The Organizational Digital Divide

ChasmAn emerging breed of collaboration tools, born and incubated in the free software world, is radically improving the ways that people work together. These aren’t just toys for techies anymore. Just as the word processor became an essential tool for every writer to master, the network is the new medium that advocates and activists need to embrace in order to be effective.

Organizations who fail to recognize this opportunity will waste valuable resources wrestling with the torrents of information they are responsible for managing. How many groups continue to collaborate on press releases or grant proposals by sending around multiple versions of word documents? How many organizations share a single email account to manage constituent relations and their common contact information? How many emails must be exchanged for a small group of people to schedule a meeting?

The “writeable web” has spawned a new generation of networked, web-based authoring environments that can significantly increase an organization’s ability to realize its goals. These environments are not a panacea – at best, they will catalyze and facilitate an improvement in communication and processes. While technology alone will not guarantee a change in a group’s culture, it can play an instrumental role raising the self-awareness around an organization’s processes, and in turn, help improve them.

These alternatives have the potential to help fulfill some of the Internet’s early promise by significantly improving the efficiency and productivity of non-profits, NGO’s and activist groups alike. Such tools can dramatically improve the management of knowledge, communities, and projects, and enable coordination and collaboration across thousands of participants. They are rapidly being adopted by corporations eager to move beyond the e?mail inbox as the primary task management and collaboration platform. Organizations of all shapes and sizes need to evaluate and embrace these technologies, or risk falling behind in differential efficiency, victims of an organizational digital divide.

A simple mailing list combined with a wiki can thoroughly transform workflow and hierarchy within an organization. But this is just the start. Project management tools, collaboration platforms, and content management systems are transforming the functionality of intranets. By better balancing flows of communication and power, these collaboration tookits can boost an organization’s productivity, and increase the return on a philanthropic investment. With the proper tuning and
training , web-based collaboration tools can help an organization achieve important strategic objectives such as transparency, accountability, and sustainability.

Like the telegraph and the railroad in their time, the Internet has been heralded as the promoter of equality, freedom, and democracy. And like the technologies that preceded it, its impact will ultimately derive from the ways we choose to use it. We need to be more deliberate in our choices of communication technologies, since these tools shape the dynamics of the connections between us. Software has gone social, but it’s not just for socializing. There is important and hard work to be accomplished and we need to be using technology intelligently so that we
can communicate and act more purposefully and efficiently.
[I originally wrote this piece for an op-ed assignment in a class on Media and Rights in Development]

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