Monday 23 November 2015

Virtual Workshopping

Earlier this week I facilitated an internal reflection and planning meeting with evalux, a Berlin-based evaluation firm which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. One of the workshop participants was based in Beijing. It would have been too onerous to fly her over to Berlin, so we found a way to beam her into the workshop via the internet.

I like highly participatory workshops, where people work in alternating configurations –
plenary discussion, individual reflection, and small group work. Robert Chambers has written about the beneficial effects of people gazing down at work they do together, the “democracy of the ground” (see for instance Robert Chambers’s Participatory Workshops: A Sourcebook of 21 Sets of Ideas and Activities, Earthscan, 2002).  At the end of a workshop I facilitate, the walls tend to be filled with flip charts and cards that show all the work that has been done together. 

Is that something you can do via teleconference? The way we know teleconferences is people sitting around a big table gazing at a screen which shows another set of people sitting around a big table. Or, even worse, people huddled around a telephone, talking turns to talk to a crackly voice at the other end of the line. Not my style of facilitation.

Fortunately, high-speed internet is available in Beijing and in Berlin, and evalux is good at technical solutions. They placed a large notebook computer with the video conference near the side of the room, the screen looking across the entire room towards the facilitator. A wide-angle webcam and a microphone sat on a tripod which we could move around, depending on where the action was– on the participants or on the walls where cards or larger charts with the group work were displayed. As the facilitator, I kept an eye on the computer screen to make sure the Beijing participant could contribute whenever she wished to. Ah, and the computer had a good speaker. For small group work, we simply connected a headset to the computer, so that the Beijing participant could work in tandem with someone in Berlin. The Berlin persons wrote the cards produced in the tandem sessions. It worked beautifully!

I could imagine even larger multi-site participatory workshops in this mode, with two or more facilitators working in parallel at two or more sites with several participants. Each site would have several notebook computers for work in tandems. I would not want to miss working with people standing at tables writing on cards, discussing them and moving them around. One could make sure all sites can produce and share training cards by working with scanners (possibly of the contemporary type which allows e-mailing documents directly from the scanner). Real life meetings are important, but there are many things that can be done without spending money and spilling CO₂ in the atmosphere. 

As my readers know, I thrive in complicated situations. Who wants to try this out with me? We could even add on an extra level by working across several languages – see also my earlier post "Tips for multi-everything facilitation".

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