Digital Communities At UNICEF Connect Remote Workers To One Another — And A Higher Purpose

Any organization can benefit from improving how its workers communicate. But for UNICEF and the imperiled children it aims to protect, sharing information is vital.

Created by the United Nations in 1946, UNICEF works to help children throughout the world survive, thrive and fulfill their potential by focusing on their fundamental needs – access to water, food and education among them.

Making the most of technology has become essential to carrying out that mission. After expanding to virtually every corner of the globe, UNICEF invested in digital collaboration to improve the way its workers communicate and forge relationships with one another.

“We grew from being a small entity into something much bigger,” said Paola Storchi, online communities lead at UNICEF. “The world is rapidly changing, and UNICEF needs to be agile and adaptive.”

UNICEF today is led by 14,000 people in 190 countries and territories. Its workers, who deal with intense challenges on the ground, can be consumed with immediate, local needs, where the most disadvantaged children are at risk of natural disaster or suffering from malnutrition.

A UNICEF worker plays with children in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Bopha in 2012. Amid devastation caused by natural disasters, UNICEF creates safe spaces for children to learn and play. John Estey / UNICEF

Yet there’s tremendous value when experience that’s gained locally can be shared around the world – and practices can be applied to similar situations in other locales.

“We want practitioners on the ground, from all over the countries where we work, learning from each other, helping each other when they can,” Storchi said.

Opening New Lines

The digital infrastructure at UNICEF evolved the way it does in many large organizations. There had been a hierarchical, top-down push of information – emails and reports sent to offices – as well as informal communication channels among employees. Organically, different groups began using digital platforms, like the enterprise social network Yammer, that promoted sharing among users and centered on communities or common global issues.

Students wash their hands at a school in Zambia. UNICEF has installed thousands of handwashing stations at schools in this African nation, where unsanitary conditions have threatened the health of children. Karin Schermbrucker / UNICEF

Yammer, for example, allowed water and sanitation practitioners around the world to share reports, photos and advice with one another. Practitioners in Azerbaijan might learn a lot from “WASH strategies” (water, sanitation and hygiene) that have been effective in a faraway outpost like Zambia. Peer support and the exchange of country examples have a track record of enhancing the quality of UNICEF sanitation strategies, Storchi said.

“It could be sharing studies, research, strategies, presentations or videos showing what people have done,” she said. “Reconstructing sanitation facilities after an earthquake is something that can be vividly transmitted through videos that can be shared on Yammer. And people can really learn from it.”

People who share work-related interests or passions not only learn from one another but also empower one another to perform better. The exchange of diverse ideas fosters trust among employees and encourages them to think and create in new ways, Storchi said.

“Community For Communicators”

After seeing how some groups within UNICEF benefited from certain platforms, the leadership decided it needed to pay more attention to what technology was being used.

UNICEF created a radically simple community program – BUILD – to empower staff and partners to make the most of digital collaboration to achieve the greatest results for children.

One Yammer community, Digital Labs, also became a focus. It originally formed to help employees share information about using social media to advocate for children. Fundamental to UNICEF’s mandate is sharing with the world its unique knowledge of children.

In 2016, as part of a Digital Transformation Project, UNICEF reignited Digital Labs as a global resource center, with information on how to best use social media, written content, photography and other media to support the mission of protecting children. New features of UNICEF’s content management system could be announced – and discussed. Those in UNICEF communication roles around the world could learn best practices for distributing information.

“Some of the conversations on Digital Labs are very detailed,” said Tomiko Karino, who manages the community. “Someone may circulate an article about the ethical use of photography in an emergency situation. We have to be very careful about privacy, and children’s privacy in particular. It’s that type of working-level knowledge that we need in order to do our jobs.”

As Carolina Ramirez from the Digital Strategy Section put it, Digital Labs has become a “community for communicators.”

“UNICEF does invest in communication,” she said. “Not necessarily to showcase the work that we’re doing, but to make the issues that children face all over the world very visible – to give a face to unknown realities and advocate on behalf of children.”

The sharing of information and best practices facilitated by Digital Labs makes everyone at UNICEF more aware of the realities on the ground and helps communicators in far-flung places feel like they’re part of a larger effort.

“Sometimes the work can feel a little bit isolated if you are the only person doing communication in a particular area,” Ramirez said. “Now you start getting to see the faces of people who you had no idea were working on a particular initiative in Cambodia or Kyrgyzstan. Before, it was kind of impossible.”

Over the past two years, participation in online communities across UNICEF has grown 560 percent, from 1,000 to 6,000 staff members. And as people connect more, they realize their peers have the same needs, and everyone feels more supported.

“That is one of the beauties of it,” Ramirez said. “If you strengthen your people inside, the result of your work is going to get better.”


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