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Virtual meeting - up to my ankles

In November '09 I blogged that my toes were in the water, trying out how to integrate e-communications into workshops. Over a year later and I'm happy paddling up to my ankles: using cut-down post-its, a document camera and telepresence.  I was delighted to work with a client which had installed video-conferencing in many locations in the UK and US.  We were able to run a half-day workshop for a small team who were spread over three different locations.

This is a stock picture from Teliris on wikimedia commons, but it gives an idea of what the room looked like. In addition to the large screens, the people in the 'main' room had screens in the desk where images from slide shows or the document camera were visible.

Here are some very practical lessons and tips from that experience, firstly about things you can do before the meeting begins:

  • When designing the session, keep it interactive, don't feel that you have to make it one-way just because participants are on different continents.  Consider what might cause you to alter your design.  For example, I had expected there to be at least two people in each location, which would enable pairs / small group discussion.  But in the end one of our locations was used by just one person. So I adjusted the meeting design to include quiet thinking time, rather than pairs discussion. I asked everyone to make a note of their key points, so that everyone was ready to say something in the later round robin.
  • Make sure you check the time difference between locations, and double-check it!
  • Visit the room you'll be facilitating from, and play with the equipment.  How do you enable participants to view slides or an electronic document?  How do you dial up the other locations?  What do you do if the connection is lost? How much delay is there when people speak?
  • If you're lucky enough to have a ceiling-mounted document camera, can the camera pick up writing or diagrams on a flip chart sheet or on the desk?  How big does the writing need to be? Where are the edges of the camera's vision, and do these match the edges displayed to participants in other locations? Mark the edges with masking tape.
  • Make friends with the IT / facilities team.  What works well in their experience, and what trouble-shooting tips can they share.  How do you get hold of them during the meeting?

In the meeting

Having worked out how the document camera worked, and tested different sizes of post-it and handwriting, I was able to use small square post-its to record individual contributions and move them around until we had collaboratively created a timeline of the organisation's journey to this point.

Later in the session, I recorded contributions about people's vision of the future in a mind-map which was also broadcast live to the people in other location, via the document camera.  Unfortunately one of the locations lost the feed, so we ended up with some people not being able to see what the rest of the meeting could see: an imbalance which we were unable to correct before the meeting ended.

For my own use, I made a little map of who was sitting where, and used it to keep track of who'd spoken. This enabled me to invite contributions from time to time.

This was a half-day meeting, so I built in a comfort break which everybody really needed. Keeping focussed and engaged in virtual meetings are harder work than face-to-face, I think.

Improvements?

In future, I'd like to work out a practical way of integrating a running record into a meeting like this.  A simple word document shared live through google doc or a similar system might work.  You would need to check that everyone could access it - firewalls might be a problem.  Alternatively, a bespoke webmeeting package with a whiteboard could be used. I'm getting experience of both Huddle and Central Desktop in different client work at the moment.

How planned does engagement need to be, to be helpful to the 'convenor'?

The latest Sciencewise Bulletin asks whether constructive dialogue is possible online.

"One of the key problems in online deliberation [is] that it can result in a game of who can shout the loudest. We’ve all seen discussion threads which end in name calling, usually around a few contentious issues which had nothing to do with the original topic. It is this tendency which lies behind ‘Godwin's Law' which proposes that as an internet discussion thread grows longer, it also grows angrier and the probability of someone comparing someone else to Hitler approaches."

Colleagues from the field of 'virtual facilitation' have been adding to the debate, including on the Sciencewise-ERC Forum, considering the role of anonymity versus seeing the other contributors as real people (for example by inviting them to add a photo to their profile) and also the usefulness of active moderation.

I am working with some national government clients at the moment, helping them to plan their engagement with stakeholders around a couple of different policy-related decisions coming up later in 2011.  I stress how useful it is to be clear what they, as the 'decision makers' want to get from the engagement process.  How they can identify the stakeholders they should be in touch with, and phase the conversations so that they get information and opinions at a time when they can influence the decision-making process.

For example, some things will be decided early on, and other things can only be decided later.  There's not so much use in asking people about things which have already been decided!

But an open on-line dialogue is less easily controlled or structured by the facilitators.  Anyone with internet access can join in, and you may not know if they are who they say they are.  This lack of control makes organisers nervous.  Should it?

If it is true that "for some people, conflict is simply a source of recreation", then online dialogue could "get out of hand".  This is one of the learnings from the list of "What online communities can teach the Public Conversations Project", posted on the Public Conversations blog, by Deborah Elizabeth Finn.

What are the implications for on-line dialogue?

My experience is almost entirely in bounded, organised and above all, face-to-face engagement.  I confess to some anxiety myself about open on-line engagement - how do the relevant decision-makers make sense of the inputs? How do they steer conversations back to the issues which are yet to be decided?

Your thoughts are very welcome, here or on the Sciencewise Forum.

Making my work a no-fly zone

Last time I flew for work was in 2007, running a workshop in the Netherlands.  I had tried to find a way to go by boat and train, but couldn't make the timings fit in with other commitments. The last time I flew for pleasure was so long ago that I can't remember. I have turned down all work that involves flying since then, but without being up-front about this.  I say I'm unavailable or "I'm sure you can find someone locally" .  And I try to help them do just that: a great reason to network internationally and to keep in touch with people who I've come across over the years who understand both process and sustainable development, or may know someone who does.

Being up-front

On a coaching course this year, we did a pairs exercise about 'boundaries'.  We had to identify a time when we had noticed a boundary and maintained it.  We were invited to illustrate this.  As I drew the picture I realised that flying was emerging as a boundary for me.  It has been a value-in-action and I can choose to make it an espoused value too.  In that realisation I decided to make it an explicit aspect of my work.

The illustration I drew at the time shows this through the picture of sealed charter which makes 'not flying' a clear part of how I do business.

Since then, I've included this in the 'walking the talk' statement on this website, and in an updated discussion document which I share with new clients which sets out how I intend we will work together. (This latter also includes a range of other 'draft ground rules' for our consultant-client relationship: things like honesty, collaboration, learning from feedback, acting in good faith and so on.)

Testing my commitment

I've had a chance to test out this espoused value in two different situations recently.

One is a new client is based in the UK and the USA.  I set out up-front (before putting in a proposal) that I would not travel to the USA as part of this assignment.  I felt some trepidation in doing this: might I lose the work?  Reflecting further I realised that this outcome was not, surprisingly, such a big worry for me as I'm turning down work at the moment and I knew I didn't want the work if it meant flying.  The bigger source of my anxiety was that these people who I'd only just met might they think badly of me. They might interpret my refusal to fly as a criticism of them - they almost certainly are obliged to fly for work.  They might simply think me wildly eccentric.  (One day I'll blog on the EAFL meme : "environmentalists are **** loonies" ).  They might worry that association with me would make their colleagues think this about them.

I'm being very frank here - explaining my worries discretely even though I know they were quite murky at the time before I was able to pin them down precisely.

The new client was not put off, although I will continue to watch for the impact this stance has on our relationship, as well as the practicalities of the project.  Our first multi-continent workshop was run using impressive video presence facilities, and I'll blog about that separately.

The second challenge came about because I wasn't really paying attention!

I am working on stakeholder engagement for the UK's first Climate Change Risk Assessment. As part of this, there are workshops for stakeholders in the Devolved Administrations - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  I agreed to facilitate these workshops as part of a team, with the workshops distributed between us.  Only later did I realise that - of course - Belfast is usually accessed from other parts of the UK by plane, these days.  As luck would have it, the Belfast workshop is the one date that I could do.  Could I get there without flying?  Fortunately I had a full day with no meetings on either side of it, allowing slow travel.

I checked the cost of travelling by train and ferry, using the legendary Man in Seat 61 website.  I also checked the travelling times, and worked out that two nights accommodation were probably needed, not one.  I resolved that I would absorb the additional expenses if they proved to be higher than those of my flying colleagues, and not charge for the longer travelling time.

Armed with these mitigations, I raised my 'no flying' commitment with my immediate client (the consultancy I am sub-contracted by).  They seemed fine with it.  And - thanks Sarah, you're a star - one of my facilitator colleagues said she'd travel with me too.

I still feel a bit funny about this choice to go by train and ferry rather than flying.  It takes much longer.  And if we miss a connection, or there's a storm at sea, people may criticise me for choosing a less reliable way to travel.  It feels like an experiment which could go wrong.

And I have read and re-read this blog entry, afraid to click 'publish', for some weeks now!

Experimenting with 'being the change'

I know that for many people, deciding not to fly for work would be a seriously career-limiting decision.  The way we organise our working lives and our international organisations is now so dependent on being able to travel very long distances or across seas fast, that  using only surface transport would be very inconvenient.  Even within the UK, there are lots of journeys which involve moving from one island to another, where boat is slower and - ahem - more bilious than flying.

I have the great good fortune, though, to be in a position to say 'no' to flying for work even as I recognise that this is not an option for many of the people I work with.  So I can be an experimenter, someone who tries out what a world with seriously reduced dependence on aviation might look like.  And if I can do it, perhaps I should.

How are people taking it?

The reaction from people who I've told about this has been an interesting range.  Some applauded and said "I bet your clients love it that, because you're really walking the talk".  Some said "that's a long time to be away not earning".  Others said "that's really interesting, I'd like to experiment like that, tell me how it goes".

I'm going to actively reflect on this experiment, and I'll tell you how it goes.

Now the ash has settled: eleven questions to get insights from the shutdown

Was the shut down of air travel a right pain for you and your organisation? Now that the ash has settled, there's a great opportunity for you to use the recent disruption to discuss sustainable development with your colleagues. [And as if to prove the point that it's a good idea to be prepared, it's back - as of 08.52 @BST 4th May 2010.]

Whichever way you look at it, a low-carbon economy (whether forced on us by peak oil or chosen as a planned way of mitigating climate change) will mean a drastic reduction in cheap air travel.  Your colleagues may feel this is too far off, or too fanciful, to plan for.  But the shut down actually happened.  So it's a great way in to discussions you might not have been able to have before April 2010.

Here are 11 questions to structure a discussion about your organisation's dependence on air transport - and how you can reduce it over the long term.

  1. What was disrupted?
  2. What was enhanced?
  3. What did we do differently, that worked really well?
  4. What did we do differently, that was a right pain?
  5. What contingencies did we have in place, or put in place, in case the shut-down had lasted for twice as long?
  6. Or ten times as long?
  7. What would we have done if we'd had a week's notice?
  8. What would we have done if we'd had a month's notice?
  9. What would we have done if we'd had five year's notice?
  10. What will we keep doing differently anyway, because it worked better?
  11. What will we build into our medium and long term planning, to help us be ahead of the game when air travel again becomes more expensive and less available?

Volcano getting in the way of your vital meeting? Go virtual!

With the skies over Europe still (rather blissfully) free of planes, more people will be thinking about meeting by phone, video conference, telepresence or web-meeting. Like Fay Ripley and this groovy crowd in the dothegreenthing video strange meeting, part of their stay grounded strand.

On the cheap

If you have skype then teleconferences for a small number of people are possible at very low cost. If there are only two of you, you can video call using skype.

I expect that providers of web meeting software will find their free trials taken up a lot this week.  Free trials are available on Citrix GoToMeeting , Webex and DimDim (which also has a totally free product).   Acrobat Connect is free for small meetings - three people maximum.  Elluminate.com is aimed primarly at a teaching / training situation, but their vRoom product is free for up to three people to meet.

Top tips

If you aren’t used to this way of meeting, but have been forced to change your plans, here are some top tips for teleconferences.

Before the call

Ensure that someone takes responsibility for preparing and chairing the call - including

  • confirming start and finish times.
  • compiling an agenda and circulating it to everyone in advance.  The agenda should be descriptive - that is, for each item, it should be clear what the ‘task’ is to be undertaken in relation to that item (hear an update, share views, reach a decision etc).
  • ensuring that it’s clear what preparation is expected for the meeting (e.g. circulating a paper, reading the paper, etc).
  • sending round details of the number to call, any associated PIN, and whether the number is toll-free.
  • ensuring that someone has agreed to take a note of key decisions and action points.

All participants should make sure they are calling in from somewhere quiet and with minimum distractions.

Let the chair know if you cannot make the call.

At the start

When you join the conference, announce your presence.

At the start of the call, make time for

  • a round of introductions
  • confirming the agenda and altering it if needed
  • confirming the end time
  • discussing and agreeing any ground rules

During the call

  • During the teleconference - and this may sound laborious, but it really helps - for each item or point, the person chairing should give everyone a chance to contribute by going around the group in a set order, e.g. alphabetical order of first name, (with people ‘passing’ if they like).  People should say when they’ve finished on each point, so that others don’t interrupt or get twitchy about how they’re going to catch the chair's eye.
  • If the conversation is flowing more freely, people should state their name when talking.
  • Keep interruptions and distractions to a minimum - rustling, snuffling, chewing, tapping, side conversations all add to the background noise for everyone.
  • Some conference call systems have a ‘mute’ facility, which automatically mutes people’s phone lines when they are not talking.

At the end

At the end of the meeting, make time for

  • a final round of checking that there’s nothing else people would like to raise
  • confirming action points
  • confirming the arrangements for the next meeting
  • feedback on anything that needs to be done differently at the next meeting (process review)

Others' tips

Gillian Martin Mehers has blogged about preparing for a video conference.

Facilitate Proceedings blog about virtual meetings.

If you’re interested in exploring how to facilitate really good group interactions online, there is also a curriculum for an online facilitation course, developed by Nancy White.

Practising for transition?

After the 7-7 tube bombings in London, there was a surge in the number of people cycling.  This rise was sustained, and London still echoes to the swish of cycle wheels.  Over the next few days, as people are forced to find ways of doing business without flying, perhaps some of the experiments will be so successful that they’ll be added to the set of options which are considered ‘normal’.  Maybe we’ll look back and discover that we were experimenting and practising for transition to a low-carbon economy.

Have fun with your experiments.

Small print: I don’t have any business connection with any of the products mentioned, nor does their presence here imply any endorsement etc.  Just blogging to be helpful.

e-meetings - my toes are in the water

I'm keen to use more 'e' in meetings. Teleconferences mean live conversation without the travel.  Add in some kind of live editing of a shared document (like google docs), and everyone can see the notes being written in real time, just like flip charts in a workshop.  Share some video or slides, and everyone is viewing the same input.  Include video calling (e.g. using  skype), and we can see each other as well.

I can see that there's loads of potential to reduce participants' carbon footprints (probably) and include people whose other commitments mean that adding travelling time onto meeting time would mean that they couldn't attend at all.

Toe in the water

So I'm making a concerted effort to experience e-meetings of all kinds as a participant.  I joined a webcast (lecture and panel discussion) a couple of days ago, and I'm attending a webinar on how to design good webinars next week.

I'm also adding in some virtual elements to meetings which I facilitate.   Some tips on good teleconferences, built from that experience, are available here.

Spontaneous blending

Trainers sometimes talk about 'blended learning', which includes traditional face to face workshops with virtual elements like a web-based discussion space or a module delivered by email.

In a workshop I ran over the summer, there was a fascinating example of spontaneous blending of methods.  The group is a community stakeholder group, set up to represent local interests during the early phases of developing plans for a flood defence.  During a half day workshop, the group was looking at maps showing alternative sites for the defences.  Timescales for the project are very tight, and this workshop was taking place during a very short window of opportunity for people to feed comments back to the organisation which is developing the plans.  So the pressure was on the participants to ensure that they were accurately reflecting the views of the wider constituencies that they were there to represent.

One innovative participant whipped out a camera phone and took pictures of the maps.  Within seconds they could be sent to people who weren't at the meeting, and their comments relayed back.  I don't know whether this meant that their views made it 'into the room' during the meeting, or whether it simply gave them a head start in discussing the plans after the meeting.  In any case, it set me thinking about how much wider groups of people could be involved, if we can come up with ways of using technologies like camera phones and texting, which are ubiquitous.

What if this person had stuck to the ground rule about keeping mobile phones off during the meeting?

I'm enjoying dabbling my toes in this pool.  I'm readying myself to dive in!