Thursday, May 22, 2008

Breaking the silence | Time to keep blogging

I am back to this blogging business after more than a month of inactivity in my publishing space. Many things have happened during the last six months; all interesting, all inspiring, all part of a very cool learning process. I just needed some time to reflect on these experiences and the learnings they brought with them and that will shape the ones to come.

This reflexivity moment also allowed me to deal with bureaucratic processes that I had just plainly ignored in the last months: getting my travel to Poland and Latvia reimbursed, dealing with my US working visa, and planning for the work for next year.

Back in action now! Glad it is over, but I must admit that I enjoyed having a bit of time to pause and digest everything I've learned in the last year.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Lessons from Riga | Networks are about personal relations and trust

There are so many interesting things that happened during these two days of the Telecenters Forum... many lessons and ways for the network to move forward. The most relevant learning I am taking with me back to Seattle is that networks are about people who care for each other personally, first and foremost.

It is difficult to convey in few words how relevant this lesson is. Networks, as a form of organization
, do not provide much value if personal relations, trust, and care for each other at a more deeper level is not present in a group. During these two days became very evident that we see value on a European network because the people who are part of it at this stage care for each other as individuals first, and community leaders and e-inclusion advocates second.

For networks to be valuable there needs to be a commitment to put that bit of extra effort, extra hours of work to share, learn, and take advantage of each other's experiences. All of that exist simply because we consider each other friends and care about each other's work. Competition is not a word that you will find in this group, and I am very happy to see that.

From Barcelona, to Riga, to wherever else this initiative takes us we must have this lesson very present: we are friends, we trust each other, and we want each other's project to succeed just as our own.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Telecenter Leaders Forum in Riga | building a network for collaboration in Europe

My work has brought me once again to this wonderful city for a gathering of Telecenter leaders representing almost every country in the European Union + some others. The effort to bring together organizations from around the EU working on e-inclusion programs started last year in Barcelona. In this second meeting of this nascent EU telecenters network these organizations will discuss ways to strengthen collaboration, establish venues to learn from each other, and find a common voice to promote this programs among governments and the private sector.

60 people, 43 organizations representing 23 countries from the European Union + 3 North American + 2 Mexicans. Old friends, new friends, all together discussing for two days the opportunities for collaboration and networking. With Riga as the setting... what else could we ask for!!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Building your trainers ICT skills | ECDL certificate as an alternative for train of trainer programs

Having qualified trainers is one of the most important elements of e-skills training programs, this is well known, not really rocket science. However, the way that NGOs approach train of trainer (TOT) programs really varies depending on the needs of the target population, the social mission of the organization, the availability of human capital (i.e. trainers willing to improve their skills if necessary), and the resources available to train them.

Some NGOs develop their own TOT programs combining a variety of skills (e-skills, teaching methodology for groups with special needs, cultural sensitivity, etc). Others, use readily available e-skills training programs that lead to official certification, and this is the case of
LIKTA and its NGO partners in Latvia. LIKTA provides resources to its NGO partners for train the trainer programs that require trainers to become ECDL (European Computer Driver LIcense) certified, ensuring not only the quality of the trainers that the partners recruit, but offering also an incentive for them to build ICT skills that are transferable to the broader labor market.

For many trainers, the income they receive for teaching e-skills to underserved populations is an additional income aside to their every day jobs. For others, working with NGOs as trainers is the main and sole source of income they bring home. In either case, improving trainers quality and ability to teach while providing an incentive such an ECDL certificate, which by the way is expensive and out of the reach to many,is definitely a very wise strategy:
  • It is a smart use of NGO resources: time and money | instead of channeling resources to develop the actual ICT skills component of TOT - no need to reinvent the wheel
  • NGOs end up with qualified trainers with transferable skills in the labor market (either currently employed outside the NGO, or building experience for future employment)
NGOs working with a variety of groups (disabled, elderly, etc.) can bring "expert" trainers that help these groups with "specialized" teaching approaches. LIKTA's partner in Ventpils, the Digital Center, provides training for deaf and blind or visually impaired people using this strategy and, as the NGO director reported, they think it is a successful approach.

Some food for thought...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Field research in Latvia | e-inclusion projects in Preili and Ventspils

On Wednesday and Thursday during our visit to Latvia, we had the opportunity to travel to the southern and western provinces of this country. Since there are many commonalities between the two e-inclusion projects, I decided to write about them jointly and point in separate posts to unique features of the e-skills training programs of these organizations. First, a brief intro to Preili and Ventspils, as we all know locality matters.

On Wednesday, we traveled to Southern Latvia to visit one of LIKTA's partner the Society Preili NGO centre, in a beautiful town called Preili located in the Latgale region. This region was declared one of the poorest in the newly expanded European Union, and similar to what we witnessed in Bialystok, Poland, the lack of opportunities has caused a significant migration of the workforce to Ireland and the UK. The region main economic activity is agriculture and of the most important sources of jobs is a big dairy farm, located at the heart of the city. This region has a strong Russian population

On Thursday, field research took us to Western Latvia to Ventpils, a beautiful port city located in the Kurzeme region and in the only part of the Baltic Sea that doesn't freeze during the winter. The city is also known for its Universities which attract a large population of students from all over the country. We visited the Digital Center of Ventspils. The city's main economic activities revolve around the port, the Universities, a chemical plant, and some small and medium enterprises.

During these two days, we interviewed NGO staff, trainers, and trainees. We visited the training facilities, and another important ICT public access point: libraries

Cultural Note 4 Revisited: On women in Latvia

I must say, this is the first time that I visit a country were women are the center of any possible activity in society. I've heard about women in Latvia been much more active in different economic, social, and every day circles than men... this is an understatement. I've never been surrounded by so many motivated women eager to always improve themselves, find the next thing, and been completely outgoing and outspoken. I must be honest, I loved it!!

I shared with you
before how hard was for me to engage men in conversation while doing the interviews for the research. Well, with women I didn't have that problem and actually the problem became having enough time to capture their experiences and motivation with the e-skills training, enough time to capture their stories. I tried my best.

I asked during my interviews why women seem to be more active than men and more willing to learn new things and a I got a wide range of responses influenced, of course, by people's own stories and personal experiences. However, my interpreter Gatis, a very nice smart men by the way, explained to me that during Soviet times the collectivization of work brought women into spheres that were solely dominated by men (factories, farms, etc).

The Soviets even created an award called The Labor Hero to be granted to all those men and women whose hard work - work as in labor - had made a difference in their communities.The younger generation of women for whom the Soviet occupation is a historical memory are taken this full participation to heart too.

In the centers we visited during our research, almost all the trainees, trainers, and NGO workers were women of all ages. All of those demanding the NGOs to provide more e-skills training programs were women. There is something about labor heroes, I guess.
Once again, the advantage of having good interpreters and local friends for that cultural immersion!

(My thanks to Katya Fedotova for the correction on my note)

Understanding LIKTA's work on e-inclusion | The project Latvia@World

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to meet with Mara Jacobsone and her team at the LIKTA office in Riga. The Latvian Information and Communications Technology Association (LIKTA) is a professional NGO that encompasses the ICT industry and ICT professionals. Established in 1998, LIKTA works to promote the development of the information society, ICT education and e-skills, and to encourage the growth of the ICT industry. LITKA represents over 80 organizations from the ICT industry, research, and educational institutions.

Of particular relevance for our discussion on e-skills and employability is LIKTA's initiative Latvia@World. The goal of this initiative is to provide opportunities for different undeserved groups to acquire the basic skills needed for using computers and the Internet while strengthening social networks at the local and national level through participation and cooperation. Within this e-inclusion initiative, LIKTA partners with local social organizations in different regions of the country providing them with training materials and train-of-trainer programs to build the e-capacity of these organizations. During this field research, we will have the opportunity to visit LIKTA's social partners and learn more about their work in two locations: Preili, in southern Latvia and Ventspils, a port town in the west side of the country.

Something that is worth mentioning is that LIKTA is an special kind of NGO since through their work the organization is able to reach and bring together three different spheres that affect significantly e-inclusion initiatives: 1) The social organizations or NGOs sphere; 2) The private sector sphere; and 3) The government sphere. Finding ways in which these three spheres intersect is very unique of the work LIKTA does.

The details of these intersections will become more clear in the next pos
ts

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Fighting misperceptions about disabled people in society and in the labor market | key component of employability programs

The active participation of NGOs in promotion campaigns that help society and the labor market change their perceptions about what disabled people can accomplish, may seem as a small step forward towards reaching employability goals, but it is actually a very important one. Similar to what we learned in Poland, for a long time disabled people were not given the same educational and work opportunities because of the misconception of what they can achieve as citizens and in their professional life.

Changing these misconceptions is crucial for opening the much needed doors to the labor market. Through campaigns, awareness workshops, and active participation in policy discussions organizations like Apeirons create a more welcoming and enabling environment for disabled people in the job market. In Latvia there is a wide spread problem of people drinking and driving and becoming disabled because of car crash accidents. The problem is endemic and wide spread and through prevention campaigns organization not only fight prejudice against disabled people but also help prevent one of the main causes for people becoming disabled. I can't underscore enough the importance of comprehensive approaches at all levels. No contribution is small!

These are some of the posters for an awareness campaign that Apeirons organized together with Art Students here in Riga:

Mobility and Independence for Disabled People





Drink, Drive, and Join the Club











More pictures of the poster exhibition are in my flickr

Monday, March 3, 2008

The work of Apeirons | providing e-skills and employability programs for disabled people the Latvian way

On Monday, I had the opportunity to visit Apeirons and learn about the work this organization is doing on the area of e-skills training and employability for disabled people. Although this connection between e-skills and employment is the focus of this research, it is not possible to discuss this connection without understanding the broad range of activities that organizations like Apeirons do to integrate into society people with physical disabilities.

As I mentioned, Apeirons has a range of programs but there are three that are particularly relevant to the area of employability:
  1. The organization provides e-skills training (basic and advanced) in their location here in Riga, but it also reaches smaller cities and rural population through its Mobile Classroom that was donated by HP.
  2. Apeirons is an official certifier for accessibility standards in offices, buildings, etc. The government recently enacted a mandate for all new buildings in the country to be accessible for disabled people and the organization works with architects to certified these accessibility standards. It also works with other NGOs to help them improve and adapt physical spaces to make them accessible.
  3. The organization developed an innovative online data base for people looking for employment where job-seekers and employers have the opportunity to learn about each other. A very interesting component of this data base is the use of video clips of the job seekers where people with disabilities introduce themselves, their interests, and disclose to employers the type of disability they have.

Similar to what we learned with the Foundation Supporting Mathematicians and IT Specialists in Poland, e-inclusion and e-skills programs for disabled people that incorporate employability goals work with an integrated approach that allows the organization to provide needed skills, improve access and work conditions making job spaces more adequate for the needs of disabled people, and connect job-seekers with employers. Once again, an integrated approach is the way to go.

On the road to Riga, Latvia | Visiting Apeirons and LIKTA

Hellooooo Riga!! What an amazingly beautiful city this is. I'd heard many things about it, but the city really exceeded my expectations. I arrived in Riga late on Sunday after 8 hours of bus ride from Bialystok. It was very pleasant for the most part, with the small little detail that the bus driver was running the heat in the bus full power. The temperature inside the bus = 20 C, the temperature when got out of the bus = -5 C - I got a bad bad cold.

My field research in Latvia started on Monday, when I visited Apeirons - an NGO that works with disabled people in many areas, including e-skills training -. But before sharing my notes of all the things I've learned during these two days, I would like to give some brief Latvian context to understand a bit more my learnings so far.

Latvia is a very culturally rich country that gained its independence from Soviet Occupation in 1991. After a decade of painful economic reform the country enjoyed a period of growth that is starting to overheat the economy causing a sky-rocketing inflation, and a significant migration of the Latvian labor force to Ireland and the UK; very similar to the situation in Poland. Unemployment rates vary per region but on average Latvia has between 6% - 8.5% (have in mind that although the rates are artificially low since to some extent is driven by migration of the workforce).

People in Riga are super polite, nice, and the women are all very nicely dressed. My interpreter told me that women in Latvia dress up even to go to the super market. I haven't had the chance to walk much around the city beyond my walks to and from meetings so I haven't experienced much of that cultural immersion I described in a previous post. Something that is becoming really clear, from interviews specially, is that women are much more outgoing and talkative than men. I am a very talkative person myself and during the interviews it was hard for me to get men talking openly without me asking questions 1-5. Women are also more active in the e-skills projects, as trainers, as trainees, as NGO staff... will share later why this is the case

Innovative Partnerships | NGOs, libraries, and e-skills programs

One of the most interesting aspects of the work that the Institute for Responsible Business (RBI) is doing is trying to connect libraries and librarians to e-skills training programs. This is also true in the case of one of the organizations that I am doing research right now in Latvia (sorry the blog is off by two days, will update very soon).

As my college Kara would argued, libraries are centerpieces for community development in many countries of the work, and in Eastern Europe this is right on target. My experience in Poland with the RBI's work strongly supports Kara's conception of libraries as institutions that not only promote knowledge, but also build communities, build and strengthen social networks. It is also true that libraries and librarians, in many cases, are not fully aware of the potential and innovative uses of the space for providing something beyond public access to computers. I am not generalizing, of course, but this seems to be a common problem across the countries I have visited during this trip. It is rare to find a library where e-skills training happens, and this is definitely a missed opportunity. Librarians need to think more innovative about their work and about the importance of the institutions they represent to promote values of e-inclusion in the community. Public access in libraries is not enough to make these institutions relevant to today's information and communication needs.

A great grassroots example of how libraries can actually work towards this goal, is the partnership between the RBI and the Library Ikonkas (public access points) in the Podlasie region of Poland. The RBI realized the potential of this partnership and organized a workshop inviting all the librarians from the region to a workshop to share how its volunteer trainer program works, the value of an e-skills training program in the libraries, and the value for and from the librarians to be active participants in projects of this kind. The workshop was very successful in terms of participation, 50/118 libraries in the region were represented. As my friend Pawel says: "Little by little". The picture was taken by the RBI during this workshop, for the full photo collection go here

Right now, the RBI is starting to work with 12 Library Ikonka points around the region. I had the opportunity to join a workshop organized for volunteers in Wapi, a small city one hour and half south from Bialystok. I had the opportunity to chat with two of the librarians and they were very excited about this innovative use of their institution, of their space. In their own words: "We want to feel relevant, we want libraries to be relevant in the communities. We also want to be better versed in e-skills and this is a great way of doing it".

I will share some pictures that Pawel took at the Wapi workshop later...

What motivates seniors and pensioners to become basic e-skills savy?

Although a bit outside of our employability focus, it is worth discussing the factors that motivate seniors and pensioners to learn basic e-skills in the Podlasie region of Poland. Under the e-inclusion framework of the European Union, the promotion of active aging and social inclusion of seniors and retired pensioners is one of the building blocks behind the effort towards building an inclusive European information society.

As I discussed previously, the e-skills training program provided by the Institute for Responsible Business definitely contributes towards this goal. Something worth noticing is that the motivations for the beneficiaries we interviewed are not only relevant for Poland but must surely they apply to other countries of the region, specially the newly EU members. Since accession to the EU, countries in Eastern Europe are facing a massive migration of workers primarily to UK, Belgium, and Ireland. This is particularly true in Poland and Latvia (I wonder if my college Mark West is finding the same in Bulgaria, Romania, and the Czech Republic where he is doing research)

This migration is damaging local economies (many of the people migrating are highly-skilled workers), and separating families; specially in regions like Podlasie where the family is the center around which the whole society revolves. For seniors and older people fighting the feeling of social isolation and separation from their families, learning basic e-skills, is not only a need but a question of survival. During our group interviews with the trainees at the RBI digital literacy training, almost all of them said that one of the biggest contribution of the training program was precisely the possibility of communicating with their sons, daughters, and grandchildren living abroad. In the trainees themselves own words: "We are learning how to be alive, how to feel useful in this fast-changing world. We are learning how to be relevant within our family, how to be humans"


Powerful and inspiring words... worth sharing

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Volunteers as your main asset | Motivations for young people to become trainers for Institute for Reponsible Business (RBI)

Before discussing the motivations of the young volunteer trainers we interviewed in the last three days, a bit more information on the Institute for Responsible Business (RBI for its acronym in Polish) is needed. The RBI was created in 2003 as a social organization to promote entrepreneurship and social development. The Institute has different programs, among them: a portal for responsible consumption, CSR training, e-skills basic training etc.

The mission and entrepreneurial values that guides the RBI are clearly reflected in the people they attract to the e-skills training programs. From volunteers, program coordinators, to the trainees themselves, all of them share a common value: "Help others, help yourself". This value may seem way too optimistic in a world ridden by individualist perspectives of life, but it is actually quite present in the activities that RBI promotes and quite important to understand the motivation of young people to become trainers in basic e-skills program for seniors and pensioners.

During our visit, we interviewed 9 volunteers, 3 program coordinators, and two groups of beneficiaries with 15 people each. The trainers, and also the program coordinators, consistently expressed that among the main motivations was the opportunity that this volunteer program offered to be able to share their know-ledge, do something useful with their free time, and gain valuable skills and experience that they could use to find employment. As I discussed in my previous post, one of the biggest challenges for young people graduating from University to find jobs is lack of any experience in their CVs.

In Andrew's, a program coordinator, own words... "we [trainers and trainees] mutually help each other to grow, to find our inner self and the kind of human we want to be"

A brief note on Methodology | Group and Situational interviews as a more efficient way to gather evidence

As researchers traveling to distant countries and cultures for a brief period of time we often become so hungry for information and evidence that we forget the many ways in which we can gather very valuable information without been intrusive with people's time and every day activities. Interviewing people one-on-one is one of the most common research activities in this type of research experiences, and there is a lot of value from getting one person for one full hour only giving attention to your questions and interests.

However, this comes at a price. Often times, the long interview process interrupts people daily activities and it limits the number of stories that you can gather since there is only limited available time during the day and during the trip. A nice alternative however, are the group and situational interviews where you gather an X number of people in a space where they can share their background, their motivation for taking e-skills training programs, their goals in life, and the contribution in their own lives from having basic e-skills knowledge.

I had done some group interviews before, but during the trip to Poland group and situational interviews became the norm more than the exception, and I must say it was very productive and uniquely valuable way for me to understand culture, locality, perception of technology, sense of community, etc. Walking with volunteer trainers from the IRB program around Bialystok, gathering a group if senior trainees to discuss their experiences, their stories, talking to a group of disabled people while in a break from their ECDL training, sharing dinner, etc., gave me such a thorough understanding of these programs, of the many stories, of the many paths of life that bring people together that I couldn't have gotten through individual interviews alone.

A good learning experience for me as a researcher and I hope a lesson that reminds us every day that the hunger for "data" can't not lead us to interrupt in people's lives, much less to de-contextualized their experiences from the community they belong while we interview them

Employability through a different lens | relevance of e-skills programs to the local context is crucial

One of the most challenging aspects of doing research with e-skills and employability programs it is precisely the existence of multiple definitions and goals of "employability". It is not possible to look at employability programs through the same lens since it is this same diversity of lenses that brings the variety of contexts and needs in these contexts to life. Each with its own advantages and its own challenges.

In the case of the Foundation Supporting Mathematicians and IT specialists in Warsaw, the advantages in relation to employability is the fact that the city has almost a natural unempl
oyment rate (5% or so). It is a vibrant economy and this vibrancy is reflected in the amount and qualities of jobs available. The key point for this organization is how to provide a bridge between disabled people and the job market. Not easy, not less challenging (remember my post about prejudices against people with disabilities in the labor market) but relevant to the local context and its target group

The work of the Institute for Responsible Business falls under a different category and we need to use a different employability lens to understand and appreciate the contribution an value of the e-skills program towards the economic and social development of the Podlasie region. The IRB provides basic e-skills training programs for seniors and pensioners through 6 community technology centers. Along with this, the IRB offers opportunities for young people to become the trainers of these programs and gain some important skills and experience that can improve the chances of them finding employment once they finish school.

There are many important contributions of a program of this kind, two are particularly innovative and relevant for this discussion:
  1. By engaging young people as trainers for senior or pensioners this program narrows the generational digital divide and foster the feeling among youth of "giving back to their community", it strengthens the feeling of community.
  2. By offering young people the opportunity to gain skills such as team work, group management, culture of responsibility, etc., the program provides a badly needed bridge between students and the labor market. As it will be more evident when I discuss some of the main motivations of students to become volunteer trainers, one of the biggest challenge young people face to find a job is the lack of experience. The IRB volunteer work offers opportunities to build some of these valuable job skills.
Relevance to the local context is one of the most important factors to understand different employability programs.

Important facts about the Podlasie region | locality matters

Bialystok is located in the north-east of Poland and it is part of the Podlasie Voivodeship or province. This province is home to a wide diversity of ethnic groups that throughout history have made this site their home. Polish, Belorussians, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Tatar communities settled down in this province making Podlasie one of the most culturally diverse regions of this country. My friend Pawel elegantly described the region as the "historical bridge between East and West"

The variety in cultures brought with it a variety in religions and ways of life. Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Jewish, and Muslim groups sharing a land rich in natural resources and rich in history. This confluence of cultures nourished a sense of tolerance towards diversity creating a sense of community and "locality" that leaves its marks in the architectural and social environment of the region.

Bialystok was created in the 16th century and a century later became a powerhouse of the textile industry after Lodz. Similar to other regions in the country, the WWII wasn't particularly forgiven. The Nazis murdered half of the the city's population, including almost all the Jews, and destroyed most of the industrial infrastructure. After the war, investments targeted the reconstruction of industry and infrastructure. Bialystok is also the home of Hammenhof, a philologist that created the language Esperanto to foster peace and international communication

Agriculture is one the main economic activities in the region, and the accession to the European Union hit hardly the small farmers who were not equipped to compete with bigger and consolidated farmers. Today, the unemployment rate in Podlasie is around 20%, four times higher than in Warsaw and almost double the national average.

It is under this context that the Institute for Responsible Business (IRB)developed an initiative to provide e-skills to seniors and pensioners of the region, and with it, an opportunity to young people to become more active in their communities and gain important job skills such as team work, group management, individual responsibility, etc. Just as Podlasie is described as the bridge between East and West, the IRB is a bridge between generations (youth and senior) and a bridge between life as a student and life as a responsible professional.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cultural Note 3: never underestimate the artists behind posters and calendars

Living in a culture of mass production, it is easy to underestimate the creativity and talent that is behind the products we buy. There is not better example of this that the super wide variety of posters and calendars we find in bookstores or local shops. We don't think much about the artists behind, not until you visit the Museum of Posters in a lovely area of Warsaw called Wilanow. Polish artists have taken the quality of artistry behind posters and calendars to the next level.

I had a couple of hours between meetings to visit the Museum of Posters. At the beginning, I was a bit reluctant to go, didn't think it was very interesting, not very appealing. Once again, ignorance is our worst enemy. The Museum, although small, is an amazing display of the quality of artists that this society produces. I won't think about the art quality behind posters and calendars in the same way.

When you visit countries while doing research it is easy to forget how important and necessary is that cultural immersion. You learn about societies in a different way, not better not worst, simply in a different way since there is no much chance to spend hours in museums, cafes, and architectural tours. But we shouldn't forget that through history, urban design, and food many aspects and qualities of societies surface... this is just as important for our work as our endless meetings.

If you come to Warsaw, definitely visit this museum if you have the chance

e-skills and employability | An integrated approach is the way to go

Regardless of the target group, something is becoming very clear to me: NGOs working on e-skills and employability programs need to design integrated approaches that help their beneficiaries from A to Z in the employment path. Ad hoc programs that only tackle A or Z of this path are not as suitable for increasing employment opportunities for marginalized groups, regardless of the type of group and regardless of socio-economic context. I know that for many of us this is not new, but I still think that is valuable to remind ourselves and others of the importance of an integrated approach. It is not an easy approach, but it is possible.

From my experience in other research and from all the things I learned from the Foundation's work, I believe there are three building blocks that are crucial in employability programs:
  1. Training programs and workshops | to provide the tools that allow people to literally do their job.
  2. Employment services | to provide the links between employer and employee or between beneficiaries and credit and government institutions in case of entrepreneurial programs
  3. Counseling services | to provide career and legal advice to beneficiaries. One of the most innovative aspects of the Foundation's work on this front is the provision of legal advice to educate disabled people about their rights related to the labor market and otherwise.
I am not suggesting that "all" the e-skills and employability programs must have these components in order to succeed since context and locality matters. The government disposition, the business culture, social and economic factors are all necessary conditions that must be taken into account for designing these type of programs. However, I can't underscore enough the importance of an integrated approach that tackles different aspects of the employability path. This is definitely the way to go.

On the importance of education in employability programs | Lessons from EdukON online

Many of the organizations working on e-skills programs, offer different types of training: official certified programs such as ECDL, NGO certified programs such as Digital Literacy or the UP Curriculum, to name a few. However, few of them have training programs for professional development that reengage target populations with education and those who provide this link often simply connect beneficiaries with some classes in Community Colleges or Vocational Institutes. In the United States, some NGOs offer this type link.

What is missing, are programs that re-engage individuals not marginally but fully in the educational path for vocational degree for example, or even for a University degree. Although not an expert here, the reasons seem obvious. On the one hand, it is expensive and difficult for NGOs to co-create programs that have the stamped of academic institutions, but offer "specialized" training or are adequate for groups such disabled or senior citizens. On the other hand, people feel intimidated by the idea of attending for the first time or returning to a brick and mortar institution. One must remember that in many countries, this is definitely the case in Poland, these institutions failed to offer this "specialized" educational opportunity for disabled people in the first place.

It is difficult, but not impossible! The experience of the Foundation Supporting Physically Disabled Matemathicians and IT Specialists may have some relevant lessons that other NGOs interested in providing this link can use for their own programs.

As part of the program funded by the European Structural Funds (EFS), the Foundation is developing together with four partners an e-learning platform: EdukON online. Through this project, 10 educational packages were created using ICT as the platform to deliver the training and integrating some face to face training as well (blended method). As part of this educational package, the Foundation will offer vocational training for disabled people, and the opportunity to earn a two-year University degree in Graphic Design.

Patrycja ┼╗ytkowska, the program coordinator, explained that this program is very important for disabled people because graphic design is a career you can pursuit regardless of the physical limitations one may have. Embedded within this program is the constant motivation for disabled people to be active, to increase their self-esteem. It is a form of "critical pedagogy". The program will be implemented soon and I look forward to see what lessons we can learn from it. It is definitely very innovative.

Personal motivation | key ingredient for employment

During our interviews with trainees and trainers, something became really clear: Personal motivation is a key ingredient in the employability equation. The key for organizations like the Foundation is to help people find that motivation or incentive those to exploit it more when already present. I must admit that I never worked on a research project before involving disabled people and the Foundation, its staff, and beneficiaries really educated me about their potential, their needs, and their professional and personal goals. Ignorance is definitely our worst enemy.

Many of the trainees we interviewed during this field research had something in common: They all had a career and professional life before they got sick and felt into the poverty and activelessness track. Danuta was a teacher in primary school, before she felt ill 17 years ago with an extreme form of rheumatism that caused her to loose her job. As she bluntly put it: "They [the government] scratch me from the teaching profession for life. For them, I had no place in schools despite all my experience and dedication". Maciej (not actual name), another trainer and former trainee, was an art curator that felt sick and also lost his job. "I even tried to learn some ICT programs that could help me stay in my job, but to no avail". Another lady, was a classical musician. And the stories go on and on.

The motivation of people that previously had an active and professional life is very different from those that have been living under the "culture of unemployment" for a long time, if not all their lives. NGOs need to recognize this important difference and exploit the motivation of the former, and incentive that of the latter group of people. This is a subtle but an important difference that must be taken into account when designing training and professional programs for disabled groups, and for other groups as well.

If the Foundation wants to know if it is succeeding in changing perceptions in society about disabled people, they definitely changed mine, they definitely educated me all right!

Changing perceptions from within | the beneficiaries are your best promotion campaign

Changing perceptions of disabled people in relation to the labor market in society is not an easy task. From the NGO perspective, it requires an integrated approach that targets simultaneously employers, the government, and people with disabilities themselves. The Foundation Supporting Physically Disabled Mathematicians and IT specialists does this in a very innovative way, promoting the "professionalism" of disabled people in different fronts.

On the employers front, the Foundation actively engages in awareness campaigns to educate companies about the benefits from hiring qualified employees pointing out that their disability is not an impediment to perform in stressful environments and to have professional responsibilities. As I discussed in my previous post, a there is a misconception among business circles about the type of jobs that people with disabilities can do; the Foundation is active in changing these misconceptions. For employability programs that target this group, it is not enough to recruit employers as possible sources of jobs for disabled people (which by the way, the Foundation also does), it is necessary to change the perception of the types of jobs they can do. As of the trainees explained, "I don't want any job, I want a challenging and rewarding one"

On the disabled people front, the Foundation promotes among the beneficiaries a culture of professionalism and "active minds" as one of the counselors described it. For them, the best promotion campaign is getting people employed in positions that were outside their boundaries because of the misconception explained above. For many disabled people, specially older generations, it is not uncommon to think that they don't have the right to work. The Foundation needs to constantly remind people about this right! The training programs they have are challenging and thorough (the ECDL training is 140 hours long) and embedded within them is the value of professionalism and the latent option of having a "normal" job. I believe this is very innovative and a good lesson for other NGOs working with disabled groups.

As one of the trainees clearly stated, "I don't want special training or special treatment, I want specialized training. One that allows me to constantly challenge myself. One that incentives me to want to get to the next level. I don't want to feel "special" I want to feel specialized".

The Foundation is taking this to the next level. Once the new network of e-Centrum (distance learning community technology centers) and the regional offices open, the Foundation will open their doors to the general population. Among its most experienced trainers, the Foundation will have people with disabilities training people without... what a best way to fight the misperceptions of what disabled people can achieve.

Defying a cultural perception | disabled people in the labor market

One of the most interesting topics that kept surfing in almost all conversations we had, is the perception of society about disabled people. In Polish society, disabled people are not considered capable of having an active and professional life. At the family level, they face a strange form of overprotection that heavily impacts negatively their self-esteem and feeds the perception of themselves as incapable of having an active life, professional or otherwise.

Danuta, one of the ICT trainers in the Foundation and a disabled person herself, explained to us that some disabled people still believe today that they are not entitled to work. This "culture of unemployment" is specially present among older people because for most of their lives they were not given the same opportunities in education and at work, even when they were perfectly capable doing it. Among younger generations this is changing. Today, there are more people with disabilities attending four-degree colleges, working in companies, but cultures are slow to change, there is still a lot to do

In the labor market, there is a slowly changing business culture that prevents employers from considering hiring disabled people for career-path jobs because of the perception that they can only perform certain type of tasks, certain type of jobs. This often leads businesses to offer them only low-skilled, low-paid jobs that are not rewarding and without a professional path.

But things are changing, and some people are making these changes possible however small they are.

Setting the context | Transformation of the economy and labor market in Poland

First is first. In order to engage in any discussion about e-skills and employability, it is necessary to understand the basic context of the Polish economy in the last twenty years and the effects of those changes in the labor market. I am not claiming to be an economic historian! The discussion of these changes is simply the product of some basic research and the interviews we had with the NGO staff, trainees, and private sector reps.

Three transformations are crucial to understand the role of e-skills in the labor market in Poland: 1) The shrinking of the industrial and agricultural sectors in relation to GDP accompanied with a rapid growth of the services sector reaching 65% of the GDP in 2006*; 2) A decrease in the unemployment rate that started together with the accession to the EU (estimated at 14% compared to 20% in 2003). This decrease is also the result of a big migration of Polish qualified workers to other EU countries and 3) A swift of bargaining power from the employer to the employee.

In relation to e-inclusion programs targeting employment for disabled people all these transformations are incredibly relevant. The increase in the service sector generates an array of job positions that are highly suitable for people with physical disabilities since they don't require people to be physically present in an office (i.e. telework, web design, data bases programming, etc.)

Qualified employees are in such in demand in this country that employers are almost forced to offer good salaries and benefits to attract valuable human resources to their companies and this includes people with or without disabilities. Although as my next post will explain, this is far from perfect since there still exists in the business culture a pervasive prejudice against people with disabilities, the business environment is changing and with it so the misconceived perception of what a disabled person can achieve professionally.


As with all transformations, there are factors that affect possibly and negatively the labor market, but in general there seems to be a momentum to increase the participation of disabled people in the workforce.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Cultural Note 2: On architecture as a symbol of power

Meet Stalin's lost daughter. A grandiose, magnanimous, visually intimidating structure located strategically in Warsaw's City Center and in front of the main train station. The grandiosity of the building had a very powerful symbolic purpose: remind the Polish people during communist times "we are big, we are powerful, and we are here to stay" as my friend Pawel elegantly put it.

He told me that Stalin ordered the construction of 7 identical buildings of this kind in Moscow, and probably with the same symbolic connotations. These buildings are known as the 7 daughters of Stalin. . There are daughters of Stalin in every major city that were part of the Soviet Union or its circles of influence. In Warsaw, the locals call it "The Lost Daughter of Stalin"

I bet your Lonely Planet Guide didn't offer this information! The value of sight seeing with the locals

e-inclusion and disabled people in Poland | the work of the Foundation FPMiNR

During the last day and a half, I had the opportunity to visit the Foundation Supporting Physically Disabled Mathematicians and IT specialists. The organization's main mission is to foster professional and social development of people with physical disabilities. Currently, the Foundation has 2 operational CTCs in Warsaw and plan to expand their network to 40 regional rural centers around the country. As posted before, the Foundation, in partnership with other entities (MIcrosoft, ECORYS, Ministry of Education, etc.) received resources from the European Structural Fund to set up 340 e-Centrum in rural areas of the country

As it name suggests, the Foundation was created in 1990 as an initiative of the Polish Academy of Science to improve the technical IT knowledge of scientists with disabilities. One must remember that in the early 90's personal computers were prohibitively expensive and the goal was to provide the computers for the scientists. As the initiative mature, the Foundation realized that the demand in the labor market for scientists was quite high and decided to broaden the scope of the program to reach the general disabled people population.

Today, the Foundation offers a very interesting comprehensive approach to employability offering counseling (psychological and legal), employment services (Internet job search, link to employers, etc.), and training and workshops (from basic to advanced ICT skills, SMEs, soft skills, to name a few).

During the field visit to the Foundation, we interviewed the director, 1 chief program coordinator, 1 program manager, two counselors, two trainers, 5 individual trainees, and conducted a group interview with 14 trainees during an ECDL training session. Tomorrow we will have the opportunity to participate in a workshop with the Foundation staff where they will discuss different strategies to improve the employability of its beneficiaries. It is going to be quite an interesting experience.

Everybody that we interviewed during the visits were amazingly kind to us and shared so many interesting insights that it is almost impossible to write it in one post. A series of posts between today and tomorrow will follow addressing some of the most interesting insights from our discussions. The richness of these conversations made the last two days unforgettable

A big Dziekuje (thank you) to all the people that despite busy schedules and family commitments were kind enough to spend time sharing their knowledge, sharing their stories.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The role of the private sector in e-inclusion initiatives | Microsoft UP CTSP program in Poland

The work day started at 10:00 AM in Microsoft meeting with Joanna and Justyna from Community Affairs. It was a very productive meeting where we discussed the achievements, challenges, and future plans for the UP Community Technology Skills Programs in the country. The new partnership with the Foundation Supporting Physically Disabled Mathematicians and IT Specialists will allow the UP CTSP program to have, for the first time, a truly national reach. The Foundation, together with other social partners, plans to open 340 e-Centrum covering all regions by June 2008.

Discussing the relationship between e-skills and employment, both pointed out that improving people's IT skills is only one step of many needed in the path towards employment. They explained the way in which the "culture of unemployment" hampers in many cases the willingness of people to improve their skills and find jobs. More so when the jobs available for low-skilled workers offer 20% more income than what they receive from collecting unemployment.

On human capital, Joanna mentioned the importance of having a CAM working 100% on the UP program. As a marketing manager as her primary role, Joanna was only able to assigned a limited percentage of her work to manage the community affairs program. She strongly believed that the program needed somebody committed full time in order to build solid relations with the grantees and make the program more relevant for the communities they target. 6 months ago she got an additional head count to hire a community affairs manager, Justyna, devoted full time to citizenship programs.

We continue our discussion during lunch and I must say, there is something about talking business and sharing a meal that makes the process very productive and definitely more enjoyable (may be my Mexican genes are talking here)

After lunch, Pawel and I went to the Foundation and visit one of its CTCs where we observed an ECDL training for physically disabled people. More on what we learned tomorrow

Cultural Note 1: on the multiple meanings of symbols to describe gender in bathrooms


Symbol for Men's bathroom

Symbol for Women's bathroom


Don't ask me why! I was to embarrassed to ask for explanation of symbol after I discovered the gender of the geometrical figures myself when opening the wrong door.

Something about the triangle been more feminine, I guess (my feminist friends are going to kill me for this comment)

My first night in Warsaw | Polish dinner + a walk around Old Town

I finally arrived in Warsaw on Sunday at 7:00 PM after 3 hours of delay in Heathrow. The city was very quite , it almost looked like a ghost town... no cars, no people, no nothing except a straight black cat.

This is my first visit to a former communist country and the architectural scene is quite powerful. A strong reminder of the legacy of communist public housing... homogeneous, squared, grey, and some of the buildings, in daunting decay. Few minutes later, I
experienced the "modern" Warsaw. Shopping malls, highrises, and a faster-growing culture of consumption that visually clashes with the soviet fingerprint.

Although young compared to other cities in Poland, Warsaw has a rich and very symbolic history. It was in this city in 1791 where the first constitution in Europe was signed (second in the world after the US). It was in this city where a powerful social resistance movement paved the way for the Ghetto Jewish uprising in 1943 and for the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. It was in this city where many of the historical buildings destroyed during WWII were rebuilt exactly as they looked before using Canalleto's paintings to replicate the design.

My friend and interpreter Pawel took me for tasty Polish dinner and sigh seeing to Old Town. It is hard to believe than 1945, there were only a couple of buildings and a mountain of rubble standing in this very same location. The place is amazingly beautiful with a combo of Renaissance, Gothic and touches of something else making the scene mesmerizing. Polish dinner was very tasty and very meaty and very lemon vodki... thankfully we walked for a long time after this plentiful meal so I was able to burn some calories and sweat must of the lemon vodka.

We talk about the plans for this week's work... a lot of interesting work ahead

Friday, February 22, 2008

The journey begins tomorrow

I am leaving Seattle tomorrow for the Republic of Poland

I am excited, psyched, thrilled, nervous, anxious... a whole array of emotions going on right now.

I arrive in Warsaw at 5:00 PM on Sunday and have few hours to walk around the city and have some dinner with Pawel, my friend and interpreter. He works with the Responsible Business Institute, a social enterprise that collaborates with other organizations in Podlasie to bring e-skills training to rural communities of this region.

My work starts on Monday in Warsaw visiting the Foundation for helping Physically Disabled Mathematicians and Computer Scientists. This organization provides professional and social rehabilitation to physically disabled people and offers, as part of its services, basic and advanced e-skills training to prepare them for the demands of today's labor market.