Conducting ICT Research in Voluntary Organizations: Reflections from a Long Term Study of the European Social Forum

Saqib Saeed, Markus Rohde and Volker Wulf
University of Siegen
Hölderlin Str. 3, 57076 Siegen, Germany
{saqib.saeed, markus.rohde, volker.wulf}


Recent literature highlights the low technology adoption of voluntary organizations in their organizational settings. Due to the social importance of this sector, it is important that universities and researchers carry on action research projects in such settings to improve IT usage. These organizations are quite diverse in their organizational structure, scope, application area and working. Furthermore, they differ from traditional organizations in their objectives, rationale, operations and work practices. Appropriate technology design requires a deep understanding of organizational work practices, paving the way for ethnographic action research studies in these settings. In this paper, we want to present our experiences with conducting an ethnographic action research at the European Social Forum, which is a European network of heterogeneous social activists participating in the anti-globalization movement. We will discuss the problems that we faced in our fieldwork to help other researchers comprehend these difficulties in advance as they are planning fieldwork in such settings.


Voluntary organizations are an important part of every society along with the government and business organizations, particularly forthe role they play in the betterment of society. Their tasks range from advocacy on behalf of citizens, providing support in the field (e.g. setting up clinics or schools), participation in rescue/rehabilitation activities in case of natural calamities and so forth. As a result, the scope, size, nature and application areas of these voluntary organizations are quite diverse and could range from small community organizations to large foundations and transnational non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with hundreds of volunteers. As the size and operations of these organizations grow, the need for efficient procedures is more profound. Modern information technology applications prove to be helpful assets in increasing the work efficiencies; however, this diversity makes technology design processes quite complex. Hence, there is need for extensive ethnographic studies to understand work practices before the actual technology design (cf. Saeed et al., 2008).

There are many factors, which make IT usage in this field of application very specific. The operations of these organizations are neither regulated by some pre-defined standard operating procedures, nor do they focus on a business driven decision making. Instead, political sensitivity, solidarity and consensus are aspects that are vital to their working methodology. Furthermore, their focus of work may change abruptly due to external events such as the political situation or a natural disaster. This implies that during system design one has to be more vigilant, as one cannot transfer one scenario to another similar instance. The practices are not standard, as external factors can influence them, and actors may behave differently in similar scenarios. Furthermore, in transnational networks, the diverse backgrounds of the actors, in the different languages and working habits or even the culture itself add further complexity to the technology appropriation. Other challenging factors are the scarcity of funding and of human resources for the establishment and maintenance of IT infrastructures.

IT support in voluntary organizations has become a growing area for research not only due to the above-mentioned challenges but also due to the social importance of these organizations in our society. Our focus has been to understand their work practices and to improve their work processes by designing appropriate technology. In this context, the ethnographic action research approach could be quite helpful in identifying work practices. Ethnographic action research is an approach combining both action and ethnography research used in ICT projects. It mainly focuses on four steps: Plan, Do, Observe and Reflect (cf. Tacchi et al., 2003). In this contribution, we will reflect on the issues we encountered while carrying out a field study at the European Social Forum.

The rest of the paper is structured as follows: Section 2 describes the related work and section 3 highlights field settings in detail whereas section 4 highlights the research approach followed in our project. Section 5 discusses the implications for conducting field research in ESF settings and the next section briefly discusses the overall project results, followed by a conclusion.

Action Research in Voluntary Organizations:

The related work regarding the technology involvement in voluntary organizations can be classified into three categories. One set of researchers carry out empirical/design work within a single organizational boundary to help in improving internal processes (cf. McPhail et al., 1998; O’Donnell, 2001; Pini et al., 2004; Cheta, 2004; Farooq et al., 2005; Farooq et al., 2006).

The second set of researchers analyze multiple organizations to provide a macro level perspective, but looking primarily at the internal organizational aspects (cf. Pilemalm,2002; Kavada, 2005; O’Donnell et al., 2007; Voida et al., 2011). The third set of researchers focused on the inter-organizational issues of voluntary organizations. In this context, Mclver highlighted the technical requirements for a software application that supports multilingual, collaborative legislative work among transnational NGOs (cf. Mclver, 2004; Mclver, 2004a). Rohde (2004) applied a participatory design approach to electronically networked Iranian NGOs by tailoring a web-based cooperation platform. Stoll et al. have looked at the coordination practices of nonprofit networks and found that this coordination and awareness process is quite complex and that informal interactions also play an important part in the coordination process (c.f. Stoll et al., 2010; Stoll et al., 2010a). Kavada (2009) has analyzed the role of mailing lists in the preparation process of the ESF 2004 to understand the parameters affecting the collective identity in the usage of mailing lists. Fuster Morell (2009) analyzed the governance of online creation communities to understand the relationship between platform providers and a user community with a case study of the ESF collaborative tool “OpenESF”.

Despite the above-mentioned scientific work concerning IT usage in voluntary organizations, there is no study that highlights fieldwork difficulties in such complex transnational settings. In this paper, we will reflect on our experiences of conducting ethnographic action research in this environment.

Field Settings

In order to gather empirical findings, we focused on the European Social Forum (ESF), which is a regional network of the global World Social Forum, attracting European trade unionists, workers and social activists participating in the anti-globalization movement. The organizations participating in the ESF are quite heterogeneous with different political ideologies, application areas and motives, but they come together for joint actions. Initially, the ESF was an annual meeting but later it turned into a bi-annual event. Since its inception in Florence (2002), it has moved to Paris (2003), London (2004), Athens (2006), Malmo (2008) and recently to Istanbul (2010). There are two important organizational entities responsible for organizing tasks--the European Preparatory Assembly (EPA) and the organizing committee.

The European preparatory assembly is an open meeting place scheduled normally 3-4 times a year in a European city. Anybody can attend these meetings and raise his/her voice on issues related to the ESF. It is also the decision-making body for political issues concerning the ESF. On the other hand, the organizing committee is responsible for providing logistics support for the main ESF event. Representatives of the organizing committee usually report their progress at EPA meetings to other European activists.

The rotating organizing responsibility for hosting the ESF means that each time a new set of actors takes on the organizing responsibility; often attracting new activists from the ESF movement. Organizing the ESF is a complex task and typical responsibilities of the organizing committee include: arranging the funding for the event, providing a means for proposing activities by organizations, arranging rooms, supplying interpreters and interpretation equipment, scheduling the activities to available locations and preparing a program, mobilizing activists to attend the ESF, collecting the registration fee from activists, and arranging food and solidarity accommodation for volunteers and other interested activists during the forum.

This highlights the complexity of the organizational settings where geographical and cultural diversity coupled with the differences in working habits and the heterogeneous scope, size and the application areas of the involved civil society actors further complicates the work. Our intention for selecting this as a field setting for our research was to highlight the implications for technology design in such complex social settings.

Figure 1(a): Demonstration at ESF 2010 in Istanbul

Figure 1(b): EPA meeting in Paris October 2010

“ICT4CSO” Objectives and Methodology

We initiated a project called “ICT4CSO” in October 2007. The objective of the project was to analyze the impact of ICT applications on the work practices of social activists and to identify design guidelines for future systems. We were particularly interested to investigate the organization, coordination, knowledge sharing and communication practices of activists, involved in transnational cooperation. The objective of our work was to enrich the body of knowledge on technology use in social settings. Furthermore, identified design guidelines could serve as a baseline for technology appropriation in this socially important sector. In this project, we decided to follow an approach based on the ethnographic action research, so our first task was to understand the organizational dynamics, determine important stakeholders and obtaining their trust in order to make them share their knowledge. The research cycle which we followed is outlined in figure 2 (future steps are in grey).

  • To identify the impact of ICT applications on the work practices of social activists engaged in multicultural co-operations at ESF; and to find better design ideas for future prototypes to better support ESF activists in their work.
Research Design
  • Ethnographic action research

  • 31 semi structured interviews

  • 8 Field Visits (26 days)
  • Grounded theory as analysis tool
Major Research Questions
  •  How communication is carried out in complex networks of heterogeneous social activist networks? How the complex task of organizing the ESF is coordinated?

  • How knowledge transfers take place between different organizing committees? Does modern ICT have a special role in this knowledge transfer process?

  • How do social activists use technology for their communication and collaboration needs in a multicultural environment? What kind of problems do they face?

  • How is technology developed, appropriated and transferred among ESF activists?

Table 1: Overview of ICT4CSO Project

We gathered empirical data from January 2008 to October 2010. In order to collect empirical data we used a triangulation of methods: observation, semi-structured interviews and content analysis of ESF artifacts (websites, mailing lists, and internal documents.). In order to have sufficient empirical data, we decided to gather data from two ESF cases. The first case happened in September 2008; we gathered empirical data, analyzed it and came up with some design guidelines. We also discussed these design guidelines with activists using paper-based mockups. In order to further evaluate the appropriateness of our design ideas, we performed a second analysis cycle after ESF 2010 as shown in figure 2. We again analyzed the new set of data and compared this to the old set of data to understand differences and similarities.

Figure 2: Research Methodology Cycle

We did interviews with 31 different activists who played different roles during the ESF activities such as organizer, volunteer, attendee and technology developer. In order to gain a multicultural perspective, the interviewees were selected to include different countries, including Greece, Italy, France, Germany, Sweden, Turkey, UK, Norway, Czech, Austria and Hungry. Some interviews were conducted during field visits and some were conducted by telephone. All interviews were recorded and the recorded content covered about 20 hours. The content was later transcribed to avoid information loss.

Along with the interviews, we had respondents fill out four e-mail questionnaires and we attended three Skype text chat meetings, whose logs were also preserved. During our investigation period eight field visits were carried out, which lasted for about 26 days. The field visits were carried out during the ESF, EPA meetings and network meetings held in Berlin (Germany), Vienna (Austria), Athens (Greece), Istanbul (Turkey), Paris (France), Malmo (Sweden) and Istanbul (Turkey). During the field visits, we took notes.

In order to conduct an analysis, we relied on a Grounded theory approach (Strauss and Corbin, 1998). We did not establish a hypothesis that we wanted to evaluate at the start of the project, instead we looked for patterns to identify core issues and our assumptions were rooted in empirical data. As a next step, we grouped the core issues and identified design guidelines, which we later compared to the second cycle of investigation after the ESF 2010. As a next step, we plan to design prototypes based on our design ideas (Wulf et al., 2011). These prototypes will be evaluated in real world settings and will then be be realigned according to their effectiveness.

Challenges in the Field

The difficulties associated with an action research approach is well known, as it requires an extensive amount of work and time to understand the organizational structure, influential actors and working methodologies and to develop a trusting relationship. However, these problems are further compounded in the case of voluntary organizations. In the following, we will discuss the implications for fieldwork in the ESF.

Access to the Field

The first methodological consideration was the question of how to carry out empirical work in such loose and fluid organizational networks. One approach was to focus on some participating organizations and to observe how they work under the umbrella of the ESF, or, secondly, to only focus on the meetings of the ESF where all participating actors converged toward each other. It was observed that in order to fully understand the dynamics of communication in such organizational settings, a focus on ESF meetings was more helpful as one could analyze the responses and the feedback of all other stakeholders. This in turn required an extended time, because currently the ESF is held bi-annually. In order to have enough empirical data, it became clear that we had to gather empirical findings of at least two such events. Furthermore, the European preparatory meetings were only scheduled every 3-4 months, so this meant further that in order to gain sufficient empirical data, we needed considerable elapsed time.

Another difficulty was getting access to the physical meetings. The official website of the ESF was not regularly updated and the websites of older ESF forums were also no longer active. We tried to find e-mail contacts of activists involved in the ESF via Internet and emailed a number of them. Luckily, we received a response from one activist who also volunteered for the website maintenance. She invited us to the next EPA meeting and we found the starting point for our involvement. The absence of a central physical office and the limited online presence made accessing this network quite difficult and it took quite some time to find an actual ESF community and information on their physical meetings.

Later on, we found that these networks have a strong personal network structure. Every activist has a strong local network where he/she is based and some of them participate on other broader levels such as European or global networks.. Therefore, these activists, who participate at more than one level (world/national/regional etc.), are the information hub that communicates and connects these different levels of social movements. Once you are able to find a person in this network, even if it is on the local level, you can reach activists even in other geographical locations just through their networking.

Due to the increased virtual presence of online content, an online ethnography (cf. Hine, 2000; Wittel, 2000) approach in fieldwork has also gained recognition. This approach may look suitable for loose social networks like the ESF, which have periodic physical meetings but no central office. It has been observed that most of the social organizations lack a well- designed online dimension due to a lack of financial and human resources. Furthermore, if they are successful in setting up some tools, continuous maintenance is a complex task and software artifacts may disappear over time. As a result, an exclusive online ethnography only, may not be a suitable approach.

Balanced Information Access

Another important obstacle is the difficulty of accessing information. It is always important to understand historical and contextual information, but the majority of voluntary organizations do not maintain any documentation of their work. They normally lack workforce, which actually means that most of the tasks are carried out by only some “dedicated” individuals and only they know firsthand information, which creates limited transparency. In order to deal with this issue, we first analyzed the roles of activists, whether they participate only once as some kind of visitor, or whether they are regular participants , organizers etc. As a result, interviews were of different length and a different set of questions was used based on the interviewees’ affiliation level and background. This made the possibility to gain feedback from different activists quite complicated, as sometimes the same individual carries out most of the tasks. Thus, a multi-perspective view about issues remains absent, since only one individual performs the tasks.

Due to this uneven information among actors, many times conflicting statements appear in interview contents. This makes the situation very difficult, as it turns out to be difficult to know whom to trust. The best approach would be to enlist multiple views on an issue, and then to see where the perceptions of people converge. This should be given more emphasis. Due to rapid changeover of ESF organizers and the absence of an organizational knowledge base, people who remain participants of the process from the beginning onwards, turn into knowledge experts and gain strategic importance. Sometimes, these people may not be willing to share information with researchers attempting to document their knowledge. In the absence of documented knowledge, their personal profile becomes strategically important as a knowledge source.

On the other hand, some activists may refuse to reproduce old information as they become passive and so they may not want to talk about past events. Another important obstacle while conducting the interviews was the availability of activists. During the EPA meetings, it was difficult to engage activists in interviews as EPA meetings also provide them with the chance to (re)establish their own contacts. As a result, we established contacts with potential interviewees and discussed briefly about our work, and only later, we conducted telephonic interviews.

Also social activists are politically sensitive; therefore, social activists need to be sure about your identity before they share any knowledge, as they may fear encountering an agent of some sort. The establishment of trust requires a regular exchange in the form of meetings, but since the EPA meetings are scheduled every 3-4 months, it takes a long time to establish trust with political actors. Since the actors joining the ESF do not belong to a single but rather to different organizations that have their own motivations, the establishment of trust becomes an even more complex task. Furthermore, the organizing committee changes for every ESF, so one has to establish trust again with each new group of actors. However, this can be achieved by participating in the group's activities, such as offering minute writings support during their meetings or the maintenance of websites etc.

It was also observed that some activists do not want to talk about IT issues (despite using e-mail regularly) as they think that they do not have enough knowledge about it. If you ask them to give feedback on ICT usage, they always prefer to refer to other people in the network that are more well-informed technologically. Another important reason for not indulging in information exchange is that there are many researchers focusing on these activist organizations. Being an important platform, the ESF is approached by researchers from social science, political science, organization science, information science etc., but when people from different schools of thought contact them to ask for the same tasks, they become bored quickly. A Swedish activist commented on it in the following words:

“In general, I must say that people here are extremely negative to researchers because there are so many of them. I asked them about you, another German researcher, and they were saying oh no.”[Interview with Swedish Activist 08/08/2008]

Adhoc practices

Another important aspect while working with social organizations is that they do not operate under standard operating procedures, which means that they may behave differently towards the same problem at two different points of time, so planning in advance becomes difficult. As a result, predefined technological solutions may not work, and you always have to think of contingency plans during technology design (cf. Hirsch, 2009). Describing this, one activist commented in the following words:

“You have to be also aware of the limits of the organizational capacities, so it’s very difficult to be very well-organized in the process, you have people that have little time in terms of getting the result within the time table of the forum, because they don’t work full time for the forum but they work for other organizations. They are just participating voluntarily mainly, apart from a little group that is normally in the ESF hosting country and so you have also to take into account this problem” [Interview with Italian Activist 19/02/2010]

Furthermore, the decision-making is not supported by a business rationale; instead, it is carried out by agreement of the actors involved. The implication of this aspect for field research is that technical requirements may change due to changes in the working process. We also experienced a similar problem when after the first stage of our analysis (after ESF 2008) we found that many activists were not happy with the process of reducing the number of activity proposals which made it into the final program.

Some activists doubted that big organizations were able to keep their activity intact and smaller organizations were supposed to combine their activities with other organizations to reduce the program’s contents. As a result, we proposed to design a software prototype on the top of the ESF website, which could graphically show how the merging process took place, thus making it more transparent. However, during the ESF 2010 it was observed that due to a couple of reasons this kind of prototype was not needed anymore. The primary reason was the low number of proposed activities as compared to available logistics and many organizations learned that in order to attract a bigger audience it is better to merge your proposal with other organizations, especially local organizations. As a result, the merging process was not very controversial in the ESF 2010 and most activities remained intact, unless someone wanted to merge his/her activity with others. Similarly, political events can change the priorities at any moment, and they may even affect their working process. Hence, for gathering continuous information it is better to continuously interview activists to acquire updates about their activities.

Multicultural issues

There were also some common problems, which are associated with every multicultural field setting. Some of the activists were unable to understand English. We employed different approaches but the activists who were neither able to speak nor read English were eliminated. Some activists needed the set of questions beforehand to understand them, whereas some activists only sent back the filled-in questionnaires and declined to be interviewed. An activist highlighted this weakness in the following words:

“Most of the people that participate in the ESF in a broad sense do not necessarily have sophisticated foreign language skills, so they don’t have the capacity to maintain a connection internationally.” [Interview with Italian Activist 19/02/2010]

Skepticism about Technology

Some activists were quite skeptical about technology and were of the opinion that instead of being supportive, technology hampers their activities. They think that to rely on technology is not suitable for political work, e.g. it takes less political motivation to join a political mailing list while sitting at home instead of joining a protest. As a result Internet culture has weakened the real political actions. Furthermore, some activists think that due to the diverse backgrounds of those participants organizing the ESF, an IT artifact may not attract all the participating actors. The Swedish activist further commented on this phenomenon in the following words:

“I am a bit skeptical because with these organizations in NOC (ESF 2008 organizing committee) we have nothing in common. There is no basis for the Internet tools. Among them there are maybe a dozen who are really actively interested in the European Social forum.” [Interview with Swedish Activist 08/08/2008]

An important reason for such skepticism is the failure of IT applications to deliver in these settings. Normally, IT introduction in social settings is a volunteer work, having no accountability. As a result, volunteers introduced tools that they liked irrespective of whether they were appropriate or not. Furthermore, most of these applications happened to be immature thus lacking the required functionality. As a result, instead of helping, this made people lose their interest in using technology. One Italian activist described this in the following words:

“To adopt one technology or two to put more force and energy in building a web [site] or not also depends on the personal passions. It was some people that were really into this and they pushed forward and it happened, so it is not a real decision that we want to do that. There is someone who is available to do something, it is ok.” [Interview with Italian Activist 24/02/2008]

Similar comments were made by another activist who was involved with the IT activities for the ESF.

“I think these tools could play a huge role in the events but the people who are coordinating the work of the EPAs just don’t care, they are not from this culture, generation, they do not really use the Internet.” [Interview with French Activist 16/11/2009]

ICT4CSO” Results

In this section, we will briefly describe the results of our project. Our investigation showed that some activists are skeptical about technology use in social forums, but still it does help during the organizing process. The collection of activity proposals, the merging of the activity proposals and the publication of the forum program would become difficult without technological support. There is a major obstacle that these organizations lack funding and human resources to establish appropriate technology systems. Since the inception of the ESF, there have been many initiatives to employ technology support in organizational settings and as a result many different applications have emerged, which later disappeared. Therefore, there is a need for adopting a strategic point of view in this regard. Further details can be accessed in our contribution in Saeed et al., 2009.

In our user-centered evaluation, we found that there are some design deficiencies that hamper activists in using the available web 2.0 platforms. As in the ESF process, some activists participated on behalf of their organizations and some activists in their individual capacity, but on the ESF web platform there is no possibility of distinguishing whether the content is produced by an individual or by an organization. This (whether the content is the result of an individualistic point of view or the view of an organization) could discourage people from participating in the discussions.. Similarly, the web application only allows English language conversations but not all activists were fluent in English, which also hindered communication. In addition, the structure of the website was difficult to explore and finding content related to specific interests was difficult. Furthermore, the user interface elements need to be re-structured. We proposed improving the user interface, designing for multi-lingual collaborations and supporting recommendations and enhanced searching features that help to distinguish between personal and organizational profiles. Further details can be accessed in our paper Saeed and Rohde, 2010.

It was also observed that organizing the knowledge about previous ESFs is quite helpful for the new organizing committee. Nevertheless, the conventional knowledge transfer procedures do not work in this scenario because of a huge asymmetry between knowledge holders and knowledge seekers, once the organization of the ESF is over. We termed this specialized knowledge as nomadic knowledge. The implications of nomadic knowledge transfer have been discussed in our contribution Saeed et al., 2010.

The ESF mailing lists are the main communication tool. Activists use this for information sharing, planning joint actions, information about other parallel social forums, content sharing, for collaborative working and discussing organizational issues. We proposed some design improvements to the mailing list for it to better serve the needs of ESF activists. Further details can be found in our contribution Saeed et al., 2011.

Furthermore, we also looked at how technology infrastructure has evolved over a certain period of time. It was observed that technology design in ESF did not focus on an assessment of actual needs, instead the availability of financial and human resources were the major deciding factors. Due to the changing nature of the event organizers, even the organizing committee does not know the requirements of a system and when they become aware after the event, they have no further interest in documenting this for new organizing committees. As a result, the requirements are gathered by using a hit and trial method which affects the maturity of IT applications. The change of IT infrastructure at each ESF event results in the loss of important information and also the constant change of the system demands the users to become acquainted with the new graphical user interface which lowers their motivation to use the system further (unpublished).


ICT research in voluntary organizations is an important area not only due to scientific challenges but also because of the social responsibility of researchers. Universities and community organizations need to work jointly on action research projects to empower this sector in improving organizational processes. In this paper, we discussed our experiences of a project we carried out at the European Social Forum, where our focus was not only on scientific research but also on benefiting the ESF community from our research results. We briefly discussed the findings of our project that highlight that technology could be an important enabler for this community, but there is need for synchronizing the technology design with their work practices. As most of these organizations rely on a volunteer work force for their functioning, their shortage of time and high turnover may not allow for the development of a structured organizational memory and most of the organizational knowledge resides in some individual brains. The participation in these networks is mostly based on personal interests and if these “knowledgeable” individuals leave the organizational process, they also take away core organizational knowledge. Furthermore, the information flow among all actors is usually not balanced and as a result locating knowledge holders and indulging them in knowledge sharing becomes further difficult. As a result, access to the field, uneven information access, immature work practices, skepticism about technology and language issues are especially challenging for fieldwork in transnational activist settings. Researchers have to be well aware of these problems and develop strategies to deal with these issues in advance to do successful planning and yield meaningful results.


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