Discussion Points for Preparation of Networks Issue Paper


General Statement

The purpose of this issue paper is to examine the Network concept as it relates to people and ideas, and the programs that results from dynamic interchange and ideas transfer. While the mechanisms for this interchange and transfer are critical (technology-based networking); and a strong infrastructure is essential to ensure that programs are not only created but sustained (organizational networks), the focus of this paper is to consider the conceptual basis or construct of a network. The underlying thesis is that a network framework, i.e., physical and organizational structure, is not viable unless it exists to support the essential content: the people and their ideas, articulated into tangible programs.

In order for a Network to have relevance, all of the key actors* must agree that the over- riding or "meta" mission of the Network can only be achieved through effective collaboration and cooperation. For those who buy into the mission of the Network, there can not be a secondary view that the objectives of the Network can be achieved independently. For while there may be some stakeholders who are stronger than others, due to resources (financial and human), historical, or political realities, the Network is successful because it is stronger than any one member or component. In the successful Network, no one participant can achieve the overall goals or meet the objectives alone, no matter how strong they might be. A Network draws upon the strengths of its members and supports and reinforce their weak links.

There are inherent paradoxes in the purpose of a Network that can only be understood when it is clear as to why a given Network has been formed. Is it to solve a problem, or a set of problems? Is it to make a contribution to a global research agenda, and that the formation of the Network is the only way to ensure that a significant contribution is made to further that agenda? Is its creation to develop a critical mass that can brought to bear in the formulation of public policy? In the multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary field of communication, information, and related technologies, all the above are very valid reasons for the creation of a Network.

For the purpose of this issue paper, the focus will be on communication in general, and ORBICOM, the UNESCO Chairs in Communication, specifically.

Specific Observations

The general concept "Network" must be examined within the context of the mission of ORBICOM Network. In the statement of ORBICOM Committees Policies and Procedures, the mission of ORBICOM "is to develop research, training and teaching, publishing and activity projects of a multinational, multisectoral, multidisciplinary and multilingual nature in the field of communication".

In 1996, the parameters of the Network were framed around seven broad areas:

Communication and International Development

National Information Policies and Communication Law

Access to (transfer of) New Technologies and their Uses

Institutional or Organizational Communication

Media Development and Management

Publication Relations, Public Affairs and Advertising

Professional Training and Ethics

The existing Chairs (university based) and the Associate Members from more than 25 countries can easily relate to one or more of these areas. Indeed, the organizational structure of the ORBICOM Network is based upon these seven program areas, and the research agenda should also reflect the program priorities agreed to in 1996.

The following questions must be addressed: Does a viable Network in the field of communication exist, as originally envisaged by the founding members? If not why not? If it does exist, in what ways can it be improved?

To have a meaningful discussion of these questions it is necessary to review in depth the mission of ORBICOM as stated in the June 1996 Report of the Board of Directors and Committees, and to survey the Chair Holders and Associate Members to determine their support of the mission, goals and objectives of the existing ORBICOM Network.

As a component of this survey, it will be necessary to determine the commitment and strengths of the Chairs and Associates; ascertain what they can contribute toward achieving the long-term goals of the Network; and what they will draw from the Network to ensure that their specific individual requirements are met. It is essential that all participants accept that in the short term collaboration and partnership may have a cost, but in the long term there is the unwavering belief that the benefits far out-weigh the costs.

In order to have this level of "buy-in", it is essential that benefits and cost of Network participation are clearly presented. It is relatively easy to identify broad program areas as they relate to individual areas of research. However, there must be no uncertainty about the implications of collaboration in research and applied research activities with respect to time, financial and human resource investment, and shared ownership of research results and outputs. For unless these implications are understood and fully accepted by all the key actors, less than total commitment will lead to the failure of the Network.

It is important to identify the most appropriate technologies to be applied to supporting the activities of the Network, and its sustainability. However, it is an erroneous assumption that communication and information technologies (the mechanism) will ensure a successful Network. While CITs are essential in facilitating the work and outputs of the Network, they should not be confused with the Network. They are the means, not the end.

The same is also true of the organizational structure. While it is extremely important to have a viable infrastructure in place to support the Network, an efficient bureaucracy is not sufficient to make a successful Network.

The above specific observations indicate that serious work is required to make the ORBICOM Network a viable entity that is able to contribute to the global communication agenda. There is little doubt that the current ORBICOM membership represents a significant segment of the CIT community, and thus it must serve as the basis upon which the information is gathered to address the critical questions posed above. Nevertheless, following the lead of UNESCO, in its rethinking of the organization of part of its IIC Programme, it may be wise to broaden the base of inquiry and consult with other stakeholders who are actively responding to the critical issues in the global communication agenda of our respective societie.

*In this draft, the terms: actors, stakeholders, participants are used interchangeably.

Prepared by: Martha B Stone
Senior Partner
MOENSTON Associates
DRAFT (1) : April, 1999