Leadership Of Virtual Communities

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(Notes from an Open Session, held at IDLELO 5, Abuja Nigeria, 19th March 2012.)

Working with people we do not know, or see, only talk to them virtually. Nnenna, introduces her self and talks about nnenna.org, a privately run consultancy that has no office and yet maintains a full-blown services for its clients. Work happens in the Virtual Realm. Meeting and working virtually has the advantage of running the least administrative costs.

She is not alone, and as the group warms up to the discussion, we learn about a systems administrator, events manager and a systems administrator. Here are some experiences of virtual workers:

Evelyn Namara shares her experience as a virtual systems administrator, who worked on skype, dropbox and docs, while working with Tactical Technology Collectives (TTC) in Kampala, Uganda.

18.5 yrs as a University Librarian from Federal University of Nigeria, another gentleman is intent on merging virtual library with the manual physical library. He is convinced the ICT Sector does have the solution he needs…

UNESCO Abuja’s National Program Officer for Communications and Information – Oluseyi Soremekun is also eager to see if their information needs can be made Virtual. He contends that the power of information and its access to, by Nigerians is a great need and that ‘virtualization’ of work might have to be a solution.

Nnenna is challenging the group on how to coordinate life, using the example of FOSSFA, whose secretariat is hosted in Accra, Chair lives in Abidjan, Vice lives in Gambia, and Treasurer in Kampala.

Onyinye from Abuja runs an Events Management Business, and she relies and depends on phone calls, messages and emails, and very often does not meet actual people until service is delivered. Her concern is Service Delivery, results and productivity are important by deadline, not necessarily how you did the work, or if you were cooking at the same time.

Issues to ponder
As a Virtual Community leader or Employer, is your worker cheating on company time when they are online?  Especially since online, provides many a great opportunities for multi-tasking. Management Remotely, is about reporting progress in real-time, deliverables and deadlines are key, and as long as time lines are met, everything will be great.

Whereas  working remotely is possible, there is another concern about employee comfort. A novice who is comfortable in the remote environment, might be better than an expert who is in a discomforting environment, because they have to immigrate or change locations on conditions such as “based in Africa”

How about Quality? Quality that you cannot see…or can only see when they deliver it? How do you taste the food of a caterer you are hiring online?

There are still traditional business meetings that must take place. There still is a misconception when you say you are virtual – you are possibly a ghost!

Our Discussions
Networking and Trust have to go hand in hand. Virtual Workers have great profiles and personalities built online, and a quick search online, usually gives you an idea about who the person you intend to work with is. How do we build this trust? Level of Confidence can be gleened from little aspects of work, such as teams – is the person working alone, or do they have someone on hand to work with them?

People Trust people they know, and thats true for Online work. Its widely said that Dogs are not dogs online…
As potential employees, we have to devise means to help employers have confidence is us. Presence might be able to help, but also, be able to tell your potential online employer if you will really make it or not, and if not, what the options are.

If you are going to be based online, plan early to build a virtual profile of yourself that builds confidence and trust in the minds of future employers. When was the last time you googled yourself? What do you know about yourself that the world reads/writes out about you? Whereas you would get a benefit of the doubt, your tweets, facebook posts and blogs all build into the full picture about who you are…

Detailed information is also very important when working with online communities, and leading them. Do not plan to send 4 emails when you can send the information in one.

Virtual Business Licensing – Is this a way to get and set standards…? Is it happening in your country? Are there information and/or governance laws for people working online? Can you legally hire/fire someone via email?

Virtual Work must be approached cautiously, the concept of benefit of the doubt, should be qualified with the element of risk. How much risk are you willing to take? Professed expectation should be higher than the desired outcomes.

One of the problems of working virtually is Information authenticity! Language and Documentation need to be checked. How original is the CV that you are reading? How do you verify all the information that is on this person’s CV? When people claim to be ‘expert’ in certain areas? We need to ask potential employers for Virtual References? A Virtual Referee must also be credible.

Globally, ownership is shifting from ‘Cathedral’ to ‘Bazaar’ and Communities are now becoming an important stakeholder in everything that is happening. Its easier to hire someone who is fully sold into what we are doing. Even hiring virtually, aim to get individuals personally involved into what you are doing, so as to be able to get value added service from them.

If you are a newbie, get online, and find some credible virtually run businesses and take some notes from them. Remember to do the same for your Virtual employees. Learn the tools that make Virtual Work easy and fruitful. Learn how virtual collaboration works on documents and files etc.

Is the future of Virtual Working Communities “hubs”? I-hubs, M-Labs, and the like have sprang up in cities all over africa. Do they provide the solution? Are the costs low enough for everyone to easily get in?

Tools of the trade…
For now, we must appreciate that we cannot operate ENTIRELY online. Reliable internet connectivity remains a key factor and a problem. its paramount to any virtual work environment. Togo-based FOSSFA Community Empowerment Manager, Mawusee spends almost 300 USD to access a 512Kb connection, compared to 60 USD for Abidjan based FOSSFA Chair Nnenna. This discrepancy is not only expensive, but affects deliverables and results.

A virtual leader or employer needs to be prepared to learn the tools of the trade. Emphasis must be placed on accessibility and usability of the technology environments that your business will depend on.
Find innovating hiring ideas, so as to be able to hire absolutely the person you need. Test them the ‘morse code’ way.
Learn the business processes and find ways to beat them using the Virtual Tools and Technologies available.

Jobs out of  “Virtualization” –
Community Managers, Web PR, Online Support Centers, Internet Rehabs –