Supporting online facilitation

In my last blog post, I promised to say a bit more about the projects I’ve got on the go. So let’s kick off with one that’s been brewing for some time, but is starting to get somewhere.

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So, what’s this project all about? Be brief!

Along with colleagues, I’m exploring how we can support people doing online facilitation and/or online community management.

OK, why is this needed? What problem are you trying to solve?

This is my train of thought. I’m making some assumptions here, but I don’t think they’re unreasonable.

1. As technology and real-life interactions converge, the online-offline blur is transforming how we experience the world.

2. In public services, we’re going to find ourselves doing more and more of our engagement activity online (any kind of activity, for that matter).

And we’re going to have to get better at integrating the online and the offline stuff.

FJoitske Hulsebosch talks about ‘amphibian facilitators’ who move comfortably from online to offline facilitation and back again (2012).

3. Online facilitation is a different beast.

Facilitators in face-to-face situations tend to have established roles: providing focus, stimulation for group interaction, team building, refereeing, dealing with problems, timekeeping and so on.

These roles are also needed in online interactions. But the digital space brings an additional set of challenges. These challenges – or, rather, these opportunities – include:

  • Social presence manifests in more subtle and layered ways in online environments.
  • This is further complicated by the way our identities can be and are expressed online across a range of sites and media.
  • We lack the physical communications cues we depend on in face-to-face communication, for both conscious and unconscious responses.

4. The skills needed to facilitate online are different.

A straightforward translation of offline facilitation tools and techniques to online settings, won’t cut it. The skills needed to successfully facilitate online interactions are very different to those required for face to face interactions.

5. People need a bit of help with this.

There is an argument that online facilitation is more of an art than a science. The technical administration functions of the role can be taught. But good online facilitators bring another dimension to the role, ie empathy with, and understanding of, human behaviours and personalities. This comes with experience and can’t be learnt in a course/workshop/whatever.

I think that’s a bit of a cop out, actually.

I’ve done quite a bit of online facilitation over the last few years. I’m reasonably good at it, I think. Some of that may be down to my personality. And it probably helps that I’m quite passionate about the potential of technology. But I have also benefited immensely (and continue to benefit) from the support of other online facilitators. Online facilitation is still a relatively young field, so we’re all learning together.

So, I think we can, and should, offer support to those who are tackling facilitation in the online space. Support that goes beyond toolkits and hints and tips or webinars or workshops. Although, there is certainly a role for those.

What I’m not sure about, is what that support should look like. Exploring that is where I’ve got to with this project.

What are your intended outcomes for this project? What are you hoping to achieve?

The overall outcome for my workstream is something like: “we are effectively and creatively using digital technologies to engage and collaborate.”

For this specific project, I’m hoping that we can get more people exploring online spaces for engagement and collaboration.

That all sounds great. Can I get involved?

Yes please!

Along with some like-minded colleagues, I’ll be hosting a wee slot on online facilitation at our Facilitators Network get together on 28 September. Come along, chip in.

If you can’t make the workshop, get in touch directly. Or join the conversation in our Knowledge Hub group.

References

Hulsebosch, J. (2012). Social media for trainers: think differently! Joitske Hulsebosch blog. Accessed on 12 August from:  http://joitskehulsebosch.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/social-media-for-trainers-think.html

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