Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Facilitating an online discussion to foster cooperation between two development organisations

Joost Oorthuizen from Agri-profocus, an organisation working for strengthening of agricultural producers organisations in the south (in the picture a producers organisation with melons) organised a so-called Dgroup e-conference during the months of October and November 2006. The e-conference discussed the possibilities and constraints of future co-operation between two Dutch development organisations, i.e. SNV and Agriterra. Agri-ProFocus is a partnership of 21 Dutch development- and teaching/research organisations, set-up to improve and increase services to agricultural producer organisations in the South. Since it was one of his first experiences with the email-based discussion forum called Dgroups, I asked Joost a few questions about his experiences with an online conference using Dgroups.

Why did you want to organise an online discussion?

The main reason is that the staff of SNV is operating in various countries of the South. The staff of Agriterra is based in the Netherlands. If SNV staff would be working in the Netherlands, I would simply have organised a one-day workshop. But that wasn’t an option.

We needed this discussion very much to allow for decision making. So far, the idea of future co-operation was only discussed at top-management level. We had no idea whether the professionals of both organisations would support the idea, and would see the concrete relevance and need of working together. If the top-management would have decided without their input, then we would have a paper agreement, and there would have been no support and probably a lot of resistance within both organisations to operationalize the agreement.

Also, agreements on co-operation, are in the end, agreements between people. Professionals on both sides had to get to know each other, to understand each others’ ideas and preferences, and slowly start to trust each other and become enthusiastic about the possibilities of working together in the support of producer organisations in the South. As development co-operation is about committed people with strong ideas about what is wrong in the world, and what should be done about it, it was important for the professionals “to taste each others’ kidneys” (Dutch expression) and see whether the other party would fit in their own mind-frames and belief systems. So, getting to know each other was not at a personal level, but rather at an ideological level.

How did your design of the online event look like and how did it work out in practice?

The design was pretty straightforward. I planned for a 3-week conference, each week discussing one of three major topics. The management of both organisations invited a number of their core staff to participate. On Agriterra side (which is a small organisation), about 8 people participated, on SNV side (large, nearly 1000 advisory staff), about 20 people staff participated.

Before the e-conference started, we held a survey type of research among core SNV staff, in which they were asked to indicate their relationships with Agriterra partners in the field. This was used as a starting-point for the e-conference, and also helped to select the SNV staff that could participate. On the Agriterra side, I organised a meeting with the professionals to explain the ideas of co-operation, and asked for their active participation in the conference.

In practice, the design worked out well. Around 20 out of the 35 D-Group members participated actively and wrote long and interesting emails to each other. Some other staff was asked to join in the conference, as participants felt that their participation was needed. The main change to the design was that participants felt its’ time-frame to be too tight. We thus took two or even three weeks per topic, so the total period became 7 weeks. This was OK, it was not too long for people to loose interest, and it was long enough for people to say whatever they had to say.

I took some action ‘behind the scene’ to get some people involved that I felt should participate more actively. I approached some personally, as I knew them or I could talk to them face-to-face, some others were approached through the management.

At SNV, more than 50% of the core staff are not Dutch. Their participation was more limited. I guess the main reason is that they do not know Agriterra very well, nor can they fully appreciate the need for an organisation like Agri-ProFocus.

You are an experienced face-to-face facilitator, and this is your first online experience. What is different as an online facilitator?

Well, my first observation is that there is more similarity than I expected. Also e-conferences need facilitation, and participants do want such facilitation, and strongly relate it, very much similar to the way they appreciate face-to-face facilitation. So, as a facilitator, one can ‘connect’ to the participants, take ownership of the process of the discussion, ‘lead’ participants towards certain outcomes. This is easier and more similar to facilitating workshops than expected.

Another observation is that e-conferences are far less intrusive than face-to-face meetings. The latter requires people to sit together, to listen to each other, to listen to a facilitator for often too long a time, etcetera. How often do we not feel that we waste a lot of time during face-to-face meetings, or that we have to work with/listen to people who do not really appreciate. So, this e-conference method leaves participation much more open. One can easily ‘vote with your feet’ (mouse) if not interested. Put more positively, people can participate whenever they like, whenever they are up to it, in their own time- and energy frames!

In the literature on change management, there is an important concept of “co-creation”: it means that change processes require commitment from both outside change agents and inside managers and professionals. When using methods like e-conferences, outside facilitators do not have to be too worried about being too central to the discussion and thus blocking creation on the side of the participants. One can only intervene through text, and not through a number of other means available to face-to-face facilitation. That of course makes your textual intervention all the more important (tone of writing, number of textual interventions, etcetera).

Looking back at this conference, what have you learned from it for a next conference?

Well, my main lesson is that it is easier to do than I expected, people do easily participate and it can be a very useful tool. So, I would more quickly turn to this method, even for issues to be discussed between people living in the Netherlands!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Experiences with Online Conferencing (part 1)

When you don’t know how to ride a bike, walking is always faster!

An online conference call seems like a simple, cheap and accessible way for bringing a distributed group together. As we use our e-collaboration community as a laboratory for experimenting with e-tools, we decided to prepare an upcoming f2f meeting using online teleconferencing. In the first meeting we experimented with High Speed Conferencing. High Speed Conferencing is free and uses a phone bridge that connects both Skype and regular phone users. Having Skype and regular phone users on the same call might be very helpful for international communities.

Experiences with High Speed Conferencing
This online preparation meeting was with eight participants, some of them knew each other quite well, others were joining the group for the first time. We had planned for a one hour meeting. A summary of our experiences:

Phone and Skype. A great advantage of highspeedconferencing is that people can phone in, so that people not used to Skype are not excluded.

Preparation for smooth start. High Speed Conference was a new e-tool for all of us. It was set up by one of our members. The time had been set in advance, participants had been announced. Still, the preparation seemed quite chaotic, it took us some time to get started: checking the connection, contact details, microphone, sound. Illustrative statements in this phase of the meeting were: ‘I do not manage to call this number!’, ‘I see you on Skype, but how do I get in the conversation?’ and ‘Are you online now?’. Lessons we learned:
- It came out to be important for the person-in-the-lead-for-setting-up-the-conference to join the whole conference, and have a specific role in getting everyone on board.
- As a facilitator, try to be online 10 minutes earlier and have all skype addresses in advance, so that you can easily add everyone to the chatspace. When in the chat, it is easier to direct people into the conference.
- It was very helpful to use Skype for providing assistance.

Quality of sound. In this conference we experiences many problems with the quality of sound: a lot of noise in the back, some people sounded very far away and others were so close that it felt like they were sitting right beside you. One person could only join the conversation using chat because we couldn’t hear him. Some statements: ‘sound quality was poor. As if I was trying to receive a BBC broadcast during WW-II. Some people (e.g. John) were easy to follow. Others not at all. Sometimes I heard nothing - but was that a true silence, or was someone speaking without my knowing? Sometimes I heard the noise of a voice, some words I could recognize, others not. It took a lot of energy to listen. I often felt disconnected.’, and ‘the noise made it difficult for me to think and contribute to the conversation, because of the effort it took to hear others and listen carefully.’ Something that might be of help is the ‘mute’ button (‘mute your own line so other people can’t hear you’ and ‘unmute your line so you can contribute to the conference’), but we didn’t try. The facilitator could try the following:”mute all participated and unmute them one by one, to see where some noise was coming from.

Using supporting tools. During the conference we had a few participants taking notes using the chat function in Skype. This was found very useful, especially with the bad quality of sound. It makes it possible to keep up with the dialogue, even when it is hard to hear the talking very well. Remark is that there is always a short delay in the notes compared to the saying. When you really have to rely on the notes it might be difficult to play an active role in the interaction with others. After the conference one of the members sent out the Skype chat transcript for everyone’s reference and use. This makes it possible to reread what has been said, reflect on the conversation, make a summary of the output.

Group size. We found out that there is a big difference between having an online conversation with a group of 4 people or with 8. With four it is easier to recognise voices (know who is speaking), to make everyone contribute to the conversation, define agenda and focus, have a discussion/ dialogue, make decisions. Of course part of these aspects play the same kind of role in a face-to-face meeting. A larger group requires much more structure and facilitation. And specific effort from participants.

Level of security and comfort. A teleconference (using a new technology or for a person unfamiliar with teleconferences) adds to your level of insecurity and discomfort, that you have in new groups. So if you have a new group, you can hardly get people to feel secure enough to get good work done. After all, these are all things that you have to consider while choosing for a f2f meeting, an online asynchronous discussion, a chat or a teleconference. A participant who was new in the group: ‘If it had not been for the explicit remarks that we were dealing with an experiment, I would have felt disappointed about this meeting. It was emotionally stressing. I compare this with meetings a had in South America, were I just started speaking Spanish. Even though I did not understand everything, it did not feel right to keep questioning: 'what do you mean', or 'would you repeat this?'. Still, people might ask for my opinion and expected you to participate in decision making. The experience with skype may be even worse: In the situation of our conference I could not check your faces, there were no lips to be read, no clues from the context. I felt insecure. I was so busy trying to listen that I had no energy left to check with the notes. I did not make notes myself, because I felt insecure about the content-value of what I could add.’’

Role participants. Participants need concentration to follow the dialogue, and focus for contribution, the willingness to express your feelings. In a f2f meeting, when you are confused about something or don’t agree, others will see this by observing you non-verbal signals. Online I felt like having several choices in such a situation: you can leave the dialogue and hitch on again when the content has changed. Or you raise your voice and express your feelings. Interesting observation of one of the participants: ‘I can hear that John has a Skype tone and rhythm of speaking that is slower then he does in face to face conversation.

Make the picture. Because you don’t see each other, you have to rely on the sound of voices. “I found out that, during the conference, I was trying to make an image of the situation (‘the picture’) in my mind, giving the conversation ‘more colour’. The photographs of participants in Skype were very helpful to me. When you know the people who participate, you easily learn to recognize voices. In our conversation we had a new participant; for him it was helpful to say your name before talking. In the beginning this requires specific attention, but I can imagine you will get used to it when doing this more often.”

Facilitation of the conference. As in a f2f meeting, it is very helpful to have someone facilitating the process: setting the agenda, guide the conversation, summarise, stimulate knowledge sharing, focus and decision making, and supporting people to contribute and share their ideas and thoughts. Two concrete methods were helpful in this meeting. Getting to know each other by doing a small introduction round on alphabetical order. You might as well use the clock or the list on the Skype chat.

And closing the meeting doing a short round of summaries or impressions of this meeting. Lessons for next time:
· It helps when someone now and then summarizes what has been said, collects concrete action points, keeps track on time and agenda (focus on content), makes space for all participants to contribute, suggests methods that are helpful for sharing ideas, thinking together, and coming up with new ideas.
· What we experienced in this online meeting is that the conversation can ‘drop dead’ like we all are thinking by ourselves. Till some point it is okay, but when it starts feeling uncomfortable…Maybe here is a task for the facilitator to give the conversation new energy, by giving a summary, asking a new question, doing a proposal.

What are the advantages of an online meeting above f2f meetings?
In international communities or groups with members geographically dispersed, an online meeting might be a very effective way of having contact, sharing thoughts, working together. When you can choose whether meeting up in a f2f meeting or online, it seems that online teleconferencing tools bridge the distance, but do not speed up the conversation or decision making process. You might take some more time, and another type of energy and facilitation for an online meeting. In our experience it felt like the amount of work completed in an online meeting is less than in a f2f meeting. On the other hand it costs less effort for us to meet online.

Questions worthwhile for further experiments:
· What can help build relationship, sense of individuals and of the group?
· How to deal with those periods of silence in the meeting?
· Practices around who is speaking (i.e. say your name before speaking - not everyone can hear voice differences)
· Issues around size of the group: what size is maximum, how to handle larger groups?
· …

Interesting links:
· Nancy's Telephone Call Facilitation Tips
· John Smith's Meeting on a Telephone Bridge
· Npower's Running Effective Online Trainings
· Kate Pugh's Good practice for phone-based CoP teleconferences
· Tips for Teleconference Participants
· Tips for Teleconference Leaders
· Proven, Practical Tips for Conference Calls

Experiences from: Joitske Hulsebosch, Mirjam Schaap, Russell Kerkhoven, Steven Scheer, Maarten Boers, Simon Koolwijk, Angelica Senders, John Smith, Sibrenne Wagenaar