(Source: ICA Review, Vol. 90 No. 3, 1997, pp. 56-59)
ICA Internet Development
by Mary Treacy
A Mission to Communicate
Earlier this decade the ICA Authorities stated that, although the ICA Communications Department was highly successful in communicating with the ICA family, steps needed to be taken to ensure that the ICA message reached a wider audience and the Internet was one of the methods to be used by the Secretariat in rising to this challenge.
Based on the successful implementation of the 1994 Electronic Networking Strategy, the ICA Secretariat decided to continue to develop the use of the Internet as a tool for bringing the Co-operative Message to a wider audience.
Background and Global Context
The major strength of co-operatives - their decentralised structure - is also one of their weaknesses and nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of information. Even among otherwise well-informed opinion-makers, politicians, journalists, and so on, there is a lack of understanding about the co-operative form of enterprise which is equally apparent in learned journals, business schools and economic textbooks. The mass media very rarely reports on co-operatives and then only gives negative information about bankruptcies and corruption and not co-operative success stories.
This information gap is even more surprising when one considers the true picture of co-operative business today. At the global level, more than 750 million people are members of co-operatives which are affiliated with the International Co-operative Alliance—and to this must be added many million members of informal, unstructured, or unaffiliated organisations. Co-operatives are market-leaders in agriculture and personal finance in many countries—Canada, the United States, France and Japan to name a few. Around the world they occupy important market shares in five major sectors: consumer retailing, agricultural production and processing, banking and insurance, worker-owned production, and service provision.
ICA’s limited resources has made it impossible in the past to reach the broad public directly. Instead, the organisation has taken advantage of the “multiplier effect” and has mainly focused on its members, partners and identifiable strategic target audiences.
However, recent technological developments have made it possible for the ICA to communicate inexpensively the co-operative message to a wider audience. At ICA we are convinced that one of the most promising directions for the future is the information super-highway. On the one hand, it builds upon a traditional co-operative strength: a non-hierarchical, bottom-up structure. On the other, it helps to compensate for a major co-operative weakness: its decentralised, diversified structure, which makes information-collection and information-distribution both expensive and difficult.
The Internet allows direct and immediate communication with the public, unfiltered by and actually bypassing the news media. The Internet, especially the World Wide Web, will multiply the effectiveness of our communications work, making publications, case studies, promotional materials, etc. available simultaneously to both journalists and the general public. The Web could greatly multiply the effectiveness of advocacy work, enabling the ICA to draw support and move large numbers of people to action. The Internet allows us to reach multiple target audiences and to provide a wide variety of information resources which the individual can draw on for his own use.
The Internet can also considerably reduce communications costs at the same time as it increases possibilities for democratic participation.
Electronic Networking Project
The ICA’s head office in Geneva began researching electronic networking possibilities in 1992 and started implementing a strategy based on this research in April 1994.
The first challenge, still far from being realised, was to make full use of the communications possibilities of the Internet within the ICA family. We define this family to include our Head office, Regional Offices and Project Offices, 14 Specialised Organisations and Committees in different parts of the world, development partners, and—of course—our more than 200 member organisations.
In 1994 the ICA also began a project with the University of Wisconsin Center for Co-operatives to set up an on-line searchable database known as the Co-operative Gopher. This database now contains over 700 documents on co-operative issues, the ICA and its activities and information which has been contributed by member organisations and others. The database is consulted approximately 400 times every month, mainly by university students and researchers.
In February 1996 the ICA set up an International Co-operative Web Site in Geneva. The English part of the site alone now holds over 100 ICA web pages with links to over 300 other web sites and to over 50 subject folders on the ICA/UWCC Co-operative Gopher. Pages are also available in Spanish, French and German. At the present moment the site has approximately 800 visits per month, but this number is set to increase once a determined effort is made to advertise the web site, which will be done once we are confident that our interactive web pages will be able to deal with the bulk of additional requests for information.
During the coming four years the ICA Communications Programme will continue to develop and make use of this new way of reaching a wider audience, taking full advantage of the Web’s ability to display video, photos, graphics and audio but also ensuring that people with slower connectivity can easily access large amounts of text which will be made available on the site via the ICA/UWCC Co-operative Gopher.
The ICA Web Site is currently being reorganised to allow easy accessibility to larger amount of information. The new site will also include pages in Portuguese, Swedish, Italian and other languages.
We also have plans to make the new ICA Web Site more interactive, allowing
co-operative researchers, ICA members and others to contribute information
directly by electronic means.
Our plans to create ICA Databases and make these available on the Internet means that rather than being available on one or two computers in selected articles, the information will be accessible to all ICA Offices and other partners and organiations interested in the Movement.
The ICA Communications Department will also continue to use the possibilities which the net affords for collaboration with other organisations and individuals.
A new Working Group within the ICA Communications Committee has also been set up to advise on the development of Networks for increasing Trade and Communications between Co-ops (see project proposal on page 63).
Additionally, the Communications Department is pursuing joint collaboration with the University of Moncton to make available via the Internet a historical database on ICA Membership based on a survey carried out by the University. Initially in French, we envisage that this data will eventually be available in several languages.
External voluntary collaborators have been secured to allow for a regular verification of the over 300 links to other co-operative pages from the ICA Web Site to ensure that they are active, thus reducing ICA staff time. When available, interns also assist with creating new pages.
Funding has been received from the Registry of Co-operatives and Co-operatives Policy Branch, New South Wales Government for the part-time services of a MA graduate for Web Development, specifically developing a part of the site targeting young people.
The Department is also collaborating with the University of Leicester and with the Society of Co-operative Studies (UK) to make interactive forms available on the Masters Programmes on Co-operation in the first instance and in setting up a database of Co-operative Research in the second.
Plans are currently being made to find the necessary funding and collaborators
to set up a project on distance learning, taking advantage of the possibilities
provide by the Internet.
Finally, the ICA Communications Department and the Senior Advisor Member Services will work together during the coming months to encourage ICA Members to take advantage of all these possibilities and will publish pages on the Internet as a service to members. Those organisations who are interested in taking advantage of this service can contact the ICA Secretariat for details.
It must be considered however that reaching a wider audience can engender significant demands for more and diversified information. Exponential growth usually occurs with improved access to information. Once the channels are open, the organisation must be able to deal with the increased demand and clearly demonstrate its responsiveness to its various target audiences or groups. These developments will have an impact on human resources, and on the nature of the tasks they perform and the skills they require.
This phenomenon has already been experienced since ICA has been connected to the Internet and has launched its Web site. A good percentage of ICA information work and correspondence now takes place via E-mail. There has been a dramatic increase in the requests for information from people from outside the ICA family, and the functions of the ICA documentalist have changed accordingly.
In the immediate future, we consider that the ICA Web site will continue to provide a service to those people within the movement, to researchers on enterprise development and to students actively seeking information on Co-operation.
In the long term, when the ICA Web site has been adapted to include interactive forms which will produce automatic responses, time and effort will given to publicizing the ICA Web site more widely. This will be achieved through the use of Web Site Promotional Organisations, the design of advertisement banners for distribution to ICA members and university co-op departments and other international and national apex organisations with an on-line presence on the Net.