Working Through the Community
Barbara, great comments and insightful questions. I'm answering as one of the Morino Institute participants and would like to give you my take on two of the points you've raised.
In your email you wrote with respect to a community's capacity...... " 'Until this capacity is at least minimally in place...,' what do you mean here? Are we saying that current capacity needs to be addressed before we address the tech issues? Will we need to pump effort and resources into that problem first?"
We're posing that one of the ways a community's capacity can be reflected is by the strength of the intermediary organizations that serve the community. We are strongly suggesting that many investments would be better directed at helping to strengthen the organization's capacity -- its management, staff, etc., before implementing or adding complex technology. We do not mean that an organization should not take simple, essential steps, such as making sure that they have email access for instance. On the other hand, what we are suggesting does apply to decisions such as installing local area networks, implementing CTCs or learning centers, developing Web sites, and technology programs of significant cost and scale (relative to the organization).
We want to acknowledge there are times that the investment of technology itself can be a way to strengthen an organization's capacity, but seldom is this the case with regard to what I'd call the fundamentals -- clear vision, strong leadership, effective management, trained staff, etc. And, our experience to date, both in the nonprofit and business worlds, continues to reinforce the importance of organizational capacity to the successful deployment and application of technology.
Our position is meant to more honestly recognize the impediments that hold back the effective and appropriate application of technology for organizations and communities. Is there a more effective way we can express this point of view so that we don't appear to be saying that all capacity issues must be dealt with before any technology issues are addressed? Would using a metaphor like that of Maslov's Hierarchy better communicate that basic needs have to be met before we take on more complex issues?
In your email with regard to the enormity of the effort we have described, you write: "...It quickly makes me feel overwhelmed, that the problem is so massive that nothing but an all out effort and tremendous investment of resources will be acceptable. That again seems like a very high expectation from the start. Does this mean anything short of it is a failure? "
Your point on how we convey the enormity of the effort is one we ourselves debated. Do I believe the effort to be so Herculean -- yes I do. And it is probably even more severe than what we've communicated. Having a fundamental understanding of the cost and complexity of technology, its strengths and its risks, and having a rough sense, at a macro view, of the acute shortage of technical talent and the growing complexity and rapid rate of change of technology, all needs be part of the problem definition at the outset of Digital Divide discussions. Otherwise, our solutions will continue to be incremental and the outcome of materially improving the lives of those living in low-income communities will remain, fundamentally unchanged.
Your point, however, is excellent and valid. How can we accurately define the scope and enormity of the problem without overwhelming nonprofit leaders to a point of inaction? More to the point, how do we face this enormous challenge and still offer hope that it can be addressed?
Our fear is that until there is a more direct and honest confrontation of the magnitude of the problem we may never see the kind of support and attention given to low-income communities that the challenge deserves. This is why we suggest that the current momentum building around the Digital Divide and the global and political attention it is gaining, presents a window, a unique opportunity in time, to break this pattern.
To your point, however, we do not want to suggest that the efforts of so many are in vain for when it comes to people in low-income communities, every resource and action helps. But from a public policy and major resource provision perspective, we have to confront the enormity of this challenge or our collective efforts run a high risk of not leading to the change in lives these efforts should be about. Until efforts more directly confront this issue and more is done to debunk the "hype" that surrounds and blurs the promise technology does, in fact, offer people and organizations in low-income areas, we will not see the kind of resources and mindshare this challenge demands.
Thanks again for your insights. They are key points and in need of further discussion. I'd love to get your reactions to my comments. It would also be very helpful to hear more from many of you on the list who have strong positions and experience in these matters.