Inclusive communications and working with volunteers

By | March 8, 2014

At the Woodhouse Community Centre we have been immersed in discussions about communication – personal, team and external. We have a flat management structure with a non hierarchical way of working. This means that everyone is involved in the decisions we make and no-one has overall power (theoretically and practically for the most part). Here I want to share some thoughts about communications at Oblong Leeds where I work part time.

We aim for a community where everyone has a high degree of ownership and participation in the decision making, where each member is respected and considered, where the impact of decisions on all members is taken into account. This makes for a complex communications environment.

In the hierarchical corporate world where the CEO is in charge and where money is the motivator things are much simpler. You make a decision and everyone has to comply, mostly. But in our world the community is based on relationships which take into account personal needs as well as business needs. We have to gauge what kind of an impact a decision is going to have on community members not just professionally but also personally.

Communication at the Woodhouse Community Centre operates in a matrix of styles which are all connected – meetups, social,  one to one, on-line and so on.  We have more that 50 volunteers. At first we tried to communicate using email – it only worked for some. We tried to convene monthly assemblies where people could “have their say” few came.

So what are we doing now?  We have largely ditched email in favour of Yammer. Yammer is an on-line social tool for businesses which enables you to collectively follow projects, project discussions and members. We renamed the assembly meeting the Bobalong (play on Oblong) and made it much more social and fun. Good relationships = good communication = good relationships.

Project structure provides a way of encouraging good communication. An important part of the mix are volunteer led projects. Rather than the staff setting up strategic projects and handing them out, the volunteers are steeped in the values and strategic needs of the organisation and encouraged to come up with their own project ideas and get them going themselves. This volunteer ownership of projects is vital and in fact written into come of our funding agreements.

The establishment of projects (rather than simply ongoing activities) is really important. A project in traditional terms has a timeline, goals, a team, hurdles and requires structured communication. A project with a positive goal provides an opportunity for members to work together, build confidence,  affirm, build relationships and feel good about success. Endlessly ongoing activities sometimes lead to fatigue, a breakdown in relationships and isolation to the outside world. So projects can be much more invigorating.

To encourage good and effective project management we are looking at some of the tools which are available for on-line collaborative working. The one we are testing is Basecamp. Basecamp provides a communications structure. The elements include time-scales, tasks, assigned responsibilities, resources and conversation. I’m getting quite excited my this I admit.

Basecamp and Yammer aren’t, of course, a replacement meeting together but what they do mean is that when we get together we have an excellent resource of project knowledge a warmth of relationships.  The difference between Yammer and Basecamp is that Yammer focusses on the social interactions while Basecamp is structured around project management – we would use both.

As an organisation we also use Google Documents which integrates really well with Basecamp meaning that every document, decision, task or event has a collaborative, interactive element to it.

So may I commend to you Yammer and Basecamp and the whole idea of being much more project focussed and social.

You’re welcome to pop into the Woodhouse centre and meet out volunteers.  See old fashioned poster for next Bobalong.


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