Tricks and tips to start a cooperative network

Card's author : Outils-Réseaux
Card's type of licence : Creative Commons BY-SA
Description : Since 2003, Outils-Réseaux has been helping groups to take cooperative methods and tools onboard. Doing this we have been able to identify some facilitating elements or, on the contrary, some barriers to cooperation and participation.
Tools are not cooperative by nature; they become cooperative when they are used correctly and in a favourable context.
The “tricks and tips” listed here do not require extraordinary technical skills or a large budget. A facilitation technique, using a tool that can be created with 2 clicks or an adequate set of mind of a network facilitator can achieve much more than building oversized factories running on gas, which are expensive (literally and figuratively).
This list draws on this experience but must also be extended!

Co-operator humanum est

Cooperation is a unique feature to the human being, our main driver and survival tool. Three centuries of competition should not allow us to forget that we come from thousands of years of cooperation and collaboration.

Three fields

Our era will have to deal with three challenges in the field of cooperation:
  • Learning to cooperate between humans: Countries from the global South / Rich countries from the global North / poor people, people with different religions, men / women…
  • Making humans cooperate with the environment: less pollution, less harmful activities, ...
  • Allowing each person to cooperate better with him or herself: reconcile humanity with animals, the female side with the masculine side...


Separating learning from cooperation...

...and using it for hot topics!
It is best avoiding controversial issues to start cooperating. It is better to test cooperative methodologies and tools on small projects that are not too challenging rather than on projects that are vital to the network.
For example, pooling teaching materials for an education network on the environment, while what is vital for the network's members is to find funds. When the network members have gained some experience in cooperation and have developed a common experience, then they can start working on a project to pool financial means.

Generating small irreversible cooperation experiences

Every large voyage starts with small steps.
Even if it seems that cooperation is a major component in human existence, centuries of “healthy competition”, “we mustn't copy” and “to exist, it's best not owing anything to anyone” have handicapped the people engaging in it. It is therefore useful to gradually bring the cooperative dimension back into the equation.
All changes are a process of rupture that requires a change in a person's representations, ideas and methods.
For a network to start cooperating, these ruptures must be caused, these changes that are often irreversible: for this we suggest generating small irreversible cooperation experiences:
  • lifting a rock, 340 men gently pulling in opposite directions: an excellent experience, but one needs the occasion to do this.
  • several people taking notes at the same time and on the same page (using Etherpad, Google doc or Gobby: tools that enable co-writing a text on-line), is easier than lifting a rock and much more effective.
  • facilitating a discussion using mind maps (freeplane, freemind, Xmind…), projected live onto a screen, a technique that allows visualising all the group's ideas quickly, moving from a linear mindset to a way of sailing through ideas that can adapt to the audience (where it is easy to bring in new ideas).
  • drafting and valuing recaps of discussion lists (see the example of Tela Botanica); the network members sometimes discuss very specific topics. The person who started the discussion should make the recap. There is a list of recaps from the following discussion lists that is a copy-paste or a more organised drafting).
  • including content that is not perfect, to be corrected: hearing only the bravery to defend the purity of language, those who yesterday totally opposed participating in a computing tool overcome the technical barrier and correct mistakes! (this tip is even more effective when an error is linked to a person's name: to the worry for a perfect spelling, there is also the spur of ego…)
  • organising cooperative games: for example the Tao game.

Starting face-to-face

When talking of a “cooperative network”, we often imagine a group that is not always in the same space and at the same time: there is distance work involved, synchronous and asynchronous exchanges. In the opposite sense, there are very few virtual communities that only work at distance: meetings and gatherings are important moments for the network dynamics.
When starting up a network, it is always good to use this “face-to-face” time to test and experiment with tools and methods that could continue to be used at distance: establishing what is going to be used at distance when people are together.
This will allow everyone to become familiar with them and learn, and will ensure a continuity between the face-to-face and distance work.
For example, in a network's meeting, one of the members asks a question to the other members. Everyone can give one or more answers written on small pieces of paper giving their contact details. This way answers are summarised and are made visible to all. Then the person who asked the question can get the contact details of the people who answered to the question and can create a discussion list to continue exchanging from a distance.
For example, it is possible to establish tools to work from a distance that will all of a sudden generate questions on how to proceed face-to-face: rules on taking the floor, decision-making…very often these rules are implicit. In a group, drafting the minutes of a meeting is often done by one person. If we have a co-writing tool to take notes, this will automatically generate questions: can everyone write? Who will validate the minutes? It is clear that the tool isn't the problem, it simply generates questions.

Starting by oneself

Charity begins at home. or To change the world you must first change yourself.
Many structures have a project to make a group cooperate, a network. But first of all one has to start using cooperative methods and practices: it is about applying to oneself what one wishes to apply to others.
cf. The ITPTS, "Interactions Transformation Personnelle, Transformation Sociale" (Interactions Personal Transformation, Social Transformation): not opposing the wishes to change the world and work on oneself, both are related and must be articulated
A fact: a structure that does not cooperate internally and doesn't use tools for this will find it very difficult to find cooperation around it.
But how to proceed when you're in a highly static and restricted context that is not very open to these practices? One needs to start off from the smallest of places to cooperate, some trustworthy friends, a small and venturesome working group…One can always find two or three people who are willing to play the game!

Starting with simple things

Use tools that are easy to use for people
When working with IT tools, the first step is the most important. If the first contact is easy, contributors will feel reassured and will want to engage a little further and will accept that some time to learn or become familiar with the tools is necessary.
It could also be possible to hide some of the functions from users at a first stage and wait for the group to become more mature before gradually adding new bricks. Or wait for them to ask for this and make the technical tool advance based on the group's demands.

Keeping things practical

Using tools that are easy to install and configure and that don't require technical skills
Rather than waiting to have the necessary means to create a customised tool, it is best to start from the moment the network dynamics starts to see a need to have ready-to-use tools that are easy to install and use: crafting some tools that are not too burdensome but that allow starting to work on cooperative issues (Google doc, Netvibes).
Of course this is not perfect: it would be better to have one's own tool with free software. And some may even be against using free on-line services that stock your information with the risk of them being used for commercial purposes. This is true, but the network facilitator must remain practical. These tools are to be used knowing what they are for and what they are: free on-line services, not tools that allow you to be totally independent. Nevertheless, thanks to their simplicity they can be used to surface cooperative dynamics.
We will wait to see real uses fall into place before moving on the specific developments if they are required.

Guiding in use

Guiding with attention rather than with intention:
  • managing a project "with intention": from the start, the coordinator plans some goals, the execution of the project, the timeframe, the budget… <this is the traditional project methodology>
  • managing a project “with attention”: the facilitator creates cooperative situations (getting people to meet, getting them to introduce themselves, so they can exchange…) and then being pursuant and reactive (suggesting supports so that what arises from the cooperative situation can lead to projects, actions, cooperative work…) <cooperative project methodology>
The facilitator must force him or herself to be quiet, to leave his or her ideas aside and to adopt an attitude of listening and observation.
Furthermore, the facilitator must create favourable conditions for the collective needs to appear: for example, a questionnaire where the results are shared collectively. Google Drive is perfect for this purpose since it allows you to process the answers statistically and to create graphs. Giving everyone the results in real time allows the facilitator not to monopolise the global vision: the group is made visible to the group.

Beautiful, beautiful...

Contrary to what we could believe, aesthetics and graphics are very important: they have a power to motivate the group members and brings value to the collective productions.
We can even use flashy things, highly appreciated by some:
  • flash animations,
  • rollovers and drag and drop functions using jquery technologies or mootools,
  • Rolex...

Mirror mirror on the wall

Establishing processes for the group to have a collective image of itself
Making the group visible to the group is an essential stage to get cooperation moving between the members. It is the concept of “holopticism” described by Jean-François Noubel.
Different techniques and tools can be used:
  • mappings of the members: to represent the community so it can take shape, so it is less virtual and adopts a geographical dimension.
  • making an inventory of skills (identifying everyone's strong points and writing it on a mind map, for example) or of things we are ready to share (what resources does the group member have that they could share with the other members?)
  • sharing problems and obstructions to one another, and things that others can help you with.

Encouraging contributions

To get cooperative dynamics started (and to extend it in time) based on voluntary participation it is important to bring value even to the slightest of contributions. For example, mentioning all those who have contributed to a project, even those with a minimal contribution (apology of the positive reinforcement).
There is nothing wrong with pleasure!
It may also be very useful for a network facilitator to get to know people who contribute occasionally very well to find the link between their concerns and the project.

Clarifying the terms of use

When imagining a cooperative network it is extremely likely that exchanges will lead to common collective productions.
To avoid any problems or misunderstandings, it is best to sit down and discuss the terms of use and the rights that apply to common productions right from the beginning of the dynamics:
  • who owns the contents produced collectively?
  • can this content be sold?
  • can it be transformed? ...
Creative Commons licences (a flexible copyright contract to make works free) would help thinking about this issue and would provide a legal framework for the creation of common goods.

Being surrounded by good “followers”

"It is quite often said that a group's liveliness depends on the quality of the facilitation. Of course, this is partly true. But in this short home video you will see a talented explanation on how leadership is essential to get things started, but that without followers engaging in the action, things wouldn't work."

(article taken from the blog

Getting people moving, producing and cooperating

Producing and getting common goods produced

It's up to you!