Technology is About Connections

Last week I had a chance to spend a significant amount of time with my good friend and oh-so- respected colleague, St. Catharines based Dianne Renton who is the owner of Trendspire Canada Inc.

While ostensibly we were working, we also spent a lot of time catching up, reminiscing, and brainstorming. As always, she pushed my way of thinking.

We were startled to realize that it’s been almost fifteen years since she and I first worked together. We had jointly responded to a request for proposals and to our surprise were hired over much more experienced consultants to deliver community development training to staff within the City of Burlington’s community services division. 

From there, after identifying an unmet and growing need for information and resources about community, we subsequently designed a concept for a magazine. A few days later, Dianne called me bubbling with excitement.

“I’ve got a great idea, I’ve got a great idea”, she said. “Let’s do our magazine as a BBS”.

Not knowing what it was, I replied none too enthusiastically, “What the heck is a BBS?” 

Turns out a BBS was an electronic version of a bulletin board that allowed people to use their phone lines to dial in and connect with others.

If you keep in mind that this was pre-Internet and I was a technopeasant, it is significant that we dropped the idea of a traditional magazine and somehow managed to build an interactive, graphic, fun interface that actually depicted a community.  Even more significant is that we got
upwards of 150 people to connect online. No mean feat considering that they had to pay a membership fee as well as struggle with the complexities of dial-in telephone modems. 

In hindsight it’s clear that the driving force then, as it remains today, is that there are a significant number of people motivated and eager to share stories, resources and meaningful conversations about their communities.

From this beginning and, despite our propensity to butt heads as the result of often differing approaches, Dianne and I are still working together all these years later.

It got me thinking about how much I value her gift of always providing a visionary and inspiring approach. While she would never describe herself as a geek, she definitely is one, having a broad-based understanding of many types of technology. What makes her rare is that she is always grounded by a community development approach and intentionally works to empower end users and reduce their dependency on technology specialists.

I’ve learned a lot of other things from Dianne along the way about how to, and how not to, use technology. 

For instance, I’ve learned that it’s dangerous and irresponsible to leave decisions about information technology in the hands of one person or even an entire department of IT specialists. Where technology is concerned, everyone within an organization or business has a role to play…albeit planning, policy development, branding, communicating, relationship tracking, networking, storing resources, training, research etc. 

I’ve learned there is rarely one best software and that one of the greatest challenges these days is just determining the one that best fits. Even then it will need to be integrated with other software in order to meet a variety of needs.

And, even though the look of the final result will always be important, making it all work together and function is critical and needs to be done first. After all, form follows function.

She has also been a role model for ethical leadership. While there were many times when the money would have been appreciated and she could have chosen to install a specific software solution at the request of a client, she wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t the most appropriate and sustainable choice.

Dianne taught me that everything involving technology is a work-in-progress, just when you get used to a specific product it’s time to change, and, there is no quick fix.

The reality of technology is that it’s much more complicated than everyone thinks it is. I learned from her that working in technology is a tough place to be. It’s hard to get it right when there are so many options and so many people to please. Additionally, if anything goes wrong it’s the geek that gets blamed.
Most importantly she taught me that building communities online is never really about the technology. Technology is secondary. The challenge is always finding ways to make it simple to build connections and relationships among people.

Thank goodness that technology has evolved since our challenging beginning 15 years ago. And thank goodness for my wise and brilliant friend who has helped me grow from a technopeasant, to a technosurf, to someone who sometimes might even sound like she knows what she’s talking about. 

Posted on 11-02-08

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