Archive for the ‘facilitation’ category

Blogstorming, Wikipolishing and simultaneous emergence?

I’ve been listening of late to Dave Snowden’s podcasts (mostly keynotes from various KM conferences around the world). In the last year he’s added a strong focus on social computing, as, in inimitable Dave style, he’s in the last three years leaped head first, experientially, into the world of blogging, editing the Wikipedia pages on KM, Welsh Rugby and other topics, and into Facebook and Twitter.

In his recent podcasts Dave poses the argument that social computing is bring the 3rd wave of change in management science, the first two being Taylorism (scientific management based on functions), and Business Process Re-engineering (horizontal integration/optimisation of processes across and between functional silos). He explains this in the context of his work on narrative, using the cognitive rather than social sciences, and in relation to the many methods he has developed for sense making in complexity.

He also suggests the use of a new double loop iteration method using blogs and wikis to develop policies, strategies, and other plans in organisations.

I was fascinated therefore, to hear Australian Senator Kate Lundy explaining her use of exactly the same method in her PublicSphere events for consultation with citizenry on public policy issues.

Had Kate been listening to Dave? After her talk last week, I asked her whether she was familiar with Dave’s work, as he has been in Australia frequently, but she hadn’t. I asked Pia Waugh, Kate’s advisor on such things, and she too had not heard of Dave’s work. Pia had simply taken and adapted such methods from the open source community.

So, unless Dave had seen and copied Pia & Kate’s methods, which seems unlikely as Dave was podcasting about this before Kate launched her first PublicSpheres, I think we’re seeing the separate emergence of nearly identical approaches, perhaps based on fairly similar starting conditions.

First, I’ll look at the methods, then explore the starting conditions, then I’ll ask Dave, Kate and Pia to challenge any of my assumptions and hypotheses.

Dave, in a number of podcasts, describes the traditional method for collaborative document authorship. People meet, discuss an issue, someone takes notes then goes away and writes up a draft in Microsoft Word. They then email it to others and request feedback, using tracked changes. The initial author then struggles with the mire of integrating the suggested changes into a document, the group meetings in person again, and around we go.

He then proposes a different approach. First, get a group of say twenty staff with an interest in the issue to blog about it once a day, for two weeks. If people are unfamiliar with blogging, get an IT person to sit down with them at 4pm each day and help them write their blog, teaching them new blogging concepts and features as they go. Once this process is complete, employ a technical writer to synthesise all the raw material from the blogs into a cohesive draft document and put it on a wiki. Using a technical writer enhances the quality of the first draft, and more importantly removes the issue of ownership of the draft by a staff member. Where strong ownership of a draft by a single person exists, they will be resistant to having it changed, and others will be reluctant to contribute. Once the wiki is up, give the people two weeks to edit the wiki until a final version is agreed upon. For training in wiki editing Dave suggests getting staff to spend a couple of months editing pages on the Wikipedia as that has highly developed coaching and mentoring systems, along with robust methods for disciplinary action against those to transgress the rules and established cultural norms.

Kate Lundy’s PublicSpheres work in a very similar way. So far they’ve done three, on High Speed Bandwidth, Government 2.0 and Australian ICT & Creative Industries Development. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. People are first asked to post comments, links to papers, case studies and ideas to the relevant PublicSphere blog post comments, and to blog themselves using the tag ‘publicsphere’ and Twitter with #publicsphere. All of this is then summarised and presented at an in person workshop, where there are face to face discussions, presentations, live streaming of the event to those who can’t be physically present, and ongoing blogging and twittering. The content is then synthesised onto a wiki, and the public are given two weeks to edit it. It is then closed off, and turned into a nicely presented PDF, and submitted to relevant Government Ministers as a briefing paper. The most recent PublicSphere had 1100 tweets, 100 in person participants and 400 remote participants on the workshop day.

So, if these two, very similar approaches emerged separately, what were the starting conditions that enabled this? I suggest the following:

  • An experiential rather than theoretical understanding of the utility of, and differences between, blogs and wikis
  • An understanding of the importance of multiple iterations in a sense making process (Dave from complex systems theory and the non-interventionist facilitation practices he’s developed, and Pia from the open source community’s ‘release early and often’ practice)
  • A belief that the authentic opinions of individual participants can be abstracted up into a cohesive whole, without the biased intervention of ‘expert’ consultants or policy analysts
  • A lack of fear that people might say the ‘wrong’ thing
  • A belief, not in the ‘wisdom of crowds’ (individuals making decisions in isolation from each other, with the correct answer being the median), but in the collective intelligence of a complex system (one in which the system lightly constrains the participants, and the participants’ actions affect each other and the system itself).

Am I right? We’ll see what they say.

Action over words – combining electronic and analogue facilitation

At the Open Government Data Barcamp this Saturday I was asked to facilitate the closing session. The purpose of the session was to come up with a shortlist of projects to be worked on the next day at the hackfest. Nat Torkington, while not physically present at the event had been looking over our shoulder virtually on Twitter, and had beseech-ed us to leave the weekend with some real things built. How on earth was I going to pull this off?

There were 160 people at the Barcamp, and three rooms, a large auditorium, a medium sized room, and a cafeteria. Earlier in the day I’d facilitated a session on environmental data management in the medium sized room, with about 40 people. That was about capacity for that room, so I really had to use the auditorium. The challenge with facilitating in an auditorium style setting is that it’s very hard to get people up and moving to do Post-it note clustering exercises, and small group work is impossible. I only had 45 minutes to get suggestions brainstormed and short listed, and I wanted to involve everyone in the process.
During the day the 60% or so of people with Internet connected devices (iPhones, laptops and netbooks) had been twittering the event using the #opengovt tag. I’d been keeping an eye on all the tweets using Twitterfall.

So I decided to experiment with a hybrid electronic/analogue approach. I got the people with Internet connected devices to sit in the middle of the rows, and those without to sit at the edges. I then got a couple of people to hand out Post-it notes and pens to those without devices, and asked them to write suggestions for projects to work on tomorrow, one per Post-it. I also asked those with devices to tweet the suggestions using the #opengovt tag.
I then had the Twitterfall projected onto the large screen so everyone could see the suggestions rolling in. There was one every 30 seconds or so for a good 15 or 20 minutes. Dan Randow and Jonathan Hunt were on stage with laptops summarising the suggestions on the wiki.

Once people had finished writing suggestions on the Post-it notes I got those on the edges of each of the rows up on stage, and got them to put the Post-its on a wall I’d covered with large sheets of paper. I gave them the standard instruction to ‘put like with like’ and keep moving the Post-its until they had stabilised into categories. Two of the people were given vivid markers and asked to draw circles around the groups of Post-its and give each group a title.

After this was all done we had a set of suggestions, with an emerging set of priorities based on the categories of Post-its and the frequency of suggestion tweets on particular topics. I took photos of the Post-it clusters and emailed them to Mark Harris who later that evening summarised it all down to six projects for the Hackfest.

The projects were:

In the morning these were written up on big sheets of paper at the front of the room, and Mark asked for expressions of interest in working on each project. The project didn’t need any work currently, as it was waiting on software from the Sunlight Foundation to be ready to migrate to. The Transport project was seen as a bit difficult to achieve on the day, so the remaining four projects were selected, and a table assigned for each project. People got to work, and the results so far can be seen by following the links above.

For a much more comprehensive write up of the whole Barcamp, see Julie’s fantastic post on Idealog.

Kiwifoo – the dynamics of unconferencing

It was a hot sticky ‘north of Auckland’ afternoon. We got out of the car, stretched, and looked around the Mahurangi School campus. Across the carpark on one of the non-descript buildings we saw a hastily drawn sign signaling the location of the registration desk. Kiwifoo 08 had begun.

Many people have already done a fantastic job of summarising the event in terms of who spoke and what happened. I’d like to focus instead on the process – how it worked from a sense making perspective, how it was similar/different to other conferences (‘un’ or not) I’ve been to.

the programmeAs with all foo/bar/baa camps, the programme was self organised. On the first night an empty schedule was drawn up on big sheets of paper (in this case with 6 rooms and 10 timeslots over three days making 60 sessions). People who wanted to run a session used a marker to write their session title in a slot, until all the slots were filled (which took about 15 minutes). This meant that out of the 150 attendees a bit under half led a session (given some were run by two or three people). Topics varied from usability, narrative, and cognition, to open source rendering engines, using augmented reality with robots, innovation in corporates, OpenID, the copyright amendment bill, electric cars, teaching kids programming, and an IE8 metatag smackdown. The process felt a little different from the e-govt barcamp last year, where post-it notes were used for presentation titles. With the ability to move sessions on the schedule at that event, a fair amount of clustering of like topics occurred over time.

The sessions were held in classrooms, most in large round table style, and a few in lecture style. All the sessions I went to were either fairly interactive presentation/Q&A format, or loosely facilitated (and often heated) discussions, a stark contrast to the dominant lecture format at typical conferences. One of the guidelines for Kiwifoo was that discussions were basically ‘off the record’, or under the Chatham House Rule. This seemed to allow for greater than normal levels of free discussion, in particular around politically or commercially sensitive topics. People were largely respectful of each other, but didn’t shy away from expressing their opinions vehemently, or from asking challenging questions.

Unlike many conferences there was a large social room with comfortable chairs and free Wifi. Tea, coffee and dishes were all self organised. Often people choose to skip sessions and carry on coffee break conversations, and there was no perceived pressure to do otherwise. Many people took time out to tinker on their laptops. I imagine it was for others, much as it was for me, a matter of dynamically prioritising between fascinating sessions, serendipitous conversations, and managing energy levels. It was good to feel that whatever I chose to do was entirely appropriate and wouldn’t be frowned upon.

Kiwifoo was unusual in that it was free (as in beer), and attendance was by invite only. People were invited by reputation (for having done something really leading edge), or through their social networks (for being interesting, good at playing nicely together, or both). This seemed to mean most people were determined to give as much as they got, already knew several people, were generally very open to meeting new people (who knows what cool thing they might have done…), and there was none of the slight stand-off-ishness you see at more structured conferences. The fact that it was ‘live-in’ perhaps made a difference here too. People stayed up late drinking, talking and playing music, camped or slept on the marae, ate together sitting down at long tables, and wore casual clothes.

All of these aspects served to somehow dynamically balance the best of a) informality – which breeds openness, social risk taking, and serendipity, with b) intensity – which gives focus, productivity and a sense of having created/gotten a lot of value. To me this lends a lot of strength to the rationale for the fully fledged incarnation of the World Cafe method, and other such approaches which very consciously take people out of the often constrained business environment to more effectively collaborate around a shared context.

In the closing session there were a number of suggestions for enhancing the process. These included:

  • Lightning talks – having an early session where people have 5 minutes to pitch what they’re planning on doing a session about
  • Themed streams
  • Leaving last day sessions free for things of major collective interest that emerge during the event
  • Post-its for session titles

Other things I’d also suggest would be doing more interactive introduction exercises (physical sociograms etc), as well as the three word intros, and doing three word outros at the end.

Aside from the tiredness of staying up too late, I’d say the format of this event left me more energised, feeling like I’d connected with many more people, and learned much more of use to me than traditional style conferences. A huge thanks to Nat, Jennie and Russell for organising the event and setting the tone that enabled this all to happen.

Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty.
Thomas Jefferson