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Benoît Gauthier, president of Circum Network, discusses the use of electronic collaboration tools for evaluation, an increasingly popular, cost-effective means of enhancing evaluation practice.

The evaluation landscape today has new contours. Current evaluation practice prizes participation, inclusiveness, and collaboration. Managers, staff, program participants, and other key stakeholders are expected to participate fully in the evaluation process. Program design and delivery are also becoming more and more collaborative and complex, with partnership arrangements and multiple delivery locations the norm. In keeping with these changes, evaluation models are evolving as well, as witnessed by the growing demand for stakeholder-based and participatory evaluations, horizontal (cross-cutting) evaluation studies, multisite and cluster evaluations, multi-organization evaluations, and multinational evaluations.

To meet these challenges, evaluators are increasingly turning to electronic collaboration tools that facilitate participation and complement face-to-face meetings, email, and teleconferences. While trimming time and expense, these tools support participation by stakeholders, regardless of their location, and foster open communication by ensuring that evaluation team members have the right information in a timely manner. Additionally, they streamline project management through a “one-stop” evaluation project desktop and make the dissemination of evaluation findings and knowledge management easier and more effective. Team members, furthermore, can operate asynchronously (i.e., they do not have to be online together to communicate or share information), an advantage that enables collaboration and overcomes barriers posed by time zones and work schedules.

The electronic collaboration tools listed below share some basic functions, including the following:

  • Filtering and distribution of messages according to need-to-know rules (filtered groups can include, for example, evaluation teams, evaluation consultants, project managers, working groups, and steering committees)
  • Construction of threads, where messages are visually grouped in a way that permits a discussion to be followed easily
  • Storage and rapid retrieval of text and data files for solving problems and building corporate memory

Some electronic collaboration tools feature additional, more advanced functions, some examples of which follow.

  • Common-access white boards
  • Shared calendars
  • Project management tools to assign resources and responsibilities, track project progress, enforce deadlines, and manage sign-off for deliverables
  • Electronic voting with proper authentication of voters and assurance of confidentiality
  • Chat rooms to enable dynamic, real-time discussions (synchronous)
  • Advanced document management (versioning, searching, production, and auditing)
  • Ability to interact in several languages and link to translation software, a function that is important for multilingual, multicultural, or international programs

Several well-known commercial products exist already to satisfy these needs, such as eRoom, Sharepoint, and Notes. The most interesting ones offer integrated solutions for all of these requirements. They can be quite expensive and technically challenging to maintain, however. Some free or low-cost, open-source software solutions, such as Plone and, are becoming available as well. Because access to the Internet and web browsers is now commonplace, the preferred low-cost collaborative tools tend to be web-based.

Despite their obvious advantages, using electronic collaboration tools may mean facing various challenges:

  • Potential exclusion of some stakeholders because of lack of access or fear of technology
  • Barriers posed by language differences
  • Constraints posed by cultural values and norms that do not support open discussions and sharing of power
  • Investments in technical knowledge and time

If these issues are considered carefully, they can be reduced or eliminated by careful planning, training, and support.

Besides streamlining the evaluation process and making it more effective, electronic collaboration tools can facilitate evaluation capacity building and the forming of communities of practice. For example, in 2003, in Lima, a free, custom-programmed collaborative tool was used to coordinate the efforts of evaluation leaders around the world in organizing the inaugural assembly of the International Organization for Cooperation in Evaluation (IOCE), the umbrella organization of over 50 national and regional evaluation associations and networks ( The same tool is being used by the Canadian Evaluation Society to coordinate the ongoing work of its National Council members, who are spread throughout Canada, and also by the program committee for the joint 2005 Canadian and American Evaluation Conference, to actively collaborate with an international advisory committee. In the years ahead, electronic collaboration tools are likely to become a vital pathway for evaluators to reach out to each other, share knowledge, and form diverse communities of practice across the globe.

Benoît Gauthier
Circum Network
74 Val-Perche Street
Gatineau, QC J8Z 2A6
Tel: 819-770-2423

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