the roots of the organization. Dynamic interaction also sustains one of the basic pillars of the telecentre network: the exchange of knowledge, skills and experience.
  • Meet member needs with network objectives — When members see their own objectives reflected in the network’s objectives and when the advances in the network’s attainment of its objectives contribute to their own achievements, the commitment level is increased or remains high.
  • Organize well — Take time and focus closely on organizing the network well, tuning its structure to network objectives and member needs. This will make it easier to manage the network.
  • Transparent and responsive communications — Good network management requires good communications between management and members. Being informed clearly and in a timely manner provides a strong sense of inclusiveness, even if the information communicated is bad news!
  • Let leadership be true to participative management —While network leadership assumes a special operational and administrative role, its philosophy must remain true to the original democratic and volunteer spirit of sharing and interaction that gave birth to the network.
  • Put the essential systems in place — Policies, norms and processes, functions and responsibilities are vital to network management. They set standards, promote order, and prescribe the elements and codes of organizational culture.
  • Be sensitive to member values — Consideration of member values in implementing network management shows that the network cares about its members and generates invaluable premiums of mutual respect and appreciation. A network that shows its sensitivity reflects sincerity, engenders trust and builds commitment.
  • Reach out to partners — In sustaining the network through resources, thinking out of the box and discovering opportunities beyond network boundaries shows a network’s innovative spirit and resourcefulness. There is never a lack of possible partners with whom to travel the road. If the road leads the same way that the network is going, a fellow traveller can be welcome company, especially if both have something the other may find useful.