Who wants to be the next network member, actor, leader?

Who wants to be the next leader? (Credits - Gin_Soak)

Who wants to be the next leader? (Credits – Gin_Soak)

Earlier this year I blogged about the learning and monitoring work that a few KM4Dev members and I were going to conduct around our favourite community of practice… We came up with a framework that looks at a number of issues that might seem important in a community of practice.

The baseline survey report has just been released about a week ago. It contains consolidated answers to the 17 questions we had asked KM4Dev members to answer. A wonderfully rich set of insights touching upon aspirations, technology stewardship, governance, empowerment, learning, consolidation of insights and action…

Next to this comes this wonderful presentation from wonderful, inspiring maverick friend Nancy White:

And finally comes a paper by IDS in the UK “Behind the scene at a climate change knowledge sharing network“. The paper deals with the participation and governance arrangements of AfricaAdapt.

And here comes the question: How can communities of practice, networks, alliances around us contribute to ‘kick us in the butt’ to take charge and move forward?

What is common to the KM4Dev baseline survey, Nancy White’s presentation and the AfricaAdapt review? People are sometimes overwhelmed by the communities and networks they belong to, because they have not necessarily assessed what it is they hope to gain from them, what they use it for and to what extent they can play a more active role etc.

The challenge from inside, as an active community/network participant or even facilitator of such a community/network, is all the more daunting, and it shows in KM4Dev as we are really struggling to get more people to take charge and contribute to keep making this community the (relative) success it has been to date.

Some questions to guide us there – or perhaps to guide us into deeper confusion:

  • How to let people realize that taking charge might actually be transformational for the longer run (I always think about that when you find always the same volunteers showing their hands) – like the epiphany I had with KM4Dev for instance?
  • Is there a point (and if so, possible guidance) to help members think about what might amplify their community/network experience (the focus on discernment, creative destruction and relevant conversations that Nancy is talking about)?
  • What is the threshold that members have to cross towards becoming ‘active members’ and ‘active leaders’ in such communities – even though there is no problem with empowered listening either!
  • How to make the network of networks visible in such a way that contributions and conversations in one space end up strengthening an entire knowledge ecosystem (or that we can understand that phenomenon better)?
  • What kind of ‘governance’ principles might be helpful to maximise the respective contribution of any individual network or community of practice to increase the weaving across networks and leadership emergence within the network?

Those are some of the questions that I am starting to ask myself and hope we will partly unravel as part of the KM4Dev Learning and Monitoring working group. And somewhere in between, I hope Nancy will somehow be one of my Northern Stars to navigate between the heaven and the hell of networked conversations and engagements…

Related blog posts:


Harvesting insights (3): Agile KM, between stealth and big bang

A few days before summer holidays in ‘la douce France’, here’s a post that summarises a number of insights from working around knowledge management and my later interest in ‘agile KM’ – for the sake of simplicity I will just talk about KM but for myself care about agile KM. This post is about how to bring about KM in an environment where there is little to build around, at least at first sight.

The temptation of Big Bang is always great (Photo credits: Pranav / FlickR)

The temptation of Big Bang is always great (Photo credits: Pranav / FlickR)

This post is inspired by various conversations with colleagues who are struggling to get their communication work done for lack of recognition of the importance of communication, what that work entails and how it feeds off others’ inputs. The KM challenge is very similar to the communication challenge… And I recently started with a series of recommendations and ideas to improve this already. So in this post I just go one step further and try to package it neatly, focusing on (agile) KM.

Why stealth and big bang?
In an article (unfortunately not open access but ask me for copies), I wrote a while back now with Sarah Cummings, we looked at a number of KM strategies from various development organisations.
What we found out is that many of them had opted for ‘big bang’ approaches, i.e. with a strong ‘KM’ branding and promotion campaign about it to let everyone know that KM was going to be implemented in the company, usually around a formalised KM strategy (most often in the form of a written document).
Other organisations opted for a ‘stealth’ approach where they basically decided to ‘do KM’ without calling it this way and without any formalised strategy, just building on will and capacities available.

This is one of the first key questions in developing agile KM: do you want to go for a big bang or a stealth approach? This will affect how you will effectively implement KM.

Whatever approach you follow, various principles will get you further:

  • Walk your talk – shine as an example of the ideal behaviour you recommend;
  • Talk their talk – rise up to the challenge, challenge yourself to not use your jargon, but to use the jargon of the people that you want to influence;
  • Dim the dire, double the dope – Build upon existing good practices and address or mitigate bad practices. Show that it works early, and explain what it takes to work in the longer run;
  • Shine the light on darkness – In the process, explain what KM is really all about, show that it works and show that one of the keys behind that success is to steer away from the comfort of certainty and to embrace enthusiasm for confusion as an engine for learning and dynamic effectiveness;
  • Keep your edge sharp – keep questioning your work and your network to remain relevant.

Walk your talk – Start with yourself
“Be the change that you want to see” as Mahatma Gandhi would say. You need to lead by example. If you make a compelling case for KM, others might follow suit. Well, maybe not, but if you don’t shine by your own example, why would others bother? Develop simple learning and KM processes (after action review, exit interviews etc.) that bring early benefits, show how you use social media and why it might positively improve others’ work, facilitate meetings effectively and document them to show how useful it is… Your example is about the best example that you can give because it’s first hand experience. Whether you are the best qualified to share examples is another matter…

Talk their talk – Rise up and reach out to the challenge
The next step, aside from showing a great example, is to reach out to the people that you want to influence positively (or inspire to change). This means you need to get close to them, understand their perspective, their challenges, their questions, use their language etc. It also means that you should step out of your comfort zone (and out of your network of like-minded peers) and mingle with two different kinds of people:

  • Those that you know will be critical of your work – which arguably are the main people you want to influence to change;
  • Those that perhaps you don’t know so well but feel or see that they are sympathetic to your work and the changes it entails. They might become the champions you will need…
How to find the balance between what's a healthy practice and what's not (Photo credits: Neaton Jr. / FlickR)

How to find the balance between what’s a healthy practice and what’s not (Photo credits: Neaton Jr. / FlickR)

Of course keeping in touch with your kin helps you ‘keep the fire’ and energy and you should use that energy to convince others but manage your energy at the same time, to avoid ending up frustrated and tired.

Dim the dire, double the dope
Use existing safe spaces and action champions, don’t come up with new chores, empty ‘socialocations’ (ghost social media platforms and empty intranets) and inadequate advocates. Although the temptation is sometimes big to reinvent the wheel – and that can also be ok sometimes, in any organisation there is a lot happening, that can be related to KM. So you don’t start a KM initiative from scratch. The point is to build upon the good stuff and expand it if possible, and to deter, address or mitigate the bad stuff.

Find the conversations – of water coolers, effective meetings and online
The starting point, for agile KM, is conversations (at least that’s what I think KM is all about) – so you need to identify where conversations take place in the organisation. Perhaps at the water cooler, informally, perhaps in meetings (though most organisations don’t hold effective meetings, at least at the start), perhaps on line. Celebrate these spaces and branch onto them to feel the conversation that is going on, and expand good practices from those spaces. Champions are not always humans, they can also be venues, moments, opportunities such as a share fair… Show that you appreciate these spaces and think that perhaps they could go even further…

Find the learning curves and reflection spaces
Much like people discuss, whether they are invited to do so or not, people learn and reflect as well. Perhaps in the same spaces as they chat, perhaps elsewhere. Find those spaces, appreciate them, question them and if you can expand them.
Progressively, the idea is that you help people systematically reflect on what they do and on what their organisation does. This means questioning, questioning and questioning… It also means they should embrace chaos, uncertainty, doubt and safe-fail approaches to try things out. And this comes with trust.

Identify the effective naturals
There are people who are naturally good at what they do. They are naturally effective and effectively natural. Perhaps it’s the fruit of experience and expertise, but the result is that they don’t really pay attention to learning – they just do it. Find, in your company, who is naturally effective and find out from them what their secrets are (this is what I planned to do with the personal effectiveness survey). These people can be powerful role models for others, and if you manage to sell KM to them (e.g. as in working in smarter ways etc.) they could also be your champions who will influence others to adopt new processes, approaches and tools.

Pushing the KM agenda, one step at a time (Photo credits: Lachlan Hardy / FlickR)

Pushing the KM agenda, one step at a time (Photo credits: Lachlan Hardy / FlickR)

Bring about KM in a sensible and progressive way
Most people do KM without realising it: when they talk with others and question their work, when they document their meetings, when they publish a document, when they share it on the intranet or at a conference… The point is: the label (’KM’) doesn’t matter here, so long as the practices support this. So this point entails two important aspects:

  • Use the local language to avoid a ‘not invented here syndrom’ where people would reject your ideas as foreign;
  • Bring about, in conversations you have, the ideal/image of what agile KM is about, the importance of working out loud, of reflecting on your work, of sharing it, of working together and of titillating your comfort zone. People need to know what is an ideal behaviour for themselves, their teams, their organisation…

Once again, they will be all the more receptive that they trust you.

Stimulate structured learning
You have ‘action champions’ (the aforementioned naturals), you also have ‘learning champions’. You need a mix of both – ideally people that combine the two aptitudes – to champion your ideas for KM. Especially if those people have strong connections in different pockets of the organisation, they can help push the domino effect of (behaviour) change and model ideal KM behaviours. Without champions you find yourself easily sidelined, ignored, misunderstood, and exhausted. If the organisation is not ready for big change, some people inside it sure will be. Find them, work with them, understand what they tell you about the rest of the organisation too.
This point is also about questioning, personally and collectively. It’s about reflecting, listening, giving feedback (to yourself and others) in order to understand and expand what is going well and to mitigate what is not working out well.

But this point is also that it takes time to structure learning and you need to manage expectations about how KM works. This is where you need to show that KM (regardless of what you call it) works.

Shine the light on darkness: Co-create a compelling case for KM
Lots of people are wary of the time it takes to develop a KM approach and they also don’t easily see its benefits, as we know it’s diffuse, difficult to attribute etc. It’s perhaps unjustified and you will always come across x reasons not to change and not to learn. It might be irritating, but if you don’t address their fears and concerns, you will never win them over.
So think for yourself about ways to demonstrate that agile KM helps. I can think of four complementary approaches:

  • Provide some evidence that would be regarded as relevant by people who question agile KM. Quantitative indicators, statistics, downloads etc. that will keep them happy to start with;
  • Show the small successes and early wins that they don’t expect or count on: comments gathered, change in discourse, community of followers and interactions, appreciation after events and activities (through our after action reviews) etc. In fact you should focus on activities that will generate such early wins if you want to convince your crowd;
  • Involve your nay-sayers in your activities and let them experience the potential and limitations (and e.g. long lag time) of agile KM – co-create a case for KM with them;
  • In the process, work towards more complex ways to demonstrate success of agile KM: through increased success rate for some work processes, time saved, effective use of information shared, change of behaviour at institutional level etc.
Sharpen the saw - keep yourself and your network on the cutting edge (Photo credits: Jay Pettitt / FlickR)

Sharpen the saw – keep yourself and your network on the cutting edge (Photo credits: Jay Pettitt / FlickR)

Sharpen the saw – keep your edge and your network edge sharp
One of the seven principles of Stephen R. Covey’s infamous book ‘the seven habits of highly effective people’ is to sharpen the saw, that is to look critically at your progress and to keep wanting more. Well, with agile KM supposedly that should happen naturally, but it’s always better to take the time to reflect at yourself, your gaps, where you are keeping learning and KM at a sound level, and to what extent you are taking advantage of your network too. It’s about personal learning, personal knowledge management and it’s no longer contradictory with your organisation’s objectives and priorities, it potentially reinforces them through the sound ‘checks and balances’ that your personal external network brings…

Your external network, if well ‘gardened’, provides you with a sounding board that looks beyond your organisational glasses and biases. Your virtual gang provides a source of ‘fresh thinking’ available on tap. Make use of it and encourage other teams in your organisation to tap into those existing networks. There’s a good chance most employees already make use of their personal network, but perhaps in a hidden or unconscious way. Show that it is an engine for dynamic relevance (i.e. to remain relevant over time). At the same time, keep looking critically at your network to fine-tune it to your needs.

So, can you afford to go for big bang?
There is no right or wrong between big bang and stealth, but there are things to keep in mind:

  • Going for big bang means you will raise expectations from many employees and managers – this is perhaps one of the main reasons why KM has sometimes failed spectacularly;
  • If you are ready to raise expectations, make sure you have the following mechanisms in place:
    • A management that embraces your ideal and vision and is ready to show good behaviour too;
    • Some champions that will spread the message and are influential enough to speed up the knock-on domino effect;
    • Some ideas for how you are going to demonstrate success in early wins and longer term gains;
  • It probably makes a lot of sense to gradually develop your KM approach – if you have nothing in place, don’t try to fly too high straight away. You also wouldn’t enroll for the Olympics having driven a couple of amateur 100m races…
  • And as mentioned in another post of this series, ‘quick and dirty’ is a sure way to collect quick feedback about what works or what doesn’t, the ‘safe fail’ approach that will reveal what works and what is flawed in your approach.

If you have all of this in place, you can decide to go for a big bang approach and probably achieve something, although you won’t be spared the doubts, mockery and anxiety of those that do not believe in KM.

Good luck, keep the focus, gather your feedback and have some fun, you will need that energy: It’s a struggle ahead, but if it works out, it will liberate a lot of energy and results further down the line too…

Related blog posts:

Annual reports, the gold standard for the state of KM in the company?

The annual report, a flame in the dark to highlight our practices or to shine without reason? (Credits Josh Kenzer / FlickR)

The annual report, a flame in the dark to highlight our practices or to shine without reason? (Credits Josh Kenzer / FlickR)

Annual reports are a painful exercise, for most companies anyway.

I have seen managers, designers and communication specialists from various organisations tear their hair by lumps working on this annually recurring chore.

Being personally much more inclined towards the knowledge-sharing and collective thinking side of communication (away from unidirectional message massaging, marketing verbose and public aware-mess) I never quite understood what was the big deal about the annual report: a glossy production that usually reveals little about the real struggles and aha-moments of a company. And that report is sent to a group of people that either don’t really read that information because they don’t care or they do care but know enough about the company in the first place to make the reading of this peculiar publication totally superfluous.

But then, perhaps annual reports are actually interesting in another way: They may be the gold standard that reveals the maturity of knowledge management and its status in each organisation – an epitome of all the struggles and opportunities that knowledge management may face in an organisation all bundled in one.

Annual reports are indeed an open battle field of different influences and forces in presence which reveal a lot about the ‘KM culture’ of each company:

  • Form vs. function: The design says a lot about the place given to form vs. function (pure text text text). The integration of multimedia, the use of infographics, a different way to present the report are all ideas indicating there is attention put on the way information is presented or not (with a view to encouraging the reading of the contents);
  • Formality or informality: The very tone of the report indicates to some extent the degree of informality that is tolerated in the company. In many cases, annual reports are very corporate and formal productions, but the wording and design can make informal dents into that ‘keep-it-serious-don’t-smile’ publication, which might also say something about the tolerance for informal peer-learning at other moments than the development of the annual report;
  • Marketing vs. learning: How much of the report is oriented towards promoting the organisation and how much is it focused on the agenda (i.e. the set of strategic issues and challenges) that the organisation pretends to address? If it is learning-oriented it might stress crucial questions and aha moments achieved in the past year, rather than reassure everyone that the the organisation is doing the best job in the world in the most important arena of the world.
  • Internally focused vs. externally focused: The position of partners and other actors or networks acting at the edges of the organisation is presented quite starkly in most annual reports (or indeed royally ignored). This might give an indication as to the tendency of the organisation to include learning on the edges (through personal and organisational networks), which itself indicates the organisation’s maturity vis-a-vis learning (as we know that learning at the edges is crucial);
  • Unidirectional vs. engaging: most annual reports tend to just disseminate carefully selected information without inviting any feedback. However it doesn’t have to be this way – perhaps the annual report could indeed invite others (especially important partners) to share their view. Perhaps it was done in the process of compiling the annual report and that can be mentioned – but perhaps nothing of the sort happened and then so much for a culture of engagement and conversation;
  • Centralised vs. decentralised knowledge flows: The production process of annual reports reveals some power and knowledge flow tendencies: will it be compiled by a central unit or with a wide involvement of other staff – crucially those in decentralised offices? This is a very good indicator of the state of documentation as well. In many cases, this is precisely the painstaking point of annual reports: it feels like pulling teeth and tongues from all staff members to get these stories that will illustrate the work done, results achieved and new questions unravelled… Although an organisation with a mature approach to knowledge work should find it easy to reap the fruits of working out loud and continually documenting processes.

How do all these factions and factors come into play in a concerted way (or not)? This is what the annual report production process (and the finished product itself) actually reveals. It does give a good overview – perhaps more so for internal staff than external audiences – about the state of learning, knowledge sharing, documentation and conversations (remember KM=CDL) in the organisation. It also weighs KM against public awareness and message-based communications.

So, however painful the annual report exercise turns out to be, it does disclose a great deal of useful information for the organisation. Perhaps it’s time for me to look into the ILRI annual report and get a better sense of where we’re at…

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:

A tiny little bowl full of talking fish – A ShareFair “day 0” session

So we’re back to day 0 right? And back to fishbowl? I hope this time I’ll make a better job at giving the context and gist of a fishbowl than when I did itfor the AgShareFair.

The fishbowl format (picture credits: Instructional Design Fusions)

The fishbowl format (picture credits: Instructional Design Fusions)

But this time the situation’s tough: it’s only the five of us. Perhaps Etienne Wenger’s excellent introductory session – which coincidentally used a fishbowl format – inspired enough participants to skip this hands-on session? Nevermind, we will have our fishbowl session and it’s going to be a heads-on session for lack of hands to work with.

So what’s in a fishbowl? Two circles: the inner circle has 3 to 7 chairs (I prefer 4-5) and people occupying these seats can talk. The outer circle has chairs (or standing participants) that cannot say a word and just have to listen. The topic is set around a broad statement or question that should be wide enough that it can involve anyone around the table (it can also be very specific but then involve only people that know the specifics well enough).

What’s the difference between a fishbowl and its slight variation the Samoan circle? In the former, the inner participants (the talking fish) stay the same and others keep listening. In the latter, outer ring participants (the mute fish) can decide to tap on the shoulder of one of any talking fish to ask them to leave the circle, and they can sit there instead, to join the conversation. Talking fish may even decide to leave the talking circle any time, leaving a vacant seat that can be occupied by anyone.

Then someone may document the discussion by writing down on a flipchart all (key) points discussed – I suggest alternating colours every line to make the flipchart easier to read, though the point is not to follow what’s on the flipchart (that’s for documentation and information, i.e. for later) but on what’s going on in the fishbowl conversation.

Then we briefly discuss the final form: fishbowl battle, the one form that I emphasised in that past blogpost mentioned above.

The four participants wonder (and hereby some answers):

  • Q: When to use a fishbowl? A: Whenever you want to have deeper conversations (the necessity to shut up and to listen as mute fish means that we need to really think carefully about our questions and when we want to join the conversation).
  • Q: Is it a good format for Q&A? A: I didn’t use it this way but why not? The only thing that might be a pity is that it’s not really a participatory discussion but indeed a series of questions to one person that answers, though there is still a bit more interaction than in a typical Q&A session.
  • Q: How to make sure people join the inner circle and feel free to talk? A: Perhaps use some energisers, icebreakers or other approaches that involve small group discussions to create trust among participants and then the fishbowl will flow more easily. If you fear people may not join the circle because there’s some big mouths that always talk, ask those big mouths to document the discussion instead, or consider having different groups so you can keep the big mouths on their own.
  • Q: How to use people that have a lot of things to say? A: They will do it by themselves and if you really want them to talk about their specific experience, the fishbowl may not be the best format to us (the added risk is that they may steer the conversation towards their detailed experience only).
  • Q: Do you prompt certain people to start the fishbowl? A: You might, especially if you fear there might not be any spark to start the conversation, but in principle if the conversation is broad enough you can always start with empty seats and invite anyone to join. I usually have at least two people starting though.
  • Q: Should you use different questions during the fishbowl? A: Why not give it a try and see how it works? I never did it this way but you could have a multi-tier fishbowl and move from question to question.

My final take-home suggestions: stretch, tweak, adapt the flishbowl and any other approach to your needs and circumstances, don’t feel trapped by the format, find your authentic facilitation style and just keep on reflecting on what works or not and what could have been done to make it better.

This session hasn’t been a practical (hands-on) session, that’s a shame. But the conversation among five talking fish was quite nice and I hope useful. Let’s see if share fairs turn into giant aquariums…

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