Procedural Framework for the Interoperability of Decentralized
Knowledge Management Processes
Based on a Diversity of Partners, Commitments and Competences
- / -
of a proposal for submission in response to the EU Fifth Framework Telework
The Union of International Associations (UIA) is a Brussels-based research institute, competent in the handling, management and dissemination of information relating to international associative activity. The UIA has a strong history of research and development in informatics. It had one of the first Novell LANs in Belgium, received a UK HMSO Bicentennary Award for the most innovative application of computers to electronic publishing (1986), and has more recently attained a leading edge position in the development and application of electronic communications for the benefit of the international community. In its role as an SME, it employs around 20 people and functions both a publishing house and a research institute. It is specifically interested in developing new modes of teleuser/teleworker activity that expand collaborative opportunities to geographically distant and/or groups excluded for various reasons from coherent work settings.
Other partners (half a para each that build on above)
This proposal builds on the extensive expertise of the UIA in database maintenance and design, both in intranet and web variants (static and dynamic). It further seeks to develop its experience in teleworking between three distant locations (London, Leuven and Adelaide) and Brussels. This experience has been gained within several multi-partner project frameworks, notably the DG-XIII INFO2000 project Information Context for Biodiversity Conservation (Jan 1997 -- Dec 1999) and commercial publishing projects with K.G. Saur Verlag, Munich. Work described in this proposal would also be supportive of a new project, accepted by the infoDev programme of the World Bank for funding in the near future. That focuses on innovative approaches for interfacing electronic communication modalities in a developing country context, where connectivity, ability to pay and infrastructure are constraining.
For the UIA as project coordinator, the prime concern of this telework proposal is to develop the template provided by it's existing software facilities and editorial practices as a means of interacting with a growing network of distant editorial and user partners of different categories and competencies. The motivation is to seek practical ways of involving editorial and research partners, notably in economically-challenged and rural areas, developing countries and other regions (such as Eastern Europe) as part of a self-organizing knowledge-base network. This form of telework goes beyond the simpler models of packaged, prescribed and self-contained tasks, with bilateral communication between a remote "tele-agent" and a central "tele-agency". It seeks to develop a distributed editorial team, which participates in the management and evolution of knowledge bases, and is fully capable of interacting with others in the network (outside of central switching) and works flexibly and responsively within a framework of guidelines (rather than fixed rules).
The other project partners are confronted by a related challenge of working electronically with distant collaborators in challenging socio-economic circumstances. In the case of REC, the challenges are those characteristic of the transitional economies of Eastern Europe. In the case of European network Barataria, the preoccupation is with the rural development of telework in response to the the circumstances of the economically marginalized regions of Europe (initially in Highland Scotland for later extension to network partners in Ireland, Holland and Spain). For both, there are also challenges of geographic scope across several countries, with transboundary issues concerning telecommunications infrastructure and language.
The research challenge
The key issues for investigation are seen to be:
1. Editorial decentralization: Determining how best to decentralize different levels of editorial work on complex databases, namely in order of increasing complexity:
- Simple data entry and correction
- Supervision of the entry process by more experienced personnel (and the number of supervisory layers that are necessary or desirable)
- Dialogue between distant editorial peers on specific definitional, substantive and stylistic issues
- Conceptual management of editorial policies and their implications for large sets of data (on which batch editing may need to be conducted from a distance)
2. Quality management issues: Integrating contributors of different motivations and competencies, namely:
- Casual or tentative contributors whose level of expertise, suitability and commitment can only be determined through testing over a period of time
- Contributors with considerable editorial experience but unfamiliar with such a decentralized mode of work and potentially capable of both much-valued contributions and abusing the opportunities it offers
- Contributors for whom English is a second language
- Contributors who may be challenged by editorial constraints, or who may require special corrective and control measures
- Contributors whose interest may only be effectively sustained through a level of dialogue incompatible with the availability of those with whom they wish to dialogue
3. Infrastructure management: Decentralized management of:
- Evolving software (16-bit, to 32-bit, to Java-based) on changing platforms (Windows to Linux) with evolving servers (NT to Linux)
- Site mirroring and domains
- Security related issues, notably hackers and virus attacks
4. Reward and remuneration procedures: Their reconciliation (both in practice and in perception) so as to sustain rather than undermine enthusiasm of a variety of collaborators with different motivations, namely issues such as:
- Market rate payments across currencies
- Appropriate payments to non-industrialized regions and countries
- Voluntary contributions
- Rewarding contributors from institutionalized environments (eg students, prisoners, convalescents, home-bound, etc)
- Use of non-monetary systems (eg LETS) where appropriate
5. Transforming tele-users into tele-workers: Integrating the role of on-line user with that of on-line contributor, namely:
- Determining ways of using (and rewarding) casual comment and stimulating its development into more sustained involvement
- Creating a rewarding experience which encourages a continuing stream of occasional contributions from the most qualified (cf Book of Visions produced by the Institute for Social Inventions, UK)
6. System security: Developing fail-safe mechanisms, notably:
- Economic fall-back positions in the event of constraints on funding
- Responses to security infringements
- Responses to system failures and failure of mirror sites
- Responses to editorial abuses
- Responses to legal harassment
- Building in techniques for data base repair and recovery in the event of discovery of a distorted pattern of input from particular contributors
- Organizing to respond to crises of fundamental editorial differences, and schismatic or breakaway tendencies
7. Tools and techniques: Provision of a variety of interfaces to support the telework process, taking account of:
- Conceptual questions of how the complexity of the integrated databases is navigated and understood
- Challenges of information overload
- Transcending software reinforcement of user tunnel-vision
- Distance learning, and self-learning, facilities
- Multilingual (and possibly multi-script) access and possible input
- Interfaces corresponding to various levels of competence and involvement
- Discovering ways of interrelating islands of conceptual coherence in an sea of shifting patterns of information
- Providing users and contributors with new patterning tools
- Identifying possibilities for carrying new insights and patterns
8. Self-organisation: Developing techniques of self-organization and a sense of their limitations:
- Determining ways in which editorial inputs from a variety of sources can be managed in a decentralized manner
- Determining ways in which a stream of inputs from partially known contributors can be suitably ranked, filtered and channelled for further action by partially automatic techniques
Background: Our Understanding of Telework
The challenge of telework for the project partners is to find ways of combining:
- computer technology,
- information management processes,
- people management processes, and
- concept management processes,
where these may all involve people operating:
- for different periods
- with different degrees of expertise
- from different locations
- in different socio-economic circumstances.
This is seen to be quite distinct from approaches to telework which depend on tightly definable, standardized processes using contracted people with well-defined skills and possessing standardized equipment. For the UIA, the emphasis is on creating an open learning system through which people can be drawn into different degrees of productive work that is primarily focused on intelligent identification, selection and processing of texts and hyperlinks. The concern is to build up insight, skills and procedures for knowledge base development across a relatively loose network of contributors motivated and remunerated to in different ways and to varying degrees.
The business development challenge that the UIA faces is one which many bodies in the knowledge industry will face in a very near future, characterized by:
- Potential, but tentative commitment of qualified contributors
- Variety of acceptable 'contractual' relationships, including
those which may be termed:
- Token remuneration
- Available at market rates in industrialized countries
- Available at market rates in developing or transitional economies
- Exposure to harsh competition requiring flexible strategies.
Current UIA situation in relation to telework opportunities
Statement of present state, where do we want to be/go, what are our options, what is our proposition.
Experience: The UIA has extensive expertise in database maintenance and design (since 1975), notably with intranet (since 1986) and web variants (static, since 1996; and dynamic, since 1998). Its work for a number of years has depended on a degree of teleworking between three distant locations (London, Leuven and Adelaide)and Brussels. This experience has been gained within several multi-partner project frameworks, notably the DG-XIII INFO2000 project Information Context for Biodiversity Conservation (Jan 1998 -- Dec 1999). Perhaps the material, elaborated in the Summary, is better placed here rather than in the Summary.
Approved extension: Work described in this proposal would be supportive of a complementary project, accepted by the infoDev programme of the World Bank for funding (when such funds become available). The latter focuses on innovative approaches for interfacing electronic communication modalities in a developing country context where connectivity, ability to pay and infrastructure are constraining. That project would involve electronic collaboration with a partner institute, Development Alternatives (New Delhi).
Rural and regional experiments:
- MyTown, Australia?
Decentralized management: Two of the UIA's projects are already significantly managed at a distance, through a senior editor located in London and another in Leuven. The concern is to explore extension of this approach to permit involvement of senior editors in more distant locations.
Retention of competence
As an internationally-focussed organization located in Brussels, the UIA has over several decades employed numerous people in both salaried and contract positions (including students) and as volunteers. Any worker of long-standing (over 2-3 years) has acquired a variety of specialized skills because of intensive in-house training. All too frequently, involuntary severance of engagement (for reasons of, for example, pregnancy, retirement, self-employment, relocation with a partner, statutory or financial limits to duration of employment contract) has accompanied a mutual regret that a working relationship could not continue, whether on a voluntary basis or otherwise. The UIA would like to explore teleworking as a means of retaining longer-term contributions of Brussels-based staff who can no longer be based in its Brussels office.
- Continue essentially as Brussels-based operation
- Use Brussels as core/central node of a (fixed) multi-nodal operation (spider-plant model)
- Use Brussels as a coordination centre for a (flexible) distributed network
- Fully distribute operations (entirely or by project).
We propose to undertake a series of complementary and supportive "action research" studies to enable the design of a sophisticated teleworking model. The studies would explore the practicalities of teleworking the existing UIA business:
- With people at distant locations (away from the Brussels office)
- Across a variety of cultural, educational, age, gender and language groups
- With differing levels of supervision and self-instruction
- In conditions of "payment for work" and "non-payment for work"
- Using open access (public, no or low-cost) telecommunication systems.
Where do we want to be at the end of this project? What will be the outcomes? What our ambitions for this project? What the achievement of these research goals will mean for UIA, for European telework and for others (who else benefits?).
For the UIA: The principal objective for the UIA is to set up a decentralized operating environment that is sufficiently flexible and robust to allow the UIA to reconfigure its database initiatives in response to emerging opportunities and challenges in the highly turbulent socio-economic context of the immediate future. The concern is to find ways to take advantage of collaborators in a variety of socio-economic circumstances, providing them with remunerated employment or the opportunity for voluntary (or subsidized) involvement, and a variety of intermediate options. The project is expected to test the possibility of managing the relatively complex collaborative research process in ways that maximize the degree of self-organization possible, without jeopardizing the integrity and quality of the knowledge bases.
For Partners: Partners will have the opportunity to engage in a collaborative international project in such a way as to ensure that the knowledge bases reflect regional and local perspectives. They will be able to draw on the material in response to local needs and to improve the quality of the knowledge bases and procedures in the light of local challenges and opportunities.
For Others (Replicability): The project will necessarily have to develop a manual of procedures to initiate and guide new collaborators, according to the nature of their involvement. It is expected that these guidelines will be of great value to other information producers endeavouring to operate on a Europe wide basis, and with the involvement of non-European partners.
Make clearer and define the general objective(s) (goals) and specific objectives (definite, tangible outcomes etc).
Distinguish between the proposal (the persuasive piece) and the project description (what will be done, who does what and when, budget, etc).
Highlight the most innovative aspects: multi-country teams, virtual project office, facilitated online training, distributed system maintenance and quality management systems.