Online and blended – what’s all the fuss?

We’re not alone in wanting to explore the opportunities and challenges of holding events online, or blended face-to-face (f2f) and online. Suddenly the web is full of courses and primers on how to do it, like this first in a series of webinars from the deeply experienced Martin Galbraith, or this one on virtual collaboration from Grove. And in our blog on Coming to Agreement in meetings we highlighted the great resource on web meetings just released by the wondrous Nancy White.FB knows Im a dog Everyone’s talking digital.

Today was the online introduction to the three-day Facilitation Anywhere course, which begins next week. It was wonderful to meet the participants, after all our preparations, and we’re both excited – and properly apprehensive – about next week. After several introduction exercises, increasing the bandwidth as we went along – from text chat to video and audio – we introduced some of the concepts underpinning our design.

Apart from big, all-purpose events, most gatherings engage a group of people with a common purpose. This could be a product they need to develop together, or some planning, or some ideas they need to work through in detail, or a programme they want to share experience and learning on. But of course a whole range of personal, emotional, social and organisational currents operate in and around the formal agenda.

As with all those events, we see the Facilitation Anywhere course happening at broadly three levels:

  1. The fundamental level of exploring and sharing practice around designing and facilitating events and workshops
  2. The reflexive level – a process in which we will all be reflecting on our experience during the course
  3. And the level of a specific ‘topic thread’ around blended and online learning.

We’re proposing three enquiry questions as a way to connect these levels, and frame the process and our learning together:

  1. What does it mean to be a participant and a facilitator in f2f, online and blended environments? (a reflexive question)
  2. How can we maximise engagement making full use of participatory f2f approaches and digital tools or channels?
  3. What are the core conditions for effective f2f, online and blended gatherings? (including people, processes, tech and self)

Our digital footprints

As we start it’s interesting to reflect on our own experience over the months we’ve been thinking about and designing the programme, since we come to the event with very different digital trajectories.

Isobel: “I’ve been facilitating groups for many years, but until now I haven’t done much online, apart from using Skype.  Sometimes we just need a push, and the course has given me that.   The last few weeks have been a steep learning curve, doing a whole lot of new things at once – blogging with Pete, using googledocs, making a start with online facilitation, and getting used to a new computer.  It’s reminded me what resistance to change feels like – I’ve had it in spade loads!  Getting out of the comfort zone and into the learning zone is what we’re often asking groups and teams to be doing.  It feels really important to be doing that myself as a facilitator, especially as I’m now seeing what’s possible when combining core process skills with skilful management of different communication channels.”

Pete: “I’ve been involved with things digital since the introduction into UK public education of the early mass-produced PCs in the mid 1980’s. rm380zIn the 1990’s I began working online, riding the Internet wave into Oxfam GB, infuriating some and enthusing others (only a few at first) with email and talk of global networks. I’ve been using online communication channels since that era. I’m still an enthusiast, less for the tech. itself than for what it can enable people to do, especially how it can link, connect, enable people to collaborate and communicate”. So I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with and learning how to integrate social and online digital media into events I facilitate.

We’ve both been living the process of blending deep experience in face-to-face facilitation with online technologies, feeling what it’s like introducing and being introduced to the possibilities opened up by the new digital platforms. We’re looking forward enormously to exploring the issues with the participants, and will be reporting back here on how it goes – what people say, how we’ve learnt and what is changing about our own practice.

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Ending and transition

The year end has got us thinking about the flow of experience from beginnings through to endings and transitions, and how the best of our experience and learning can enliven and enrich the next stage of our lives.  So too with gatherings.  When a meeting comes to an end, how can we best support people to make that sometimes tricky transition back to the workplace?

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image credit development art.com

In our first blog in this series, focusing on the ‘openings’ of an event, we talked about a key early task for facilitators being to help people ‘arrive’ in every sense  of the word.  At the start of a gathering we help people transition from the clogged busyness of the everyday so they can focus on their shared purpose and agenda. When a group spends time together, committed to a common agenda and prepared to relax into a more creative frame of mind, together they can make a kind of magic when they find or combine ideas, untangle the knots that block progress, and release energy for joint action. 

Meetings and gatherings at their best open up space for focused conversation and exchange, thinking and reflection on the issues and questions that really matter to the people in the room.  These are luxuries under normal operational pressures.  All the more important then to intentionally create spaces that allow for emergence – that unpredictable and magical thing that happens when ideas and thoughts combine and something else takes shape.

So a good ending really matters.  It completes a cycle of learning, energy and engagement so that people can more easily make the transition back into the realities of working and everyday life.  Ending is a process, and includes drawing together key learning, deciding on actions and personal commitments, reviewing the event process, saying thank you and good-bye, and bringing everything to a close.

Here are a few ideas about how to do this.

There are all sorts of practical ways that people can draw together their learning and decide how they’ll put into practice what has emerged during the event.

  • Probably the most commonly used methods are those to do with making lists, prioritising, action planning. ‘Getting on Brilliantly’ is an intensely practical set of resources and ideas for effective meetings (and was the trigger for our own decision to structure our training programme around a set of six typical phases within meetings.) There is a free PDF download as well as a book available from Amazon.com that includes a CD. The resource has a useful collection of models and templates for Sorting Priorities and Planning for Action, cleanly structured and presented like all the other sections.
  • W³ or ‘What, So What, Now What is a  typically snappy distillation of related ideas from the Liberating Structures team.  After a shared experience, you ask “WHAT? What happened? What did you notice, what facts or observations stood out?” After all the salient observations have been collected, ask, “SO WHAT? Why is that important? What patterns or conclusions are emerging? What hypotheses can you make?” Then, after the sense-making is over, ask, “NOW WHAT? What actions make sense?
  • Facts Feelings Findings and Futures is one of many wonderful activities based on the active reviewing cycle developed by Roger Greenaway  
  • In her article, ‘Changing the Organisation One Conversation at a Time’ Lisa Kimball talks about the ‘hypoglycaemic effect‘ of good meetings, an enthusiasm and buzz that leads to ambitious plans and lists, as well as a crash on re-entry to an unchanged world of work? Avoid unrealistic action planning by getting clear on where you can have most influence.Zone-of-Control15% solutions is an activity that helps participants focus realistically, based on Peter Drucker’s proposition  that most people have about 15% control over their work situations.

Most of these activities work well in online meetings. And if shared online documents or platforms are part of the event then there is the added advantage that ‘there is only one truth’, a record visible and accessible to all participants. Properly done, a set of notes on a wiki or platform like Google documents gives all participants the bulk of their meeting report already compiled! 

Commitments

tying a white threadCreating space for people to make their own personal commitments follows naturally out of the above and helps consolidate intentions, and can have a strong emotional resonance.  Participants can write a postcard to themselves, which the session hosts post back to them.  Another idea spread out a random collective of photos and invite people to choose one that resonates for them, using this as a means of reflecting  on what they are taking away with them. Borrowing the custom of two people tying textile loops around each other’s wrists while each declares their commitment to action is a gentle and surprisingly powerful way to help people make commitments they will keep (especially with the instruction that people must retain the loops until they have at least begun the action!)  

Evaluations

spidergram evaluationThese are important for participants as well as the event hosts – serving as a focus for quiet reflection, while providing valuable feedback on the gathering itself.  There is a huge range of options – from written evaluation (do this in the room before people leave) through to the more creative possibilities such as a song or a story that captures the highlights.  Roger Greenaway has masses of ideas. As ever, having people physically active energises what can often be a process that dampens enthusiasm and connection. For examples, see the spider-gram activity illustrated above or the use of a spectrogram line for a ‘walking evaluation’ as illustrated below. Online, using polls is a quick and easy way to get feedback in the moment.11338568315_c035379c49_z

Bringing the gathering to a close follows on naturally.  Wherever possible we like to close with the group sitting in a circle, and give everyone a chance to share a closing reflection.  If time is tight this can be as brief as ‘three words’, with the hosts thanking all those who’ve made the event possible, from the logistics through to the participants themselves.  

Online the risk is that the closing can feel rather distant, since  people can’t see each other, so protecting time in the last part of the session to have people comment or say things is extremely important.