In 2001, Dgroups Foundation partners were firming up ideas for a new ‘dgroups’ collaboration to extend online communication, collaboration and dialogue opportunities in the development and humanitarian spaces.  Inspired by the then ‘egroups’ platform, in early 2002 we set up a platform to reinforce online collaboration by providing accessible, affordable and open virtual email-based workspaces for groups and organizations. It was a game-changer for many organizations and groups as they moved online.

Twenty years on in October 2021, the Dgroups Foundation convened an online partnership dialogue to look back and forwards, exploring how online collaboration in the development sector might evolve and actions we can take to prepare for the changes. The starting points were four critical areas for effective online interaction that we identified in 2020: (a) enhanced online participation and inclusion; (b) effective online communities; (c) appropriate online collaboration platforms and tools; and (d) sustained online engagement over time.

The October 2021 virtual meeting took these four critical online engagement factors and mapped them to three common contexts where they tend to be applied.

Before participants formed groups to share insights, discuss trends and identify future actions, we opened with a reflective chat show with Dgroups users and an interview with Nancy White. Following the group session, several participants joined a fishbowl exercise to synthesize some key insights from the event.

In a warm-up, participants shared the issues that were upmost on their collaborative minds, including: too many tools, do we need to rationalize them? cross-institutional opportunities and challenges; people coming together and connecting – more open spaces for knowledge sharing; the potential for linking up with everyone’s work and overlaps of interest; how to strengthen virtual communities of practice; collaborating in a world where divides seem to be increasing; is email too old fashioned? ways to build, trust, co-create, learn, network, dialogue; strategic decision-making on the right platform and the right setting; safety and inclusion issues; how online communities interact with  ‘real’ worlds; the decolonisation of knowledge and creating more space for Southern voices in global policy; post-pandemic working online; bringing very diverse groups together; communities.

They also identified an initial list of disruptive or constructive changes they see arriving by 2030. These included: Wide digital literacy … but scattered and polarized; information and old collaborations disappearing or not findable; more national control on information sharing channels and more monetization of data; augmented reality; artificial intelligence (positive and negative impacts?); info terrorism; moving away from face to face meetings as a response to the climate crisis; multi-lingual mobile platforms, contextualised spaces; cyber-attacks; more efficient work and quite constructive, but we need to maintain hybrid ways of collaboration; younger generations becoming leaders in collaboration and online dialogue; new generations of digital users determining what tools and interaction will look like; hybrid collaboration; smaller devices with high capabilities to connect us.

Online collaboration trends

The core of the meeting was a group exercise where participants looked at emerging future trends they observe around online collaboration. Based on these, the groups identified potential priority actions that we can take to prepare for or even influence what’s coming. Each group looked at one of the vertical or horizontal dimensions of our matrix, sharing insights, predictions and recommendations. The image below gives a simplified picture of the trends identified across all the groups.

What can we look forward to? The first answer is ‘more’ – more demand for online interaction, networking, collaboration and virtual events.  This will most likely complement trends accelerated by the COVID19 pandemic that caused a migration to online platforms across the world.  Even as face to face opportunities return, we expect many events to retain an online or hybrid element. Luckily, this trend will be matched by continuing improvements in internet connectivity and the spread of smart phones and other communication devices. Within organizations, much more intense online interaction will be through internal platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Yammer, Slack and so on where staff will become more digitally literate as they join and run online activities. Beyond these organizational environments, we expect to see a continuing growth in tools and platforms for every situation with some taking off and others keeping their niche markets or disappearing.

Alongside this shift to online, participants expect boundaries between work and life to blur, with online engagement likely to be full on, all the time, anywhere. A major trend is the expectation that this extra online demand will overload people, competing for time, diluting attention, and putting a premium on really essential and effective opportunities where participation pays off. With online no longer a novelty and attention diminished, it will be increasingly difficult to attract and sustain participation in events and online communities. But, people or communities that can offer a better or richer engagement do expect to counter this trend.

While generally concluding that we – the knowledge and collaboration community – need to improve our game, participants anticipate a boom in opportunities – technical and professional – that will open up new horizons (virtual, voice-based), help us cross boundaries of language, culture and distance, and drive enhanced abilities to deliver effective online interactions. Also on the positive side, participants expect that barriers to participation and the ways we exclude certain people will be properly recognized and translated into guidelines and practices for more inclusive online interactions. Nonetheless, many of the groups identified continuing challenges in the future to fully include and value the voices and experiences of women and youth, and to overcome barriers of poor internet access and language. Changing power imbalances is seen as a key part of this. There is also a sense that the coming generations will communicate differently, as digital natives, and explicitly tapping insights and energy of youth is critical.

In summary – there will be many more – and better – opportunities to engage, interact and collaborate online. We know this needs to be more inclusive and we will find ways to make it happen. We will need to up our game to attract and keep the attention and active participation of people in a market overloaded by online events, workshops and platforms. We will also need to continually enhance our facilitation and ‘participation’ skills to overcome continuing inclusion challenges.

Actions for future online collaboration

Alongside the discussions on future trends, the groups identified priority actions that could be taken to enhance online events, collaboration and interaction. The image below gives a simplified picture of the action areas identified across all the groups.

Facing a complex set of trends, what can we do?

A recurring action across all the groups is the need for online activities to be better adapted and adjusted to target audiences. This includes planning for people with low bandwidth, planning around platforms with firewalls or heavy bandwidth requirements, planning for time zones, including people who could not attend a meeting, mixing immediate and asynchronous interaction options, including the full range of devices that people may use, exploring how platforms like WhatsApp can be part of the mix, and reaching across different age groups.

Knowing and adjusting to audiences is closely linked to the other recurring action to maximise participation in online groups, communities or events. Groups talked about the importance of good process design, preparation and facilitation, more democratic participation at different levels of a community, involving more people in the running of an online activity, providing incentives to contribute, keeping discussions and interactions focused and relevant to the agreed goal, distil out what’s really important, ensure that past discussions are retained and can be drawn from, and winning trust. Targeted social media around online activities serves to extend reach and reinforce communication.

Overcoming exclusion is a key part of a strategy to maximise participation. Participants suggest that more diverse voices must be brought to the centre of plans and actions (and currently dominant ones have to make space for these), youth in particular need to be meaningfully involved, and good practice needs to be documented and applied. As hybrid working spreads, we need to ensure that ‘virtual’ workers are not left out of decisions made face to face.

The group that focused on inclusion suggested that inclusion means: Southern knowledge, different types of knowledge, de-centering academic knowledge as THE knowledge, local knowledge, creating spaces where different types of knowledge act as equals. Being inclusive means creating spaces for different and diverse types of knowledge and people to interact and collaborate, leading to better performance. Inclusion is required within online engagements, to overcome connectivity issues, as well as differences in devices, language, literacy and identity that hold people back from participation.

Alongside diverse voices, using diverse tools, platforms and approaches is recommended as part of efforts to enhance and open up diverse modes of participation. There’s a strong call to build on what already exists, to avoid duplication and to work through existing communities and collaborations as far as possible. Collaboration is something we need to practice as well as facilitating it for others.

Finally, while diversity and inclusion came up repeatedly as key principles, participants called for actions to make sure our online spaces are ‘safe’, to guard against ‘fake’ news, and for us to increase our understanding and literacy around polarization and how to overcome it

Reflecting on the group discussions, participants highlighted some key points, including: While the principles are the same, the tools are different; we need to make sure we get young people on board; it is important to tackle inclusion and break barriers; email is outdated; always question assumptions and ask the participation questions before engagement; we tend to spend more time catching up than preparing for the future; communities need to have purpose and be effectively managed; the post-activity is as important as the activity itself; there are important differences between Communities of Practice and Networks; people can adapt easily to new online context if someone takes time to involve them;  with so many online workshop tools available, organizations need to select and embrace the right ones; online can be non-inclusive due to language; hybrid processes – like hybrid crops – have more vigour and are more productive.

The final fishbowl exercise stimulated some further reflections, including: we face major issues overcoming language barriers; early in the pandemic felt perhaps warmer as people experimented and discovered, now, we just rush between events; purely virtual relationships also work super great; how do we overcome events beyond our control, such as an internet provider going offline during an online meeting? I am not too worried about misinformation but more about polarization; with so many virtual events can we differentiate between those that really matter, and single them out from a process perspective? I think we could also stress a bit more and enhance capacity on Information Literacy; we are balancing between becoming echo-chambers and fighting info-terrorism/ misleading information; how do we keep moving forward even when the spaces are not truly safe (which is a huge and challenging aspiration) – are there ways we can be a greater force for good; or guiding people to the better spaces? intergenerational dialogue and learning is critical to foster.

All in all, it was another hugely interesting discussion. We were able to build out from what we discussed in 2020, deepening some insights and ideas. The whole exclusion/inclusion agenda seems more and more central and it is not just about how we include people with low bandwidth, across languages or genders and generations, but how dialogue can conitune to be diverse without polarizing and leading to even more exclusion. I look forward to picking up some of the ideas in 2022.

Our great appreciation to all the participants and also the various chat show, fishbowl and group facilitators and discussants.