Synthesis of Focus Group Discussion (15 November - 10 December, 1999)


After three weeks of extensive interventions and exchanges, this first phase of the Focus Group Discussion comes to a close. The purpose of this synthesis of the discussion is to highlight some of the key issues that were identified by the discussants and present some observations and recommendations that will serve to guide the Orbicom Network as it moves steadfastly toward its agreed upon goals.

PARTICIPANTS

The participants in the Focus Group can be viewed as a microcosm of the Orbicom membership. [Names of the participants of the Focus Group and their addresses are attached as Annex I.] The two categories of members were represented, eight UNESCO Chair holders, from Brazil, Colombia, Germany, Japan, Morocco, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; and eight Associated members from Australia, Canada, Germany, Malaysia, Nigeria (currently residing in the USA), South Africa, Sweden, and Uruguay.

In addition to representing academia, the Focus Group participants represented the private and public sectors, as well as all major disciplines within the field of communications.

With this diverse representation, there is no question about the success of this three week electronic exchange, with over 75% participation. While it is true that not all the Chair Holders contributed in the discussion, several of those who were not able to make substantive input, did indicate their pleasure in being able to follow the important exchange, and if the discussion had lasted longer, they would have participated more fully. As it was stated by some of the participants, work agendas are heavy, people are travelling, and some of us do not have schedules which permit active participation in electronic discussion groups, no matter how important the subject.

LINGUISTIC CONSIDERATIONS

We can not ignore the matter of language. As mentioned in the beginning of this Discussion, one negative factor was the inability of some participants to communicate in their language of choice. Lack of resources, financial and technical did not permit translation capability. Due to the powerful linguistic skills of Claude-Yves Charron, we were able to carry out our work in English and French, with only a three hour delay between translations! As mentioned in the opening remarks of the Moderator, and repeated by one participant at the close of the Discussion, the deliberations of the Focus Group were weakened due to the inability to communicate effectively in Spanish. Clearly, when the electronic discussion will be opened to the membership at large, the matter of language of expression will have to be seriously addressed.

INTRODUCTION

During the Montreal Board Meeting and AGM, in April 1999, Martha Stone raised concern about the lack of consensus amongst the members with regards to the role, function, and responsibility of the Orbicom Network. There appeared to be the "two solitudes" separating the membership, the UNESCO Chair holders and the Associate members. These two solitudes have also been characterised as " the paradox" in our discussion. The underlying question is whether the research agenda of the various UNESCO Chairs are consistent and complimentary to the research agenda, as reflected in the Program of the Orbicom Network and approved by the membership. The creation of Committees had been identified as the mechanism to implement this Program.

In general, the participants believe that the Orbicom Network is alive, and if not totally healthy, has the framework to ensure it's vitality and relevance. In response to a request for information about the existing committees and their membership, the current committees and their chairmen will be provided as Annex 2 to this Synthesis. [ It should be noted that at the AGM, in April, 1999, it was agreed that the Committee structure should be reviewed and changed.]

To serve as a basis upon which to initiate discussions on the future of Orbicom, and on the fostering of partnerships between and among Orbicom members through the identification and articulation of research programs, a two-part issues paper on the concept of Networking, prepared by Martha Stone was tabled. This background document was followed by three very general questions; following their discussions more specific issues were raised and discussed fully. One week was given to the review of the background document and consideration of the following questions, which were:

1. Why a global Network?: Do you believe that in order for Orbicom to be an effective international organisation in the field of communications, there must be a consensus amongst its members as to the nature of the Orbicom NETWORK, that is, its construct, function, and responsibilities?

2. Role of a Concept Document: If the answer is yes, do you believe that the Issue document on Networking is useful in providing a conceptual basis for developing this consensus?

3. Missing Elements: Using the Issue document as a building block, what elements are missing from the concepts presented in the document that are required to make the transition from theory to concrete program action?

Although the discussion continued on various aspects of the first set of questions throughout the electronic discussion, three additional questions were added in an attempt to achieve a balance between theory and practice. It must be underscored that the interventions were more far reaching than the six questions posed by the moderator, and hopefully this synthesis will reflect this. The remaining structured questions were:

4. Strengthening our existing Network: How can the characteristics of the two categories of members, the UNESCO Chair holders and the Associate members be turned into a powerful voice in the international arena of communications? How to turn what might be seen as a weakness into a strength, with the ability to influence our societies at all levels?

5. Membership Survey: Building upon the suggestion to undertake an analysis of the composition of our existing Network how could it be effectively designed or structured to feed into the membership-wide electronic discussion group?

6. Effective models for communication: Recognising the need to balance content and process, what models are available to ensure open and dynamic communications between and amongst the membership of the Orbicom NETWORK?

A SUMMARY OF KEY ISSUES RAISED

In response to these lead-in questions, it was agreed that there must be a full "buy-in" and ownership of the Network by the membership, and a recognition that the impact of any program initiative is greater through partnership and alliances. At the same time, however, there must be due recognition of the diversity amongst the members. There are differences in the subject areas of expertise, differences in regional priorities and concerns, and these in addition to the cultural and linguistic diversity ensure unique perspectives on the research agenda in communications.

The challenge of identifying a research agenda reflecting the interest of the entire membership is great, however, due to the richness in the diversity of the members, the outcomes of the various research initiatives can have a major impact on our respective societies. It is not necessary for all members to participate in all research programs at the same time or with the same expectations; what is required, however, is a universal acceptance of the importance of the program. To build upon the metaphor of one of the participants, "how do we swing open the doors between all categories of Orbicom members, and have the doors remain open?"

There was little debate about the contents of the background document on the concept of Networks. All participants thought it was a valuable concept piece and extremely useful in getting the Focus Group Discussion launched. It was, therefore, implicitly approved as presented, and will be submitted to the membership at large for final consideration. Thus, it stands as a background document that can be referred to as required in the future.

Moving from theory to concrete programmatic action was discussed in depth by the Focus Group participants. There was unanimity in the need to survey the existing Orbicom membership. Although there were several views about the nature of the questions to be asked, there were some common threads. These related to: a) determining the expectations of Orbicom; b) individual members specialisations and interests; c) goals for the network, at all levels - global, regional, national, and personal; d) how can the differences between the UNESCO Chair holders and the Associate members be turned in to unifying strengths for the Orbicom Network.

Focus Group participants agreed that a membership survey was an important step before proceeding to hold a membership-wide electronic discussion on the activities to be undertaken within the Network, partnerships, both internal and external, and the mobilisation of resources to support the research programs of the network. However, there was also the view expressed that significant preliminary work had to be done even before the membership survey was undertaken. It was felt that the participants in the Focus Group needed to discuss what kinds of individuals and their capacities are needed to fulfil the stated mission of Orbicom. This discussion would address the existing organisational structure and modifications required to strengthen the ability to support the mission. Indeed the Focus Group should consider the question of whether the existing committee structure is relevant not only for today, but also for tomorrow.

It was stated in several ways, but a critical point made was that the Orbicom Network is a reality, and this reality must be made stronger. The role and responsibilities of the various components of the Network must be clearly articulated. Thus there should be no confusion about the facilitating role of the Secretariat, the policy making function of the Board of Directors, or the research agenda setting by the existing Research and publications Committee and by the Board of Directors, in response to the priority setting in the various fora. The structure and role of the existing Committees was discussed, and it seems clear that this is one aspect that should be addressed in the survey of the membership. There was also general agreement that the Network, in responding to the reality of diversity of its membership, should be a decentralised model. In stating this, there was not a full discussion on the implications of this model versus a centralised one or variations of the two.

In addressing the issue of partnerships and alliances within the Network and with external stakeholders, Orbicom’s relationship with UNESCO was cited by many of the participants. Although the specific problems were not identified, it was clear that most believed that if the relationship between Orbicom and UNESCO did not improve, the capacity for the Orbicom Network to be relevant in international fora would be greatly compromised. This is a matter for the Board of Directors, together with the Secretariat, to undertake.

Continuing with the issue of partnerships, several references were made to the interaction between the public and private sectors. While it may be necessary to clarify the terminology, it was pointed out by some participants that an international NGO, such as Orbicom working with the private sector has its challenges. Specifically, the challenge of responding to the commercialisation of knowledge will raise issues such as intellectual property rights and copyright, privacy, and universal access to information. These issues should not deter the collaboration between public and private sector initiatives, but it does mean that the implications of such collaboration must be fully understood.

RECOMMANDATIONS AND PROPOSALS

Missing Elements in the Networks Issues Document: In response to the question regarding missing elements in the background document on Network Issues, three items were identified, and they are presented here under Recommendations.

1. In several of the points in this Synthesis strong points are made concerning the survey of the Membership. Most participants agreed that the survey should be undertaken as soon as possible. However, there must be agreement as to how the survey results will be utilised and how they will aid in the strengthening of the Orbicom Network. Several participants have recommended the type of questions to be asked, and to whom they should be posed.

1.1 An inventory of resources [monetary, institutional, and personal / professional resources] available to Orbicom will be useful in helping set some parameters to the discussions. This will ensure realistic [versus ideal] plans and objectives being developed; and

1.2 A synthesis of the findings of previous landmark studies on international and regional networks so that we can avoid "past mistakes" in the construct and methods of our network.

1.3 The Secretariat should determine the cost implications (time and money) in carrying out these last two recommendations.

2. Research Priorities

Of the seven broad program areas around which the Orbicom Network was framed in 1994, the Focus Group participants reaffirmed the three key issues that could serve as the unifying research agenda for Orbicom. They are:

- National Information Policies and Communication Laws;
- Access to, (transfer of) New Technologies and their use; and
- Professional Training and Ethics

It should be noted that these issues are consistent with the Plan of Action approved by the Montreal Conference in April, when it was agreed that the first membership-wide moderated forum would be on Professional Training and Ethics.

3. Specific Projects

As examples of ensuring that the Orbicom Network is more than bi-annual meetings and conferences, three specific proposals were given as practical initiatives, two in the regions of Africa, and one in Asia:

3.1 Possible collaboration with the University of North Dakota, The African Council for Communication Education, and Orbicom to provide practical (not theoretical) communication training in Nigeria; and

3.2 In connection with the African Conference on the Public Radio-Television Challenges (organised in collaboration with UNESCO, the World Council for Radio and Television, and others), it is proposed that in the name of the Orbicom Network, the Morocco Chair, in collaboration with the Ivory Coast Chair, initiate a follow-up program with the conference participants on the public broadcasting systems. This multi-faceted partnership would ensure a synergy in the Pan-African region, and would build an important linkage between the Orbicom Network and the World Council for Radio and Television.

3.3 The Chair in Japan and the counterpart in the Philippines have agreed to develop joint research activities in the field of educational video programming. A specific area of concern is the production of courseware on environmental communication using information and communication technology. Although a regional initiative mobilising the resources of several actors in different university departments, there may be the scope for global participation in the future. The Orbicom Network could be a facilitator in this expansion.

Electronic Tools for Communication:

From the beginning, the most effective mechanism for communication and exchange of ideas amongst and between the membership was discussed. Concern was expressed that e-mail, even in the form of a Listserv was not the most appropriate vehicule to foster a free and open exchange of ideas. The example of the successful INFOETHICS forum was suggested as a possible model for the membership-wide discussion group or for the Open Forum on Professional Training and Ethics. Other models, such as the extremely impressive WebCT, were presented. To ensure that the most appropriate technical tool is available for the important work that has begun within this Focus Group, it is proposed that the Web Master, within the Orbicom Secretariat, consult with members of the Focus Group who are knowledgeable and interested in electronic discussion group technology to implement the most appropriate for the needs of it's aspect of the Orbicom program. The system to be used should be available by mid-January, 2000.

Translation Capacity:

In recognising the linguistic diversity of the membership in the Orbicom Network, it is critical that the issue of translation services be addressed. All members must be able to participate in public fora of debate in the language of their choice, thus ensuring a truly open door to the exchange of ideas thus making a dynamic network.

While this objective must be pursued, it is well known that translation and interpretation services are costly, and Orbicom as an organisation is not strong financially. Thus the Secretariat, with the support of the Board of Directors must give serious attention to the translation process required to support the policy of linguistic equity.

CONCLUSION

To repeat the question of one participant, what needs to be done?

It is clear that a very dynamic, open, and enthusiastic discussion has taken place over the last three weeks amongst communication professionals who are committed to the strengthening of a successful Orbicom Network. It was originally envisaged that this phase would lead to a larger, membership-wide electronic discussion on the structure and research agenda of the Network. Based upon the discussion to date it is also clear that the work of this Focus Group, a group of committed members of the Orbicom Network, is not completed. Reference only need be made to the points under Recommendations and Proposals.

The participants of the Focus Group must discuss future actions, the phases for achieving these actions and their respective role or tasks in these actions. For example, the launch of the work of the Focus Group, Phase I, was achieved during the period of November - December 1999.

Proposed Action and Preliminary Time Table:

Phase II will be the Membership Survey, referred to under Summary of Key Issues Raised and in the Recommendations and Proposals. The recommended time for the Survey will be 17 January - 12 February 2000.

It is proposed that Phase III will be the electronic Membership Forum, from 6 - 24 March 2000. The structure and content of the Forum will be heavily influenced by the Membership Survey.

The Summary of all of the above, Phase IV will be presented to the Board of Directors at their 30 March, 2000, meeting, and the results presented to the AGM, during the summer of 2000 (to be confirmed).

This is indeed a very ambitious schedule, and it must not be forgotten that most of you are participating in the exciting initiative on a voluntary basis. Thus the strengthening of the Orbicom Network must be done within very busy and demanding schedules. Therefore, it is important to receive feedback regarding the viability of the time frame proposed for the remaining phases and the implications of the work involved. We have reached a stage in the evolution of the Orbicom Network where failure is not an option.

Martha Stone
Focus Group Moderator