New words for a new world (of networked learning)


New words can act like lenses to see the world from a new perspective (Credits: Ben Christensen / FlickR)

New words can act like lenses to see the world from a new perspective (Credits: Ben Christensen / FlickR)

A language is a very strong indicator of the vibrancy of its community: if it evolves, it indicates that there are very active elements in the community which push it forward and keep it alive. On the other hand, reactionary forces (like the Académie Française) try to maintain the ‘purity’ of a language. This is a dangerous and meaningless stance though, as no language would have come out of our ancestors’ borborygms, hadn’t it been for attempts at changing our language.

The new words we come up with usually reflect needs, within our language community, to describe new phenomena that are affecting us, new realities we wish to depict. It is in this spirit that I’d like to share some ‘new words for a new world’ which might help us make sense of our changing networked learning world.

Some of these terms were coined a while ago (and by others), some I just thought about recently. See what you think…

  • Confusiasm: (coined by Riff Fullan at a KM4Dev meeting). We are learning specialists. We don’t settle for answers, we want to have more questions, deeper questions. We can cope with paradox and the discomfort of not having a silver bullet. We are enthusiastic about being confused, that means we are learning and questioning. We are confusiasts…
  • Facipulation: (coined by Carl Jackson?) Facilitation is about creating the space for others to engage meaningfully. Yet simple and subtle arrangements (the venue set-up, facilitation method etc.) can influence the dynamics. In that way you can facipulate a crowd towards its mutual engagement. This does not mean you actually create the results, the conversations should remain owned by the participants, but you create good conditions for this to happen, you facipulate for a better common good.
  • N-gagement: Engagement can come with just one other person, and that is arguably the best scale of engagement possible, with more time and capacity for listening and talking deeply. For social change to happen, however, we need to have engagement with multiple parties, through structured multi-stakeholder engagement processes or bursts of interaction with them. This is N-gagement: engagement with N people to bring more insights and capacities to the mix.
  • Netlurking: I last blogged about banning the term ‘lurking’ and I stand by my ground on this. However this Netlurking term comes to mind when thinking about all these networks that we are so easily getting into nowadays (LinkedIn groups, Facebook pages, other discussion gruops etc.) in which we are just testing the waters before deciding whether we feel like taking a deeper swim. This is thus not a good term but an easy term to catch.
  • Peerspectives: We need to hear perspectives from various people. But sometimes the best way to get advices and useful conversations is from our peers. They are different perspectives to ours, but they share a lot of common history and understanding. Peerspectives help us improve our practice.

In the future I will try to add new terms to this list as and when. For now, do these words make any sense in your world?

Related blog posts:

Me? A lurker? How ignorant of you! I am an empowered listener!


In our networked world, we hear a lot about ‘lurkers’. The 1% rule  (or 90-9-1 principle) reminds us that in any network or community of practice/interest or just discussion group, 1% of the people actively facilitate, organise and manage the space, 10% actively contribute to it and 90% are ‘lurkers’.

Is active, empowered listening like lurking? Certainly not (Credits: Ängsbacka / FlickR)

Is active, empowered listening like lurking? Certainly not (Credits: Ängsbacka / FlickR)

It’s time to nail this one down too, because the term lurker sounds ugly and is arguably as far away from the truth as possibly imaginable.

First off though, let’s see what is the definition of a lurker?

Lurk: to lie in wait in a place of concealment especially for an evil purpose (Merriam-Webster dictionary).

Wow! I already felt uncomfortable with the sound of the word, now I get the creeps thinking about its meaning!

No one gives ‘lurkers’ such ill intentions in networks (let’s use ‘networks’ here to refer to any grouping of people with a common interest or purpose, even though it’s more complicated than that) but let’s say that they are generally seen as people doing nothing much for that network. In fact, Wikipedia clarifies their (lack of) activity:

In Internet culture, a lurker is a person who reads discussions on a message board, newsgroup, chatroom, file sharing, social networking site, listening to people in VOIP calls such as Skype and Ventrilo or other interactive system, but rarely or never participates actively.

In reality, what do ‘lurkers’ really do?
We need to think about this in dynamic terms: What do they do in the network and what do they outside of it? What do they do at the time of action and what do they do afterwards?

We can imagine different types of ‘not-so-active’ network participants:

  • People who are indeed not even listening or checking any of the network interactions, at any time – they probably lost interest a while ago and were just too busy or lazy to quit that network. They’re not even ‘lurkers’, they should be called ‘deserters’ and it’s totally ok. We have our own commitments and are best placed to know where we can provide and/or get value, it’s fair enough to leave a network (even though a good digital practice is to close one’s online commitments properly by unsubscribing or closing one’s account);
  • People who are not acting or reacting on the spot, but are following interactions, with a little delay. This is also the simple effect of our asynchronous networked world: we can connect with people that are far apart, but also apart in time, which leads to this a-synchronicity. And many people travel a lot for their work so they may not be able to react on the spot. Does that make them lurkers? I don’t think so, they are just not there at the time, they’re ‘travelers’. And perhaps when they come back they will show that they are one of the following…
  • People who are following interactions on the spot but not intervening. This is the group targeted by the Wikipedia definition of  lurkers. Wikipedia adds: “Lack of trust represents one of the reasons explaining lurking behavior (Ridings, Gefen & Arinze 2006)”. Perhaps that is true, perhaps they don’t know other members of the network enough and don’t feel like talking to a giant crowd of strangers. Perhaps they feel they don’t have anything valuable to share. Perhaps they are just not interested in that particular conversation in the network. There is a range of reasons for their behaviour. But at any rate, if they’re not deserters, they are listening. At least at the beginning of the conversation to see if that particular bit is relevant to them. And they have the power to intervene any time. They are ‘active listeners’ and they might be learning profoundly through that active listening, which is another type of change that any community might wish for.
  • People who are following interactions on the spot, who are not intervening but actually influence other spaces and groups. Many of us are part of different networks and, depending on our level of confidence, connectedness and interest we play a different role in each. These are perhaps the online equivalent to Open Space Technology’s ‘bumblebees’, who cross-pollinate from a place to the next by sharing insights, ideas and perhaps even taking action, only in another space. They listened, they liked, they adopted elsewhere.
  • People who are following interactions and make it a point to not intervene, so as to leave space for others to build their confidence, mutual trust and conversations. They do so because they want to invite a richer diversity of participants, to achieve cognitive diversity and perhaps because they are so influential that they might impress others and curb discussions (when a genuine expert talks, everyone listens). These are what a KM4Dev group from 2008 described in their conversation about words for change as ‘power-lurkers’ – the “unseen but highly influential champions of online communities”. I would call them the ‘silent wise’, because they know all too well that ‘speech is silver, silence is gold’.


Does anyone up there deserve to be called a lurker? I don’t think so. So let’s stop using this terrible word and let’s appreciate the rich and varied contributions of these empowered listeners. We all are empowered listeners.

Related blog posts:

Social learning in climate change – Of buckets, loops and social LSD?


Participants grappling with the thorns of social learning in the CCAFS workshop

Participants grappling with the thorns of social learning in the CCAFS workshop

Last week, I had to facilitate one of the most challenging and interesting workshops in a long time: A very diverse group of researchers, practitioners and donors came together for the workshop organised by the CGIAR program Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). The workshop focused on ‘communication and social learning: supporting local decision making on climate change, agriculture and food security‘.

The main topic was thus social learning and how it can be mobilised for more effective engagement strategies in the climate change sphere – a highly volatile and complex sphere.

Although I was facilitating and thus not really joining the rich conversations that braided the workshop, I heard the insightful gems from this fascinating collective of people in plenary feedback sessions.

Hereby, my selection of insights from the conversation:

  • There is still very little evidence of the value of social learning – how does it compare with other approaches to carry out research and implement development work, why do we tend to believe and sense this is so effective but fail to justify our intuition?
  • Cynefin framework (Credits: Cognitive Edge)

    Cynefin framework                             (Credits: Cognitive Edge)

    Because we may not know much about the value of social learning and perhaps even what it means, it might be better to just throw ourselves in the battle – as we would do in the ‘chaos’ block of the Cynefin framework (see graph on the right). This means we would be well informed to just throw many approaches and initiatives in a bucket (or basket) and then see how the bucket itself reacts;

  • The cost of social learning remains very high: face-to-face interactions with multiple actors is time-consuming and pricy. This puts all the more pressure on assessing the value of social learning;
  • Social learning brings us back to the single, double and triple learning loops. Another reason to put them into practice. What was interesting here was that applied to communication it was introduced as a) simple dissemination of information (single loop), b) reflection about what activities allow us to be more effective (double loop) and c) real transformative change through social learning among multiple stakeholders (triple loop);
  • Social learning in itself is not really worth pursuing on its own if not for action. For this to happen, there must also be an agenda of action, of social change, that actors negotiate among them and keep in mind at all times. Social learning for the sake of it is a useless academic exercise for development issues;
  • Social learning is also a philosophy, at least an approach that can only thrive in an environment that properly supports it. Institutionalising social learning remains a difficult agenda – this has a ‘deja-vu’ feel of the organisational learning era though, doesn’t it?
  • The case for civic-driven initiatives (actually referred to as ‘endogenous social learning’ initiatives here) was made again: don’t build up from scratch, embed where the soil is fertile, where the energy and capacity is already mobilised;
  • Social learning has a twisted relation with power dynamics as it invites people to join decision-making but bears with it the devils of hidden power (who instils the social learning dynamics?), token representation (who is credibly sent to represent a given group?) and of false transparency (how clear is the decision-making process for those involved in the social learning activity and outside it?).
  • Particularly when applied to complex problems such as climate change, social learning thrives on the participation of very diverse groups of people. This, combined with the issue of power dynamics, means we need to consciously make room for social differentiation – accepting the diversity of perspectives, languages and seeing to an inviting process that creates room for groups of people (ostracised indigenous groups, women, youths etc.) to engage in the conversation and decision-making process. That social learning and social differentiation makes a perfect ‘social LSD’ combination that can get us very high (errrr, far);
  • The importance of ‘process facilitators’ is recognised: we need process guidance, a knack for and wits to convene and catalyze social learning;

We need many, many more creative participatory facilitators. Without them, much of what we hope for will not happen. Who, where, in what ways, needs to do what to generate and support them? What needs to change?” (Chambers, personal communication March 2012)

  • That engagement process should be indeed very interactive, continuous or at least iterative, if it is to reflect genuine social learning. Otherwise it risks falling on the side of ‘token participation’ again;
  • Social learning processes need to address the diverse time frames that motivate different people: farmers look at the next harvest, policy-makers at the next election, a community at the next 25 years, climate change scientists at the next 100 years. Incentives and engagement depend on the time frame of reference for each group – as beautifully explained in this post.
  • As ever, trust is the cement of all success. Particularly in large interactive processes such as wide scale social learning initiatives. This is one of the underlying themes in a recent and excellent (but long) post from Nancy Dixon, when pondering why knowledge management didn’t save General Motors.
  • The documentation of the very process of social learning is equally adamant to the success of our social learning enterprises – one of the external reviewers from the final presentation in the workshop mentioned: “the best pilots cannot be scaled up because they are the best (i.e. they are the result of a symbiotic set of factors related to one particular context), scale up the process not the pilots”. Hear hear!!


Social learning is indeed one of the talks of town – and for good reason – so this workshop was very timely, and could be only the beginning of a much longer engagement process, starting with this emerging community of interest.

This also tells me that it’s time I resumed my blogging on multi-stakeholder processes.

Related blog posts:

External blog posts written about this workshop:

The wealth of communities of practice – pointers to assess networked value?


Building upon the CoP 4L model by Seely Brown, Wenger and Lave (credits: dcleesfo / FlickR)

Building upon a.o. the CoP 4L model by Seely Brown, Wenger and Lave (credits: dcleesfo / FlickR)

The KM4Dev community of practice is going through an intensive action phase, beyond the conversations, as the grant given by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) for the period 2012-2013 is leading to a number of interesting activities.

Among them is a learning and monitoring (L&M) plan which really focuses on learning from all other IFAD-funded activities, rather than focusing on monitoring (in the sense of checking delivery of outputs against the plans). And the focus of our L&M plan is about the networked development and value-creation of a community of practice (CoP). How does it fare against governance principles, identity and level of activity, engagement channels and learning / outcomes (which really focus on the most important value creation).

I am involved in the learning and monitoring team and as part of it have started (with support from other L&M team members) developing the table below.

This table offers a suggested selection of ‘learning areas’ that in our eyes matter when working in communities of practice such as KM4Dev.

Learning area Specific issues in this area Description
Governance Transparency Systematic sharing of and accessibility of results of conversations, decisions, initiatives, reification (see below) activities etc. also including the selection process for core group members
Vision, values and principles Development, existence, clarity, understanding and acceptance of general vision, principles and values for the  community of practice by and for its members / normally this is not really a ‘learning’ area but if it isn’t in place it becomes one.
Leadership Demonstrated (and particularly accepted) leadership of the core group and occasionally others by other members of the KM4Dev community. Is there any dissonance between the two groups?
Mobilisation and commitment See below. This is also mentioned under governance as people involved in the CoP governance have to mobilise resources and commit themselves to activities in a specific way
Identity and activity Diversity and expansion Profile of members of the community and the core group (language, region, type of organisation etc.); Growth and expansion (frequency of new members, how etc.) and ties with external networks
Conversation Frequency and quality of conversations around the domain (knowledge management for development) or the community (KM4Dev)
Reification Tendency (quality and frequency) of the community to ‘reify’ conversations into tangible outputs e.g. blog post, wiki entry, journal article etc. Also has a bearing on learning and outcomes
Mobilisation and commitment Capacity of core group members and other KM4Dev members to mobilise themselves and commit to activities (which activities? to what extent/degree of involvement?) and indeed deliver according to the plan and with strong learning. This also has bearing on the governance
Participation Degree of participation of different members to conversations and other activities
Reflection Evidence of social learning, development and sharing of new insights as part of activities (and results – this has bearing on learning/outcomes)
Cohesion Evidence that the relationship between members of the community is good and that everyone finds their place in the community while feeling they are part of a whole
(Learning and) Outcomes Reification / outputs See above. Production of outputs (quality/frequency?) – planned or spontaneous
Reflection / changed thinking and discourse See above. Evidence that reflections from the KM4Dev community have achieved change in thinking and/or discourse among others e.g. citations, semantic analysis.
Inspiration / changed behaviour Evidence of change as a new way to proceed, inspired by KM4Dev activities
Innovation / changed artefact or approach Evidence of KM4Dev influencing development of a new artefact or method, codified concretely
Impact Evidence of larger changes (in autonomy of decision and well-being related to livelihood) where KM4Dev activities have inspired/influenced others within community and particularly beyond. Caveat: attribution.
KM4dev engagement channels Suitability for participation The different KM4Dev channels (mailing list, wiki, ning community), annual meetings) foster dialogue and engagement, and learning
Ease of use / Availability of KM4Dev outputs The different channels are easy to use and complement each other. They make KM4Dev activity outputs visible, and available.
Identity Governance of Km4dev is clear in all engagement channels

This table and the plan which we highlighted triggered a very rich discussion in the KM4Dev core group over the  past couple of weeks. This conversation was meant to provide some initial reactions before opening it more widely with the entire community. As we are about to embark on a much wider and open consultation process with the rest of the community, I thought it might be useful to post this here and see if any of you has any suggestion or feedback on these learning areas…

Believe in empowerment? Then just do it!


A little rant/shoot here.

Empowerment - too perilous and futile? (credits: yohan1960/FlickR - sculpture by Stephen Broadbent)

Empowerment – too perilous and futile? (credits: yohan1960/FlickR – sculpture by Stephen Broadbent)

Development work is (IMHO) all about empowerment: finding ways to become fully aware of one’s choices in one’s own livelihood, to become capable to make these choices and to proactively develop this liberty of choice and action so as to continually adapt to ever changing challenges – through learning.

Development cooperation work is all about empowerment too, it is about supporting the empowerment mentioned previously and to help connect choices and actions on livelihood, dignity and liberty.

Yet development (cooperation) work surprisingly slips back to habits, bad habits, and known bad habits at that – much like we tend to be continually over planning. We – at least some of us – talk about empowerment but we don’t champion it in practice quite as adamantly.

Here is a review of typical known bad habits that hamper empowerment:

  1. Do it, don’t delegate! Do not bother delegating anything since you do it better than others, you know the end result will never be quite as good as if you do it. Especially if you never give others a chance to become masters and perhaps even improve on you.
  2. Buy/hire capacities, don’t develop them! Why invest in capacities you have at hand? There will always be better experts abroad than in-house. You need a specialist in strategic communication? Recruit a new staff member. Need specialist know-how for your M&E? Hire a consultant! Yeah it takes time to bring them on the same page but they are better to start with and come with a new mindset which can probably be moulded more easily, especially if they are not too old. Who needs the long sweaty road of grappling with capacity development?
  3. Despair and swear, dont’ trust and be patient! People around you are not doing things well, they just don’t get it and never will, why would you be patient and trust that they will bring the best of their intentions and capacities to perform a task? Sadly you can just despair at their misunderstanding and swear at their incapacity to do things like you (see point 1).
  4. Tell, don’t show! It takes too much time to show people how to do something so just tell them and hope that they get it. They probably don’t and then you have a good reason to follow point 3 and ultimately 1.
  5. Hush now, don’t explain! Just diss what people have to say, don’t bother explaining what is going on. So in fact, don’t even bother telling people (let alone showing them) – so ignore point 4 and just ignore people altogether and leave them in their sea of ignorance. Ignorance is bliss they say and you are kind enough to grant them this privilege.
  6. Criticize, don’t praise! People around you might be doing their best, and actually improve, but there’s always so much more that needs improving! Let them understand all these things they don’t get and that there is a long way before they get it right. A good lesson of what’s going wrong helps to learn, right? Besides, surely praising will make them lazy and self-complacent, so put them on the right track again and give them a right rinsing of criticism – preferably publicly so next time they think twice before saying something stupid!
  7. Impose your view, don’t help others find theirs! Since they have a very poor understanding of the situation, you should just show THE right perspective and way: yours. All those ideas about multiple perspectives and complementary viewpoint is just another reason to get soft, not take hard decision and remain ignorant. Luckily one person stands out to correct the ways development is being done – you are the messiah that they should have been expecting because you never fail to see what needs to be done. And there is certainly no point helping people find their own authenticity and purpose; instead they should support your approach, the only right one.
  8. Hide the truth, don’t criticize! In fact, even better, don’t even criticize, not even in private, just say nothing. They will never get it and will never change so just don’t invest any energy in feedback – they are not worth your attention, time and prestigious expertise.


Obviously this is a caricature but we do find a lot of watered down versions of these terrible attitudes in development work. I also don’t deny that in certain situations there might be a teeny tiny grain of truth in some of the statements above but by and large they all miss the point of empowerment and bring a shameful (post-?)colonial twist to development (cooperation) work.

Let’s all face our own bad habits and see how many of these we can trade for true empowerment in our thinking, discourse and actions… Time to be honest about our own limitations and about the great potential of all other people around us. Empowerment: stop talking about it – just do it!

Related blog posts:

The chemistry of magical facilitation (2b) – And play more with the BOSSY HERALD!


Participants: Who are they? What are they coming for? (credits: ILRI)

Participants: Who are they? What are they coming for? (credits: ILRI)

In the second part of this second chapter on the chemistry of magical (event) facilitation, I will examine the attendance (the participants), the location and the dynamics of the event, the other three crucial elements to make the HERALD play for you, as well as the matter at hand: the content.

Attendance (the participants)

The people that participate to your event are perhaps the most important and delicate part behind the success (or failure) of your entire event because you can prepare and mould every other bit of the event, but not your participants.

So when looking at your attendance, think about: presence, profile and relation (both now and after the event).

Presence of participants
Presence relates both to their physical and to their emotional/intellectual presence.

First of all, you need the physical presence of your participants. How many are planning to come? How many are effectively coming? There are always last minute cancellations or problems… Knowing the approximate number at earliest will help you design the workshop and find most appropriate facilitation approaches, methods and tools – and a venue that can host them all.

Secondly, what really motivates them to attend the event? Did they come on their own volition or were they sent to ‘represent’ their organisation?  Were they sent ‘to be trained’ on something? You need participants that emotionally or intellectually connect with the agenda (or with other participants) so they are interested and willing to learn and do something during the event.

In addition, what might be their ‘secret agenda? Some consultants come to events to sell their services (which is fair enough but it helps knowing this upfront), others come just to find out who is in a network etc. Knowing what your participants are in it for is not easy but it makes your event easier to design and the dynamics you shape straightforward too.

Ideally you end up with active, motivated, curious, knowledgeable, keen on sharing, respectful, humble participants – the recipe for their learning and interaction. They have to play the game of the event and should be happy to do so.

The selection of participants – particularly for training courses – is crucial in this regard. The worst case scenario is if you end up with people sent to the event without any personal interest (n)or prior information about it: you then usually end up with a very difficult event (because participants are not motivated) or a rather ineffective event (because beyond the event, the persons are very likely not to bring anything back in their (net)work). If you can, help select the people that come over; if you can, include an exercise where the profile and the aspirations of your crowd becomes more obvious.

What is the profile of your participants?
Once you have participants, you need to understand who they really are:

  • What country do they come from? What country are they working in? Do you know about their cultural background and are there any specific things you need to keep in mind (in relation to ease or difficulty in public speaking, specific rituals, degree of formality etc.)?
  • Do they feel comfortable with the language(s) used in the event?
  • Are they self-employed? Do they represent an organisation – thus perhaps an organisational mandate?
  • Are they men or women (I recently ended up facilitating a workshop for 45 participants of which only 2 were women!!)?
  • Are they junior or senior? If the latter, can they actually move, see and hear well?
  • What decision-making power do they have? This might affect your potential to draw plans and assign responsibilities, if that is part of the plans.
  • How high are they in their hierarchy and how much should you pay attention to that hierarchy? I, for one, always try to bring down hierarchical barriers in the workshops I facilitate, but sometimes you cannot avoid the cultural sensitivities to prestige and seniority.
  • Crucially: how knowledgeable are they about the topic / focus of the event? How much do they know about it and how much do they have to say something about it because they are ‘experts’ (it always helps to find out who are the resource persons because they might take a lot of time to speak publicly)?
  • Are they introverts or extroverts? One doesn’t facilitate the same way for both groups – as suggested in this blog post.
  • Do they tend to agree or disagree? There are natural ‘devil’s advocates’ which can greatly help but can also disrupt the dynamics you set, recognise it upfront.
  • How big of an ego do they have – who might be the ‘difficult material’ to play with here?


Relations (before, during and after the event)

How much do participants know and engage with each other before, during and after the event?

  • How much do they already know each other?
  • Do they come from the same institutions or different ones? If from the same institution, do they come from the same (e.g. country) office?
  • Are they all working on the same initiative?
  • Do they have similar or different professional functions? In other words is this an audience of peers, which allows you to assume they share some jargon and approaches?
  • Do they all speak the same language?
  • How much of a common culture do they share?
  • Is there a hierarchy among them and should it matter in this workshop?
  • Are there tensions among them?
  • Do they need to develop strong relationships during the event because they will work together afterwards?
  • Can you build engagement before the event e.g. by means of online discussions, a phone conference, reactions to a blog, sharing their personal online profile etc.?
  • What follow-up activities might bring (some of) these people together again?
Once you know who you’re dealing with, it becomes much easier to know which approaches to use or to avoid.
Location (the venue)
Pick your venue carefully (credits: Dave Murr/FlickR)

Pick your venue carefully (credits: Dave Murr/FlickR)

This is an often overlooked aspect and yet it can have so much impact on an event positively (usually without participants noticing) or negatively (usually with participants noticeably complaining about it) .

From the participants’ perspective, it helps a lot when the venue is: quiet; open, with a lot of space (not confined, which drives claustrophobic participants crazy) and can anyway easily host the amount of attending participants; located in a beautiful area, particularly for a retreat where people need to find peace of mind and inspiration; possesses an outdoor space, even a forest or a beach, where you might want to organise some activities too; has enough natural light – or a great artificial lighting system – to not tire them too quickly.

From the facilitator’s perspective, all the above applies, but it’s also important that the venue: is modular, with tables and chairs that can be rearranged at will (unlike conference venues with translation facilities and fixed desks chained to one another – as we know that the administration of chairs matters a lot!), doesn’t have pillars blocking the sight; has walls that can easily be used to pin sheets and cards etc.; has extra space, possibly other rooms for break-out groups or spectrum exercises or energisers thtat require space – outside facilities are even better if the venue (and weather!) allows; has great acoustics (do you need a microphone?); has a good internet connection and all other facilities required: video projector and screen, laser pointer, flipchart and sheets, markers, colour cards, post-it notes, translating equipment if required, conference audio system or mini speakers, microphones etc.

Once that is checked, you can think about the final bit before – and influencing your choice of – facilitation approaches: the dynamics.

Dynamics (the conversation style)

You can decide to stimulate a certain conversation dynamics for your entire workshop (and for each session, related to a facilitation method) so what kind of conversation dynamics do you really want to encourage for your event?

  • Is it an exploratory event, where you want everyone to question openly, blue-sky, brainstorm and unearth new possibilities?
  • Is it an informational event, where you want participants to learn more about a given issue?
  • Is it a vocational event, where you want participants to learn new know-how for their work – i.e. is it a training event?
  • Is it a reactive event, where you want them all to give their opinions about, criticise or question a specific event, a document, a proposal, a law, an idea, a movement etc.?


In addition: Is it a meant to be a productive (co-creating) event, where you hope that participants will come up with a specific output at the end or does the conversation matter more than anything? Do you want participants to argue or to agree with each other? Arguing can really push boundaries further but can also cringe relationships, while agreeing builds relationships but might lead to stagnant thinking. Improvisation theatre’s ‘Yes and approach’ might be a good ‘in-between’ perhaps (see more about ‘Yes And’ in the video at the bottom of part 1 of this blog series)?

Of course, in practice an event tends to borrow to many or all of these dynamics, but overall your event itself probably has a major inclination towards one of these dynamics. Be aware of and perhaps even take control of it as it informs your flow (read more about the flow in part 2 of this blog series). And if you are not sure, just give it a try, go with the flow, let it be. You might fail but no great person in history ever just had successes and it is totally liberating to try out new approaches…

Now on to the matter of the event…

What are we talking about? The content!

What's your content then? Not all of it can be planned like this (Credits: ByronNewMedia/FlickR)

What's your content then? Not all of it can be planned like this (Credits: ByronNewMedia/FlickR)

Finally, assuming you have an overall focus for the event, how are you going to source content matter to chew on. Remember: process and content are the two wings of your event bird. Too much content and not enough process means potentially a terribly ineffective and boring event; but too much process and no content means everyone’s really wasting their time.

Where does content come from?
It can come from previous work (publications, reports, films, previous workshop) and ideally should include different formats (written, video, audio) to cater for different learning styles (see more on this in learning cycles basics and on ‘what is learning’). This is usually a key source for technical events – although again overloading too much content into your event usually means less time and space for interaction and leads to this

But a much more powerful source of content comes from event interactions themselves:

  • From questions that are raised by participants. Questions are particularly powerful as they do not close conversations but open them up to other areas. The art of powerful questions can be a great guide in this.
  • From conversations that take place inside the event – as part of the sessions – and outside (it can be useful to ask participants what their reflections are after a coffee break or at the beginning of the day). One of the key objectives of an interactive event is to precisely elicit that content from on-site conversations;
  • From the process documentation and social reporting taking place and unfolding conversations with the outside world: social reporters tweet or blog about their reflections or observations about the event, intriguing statements or strong quotes etc. They put the word from the event out to a wider arena. Both this content created on the side of the event and their interactions with outsiders can feed the event with interesting questions and comments that provide more, interesting content.


Your content will keep on morphing throughout the event. And it’s probably for the better. So long as you keep your objectives/outcomes in mind. With all these elements in mind, you are now ready to think about which facilitation methods will be useful – which is the object of the next post in this series.

The presentation below, ‘Organizing effective events and conversations‘ summarises a number of the aspects touched upon here.

Related blog posts: