Computer-mediated communication (CMC) has only recently started to be used by NGOs in Colombia, but its use is rapidly growing, both in number of institutions getting connected, and in number of individuals in them who are using it as a communication tool. The main use of CMC is clearly e-mail, "to receive and reply to messages."
Some organizations are more ‘networked’ than others, i.e., some have an internal network that links computers to one another, and users can have direct access to CMC from their workstations, while others have only a single machine equipped to connect by modem to the service provider. In most cases, institutions do not have an internal computer network and CMC access is limited to one machine. In larger organizations a technician or a secretary generally controls this machine, and users cannot use or have only restricted access to it directly. Furthermore, in the majority of cases there are no individual mailboxes for particular users in the institution, and incoming and outgoing mail is internally forwarded or redirected on paper or disk.
Although direct access to CMC by the users may be easier in smaller or networked organizations than in larger, non-networked ones, an important perception by the users is the degree to which they have appropriated the use of CMC as an ordinary tool in their work. While some users perceive that CMC has been "cotidianizada," i.e., incorporated into the daily activities and used to solve a variety of communication needs, others perceive their use of CMC to be sporadic, remote, difficult to access, and obstructed by bureaucratic or technological barriers. In this way, some users perceive their experience of CMC to be habitual, while the experience of others is perceived to be only occasional.
As several respondents stated, administrators in many NGOs do not know what electronic communication can offer them, and its use in the organizations is very limited because there is no support, no training, no equipment, no direct access, and no time.
CMC is perceived to be a valuable tool by most users, one that makes information exchange faster and cheaper, frequently resulting in better communication and coordination of activities. Although increased speed is sometimes perceived to have a negative consequence, as it increases the workload and demands quick responses, cost reduction is a frequently reported reason to start using CMC. Some acknowledge the reduction may only be perceived on the long term, due to the high initial investment that may be required. In addition, users perceive the flexibility allowed by working with e-mail (no re-typing, easier corrections, collective authorship and publications, multiple recipients, etc.), and the increase in the quantity and quality of the information accessible to them through CMC, as key factors that encourage them to use CMC in their work.
Probably the most important aspect of the experiences with CMC in NGOs is the sense of enhanced networking perceived by its users. This can be associated with the strengthening of virtual communities of interest across national borders. Enhanced networking is the result of fast, inexpensive and flexible information exchanges for coordination with partners who share common interests, especially at an international level. Relationships with other NGOs and partners inside the country are generally not maintained through CMC but through other communication media, primarily telephone, fax and face to face meetings. Nonetheless, organizations with offices in different cities do perceive the internal relations and communication have been enhanced by the use of CMC.
The enlarged frame of action and information exchange made possible through CMC brings about a growing vision of a global network of NGOs sharing common interests and concerns, brought together despite geographic distances. Nonetheless, there is little evidence of a new understanding of global issues, or of increased communication and relationships with people and organizations working in different areas of intervention. In this way, stronger bonds among those interested in one issue, for example, environmental problems, do not seem to be exchanging information with others whose primary concern is the status of women, or human rights, to name just the most common topics reported.
There is no surprise in these findings, as these issues are frequently reported in the literature. Most of the advantages of e-mail listed by the Non-Governmental Liaison Service of the United Nations in its manual for NGOs are related to cost, speed, flexibility and improved quality and quantity of information. These are what some authors have called first-level effects, which are relatively easy to anticipate, and which are related to planned efficiency gains, cost displacements and added value. By contrast, second-level effects are generally unanticipated, slow in emerging, and are related to changes in social patterns and the interdependence among users. These include increased organizational commitment, personal connections, affiliation and solidarity; equalization of participation, participatory decision-making and better decisions reached; reduction of social awareness and of conformity; support for lateral and upward influence, and increased interdependence
While it is clear that new patterns of relationships have emerged among the users of CMC in NGOs, they are rarely related to internal communication issues. Instead, they are related to communication exchanges with partners in other organizations, especially in other countries, who share common interests and concerns with them. The consolidation of virtual communities of interest through CMC seems to be the most salient second-level effect among NGOs. In addition, NGO users of CMC commonly feel the breakdown of geographic barriers and share a perception of closer contact with partners and friends all over the world.
This text is part of a larger study on the uses of computer-mediated communication in Latin America.