Twelve factors for successful online facilitation

Last week  the Magazine  'E-Organisations and People'  published an article about the 'Art of online facilitation: sustaining the process'  in their edition Vol 18, No 3, August 2011.  This article I wrote with support from Jet Proost,  Bob MacKenzie and Rosemary Cairns.  In the process of writing this article I compared two successful and one unsuccessful case about virtual exchange in my 5 years experience as an online facilitator.  Out of this process of comparing, I concluded that 'twelve factors' are needed  for having a successful online exchange.  I argue that the presence of an online facilitator is essential to get most out of the group and to keep the process going.  Online facilitation requires a different approach from face-to-face facilitation in activating groups. 

Twelve factors for successful online facilitation
1.       People have an urgent matter to be solved or a question which keeps them awake at night
2.       Leaders or managers have an interest in social media and feel ownership of the process, so that they feel responsible for involving others.  A preparatory meeting with the key leaders and their involvement in discussions is essential.  This is one of the conditions a facilitator should set when preparing and starting the process with the client.
3.       The facilitator has the technical knowledge on how to apply social media for facilitation events, and is able to train others in the course of the process
4.       One of the members of the facilitation team (facilitator, co-facilitator or client) already has a personal relationship through previous face to face contacts with at least 25% of the participants.  These personal connections are essential in helping passive participants to become active in a later stage of the online event.
5.       People see the benefit of participation as being worth the investment of their time.  A reward at the end is stimulating.  For example participation in a face-to-face conference, a publication in an important journal, an expanded network, new knowledge, tips or tricks for work etc.
6.       The problem does not lend itself to being solved face-to-face, since distance, time and budget constraints are a hindering factor
7.       People feel isolated and are looking for equals or peer colleagues with whom they would feel comfortable in sharing thoughts and feelings.
8.       The social media tools are easily accessible and user friendly.  Media such as mailing groups, Skype, Facebook and LinkedIn seem to match the habits of participants more effectively than wikis or heavy loaded platforms that a critical number of participants see as being too complicated.  It is essential that more than 80 to 90% of the participants feel comfortable with the e-tools that are being applied.
9.       Regular moments of evaluation are built into the process.  Participants can indicate what they like and provide crucial information about what can be improved in the process.
10.   The timing is right and makes sense.  An online event nine months prior to a face-to-face event does not generate high participation. Creating an online platform discussion two to four weeks in advance of an event is more likely to be successful in generating momentum.
11.   It takes into consideration the previous experience with social media of the client (organisation) and target group.  When the client does not have experience with social media and is open to learning about their use, take a step by step approach and introduce the 'online event' as a discovery or experiment.
12.   The group is guided by a competent online facilitator, who keeps the process going.

Blended learning
Online discussion processes combined with face-to-face (f2f) meetings work best as a kind of ‘blended communication’ process.  This is called 'blended learning'.  When people meet each other face-to-face, they get a feeling for somebody else and they build relationships in addressing each other when group tasks need to be accomplished.  Therefore a f2f component is preferred in building an effective group through online interchange.  However, online interchange adds a new dimension.  People have different f2f conversations (more in-depth and meaningful) with each other after they have exchanged experiences online and vice versa after they have met f2f.  It also addresses people's contemporary needs for flexibility and mobility.

The role  of the online facilitator
The presence of an online facilitator (sometimes called a ‘moderator’) is essential to get the most out of the group and keep the process going.  The facilitator is the one who keeps the group leaders and participants alert. In case a discussion is coming to a standstill, or if one of the key participants is not responding, the facilitator plays the role of 'informal investigator', checking what keeps the participant(s) silent.  Usually this is done by an e-mail or an informal telephone call or chat.  Relationship building is an essential competence of the online facilitator.  The facilitator also stimulates participants to respond to discussions, by addressing people on their areas of expertise.   Experience in sensing group dynamics and observing patterns of interaction also is essential. 
Summarising discussions and acknowledging people's sentiments and linking that with the main objectives of the online event is another key task for the online facilitator.   This is helpful input to keep participants on track and is excellent resource material.  Capacity and know-how of the online facilitator is essential in setting up the discussion process.  Affection and enthusiasm for social media, and knowledge about the 'advantages' and 'pitfalls' of the e-tools, are key in getting participants involved.      

Online facilitation is not easy.  Not only are specific competencies of a face-to-face facilitator required,  but also virtual facilitation skills are a new requirement of the 'modern facilitator'.   Their toolbox also includes social and technical skills, as well as the ability to convince and engage the group on a virtual journey.  An online facilitator excels in multi-tasking.  Online facilitation is indeed a complex Art.

In my article I make reference to the publication 'En nu online' -  Authors  Joitske Hulsebosch and Sibrenne Wagenaar.    Joitske, Sibrenne and I deliver courses about online facilitation through   Consult  - Leergang.
The complete article 'The Art of online facilitation - sustaining the process' you can read in the Magazine  'E-Organisations and People'  - Vol 18, No 3, August 2011.  This magazine has 12 other interesting articles about (online) facilitation.  The magazine is a pre-event publication as introduction to the IAF-Europe Conference on Facilitation - Building Bridges through Facilitation'  which is held 14 - 16 October, 2011 in Istanbul,  Turkey.   Together with my colleagues Joitske Hulsebosch and Sibrenne Wagenaar, we rewrote the article in Dutch having 7 factors for having succesfull online exchange. Read article: 'Zeven factoren voor een succesvolle online uitwisseling'.  


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