Creative facilitation

cfFacilitation is one of those odd skills, or activities, where it is very hard to define, but you tend to know when it is being done well, or indeed badly.

Viv McWaters and Johnnie Moore are two people who can definitely be described as great facilitators, and they have collected together their combined thinking and experience on the topic into a free e-book, Creative Facilitation.

Here’s a quick synopsis of each section of the book, from their website:

Part One: Why Facilitation?

We explore the impact of facilitation and facilitators on groups, the qualities that make for good facilitators and some of the underlying philosophy that underpins our approach.

Part Two: Workshop Basics

The foundations of facilitating workshops.

Part Three: Beyond the Basics

…is about providing an understanding of how to engage people and use different approaches.

Part Four: Creative Facilitation

…explores some of the knowledge and understanding that helps facilitators step into complex, and sometimes difficult, situations.

Part Five: Resources

…provides suggestions for developing your own “toolkit” with what you learn from experience as well as useful links, resources and other information.

To get Creative Facilitation for free, you just have to sign up to their email newsletter. It’s a great resource, and given that the emails tend to be very useful as well, it’s a bit of a win-win.

Community facilitators

From Rich Millington:

A moderator keeps things normal. A moderator removes the extremes from the community. Moderating isn’t as hard as moderators would have you believe. You can typically find community members to do it.

A facilitator makes it easier for the community to communicate. A facilitator takes the community through a process, and does it well. A facilitator points out common objectives. A facilitator draws out opinions from less-vocal members. A facilitator helps the community tackle any stumbling blocks.

I think you should be a facilitator.

(I love Rich’s blog, by the way. It’s a recent find for me, but his short, pithy, confident posts containing an idea and very little flannel just work for me. Wish I could write this way…)

The importance of community management

One of the great arguments in favour of employing social web tools is the fact that they are pretty quick, and usually cheap, to put together. However, that’s not taking into account the other costs, one of which is managing the community created by such sites.

This entails a number of things: welcoming new people, seeding some discussions, encouraging people to get involved. At the bare minimum it should consist of moderating content, getting rid of the rude, the crude and the jibberish. You simply have to allow for time to do this. Otherwise you end up with problems like those that Jamie Oliver, everyone’s favourite fat-tongued foodie, seems to be having.

Does this sort of thing actually present anyone in a good light?!

The need for community managers

Marshall Kirkpatrick, at ReadWriteWeb wrote a piece that caused a certain amount of flurry yesterday, asking whether startups need community managers:

A community manager can do many things (see below) but the most succinct definition of the role that we can offer is this. A community manager is someone who communicates with a company’s users/customers, development team and executives and other stake holders in order to clarify and amplify the work of all parties. They probably provide customer service, highlight best use-cases of a product, make first contact in some potential business partnerships and increase the public visibility of the company they work for.

He’s writing about tech startup companies here, but I do believe that many of the points Marshall makes are equally applicable to online projects started by government or any other organisation. This certainly chimes with a comment Steph made on this blog talking about the success of the recent online consultation exercise undertaken by DIUS:

I’d underline that the value of a Community Manager to bridge the gap between officials and stakeholders or those discussing these issues online has been enormous for us. As government starts to engage in new ways, I hope we start to see more Community Managers embedded in policy teams combining the skills of strategic comms, digital literacy, training/coaching, and stakeholder engagement. I think that’s how we’ll really change government communication online.

In other words, you have to encourage people to get involved, and that uses up a lot of time and needs a dedicated resource. Interesting where Steph places this role within the org chart – embedded in policy teams – this is not a web role, nor an ICT one, nor commuications. The community manager’s eventual aim is to make this stuff a part of business-as-usual, not an add on to people’s existing jobs.

I wrote a while ago about what techniques people can use to facilitate online communities. Here’s the gist so you don’t need to bother reading the other post:

Firstly, the facilitator must encourage discussion on the platform. This can be through seeding discussion by adding background content and then asking a question to try and spark a conversation, for example.

Second, back-channels should be used to ensure the conversation is maintained. For instance, if someone you know who is very knowledgeable about a topic that is being discussed, but isn’t presently engaged in that discussion, then the facilitator should drop them an email or telephone call to get them involved.

Thirdly, the facilitator should be a guide to the platform being used – helping users find the most appropriate way of posting their content. This is especially true of a platform like that I was discussing today, where forums, blogs, wikis and document sharing are all possible, and only really the first and last on that list get used – I’m sure just because folk are used to them and not to some of the newer tools.

Fourth, get people meeting face to face. Facilitation is not just about the online, the offline is just as vital. Social networks are great for bringing people together and getting them to work together, but there is a definite trust element that’s missing until people actually get to meet each other. Facilitators need to be as comfortable introducing people to people face-to-face as they are online. It also helps to always have stuff like coloured post-it notes, sticky dots, glue sticks and magic markers to hand.

Fifth, figure out ways of using the technology to help people get the information they want. For example, hotseating is cool thing to do: find a person who is rather knowledgeable about a subject, get them to write a blog post about it, and then invite people to ask them questions in the comments. Make it a time limited thing, so there is some sense of urgency, and you’re away. Or here’s another: set the community a blogging challenge, where every member has to write a blog post along a common theme, maybe with a suitable prize for the best one. It’s a good way of generating content and getting people used to using the tools.

Ed Mitchell wrote a really interesting post on community management back in January, identifying three main ways of approaching it: centralised, de-centralised and distributed. It’s a big post: print it out and muse over it with a cup of tea. It’s worth it.

The community manager is clearly an important role in the digital participation space. It’s one of many that are being developed by practioners who can’t be sure that they are doing exactly the right thing because precedents have not yet been set. Digital mentors are another, of course, and it’s an especially interesting one because it has been coined by government, in a white paper. How does a digital mentor differ from a community manager, or a social reporter, or a buzz director? I suspect that there is sufficient overlap between all these roles that a common set of resources could be put together to help develop people in any of these roles, maybe with a few modifications here and there.

In the meantime, there are individuals around who can perform the role right now, but not that many. Did I mention I’ll be looking for work soon?

Planning workshops

I’m doing some work at the minute putting together the agenda for Tuesday’s socia media shindig in Coventry for members of the IDeA Social Media and Online Collaboration Community of Practice (…and breathe). It can be tricky keeping an eye on what it is that you want to achieve at these events, so I have put together a little template that helps me plan what we are going to do, why we’re doing it, how we are going do it, and what we all hope to get out of it.

Feel free to download and use/hack the template as you see fit via the link below:

RTF Workshop Planner Template

Here’s a quick run through of what I mean for each column in the template:

  • Time – pretty obviously, the time each slot on the agenda starts
  • Agenda Item – the name of each session
  • Objective – what it is that the session is trying to achieve
  • Task – what are we asking people to do exactly?
  • Format – talk, listen, discuss etc
  • Preparation – what needs to be done by whom to ensure the slot will work well
  • Output – what are we all going to get out of this?

It’s not rocket science, but it’s amazing how helpful it is just to have stuff written down!

On facilitation

Had a great meeting today with two of my fellow facilitators at the Community of Practice for Knowledge Management in the Public Sector (don’t worry, we’re working on the name). The community has been running for a little while now and has had two successful real-life meetings. For some reason though, the connections haven’t continued online, and the web based CoP has been very slow.

This brings to the fore the very important issue of facilitation of online communities – whether social networks, collaborative environments like the CoPs, simple forums, blogs or wikis. Facilitation differs very much from the traditional online role of the moderator, which to my mind concentrates on the negatives like deleting nasty content and banning naughty users. Facilitators seek to engage people with the platform, using a number of techniques that can be both hi and lo-tech.

No discussion of communities and facilitation can go by without these two masterful posts from Ed Mitchell on the topics. Must-read stuff, as well as a great example of the quality writing that exists in the blogosphere.

Many of the objections to using social media and web 2.0 technology can be countered by having an effective facilitation strategy, backed up by having people in the facilitation role who know what they are doing. Stuff like lack of engagement, sites looking empty, failing to follow up on conversations etc.

Here’s some of the stuff I think facilitators oughtt be doing:

Firstly, the facilitator must encourage discussion on the platform. This can be through seeding discussion by adding background content and then asking a question to try and spark a conversation, for example.

Second, back-channels should be used to ensure the conversation is maintained. For instance, if someone you know who is very knowledgeable about a topic that is being discussed, but isn’t presently engaged in that discussion, then the facilitator should drop them an email or telephone call to get them involved.

Thirdly, the facilitator should be a guide to the platform being used – helping users find the most appropriate way of posting their content. This is especially true of a platform like that I was discussing today, where forums, blogs, wikis and document sharing are all possible, and only really the first and last on that list get used – I’m sure just because folk are used to them and not to some of the newer tools.

Fourth, get people meeting face to face. Facilitation is not just about the online, the offline is just as vital. Social networks are great for bringing people together and getting them to work together, but there is a definite trust element that’s missing until people actually get to meet each other. Facilitators need to be as comfortable introducing people to people face-to-face as they are online. It also helps to always have stuff like coloured post-it notes, sticky dots, glue sticks and magic markers to hand.

Fifth, figure out ways of using the technology to help people get the information they want. For example, hotseating is cool thing to do: find a person who is rather knowledgeable about a subject, get them to write a blog post about it, and then invite people to ask them questions in the comments. Make it a time limited thing, so there is some sense of urgency, and you’re away. Or here’s another: set the community a blogging challenge, where every member has to write a blog post along a common theme, maybe with a suitable prize for the best one. It’s a good way of generating content and getting people used to using the tools.

So there’s five, and I’m sure there are tonnes more.

Anyone?