This case study describes why RWSN has chosen to use Dgroups as their main tool for communicating with partners and clients all over the world. It explains how they’ve been using Dgroups and what results it helped the network achieve. Finally, it presents the key lessons learned by RWSN on what makes an active group, and how to sustain conversation and exchanges in online communities.

The case study is based on an interview between Dgroups Board members Saskia Harmsen and Sean Furey (RWSN).

Download the case study (pdf)

Watch the interview here and read the full interview transcript below.

Full interview transcript

Saskia Harmsen (SH): How did you learn about Dgroups and maybe a little bit about your work and how you came to learn about Dgroups in relation to your work?

Sean Furey (SF): I joint Skat which is a consultancy based in St. Gallen in Switzerland in 2011. And I was hired specifically to help with the Rural Water Supply Network, which is a global network of practitioners working in rural water supply, helping to take the network to the next level. The network really had just been an email list with a whole list of email addresses on a spreadsheet and every time we tried to send out a newsletter or communication it would crash our e-mail service. So it was a deeply unsatisfactory situation. But my colleague Bertha Camacho is a knowledge management specialist and she’d been using Dgroups I think for various knowledge management groups such as KM4Dev and at SDC; I think Helvetas had been using it. So through her connections and her use of the platform she said “Well, you know, this this would be great for RWSN as a networking tool, why don’t you give it a go.” So that it was really for her recommendation that we had a go with Dgroups, it fitted the bill for what we needed.

SH: Did you start using it in 2011 immediately or after?

SG: We did some test in 2011 for me particularly just to get a feel for how it works. And then it was at the beginning of 2012 when we really launched it as our main online networking tool. So that our digital strategy as it was then was that we’d have the RWSN website which was being rebuilt at the time. And we’d looked at similar networks such as Susana which is the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance and the route they got is that they developed a website and they put a bulletin board within that website that built that functionality. We didn’t go down that route. We thought it would be better to use Dgroups. The traction of Dgroups was that a number of people would be using it already. We wouldn’t have to attract people to basically have a new log in and all the rest of it. It was an existing platform. It was independent. And it was low bandwidth. So it was really in 2012 that we migrated the spreadsheet database, we sent the invite to everyone in our old database to joint Dgroups. And that had the advantage as well that people were then actively signing up. So of the like three thousand email addresses, twelve hundred people signed up. So we knew that we had twelve hundred active members so that was very useful.

SH: And you mentioned having looked at sister platforms and networks to see what they were using. Did you look at other solutions for similar functionalities for what you needed? And why did you end up going for Dgroups?

SF: Well there were sort of free email groups or listservs. There were some social media platforms, you know Facebook or Linkedin, but none of them were really that good for what we thought we wanted as both a membership database and a flexible discussion platform where we could have structured discussions as well as mutual support groups for question/answers. So we have members who post questions such as “I’m in Ethiopia, where can I find decent quality PVC piping.” There’s all sort of technical questions and then people from within the group would then be able to respond. And because we’re a practitioner network people who are working in the field doing stuff, it’s really important that the platform is as low threshold as possible. So no advertising, no commercial kind of overheads, just the message. That was the real attraction of Dgroups.

SH: Just for my understanding do you have a number of groups running in parallel or you have a mother group for example with a number of subgroups?

SF: The way we structure it is that we have the overall RWNS community under Dgroups, which now has a I think up 8200 members. And we use that top level group to send a quarterly newsletter and for major announcements. We don’t allow any discussion because with a group that size it would just annoy people. So that top level group is strictly controlled.

We have then five thematic discussion groups based on our strategic topics that we have within the network and within those we have a number of subtopics. So we have discussion groups around those. And those are coordinated by the theme coordinators in our partner organizations, such as WaterAid and IRC.

And then other groups are just grown organically depending on where the interest is. So groups on solar water pumping or on rain water harvesting. We’ve had some groups that have emerged organically from particular geographical areas so for example in Rwanda we’ve got a very active water and sanitation group there, just for people within the country. That flexibility has been really helpful and also the ability to structure it so that for example if you’re a member of the solar pumping group that’s within the larger groundwater group, you are a member that sub community but you also a member of the higher level group and that means you could have been involved in the broader level discussions but when there’s something particularly niche, people who are just interested in that topic can take part in that.

SH: You mentioned that the thematic groups are coordinated by people within your partner organizations, like WaterAid and IRC. I was just wondering, since you are in a network, your partners probably have to agree to using a particular solution. Were people already familiar with Dgroups and was it easy or did you have to advocate for Dgroups? How did that work out?

SF: I think it was it was a pretty easy sell because people saw the simplicity of the interface of the website and also the fact that it can be used purely by email. So you don’t even need to go to the website to use it, either as a user or as a moderator. That’s powerful. We just did some basic training with our partners in different organizations. And it’s kind of run itself. Then if people have particular queries or concerns or if they want a particular feature or come across a particular bug, that then let me know and I pass it on.

SH: I’m wondering if there’s a particular story or an anecdote or something that you could share about a time when you felt like using Dgroups platform, or the solution or even the Partnership on a wider level, really made a difference in the Rural Supply Network’s work. Anything that comes to mind? How has Dgroups at some points contributed significantly to your work?

SF: Well I think a great example actually is where we engaged with the then UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to water Catarina de Albuquerque. She was developing a handbook on human rights to really engage with practitioners and people doing stuff on the ground about what the human rights water meant and what sort of guidance they needed it. So we ran a structured discussion in collaboration with Water Aid. That was then great for her to have this broader discussion with with people in about 60 different countries, in local government, in community organizations, in NGOs, in the private sector who would raise challenging questions or just ask for clarifications for such this big, global, quite important but still quite nebulous concept; what does that mean on a day to day level? And then we were able to bring a lot of those issues out that we then presented to her again in a webinar so that she was able to respond to some of those issues to a broader audience. And then the transcript of that webinar turned into a publication. So we were able to use the all these different forms of communication and it was a truly two way communication as well which was incredibly helpful for Catarina but it was also really valuable for our network members as well.

SH: How long was this structured e-discussion?

SF: I think that was three weeks. Typically we run them between three to four weeks.

SH: And how many people participated?

SF: In that one probably around 150 I think. We’ve run a number of e-discussions on the Dgroups platform on groundwater, on sustainable services, on a whole range of different topics. Typically between 50 and 250 people get involved. What’s nice about the Dgroups platform for e-discussions is that people take a lot of time and effort to input in the discussions. If it’s something like Twitter or social media sometimes the inputs can be very superficial whereas we got really substantial always meet the essays. Particularly we had a recent on the role of local government in rural water supply and we had some fantastic contributions from Ukraine to Cambodia from Honduras from all these different countries, really explaining how the situation works in their context, what frustrations are, what the opportunities are. That was really rich discussion.

SH: And how does SKAT see this? Because of course you work for one of the programme it runs. How does SKAT see your work with Dgroups? Is it valuable to the organization itself?

SF: Yes I think to broader what we do, we’re also involved in other non RWSN Dgroups such as KM4Dev- Knowledge Management for Development; also in the SDC internal water network. So it’s very useful tool for us to communicate with our partners. It’s probably the main tool that we use as an organization for communicating with all our partners and clients all over the world. It’s very important to us.

SH: There are other aspects of course in Dgroups, besides the platform and the solution. But there’s also a partnership and a kind of an ethos or a vision that the Dgroups community has. How does that align or is that of any meaning to you at SKAT or for RWSN.

SF: Definitely. SKAT is very much a knowledge driven organization, it’s what it was set up for in 1970’s. It’s very much about learning and interaction two way exchange. Dgroups is a fantastic platform for doing that and it really helps that the ethos of the organization behind it is very much around that, that it’s not just some top down transmission tool for PR purposes but it is a truly leveled playing field where it doesn’t matter if you’re a government minister or working or just a private individual. You can still chip in and interact, that’s great. It’s really useful.

SH: And that really aligns with SKAT’s vision or ethos it sounds like.

SF: Yeah definitely. Very much so.

SH: Are there any insights that you generated about using a platform or using Dgroups platform or maybe more communities of practices in general for the type of work you do. Anything that may be useful for other practitioners?

SF: I think what we’ve learned is what makes an active group. Because we’ve got a lot of groups and some of them are really active, some of them aren’t active at all, and some go through cycles of being super active with a huge amount of traffic and then they’ll maybe for a couple weeks, maybe even a couple of months just die off, nothing happens. And then someone will post a question or an idea or something and it will just spark this huge debate. I think a lot of it has to do with having a critical mass within the community, which seems to be in the order of 500+ so that you have you have enough people who sort of lurk and listen. Actually you don’t really hear from those much but what you meet them face to face events they go: “Wow that was really interesting! I’m always opening these emails and they are really really great.” But you never get feedback from them online. So just because people don’t respond doesn’t mean to say that they’re not taking value from it. Then you have the people that maybe contribute once in a while if there’s something they’re particularly interested in or they feel they have an expertise or have experience and the chip in. And then it’s important to have a core of maybe 10/20 people or maybe even as few as 5 who will respond to anything. I mean maybe they won’t always say the most sensible things but they’re valuable because they will maybe say something provocative that will then bring other people into the discussions. So I think you need a good mix. Some of our communities particularly the groundwater communities is very active. I think because in that particular topic there’s a huge depth of experience so we’ve got a number of practitioners who are on the edge or past retirement age who have a huge amount of knowledge from what they were doing, all sorts of drilling programs back in the 60s and 70s and 80s. It’s been a really valuable inter-generational exchange of them being able to pass their hard won knowledge to sort of younger engineers. In other communities where the topics are a lot newer and there isn’t that depth of expertise- say particularly some of the human rights things or around ICT- there isn’t that depth yet. So it’s sometimes harder to maintain that level of engagement. Finally I think one important thing to recognize is that a lot of online engagement is most useful after face to face discussions, it’s not a complete replacement for face to face meetings. Once people have met face to face and they come to know each other, they trust each other a bit more then that could lead to online exchange which gets to a bit more depth.

SH: I was wondering have you seen any differences between for example global groups where you discuss particular topics or where you allow for questions and answers to come, as compared to country based groups or country focus groups. What is important and what contributes to successful exchanges?

SH: The only really active group is Rwanda and I think that’s quite a small group of people that know each other quite well and meet face to face on a regular basis and so this is just a kind of added value to that process of meeting in and exchanging, in what is quite a small country anyway. It would be nice to have more regional exchanges, particularly say let’s Latin America or Southeast Asia, but that hasn’t really taken off yet. There is the issue of language of course. We try to do as much in English and French as possible, increasing we’re doing things in Spanish as well but. It’s never easy.

SH: I was wondering if we could think ahead, maybe into the future a little bit. Of course we want to remain relevant as a platform- and we have been since the launch in 2002. What I was thinking, Dgroups has a vision- you talked about that in relation to SKAT’s vision- where everyone is able to contribute to dialogue and decision making in international development and social justice. So if we were to think ahead you know about seven years or something, actually I think that is true, we have a long way to go, but I think that it’s true that everybody is making a contribution, that everybody is participating in dialogue and has a role to play in expressing themselves and being heard in international development and social justice. What do you think or how do you see in this vision, how do you see Dgroups contributing to that, making such a future possible?

SF: I think there is a risk that the digital divide will get bigger between those who have easy, cheap or free access to the internet and those that don’t or have a very unreliable or expensive access. So I think Dgroups has an active role to play in trying to bridge that gap. I think particularly those who have access to very high speed Internet connections, to the latest smartphone technologies or whatever. There’s always the there’s always an assumption that I think goes into a lot software development, that you have the latest kit, that you have bandwidth connection. And I think some countries are making that leap frog to the next generation of communications technology but an awful lot aren’t and we need to be mindful of those who might not be able to use communications platform. Being able to communicate through e-mail, although it’s seen as increasingly so antiquated, I think it will continue to be an important exchange mechanism. I think the challenge that we have over the next seven years and it’s already happening now, it’s just the firehose of information that we’re getting from different sources, there’s just so much being generated, shared all the rest of it. It’s becoming very difficult to really find out what’s the good stuff, what’s the high quality information. And with all the different options available if people want to have a voice, where’s the best place to do that, so it’s actually going lead to the outcomes that they want to see.

SH: And linking that back to the Rural Water Supply Network’s work, how do you envision making sure that people will know to go to your content, to your communities, for good quality content? If there are similar networks on Facebook or Linkedin or people exchanging and talking everywhere, how do you envision that in RWSN’s future you’ll be able to provide that kind of content and value?

SF: Increasingly we’re coming into this term knowledge broker, the human element so that things aren’t just driven by algorithms but there’s still people that are able to sift through the information and understand it and digest it and be able to link people together with each other. But also link people with the information that is likely to be most relevant to them. And I think that’s going to be an increasingly important role for us as networkers and knowledge manages is not to completely hand everything over to the automatized networks. A lot of it still comes down to trust and it comes down to person to person human interactions as well so that we properly understand people’s different perspectives on what sort of things they need and what sort of things they can contribute as well. So that good ideas are championed to another level and that’s another role that we see ourselves as a network is that where there really good grassroots initiatives, to help those get documented and presented in a way that those agencies that are able to take those initiatives to scale, can go: “Ah! That’s really good. We understand that we can do something with that.” So I think that’s an important role that I don’t see diminishing any time soon.

SH: And how do you see your use of the Dgroups platform contributing to that into the future? You know in the next five or seven years.

SF: Well I think other ways of communicating will come up. I mean, right now we use webinars a lot and that’s working really well for us. That hasn’t replaced Dgroups, it’s very much complementary. In five years, who knows, we’ll probably have moved on from a webinar format onto something else. But I think Dgroups will clearly continue to need to evolve but I think that at same time it’s got a very clear, basic kind of role and I think it will continue to do that.

SH: You mentioned Dgroups will have to continue to evolve. I’d be interested in understanding more what you think, where it needs to evolve to. But also to understand from your perspective or SKAT perspective, what perhaps Dgroups as a partnership or as community might want to maintain or further develop for you as an organization to keep benefitting from it, to keep engaged as a partner in the Dgroups partnership.

SF: You know it’s not easy to look into the future! I think one of the biggest barriers that we see is around language– and that is an area where I think technology is progressing quite rapidly in terms of translation, being able to translate. As I said we try to do things in English and French. But there are so many different language. And when we’re engaging with people in Central Asian, they’re using Russian you know. There are also opportunities I think. If these technologies developed that people can use more localized indigenous languages as well to communicate and to have their voices heard, that would be fantastic. In the past where I’ve worked in Central America, in Guatemala you find that in a lot of places only the men speak Spanish and the women speak the local language. Maybe in the future they will have to the opportunity to communicate and have that translated into English, French or whatever- and that will just open up a whole new world of potential directions.

As we’re seeing at the moment with apps like, you know AirB&B and Uber and things like that, they’re redefining how those particular sectors of the economy are working. And for better or worse. I mean there’s huge, huge debate of some of these issues. I think in the space where we’re working in, we don’t know yet, we don’t know what sort of disruptive changes are likely to happen. It may be a lot around the accountability of how development and aid works at the moment- which has a lot of problems and could have a lot of improvement, particularly in terms of who is accountable, to whom and for what. Right now the users or- to use a terrible term- beneficiaries, which is not very helpful; but you know they are also the people that don’t have much say on the aid they receive. Do they need it? I think we’re working in a sector that is ripe for disruption and it’s just a case of how is that going to happen, how will that manifest?

SH: I was just thinking while you were talking how in my experience Dgroups relates to that a little bit- all the networks that we had set up and they’re still continuing today, a lot of times those users or the people that are doing the grassroots projects are the ones that through being active and voicing their concerns, have taken a much more prominent role, have gained a much more visible local voice than they had initially. So I’m thinking also in terms of, you know, people being assigned roles simply on the basis of seniority or on the basis of, you know, old boys network or whatever systems may be in place, versus other people becoming more and more visible have right to speak, have relevant experience. And these networks I think are also contributing to the fact that people will no longer be silent about important decisions going to people who are never speaking out on networks, who are not visible, who do not have a role in bringing people together, a role in forming opinions, a role in listening, whatever it might be. And still getting the positions that are important positions on a national level- internationally I can’t say so much. And more clarity on who deserves a leadership role and who doesn’t.

Those are all the questions that I had for you. Is there anything else that you want to talk about your work with Dgroups or SKAT’s involvement?

SF: I guess just one other example. I’ve talked about e-discussions and interactions which have been by us as a Secretariat or as theme coordinators around a particular topic. But sometimes it comes the other way – an interesting example of that is in the very specialized field of hand-pumps and rural water. Through the discussions and organic debate over the course of a year, one of the things that I did was I got all of those hundreds of e-mails and I produced a synthesis document. It’s a lot of work but it’s really valuable to take that time, sit down and spend a couple of days just reading through these emails extracting the ideas and information that’s come out through that organic debate. What came out was a really strong message around corrosion and iron in water. This is sort of an issue that’s kind of been known about by everyone of those who fit the background but this really brought everything into focus and we were able to say: “Right, this is a clear priority for this network.” There are organizations today that are going around particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and they’re drilling holes in the ground and they’re putting in iron pipes into corrosive groundwater, and those pipes are rusting in no time. No time at all of the pumps are failing. And that’s a scandal. I mean that is just ridiculous. I mean, such a waste of time and effort and frustrating the hope of the users because the users are left with something that they think is going to make their lives better and actually within a couple of months they’ve got orange water coming out of their pump and six months after that the pump’s broken. So this is something that clearly came up from our membership as a really high priority to tackle. I think that’s also a good illustration of how Dgroups is a powerful tool but as moderators and as facilitators we need to take the time to listen as well. And that’s not always easy.