Dedication and determination, in the name of CoP’s


Communities of practice are cool again in my corner of the world.

Determination (Credits: Dana Lookadoo / FlickR)

Determination (Credits: Dana Lookadoo / FlickR)

They were always around, but it seems they really are coming back in a big way. From the recent Knowledge Management for Development Journal issue on the topic of CoPs, to the couple of projects that are instating communities of practice in my ILRI work, to the different posts and topics are that are emerging here and there (it could be a bit of a serendipity glass effect though).

Thing is with communities of practice, as with KM and life, it’s all in the attitude. And that attitude, for whoever is championing or facilitating a community of practice, is one of utter dedication and determination.

There’s a lot of stuff that might happen to your CoP.

And so if you don’t even have the attitude that sets you up for success, you just have to pray that all the other elements in the cosmos are aligned with your plans – and you better be one lucky b@stard!

Because let’s face it, if:

  • You can’t see that conversations in a CoP can take you much further than the typical conversations inside your own organisation
  • You don’t care about what others in your CoP may have to say about the topic that brings you together…
  • You can’t imagine spending any time on a CoP if it’s not just in your working hours
  • You have no inkling towards making your community one of the coolest places there is because you have the latitude to shape it and co-create with other invested people
  • You don’t see the beauty of a nascent community of practice with people turning up as other champions and heroes

…then don’t wonder why your community of practice doesn’t work.

Just get to it, and see it as your personal and yet collective gardening initiative, and draw pleasure out of it as you do from seeing trees grow up, soil sing and flowers blossom…

It’s all about determination…

Related blog posts:

Be genuine and genuinely care for your neighbour’s pace on the way to change


A lot of conversations, in general and also on this blog, are exploring past reflections and previous conversations. I am in one of these iterations about Alignment and authenticity.

I’ve said before that -for me- authenticity is essential in what we do, when we engage with others, because that genuine approach shows the real us and helps others develop trust with us (and I’ve also stated elsewhere that ‘TRUST is the truth‘).

However there is one exception to this principle: the pace. Pace of language and of motion.

Courses on communication remind us to mimick the other person’s behaviour, tone, body language to subconsciously create a positive rapport with that other person. And that is very true (though I usually don’t pay conscious attention to this). And as much as that is true, the pace of how we talk, and the pace of what we think and do is really important to create a fertile ground.

I’ve learned in that recent management training course (where I discovered my contribution statement for what I bring to the world) that:

“One step by 100 men is greater than 100 steps by one man”

And so it derives that to achieve this one step taken by 100 men, we need to adapt to others. We may have our own personality and our original ideas, but if we are to achieve any stage of common sense-making and action, we need to slow down (or occasionally speed up) the way we talk, think and act to level with these other people we want to take on the journey with us.

We must care for the pace of our neighbours. Because ideas will not come really into fruition before their time…

Ideas don't blossom before their time anyway (Credits: QuoteAddicts)

Ideas don’t blossom before their time anyway (Credits: QuoteAddicts)

This means that while we can’t force things to happen (ish), we can prepare the ground for it by mirroring the pace of language, thought and action of the people around us.

I tend to be very quick in many things we do. I even talk fast. And I’ve had to come to terms with that, particularly when I’m facilitating. I still have much progress to make in terms of adapting to the pace of action of people around me, and adapting to their thought model. But the road to real change emerges from the combination of all our little trails together. When we converge and align we start taking a direction that is much firmer and stronger than the one we were on.

That is my very modest ‘shoot‘ for this week: remain genuine to your ideas and who you are, but connect to the pathways of others by adapting to their pace. That is an effort worth investing in.

Alignment (Credits: Aftab Uzzaman / FlickR)

Alignment (Credits: Aftab Uzzaman / FlickR)

What’s coming up for you?

Related blog posts:

The (social) economics of gift and burying “knowledge is power” once and for all


“Giving a gift makes you indispensable. Inventing a gift, creating art-that is what the market seeks out, and the givers are the ones who earn our respect and attention.” (Seth Godin,).

As I am continuing to listen to this excellent ‘Linchpin‘ book, at least one whole section of

Linchpin (Seth Godin)

Linchpin (Seth Godin)

the book is worth exploring from an agile KM perspective. Godin talks about the gift economy, or rather the gift and the social economics around it. This is a final opportunity to put to rest the idea of ‘knowledge is power’ (among other reasons for not sharing knowledge) and to focus on the knowledge ecology our world can and should replace it with.

Essentially Godin’s point is that we’ve lost the universal tradition of gifts – in most human societies gift had a place and the person sharing the gifts was the person that earned the respect. The commodity-focused capitalism has replaced gifts with economic transactions – paying for a good – and has turned the tradition of gifts to become a tribute. The person with power became the person getting gifts, not giving them away.

However the social economy we are in is now turning this on its head again and making space for the ‘linchpins’ – the indispensable positive deviants that are following their passion, developing their art (regardless of the reactions expected) and thus making themselves indispensable. And one of the things that linchpins do is to share their gifts again as they connect with people around them. All those behaviours are the key to success.

Every successful organization is built around people. Men and women who don’t merely shuffle money, but interest, give gifts, and connect. (Seth Godin)

The social economics of giving in the knowledge ecology

‘Knowledge is power’ states that there is more advantage in hoarding knowledge for one’s advantage than sharing it freely. And that might be true. For a while… A short while.

In the longer run, however, we thrive as we are connected to a vast network of people.

Knowledge ecology - from the archives of 'share fairs'

Knowledge ecology – from the archives of ‘share fairs’

And that’s where the social economics of giving reveals its true advantages:

1. ‘Selling’ knowledge is a zero sum game.

When someone is hoarding knowledge, no fertile work comes out. And when someone systematically and only charges for sharing their knowledge, that person is merely entering into a transaction. Commoditising knowledge, with all the problems that come with – one of them being that knowledge really isn’t a commodity. But if it is considered a commodity, knowledge becomes desacralised, stripped off of its power which is unique and close to only a few other importants things in life, like love. That power is its social nature.

In any case, when we are selling knowledge there is no transformation, there is no(t much) added value here.

When instead…

2. Sharing knowledge transforms our relationships

When art is created solely to be sold, it’s only a commodity. A key element for the artist is the act of giving the art to someone in the tribe. (Seth Godin)

Give gifts (Credits: Neil Cummings / FlickR)

Give gifts (Credits: Neil Cummings / FlickR)

Indeed, when we share our knowledge, not only do we make available that handy knowledge to others, for them to do something perhaps useless but perhaps useful, or even amazing. In addition, and whatever happens with that knowledge, something else happens: when we share gifts (of knowledge or otherwise) with specific people, we are also developing, changing, transforming our relationships with them. We expand our tribes, we bring people in them. We also reach out to the people in the tribes of our tribe members – and so we are connecting to all the nodes of our global collective brain.

Of course, for this social transformation to happen most completely, there needs to be some sense of appreciation from the person receiving the gift too. That’s where the gift of your attention becomes so precious. And perhaps why your engaging in conversations (because that’s the work) is essential too.

3. Sharing knowledge creates power

One of the final points of Godin is that the person giving the gifts is showing that they have plenty of potential to give more, plenty of creativity, plenty of art to share. They show their uniqueness, and that uniqueness is also power – not that I would encourage you to focus on this. But indeed ‘Knowledge sharing is (caring) power‘ – both collective and individual.

This goes to show that even in a knowledge ego-logy, where we are serving (also) our own interests, but out of the principle of sharing our gifts, we are cultivating the knowledge garden and we are cultivating our connections with each other in that whole ecology.

So what can we do now?

There are many lessons one can take from such a rich book as ‘Linchpin’:

  • Develop your art with passion – in the knowledge world this means developing learning approaches that have failed safely and keep on going higher because you drive them with all of yourself.
  • Stop hoarding knowledge – share it and pay it forward instead, as it’s the best way to get that knowledge to lead to grand work, art crafts, masterpieces!
  • Offer your respect in return: part of the ecology is to cultivate it too by paying respect to the artists around us who are sharing their art as gifts.
  • Trust that people are not so interested in buying products, but as Seth Godin points out, they are interested in “relationships, stories, magic“!
  • Turn to ‘Open’ and ‘Working out loud’
  • Read, listen to or watch Linchpin…

I’m on to seek my next Godin book now… Any recommendation?

Related blog posts:

The delicate balancing act of collective decision-making, between transparency and trust


Any group of people – and by extension any organisation, network or more complex form of such groups – needs to have a clear decision-making process – a ‘decision rule’ – in order to attain agreements that people genuinely subscribe to and that lead to effective implementation.

Decision-making, no simple matter (Credits: Nguyen Hung Vu/FlickR)

Decision-making, no simple matter (Credits: Nguyen Hung Vu/FlickR)

Good learning and knowledge management depends on it just as well as anything else.

Any group wishing to establish a clear decision rule is however confronted with a dilemma:

  • Establishing a transparent decision-making process that guarantees that all people OR…
  • Not really establishing a full proof decision-making system and rather relying on the trust that exists between people, or the trust that people bestow upon a decision-maker.

The second option is tempting: Not many people establish clear decision-making processes to start with (and clearly leaders could innovate in this respect); it feels like an overkill for many of them; and if people know each other what is there to fear, right? Besides, if there is that trust – whether in the group or in the leader – why bother having a transparent procedure?

Well, trust certainly helps and eases decisions in, but is it enough when:

  • Turnover means new people could always come in and not guarantee the same level of trust among the decision-makers?
  • External actors are (legitimately) wondering how decisions are being made?
  • Any specific dispute could actually throw the trust off balance?
  • People outside the decision-makers are also involved and concerned but they may not know about the tacit agreement to making decisions?
  • There might be a risk in relying too much on a good and trusted leader?

For all these reasons, while trust is the truth and it’s an excellent basis for any group to move ahead with its decisions, defining a transparent decision rule is a guarantee that the group can crawl out of misunderstandings and disagreements in a fair and commonly accepted way.

WRAP - a model for better decision-making (Credits: JamJar/FlickR)

WRAP – a model for better decision-making (Credits: JamJar/FlickR)

Trust is the soil that lets the tree of cooperation grow, but a good decision rule or decision-making process is the tree support that lets it flourish until it has such strong roots that it doesn’t need support any longer.

What are you waiting for to install your decision rule?

Related blog posts:

‘Open’ as default, not the exception – oh, and please get over your self importance ;)


Open Up and embrace the universe (Credits: Allstair Nicol/FlickR)

Open Up and embrace the universe (Credits: Allstair Nicol/FlickR)

Openness is a scary thing indeed.

Opening yourself is really difficult, letting go all the more so (oh, read this beautiful testimony about it).

And even opening your information to others seems to intimidate people more than is necessary…

Many people I work with or come across have difficulties operating in ‘open spaces’ – and I’m not referring to Open Space Technology here but the virtual collaboration spaces where we can do things together (e.g. wikis, Google documents). They feel open is a hurdle for their sharing information and making use of the space.

 

I recently had such a conversation with a colleague in a project. He confessed in good faith that:

“It’s [the virtual space] supposed to be a ‘workspace’ but it is open to the public so there is not much dynamism & liberty in actually using it. It’s like the information that has to be posted needs some extra layers of censorship which then limits the frequency of use.”

So this might just be an interesting avatar of ‘knowledge is power’, or rather ‘closed knowledge is comfort’…?

In trying to answer that colleague I reflected on the many reasons why -until now unconsciously- I don’t share that point of view.

Hereby…

'Open' is getting traction everywhere (Credits: Ron Mader)

‘Open’ is getting traction everywhere (Credits: Ron Mader)

The world is opening to ‘Open’

Open is becoming the default, the rule rather than the exception. In global development, various funding organisations are actually making it a rule they enforce to have all outputs from initiatives they fund publicly accessible as ‘general public goods’. So there you have it. Open is the way the world is turning.

Resisting it is a challenging uphill pathway.

 

Get over yourself and the importance of your information

The information that we typically share in projects is for 99.99999999% of the population really not critical – so what is really the big deal about putting our informal information out there?

And on the other hand, aren’t there serious opportunity costs with having the teams involved in a given initiative not getting information that is potentially of use to them? Nothing new under the sun here. In any case – in the vast majority of cases let’s say – don’t expect your information to be so cutting-edge that it is information your potential competitors are dying to get.

Do people have the time to look for your information?

Unless you are based in China, North Korea, Eritrea or some other country that strictly controls information, it’s unlikely that anyone is actively crawling the web to find your content – let alone to do anything toxic with it. ‘Open’ doesn’t mean ‘reached’ 😉 People are just too busy with their lives. They will only find your content if they’re actively looking for something specific about it.

Trust the search engine algorithms to keep your work space rather intimate

So next, even if people had time to look specifically for your information, even if they were interested and actually looking for your information, the algorithms of search engines are based on mutual linkages first and foremost, on ‘referrals’. In other words the more a website is linked and pointed to from other sources the higher up it shows up. In the absence of many other websites pointing to your workspace, that workspace is more than likely to remain ‘undercover’ when it comes to search results. So you actually enjoy your privacy despite operating in an open environment and approach.

What is the likelihood that people do mean harm with your information?

And this is my biggest point here: Even despite all of the above, what is the chance that people accessing your information really want to do something harmful with it? What are the risks?

  • That they use and abuse your information without giving you credit for it? You can use Creative Commons licences to say what’s ok or not – and if you want to go down that road you can always hire a lawyer to sue whoever is breaching your agreement.
  • That they use your information to beat you on certain ‘market opportunities’? Perhaps true in the corporate sector, much less so in the global development one.
  • That they will ‘troll‘ your workspace? Well that’s a real risk, though of all the open groups I’ve been involved in in the past, I haven’t had one instance of this happening. What would you do against it?

If your fear is ‘half-baked thinking’, think again!

It could be that the legitimate concern of my colleague (who operates in the academic world where that fear is quite common) is of presenting ideas and thoughts that are not fully formed etc. But HEY that’s how innovation happens!

And more and more we find out examples that ‘quick and dirty’ is actually beautiful

Open is beautiful and it's everywhere (Credits: OpenSourceWay)

Open is beautiful and it’s everywhere (Credits: OpenSourceWay)

It’s not a 0/1 thing, you can find middle ways with open…

As a matter of reaching consensus, whether on wikis, on Google documents or websites or whatever, there’s all kinds of ways to make parts of a work space closed.

In the case I mentioned above, my colleague was reacting about a work space we are using as entirely open because we didn’t use the more expensive version with more privacy control… But that option is there and can be switched any time.

So in conclusion…

All the above makes me think that we can and should see Open really as default, and share most of our information publicly on our workspaces and other virtual platforms. Not least since ‘we share because we care‘.

That doesn’t mean ‘open knowledge’ cannot be even achieved in ever smarter ways…

Related posts:

Technology and community: don’t get mistaken about the real deal


Most people who are approaching knowledge management -for the first time- from the standpoint of building a community end up focusing on technology.

Technology just enhances communities. It expands the opportunities that communities bring but it doesn’t create communities, and it can also worsen communities if the technology is not user-friendly or if the community faciltator(s) does not know how to use it properly.

Community and technology (Credits: Nancy White)

A bit of history on community and technology (Credits: Nancy White)

So why this focus on technology?

Because it’s hard to build a system, to have a functional tool, to provide ‘office-approved’ technology. A rutilating toy coming out of the shelves.

The technology feels to most of these people building KM community systems like the 80% of the work. And yet the 20% that remains – community building and development – is what really takes 80% of the time.

Technology creating platforms for communities to flourish (Credits: OCLC.org)

Technology creating platforms for communities to flourish (Credits: OCLC.org)

This is why it is very important to invest in cultivating healthy human systems before anything else…

That’s why soft skills are more important than hard systems; that’s why facilitation matters more than engineering (for these communities); that’s why listening is more important than programming; that’s why patience beats quick development…

Technology is and may always be only a proxy, an enabler, not the actual deal.

Funny, I drafted this 2 weeks ago, and this topic is what Bevery Trayner just wrote about on her blog. Go check it, it’s quality! Funny serendipity at work… technology enabling a community of ideas…

Related blog posts:

Knowledge management in cartoons – A selection


KM in cartoons, a selection (Credits: Shutterstock)

KM in cartoons, a selection

Because good visuals pin an idea with so much more strength…

And fun helps move sensitive ideas forward…

Hereby a selection of cartoons that may help you and others understand the value of knowledge management, through the challenges KM is facing or the initiatives it proposes to deal with them.

Challenge: reinventing the wheel

Initiative: helping ideation and covering new grounds (and pissing people off in the process)

Credits: unclear

Dealing with innovation (Credits: A. Bacall)

Challenge: retaining peoples’ experience and knowledge

Credits: MTN / George Dearing

Initiatives: portals and databases

KM portals and databases (Credits: Grantland)

Challenge: recognising information needs

Recognising information needs (Credits: Scott Adams)

Initiative: building taxonomy

An example of taxonomy (Credits: The New Yorker / Green Chameleon)

Challenge: Dealing with information overload

Dealing with email or information overload (Credits: Pryor)

Initiative: knowing what to do with what you know – and setting standards

Knowing what to do with what you know (Credits: A. Bacau)Knowing or doing (Credits: B. Watterson)
Setting data standards (Credits: XKCD)

Challenge: dealing with difficult dynamics in meetings and events

Dealing with difficult dynamics at events (credits: Oslo)Initiative: Trying new ways of dealing with conversations, meetings, events (err, what about facilitation?)

How about trying something new for your meetings? (Credits: T. Goff)

And to keep some healthy distance from the fact that KM is not the ‘be all, end all’, the last couple of cartoons are for Dilbert, preceded by one by Christian Young:

Bad knowledge management (Credits: Christian Young)

KM for morons? (Credits: Scott Adams / United Feature Syndicate)

Hoarding and sharing knowledge (Credits: Scott Adams)

Related blog posts:

Of ‘healthy human systems’ beyond ‘the field’ and facilitating conversations that change the world: an interview with Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes


Wearing my 'Suspend your judgment' suspenders provided by Community at Work (Credits: EIB)

Wearing my ‘Suspend your judgment’ suspenders provided by Community at Work (Credits: EIB)

I can gladly say I am now one of the 4500 or so people that have been privileged to be formally trained by Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes of Community at work on ‘Group facilitation skills – Putting participatory values into practice’. And it was a hell of an experience!

So what a fantastic opportunity for me to interview them on what they see as ‘facilitation’ and how they see it evolve, as well as the connections they see with knowledge management. 

No more word from me now, just enjoy… 

Do you see some fundamental trends in facilitation practice over the recent past?

Sam Kaner (SK) When “group facilitation” originated, it was one component in a deeper insight about the powerful role of face-to-face groups as a transformative medium for changing the culture of the organization or community.  The skills of facilitation were aimed at strengthening the individuals in a group, by helping everyone participate more fully, and by helping people pay more attention to alternative points of view and become capable of understanding one another.  These strengthened capabilities, in turn, allow the individuals to operate as a high-functioning group, or team, that can share responsibility, develop inclusive solutions, and reach sustainable agreements that accrue large benefits over time. Thus, group facilitation was part of a larger, deeper system — the operational aspect of a philosophy of empowerment.

When these ideas were introduced to mainstream organizations from the late 1960s through 1980s, the skills of facilitation were impressively effective but entirely mysterious, and the arrival of a neutral third party into a work context was perceived as somewhat magical, not as a learnable discipline.

Then, as participatory groups, with facilitators, became clearly more productive than non-facilitated groups, interest in the role itself became steadily greater.  More and more people have wanted to be trained in the tools and techniques of facilitation, even as the role has been to some extent divorced from the core philosophy.   Thus, in the past 15 years or so, many training programs have developed to cater to people who believe that tools and techniques are the essence of facilitation, and its goal is “effective meetings.”

This trend bothers me quite a bit. I would be excited if these two currents — the original focus on philosophy, and the more recent focus on method — were being integrated, in teaching and in practice. But over the past several years, I have been witnessing the emergence of a rather slavish adherence to tools and technique aimed at “getting things done,” while the goals of participatory values, which aim at building stronger people, stronger groups, and stronger thinking, have been to some extent eclipsed. In our own workshops, (and in our writing) we go out of our way to address this predicament. Not by preaching about it (as I’m doing in this interview) but by linking the many facilitation skills we teach to the inclusive, “both/and” principles on which collaborative aspirations are grounded.

Nelli Noakes (NN) I’ve observed other trends in other parts of the world. I agree with Sam on the way training is packaged, and often the very practice of facilitation follows this same scheme.  We have all seen facilitators flown into organizations, especially located in developing countries, arriving with a bag of tricks but not actually focused on supporting long-term change.  Even so, there are also many thinkers and practitioners reaching for progressive new ideas, both in North America and in the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) around the world.  My own observation, as a past regional director of IAF Oceania, is that other regions outside of North America are not yet so commodified.  Among practitioners internationally, there’s more optimism that the involvement of facilitation can be a lever — both for culture change in specific organizations and for social change more broadly Thus, in my view this more aspirational perspective — that facilitation is a vehicle to help people to work together for serious gains — rubs up against, and co-exists with, the commodified, ‘packaged’ approach to facilitation that Sam has mentioned.

Do you have any idea where it is headed (as a field of practice) and where is your personal interest (your ‘next frontier’) when it comes to facilitation?

(SK) Yes, and this is where my own thinking overlaps with what Nelli just said.

In my observation, there is still plenty of genuine new thinking about the power of collaboration, but this thinking no longer appears in books with titles that focus on facilitation per se.  For example, Roger Schwatz’s current book is titled, Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams.  For new insight now, I follow the work of such organizations as the “National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation” (NCDD), the “Collective Impact Forum” and the “Stanford Social Innovation Review.”  To be sure, the new thinking and applications such as cross-sector collaboration, participatory budgeting, innovation platforms, etc. all respect the need to employ good facilitation skills as a necessary element for productive outcomes.  But these thinkers perceive  facilitation not as a field but as a skill-set and a value-set for social change.  If we consider the possibility that the real field of work, the real body of thought, is social change (or as we have been calling it since the 1990s “supporting and promoting healthy human systems”) then the skills of facilitation, take their place alongside those of coaching, project management mediation, virtual communication, negotiation, problem-solving and other important third party, process-oriented skill-sets that are necessary to enable diverse collections of people to collaborate effectively.

Incidentally, to round out your question, there is another trend that has been increasing exponentially in the past 15 years or so:  Facilitative leadership.

Within many organizations, there is a great deal of interest by managers around the world who engaged in cross-functional planning and problem-solving. It has definitely become a focus of much training, and our consulting firm has defined our own approach, through training and coaching, to support people who are not neutral third parties to develop a collaborative mindset and acquire skills that can enable their effectiveness. That said, it’s hard to predict how long this trend will endure. Our experience is that the participants in our facilitative leadership programs are intrigued by the new skills and happy when they leave a workshop after a few days, but very few of them are gung-ho participatory philosophers. Most are agnostic on the issue of whether or not collaboration is worthy; it comes down to a question of whether the skill set is suitable for meeting a particular objective. So we think it remains to be seen whether the introduction of facilitation skills into corporate culture, government culture, university culture, NGO culture, will change management theory and practice over time, or whether it will become one more trendy fad, like sensitivity training, that lasts for several years and then runs its course.

To be a facilitator... (Credits: Unclear)

To be a facilitator… (Credits: Unclear)

Do you see any connection between facilitation and knowledge management and if so, where/how?

(NN) Effective knowledge management comes from being able to see a whole system, being able to actively engage players at all levels in that system, and making sense of the data that one can draw from throughout the system. I see two key areas where skilled facilitators can support organisations in this.

The first is through encouraging full participation – giving voice to the knowledge present at all levels of an organization, not just that which comes from the most powerful, or most vocal, or most confident in a system. And as that supports people to become more confident about speaking up, the pool of available data to contribute to organizational knowledge grows.

The second is through supporting people with diverse perspectives in an organisation to better understand each other – to be open and curious about the way information transforms into knowledge differently as it filters through people’s different lenses of experience. By this I mean that people don’t just hear other people’s points of view and think “Oh, that’s nice, Jim has a different thought about that than I do because we have different history and experience”. Rather, that they take it to another level of analysis and go “Oh, so Jim sees it like this and Mary sees it like that and I see it this other way – so what does it mean when I put those pieces together? How do those things connect in a way that tells me something meaningful about our organization?”.

In my ten years working in government agencies, I saw several knowledge management efforts that involve one or two people sending out surveys, logging the results and storing them in an online repository that functions like a data base if anyone wants to go look up something. This seems like such a lost opportunity to me. In a facilitated environment, people develop the thinking skills to put the pieces together themselves, so that knowledge management becomes accessible to, and the responsibility of, all players in a system. This makes it more likely that people will want to use the stored data later, and it also makes it vastly more likely that people will want to update their information as knowledge changes and grows.

Are you involved in virtual facilitation and what do you see as challenges and opportunities with facilitating virtually?

(SK) My colleague and co-author Lenny Lind was one the pioneers in the development of virtual facilitation skills.  Beginning in the early 1990’s he and his team at CoVision developed a platform called Council, built for huge face-to-face meetings where 100 to 10,000 participants came together to communicate in real time, using laptops to promote interaction.  So for example, an executive might stand up in front of the group and give a talk, using slides to emphasize certain points, and everyone would listen just as in a normal large meeting.  But then, as soon as the talking points are covered, the participants talk briefly to their colleagues at their tables and then start typing in their thoughts, reactions, questions, etc, into their laptops.  Then using any one of a number of methods the comments are sorted into themes, some of which are immediately focused on and some of which are deferred. The activity then continues, back and forth between face to face conversation in small groups, and large group inputting and responding. The meeting can last anywhere from an hour or two hours to an entire day or two, all depending on the agenda and its objectives.

Here is the important point: Even though the activity was done in the same room at the same time, much of the information was transmitted virtually and the meeting facilitator had to develop a lot of the skills that virtual facilitators take for granted nowadays. In fact, the software that runs Council was rewritten in the early 2000’s so that it could be used entirely by people who communicated virtually, not necessarily in the same room at the same time. So the virtual facilitation skills became even more central at that point.

I was privileged to facilitate about a dozen Council meetings over a period of ten years, so I learned at first hand the realities of what happens when a virtual-meeting facilitator makes good moves and not-so-good moves in the management of people who are writing comments to people who cannot see the faces or in some cases hear the voices of each other.

This leads to my core point: Lenny learned early that virtual communication is good for certain things but that it augments, not replaces, face to face communication. For example, people can express certain points that are controversial when they do so anonymously. But it is well known that quite often a person’s first pass at expressing something emotional is transformed through the process of discussing it in the context of a genuine, caring relationship. Virtual meetings are great for brainstorming, great for gathering and sorting and getting reactions to information, and they are truly amazing for increasing the number of people who can become engaged in an issue. A phenomenon like this very blog, not to mention the gigantically influential forms of communication such as YouTube and Facebook, are clear evidence of the power of virtual communication to make change in the world. At the same time, the transformative potential of face-to-face struggle — where people develop authentic empathy and compassion not just intellectually broadened perspective — still remains as a substantial component of lasting change. Lenny and his co-author Karl Danskin develop their own views on this in their brand new book, Virtuous Meetings (2104) available from Wiley & Sons.

Where do you go fetch interesting new resources and ideas for your own facilitation practice?

(NN) One of the things I love about working in the field of human systems is that the learning never stops! I have three main areas where I go to develop my own facilitation skills.

  1. The first, and most narrowly specific to my own work, is working with feedback from my clients. We have a strong continuous improvement philosophy at Community At Work, so listening to my clients about what’s working and what’s not working for them gives me ideas about how to strengthen my approach.
  2. Second is having a network of peers to debrief with and learn from. Working with Sam and the rest of our team provides a endless reservoir and insight and experience from which to draw learning, as well as thinking partners with whom to test new ideas. I also have a lot of friends who work in the same field as I so, so an evening or weekend walk, or a quiet drink on a Friday night often doubles as a knowledge-sharing experience!
  3. Third, I read stuff! But not usually books or articles specifically on facilitation. I’m more interested these days in material on organizational development, collaborative practices, knowledge management and board governance.

And I’m hoping I’ll soon have a fourth main area to add to this list. We’ve recently started a Community At Work Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/CommunityAtWorkSF?ref=aymt_homepage_panel for members of our community to share their thinking and ideas. We’re hoping that will soon grow into a vibrant resource for us and others involved in this field.

(SK) Earlier in our conversation, I mentioned NCDD; Collective Impact Forum; Stanford Social Innovation Review. Another really excellent one is Skoll World Forum http://skollworldforum.org. These four have such terrific reach that they point me to other, different sources of ideas all the time.  For those wanting a mainstream professional organization that tries to stay current, I would recommend Organization Development Network (founded in the 1950’s).

Nelli Noakes, Sam Kaner and ILRI staff (Credits: ILRI)

Nelli Noakes, Sam Kaner and ILRI staff (Credits: ILRI)

What would be your advice for starting facilitators?

(NN) When I first fell into facilitating, I had very limited knowledge or practice, and knew almost no-one else who worked in the field.

So the first thing I did was read as many books on the subject as I could find, and then attended some training courses. Then I started persuading groups to let me facilitate their meetings for free. Fortunately, the groups I volunteered with knew even less about it than I did, so they appreciated the order I brought to their previous chaos more than they saw the many errors I made! And I was able to start to get some real experience in seeing what worked and didn’t.

The next thing I did was start to build a network of people who also worked in the field, so we could start to learn from each other. I joined the International Association of Facilitators and the International Association of Public Participation (both of which have a much more active presence in Australia than in North America) and started attending their events, all of which exposed me to many different perspectives.

Those two elements – volunteering and building a network – proved to be invaluable many years later when I started my own consulting firm. I had a lot of people who were willing to vouch for me. To this day, most of my business comes from word-of-mouth recommendations.

My most important piece of advice for starting facilitators (apart from attending our Group Facilitation Skills workshop, of course!), is to become not just comfortable with receiving feedback, but to actively seek it at every possibility. Learn to value it as the most important factor in your own continuous improvement process. (A good place to start exploring how to receive feedback well is Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen)

(SK) Over the decades I have had a lot of chance to watch people get started, and I have come to believe that two ways are especially powerful:

1.    Volunteer.  For example, volunteer to facilitate a meeting at a small nonprofit organization, or at your church, or at your child’s school. In these situations you can’t lose — these community contexts places are so funky that anything you can do will be an improvement. You can see changes happen. Often, if you are secure in your own workplace, a staff meeting or the meeting to start a new project is equally good. Whichever context you choose, just be sure to make this deal at the beginning, before you start: you are willing to volunteer your time for no financial remuneration, but you would like to be “paid” with 5 minutes (or more) of good feedback on your strengths and ‘improvables’ at the end of the meeting.

2.    Find a peer support group.  Having a face-to-face group touching base every two weeks or so is a priceless experience. I have personally witnessed the results, over the years, when people who were raw rookies in facilitation went on to be successful consultants who then built their own long-term independent consulting firms, because they built so much confidence in the early years. In the ILAC years before the creation of the consortium, CGIAR as an entity attempted to maintain a network of people who had earned judgment suspenders. It became an online ‘D-group’. At that point, it became an information-sharing group which ultimately did not have the same dynamism as a face to face support group.

Tinkering with tools: Asessing Asana


Asana - making genuine collaboration possible or generalising team confusion?

Asana – making genuine collaboration possible or generalising team confusion?

It’s been ages since the last ‘Tinkering with tools‘ post, so after posts about Yammer, LinkedIn and Prezi, it’s time to turn to one of the (expected) collaboration rising stars: Asana.

Asana is a team-centric virtual collaboration tool which allows collective task management, setting up structured team meetings and more. It certainly could be considered as one of the solutions against collective apathy in the workplace. It certainly weighs as a good alternative to SharePoint (SP) given the criticism SP has met, especially when used as a KM tool or as a community collaboration platform.

In any case, PC Mag rated Asana one of the best productivity apps on the market.

Here’s what Asana has to say about itself now (video). This other video below was the original introduction piece by the Asana team (from three years ago)

Now, I’ve been using Asana for the past seven months in a small team (five people) connected to a larger group of colleagues. You will be able to read more about this on our knowledge management ‘Maarifa’ blog soon. This post is actually a great way to synthesise our thinking back about our ILRI experience with Asana. But here I want to offer a more detached and generic ‘tinkering with tools’ perspective on Asana.

What does it look like and how does it work?

Asana comes as a desktop browser or a smartphone/tablet app; it is compatible with iOS and Android only for the time being. Once you have created a user account you can set up or join organizations, teams within those organizations and ‘projects’. Under projects you can add tasks, sub-activities into each of these tasks; then you can assign people, due dates, add comments to each other’s tasks etc. The task overview is all transparent and keeps all tasks in one place – well, sort of, read on…

The structure of the app is:

  • On the left hand pane you find a full list of workspaces. It gives an overview of all organizations, teams and projects, as well as access to your inbox, access to the dashboard (monitoring progress) and other admin options etc.
  • The central pane focus on your next tasks and, if you select a specific project, on all the tasks in that project (not just yours then).
  • The right hand pane focuses in detail on the project or task you want to investigate. When you select a project to focus on, it gives you information about the status, tasks accomplished/remaining. When you select a specific task, it provides details about that task: who is in charge, due date, as well as comments made. This is where conversations take place and allow someone to find out what happened – if your team makes use of that functionality.

You can also organize meetings using Asana (following this video tutorial) and since the last quarter of 2014 you can use the new ‘dashboard’ to keep track of progress with the tasks, with weekly status update reminders. It also gives an option to visualise what has been delivered, what remains etc. offering thus very good collective management features.

The strategic value proposition behind this app is that Asana can replace (parts of) email traffic to work togetherTeamwork without email. Something that many of us dream of – which I’ve also offered useful alternatives for.

The free version works for teams of up to 30 users and the pricing options are fairly affordable. There are various additional apps and extensions (find it here) to expand the use of Asana in various ways.

Pros and cons

Pros:

  • Asana provides a really nice overview of tasks – making it indeed quite easy to find out in a glance what is on the agenda of a team and how much has been in each project and for each task.
  • As it promises, Asana can really cut down your email traffic, which clears time for more quality time on other bits of work. Although in our case we actually used Yammer mostly to communicate, not Asana.
  • The progress tracking (dashboard) functionality really adds to that experience and turns Asana into a monitoring tool without the fuss of installing all the whistles and bells of a heavyweight management tool.
  • Technically it is possible to run meetings using Asana, dragging and dropping the tasks onto the agenda of the meeting, making it easier to keep all team information in one place – however read some of the cons re: this feature below… 
  • It keeps all your to-do’s in one place if you want it to play that role. And adding tasks or to-do’s is indeed ‘simple comme bonjour‘ and it’s just as easy to assign tasks to people…
  • The calendar integration with Outlook and Google Calendar makes the planning / overview of tasks even easier. 
  • Although the app is quite complex, it does not take too much time to understand how to use it, at least for a knowledge management specialist 😉
  • It certainly has worked for me to keep track of the main ‘to-do’s and to find out what the rest of my team is supposedly up to.

Cons:

  • Compared with e.g. Yammer, or Twitter, which both felt very natural for me to master, I found the interface of Asana a bit ‘messier’ and less compelling, skewing my first impression and making the navigation slightly confusing at very first.
  • That design also seems to not really guide new users very well. I have used it in a team of communication and knowledge management specialists – ie. people whose job it also is to try and test new tools like these, rather enthusiastic and versatile at piloting and adopting such tools – so it may be a slightly more difficult process for people who are not used to online tools.
  • Although Asana allows file sharing and uploading, it is not really built for it and is thus not a great file management system, although on the plus side it seems it can easily be integrated with Dropbox or Google Drive (as you can see from the list of compatible apps). I haven’t tried that option, however.
  • The search engine and navigation logic make finding content a bit of a trial and error process. For instance once tasks have been completed, it becomes uneasy to retrieve them. Tagging helps with this, but not everyone is used to tagging and some taxonomy/folksonomy needs to be established to make this work.
  • The team meeting feature did really not work well for me. I tried to follow the video tutorial but somehow Asana didn’t behave accordingly – perhaps because the interface changed since the video. But it’s probably worth another try.
  • There is no ‘live chat’ feature, although the stream of comments acts like one but always within the context of a given task, not as a general conversation space.
  • Asana does not work well in environments with limited bandwidth (such as my Ethiopian base) and the fact that there is no offline option does not play in favour of using this tool in many developing country. Although, frankly, using virtual conferencing tools is even more of an issue here.
On the quest to the holy grail of synergy in collaboration (Credits: venessamiemis / FlickR)

On the quest to the holy grail of synergy in collaboration (Credits: venessamiemis / FlickR)

 

The verdict

I have only quite limited experience with other team/project management tools (e.g. BaseCamp and some Gantt chart tools). Bearing that in mind, I think Asana is certainly worth a shot and has quite a lot going for it. It is easy enough that it does not require an incredibly steep learning curve, although you will need to train users to make the most of all its interesting features that take the Asana experience to the next level. But mind the bandwidth requirements and perhaps most importantly the behaviour of your colleagues/team before you consider using it: if they’re curious, playful, you stand a good chance, otherwise it may be difficult to get it adopted. And finally, as ever with tools: make sure you pilot it, reflect upon your pilot and decide whether to scale it up or not accordingly. So far in my team there seem to be fewer enthusiastic folks than skeptical ones…

As many of the tools around, Asana keeps changing, coming up with more developments, extensions, changes of navigating and using logic etc. This is positive as it means the company is trying to stay on top of its game, but of course it always means that your team also needs to keep abreast of Asana’s adjustments.

Perhaps most importantly, however, because Asana is team-centric it requires some collective agreement to work with it. Individuals in the team have to adapt their behaviour, stick to the discipline of managing their tasks and time, which may be perfectly normal and expected in North America, but not necessarily in other parts of the world…

So the question is perhaps not even so much about the tools we use to collaborate (we know that the tool obsession is childish), but more about the practices that come with the tools, and we have much to do on the collaboration and engagement front still… And finally, if tried in a true online environment (for meetings), I still wonder if Asana will help alleviate the evils of ‘acute meetingitis virtuales‘?

That said, assess Asana for yourself and let me know what you think… 😉

More resources about Asana

  • A recent (November 2014) PC Mag review provides detailed overviews of the most recent features, pricing options etc.
  • This tutorial from Ananda Web Services is a bit dated (December 2012) but it is about the most complete one available online
  • Of course Asana itself has lots of tutorials and information about using its product – you can start with videos here. They have also released this interesting (long) video about the vision behind Asana when it was publicly launched in 2011.
  • And finally here is what DotToTech has to say about Asana in January 2013. I put it here because it’s quite a nice introduction to the logic of Asana and how it worked in the case of one team.

What are your experiences with Asana?

See the whole collection of ‘Tinkering with tools‘ posts...