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!


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