Experiments in Social Facilitation

A while ago, I wrote about how we could use social technologies as a live facilitation tool. Eager to walk the walk and not just spout thoughts, I’ve been playing with this where I can and where it made sense and want to share my learnings from doing so.

What I’ve been experimenting with is inviting people in learning sessions to use their smartphones to find out something about the topic we’re covering and then we have a discussion about it.

I first tried it in a session I did with a group who were training to be internal facilitators. We were talking about icebreakers and energisers. I asked them to get involved by searching businessballs for information on either. This ended up proving quite the challenge as businessballs doesn’t really provide clear navigation and it’s hard to know if something is useful or not if you’re new to facilitation and training like this group were.

My main, and obvious, lesson here was to do it myself in advance so I know what I’m asking the group to look for and that they can find it. My assumption was two fold. My first was that because I have used the site for information gathering, it would have relevance to the group. My second was that they would know what to look for.

What was useful about trying this, though, was that the group were not against trying. What they needed were better instruction from me on what I was asking them to do. Facilitation skills 101.

My second experiment was when facilitating a group learning about coaching skills. Here, I was more purposeful and had planned a bit better what I was asking the group to do. I asked them to go on to the Mindtools website, in the search box type GROW model, click on the first result and read the description. Once they’d read the article, we had a good old bit of discussion about what they thought was important about the model, and how they thought it could help frame their questions when coaching.

I got a bit bolder with the success of that, and directed the same group to Google ‘active listening’ and we repeated the same.

I learned here that again the group were very open to using their smartphones, and pretty much everyone had one accessible to them. Some people needed a bit better support in terms of going to specific URLs and how to enlarge text on a small screen, but nothing that couldn’t be managed easily enough.

Also, it reinforced for me that the need for workbooks in learning sessions is fast becoming obsolete. As much as I enjoy writing workbooks and showing how much I know about topics, it’s just not a great use of time. Using smartphones in this way enables me to just point people in the right direction in a learning session and they’re doing exactly the same task. The difference here is that I’m introducing them to websites where they can find useful information on a range of topics, they’re navigating the website in the session so will be familiar with it later, and I just need to reference the website in a follow up email for them to remember.

I reflected later that asking the group to do this type of task also helped them gain the learning from the article that they needed personally. And, as might be expected, because everyone reads at different speeds, and takes in different information that they find resonates with them, it creates a discussion which is much more owned by the individual because of the insights they’ve already gained.

The third (and most recent) time was again with a group of managers going through coaching skills training. I asked them to do the same thing with Mindtools, and this time was faced with a challenge which didn’t arise the first time. The Mindtools website isn’t currently designed to be responsive to smartphones or other devices. On the site a pop-up window appeared which many people couldn’t navigate away from, and this happened to more than a few people. What it meant was it became a distraction from the learning intent.

I learned here that although a useful way to help share learning and craft a different kind of dialogue with the group, sometimes things don’t go according to plan. In this case I resorted to using trusty old flipchart and marker pens. Can’t go wrong with those staples of learning facilitation!

I’m still on the lookout for how to use technology in this way and ensure it stays relevant for the group, and doesn’t become a distraction from the learning intent. There’s plenty of room here to play around with how I incorporate this type of activity into the learning experience, and also how it becomes an enduring part of the learning experience. There are still a lot of people who are wedded to workbooks, and I’m really keen on how to curate content as an ongoing learning experience. As useful as online collaboration tools are, I also wonder if there’s a trick being overlooked with respect to people being ‘fed’ information via a curator of learning. Lots of wonderings here, and lots still to do.

Being a social facilitator

Earlier this week, Neil Morrison made a good challenge to the HR/L&OD world by saying that we should be using social media to innovate what we do.

It must have been playing on my mind.

A long time ago I decided that if I was going to be a facilitator, I was going to be a bloody great facilitator. I’d like to say I’m there. Recent feedback, though, tells me I’m still quite some way off. I delivered a session on Conflict Management and I got complacent in my facilitation. I didn’t do enough explanation of core pieces of knowledge and delegated too much responsibility to the groups. This is not necessarily a bad thing, except what it meant was that the learning experience could have been much more potent and meaningful. I just let it be ok.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Not every learning session I deliver is a gold class event.

I know where I failed on that last session. I didn’t prepare the session properly. I rested on my laurels and let experience take over. My bad yo.

And today, I was being trained myself, on negotiation skills. I actually enjoyed the session, and thought the trainer (not a facilitator in this context) did a good job of sharing knowledge, his experience, and getting us to think about some practical methodologies. At the start of the session, he did the very typical house-keeping rules and said “please turn your mobile phones to silent” – which immediately got me thinking.

At Bold L&D last week, the use of technology was a core part of the learning experience. It was explicitly contracted as part of the day. People could share content at will, make notes using whatever felt more comfortable for them as a capture tool, gave live feedback about the events transpiring in the day, and there was no right or wrong about the whole thing.

I reflected on Positive Psychology in Application last year, and how I built in social media as a core part of the event. I didn’t want to keep the conversation limited to the four confines of the walls. People had permission to share their learning readily as it was happening.

And it further got me thinking about the many conversations about the need to move from traditional L&D facilitators, to curators of content and enabling social learning to proliferate organisations through online collaborative tools.

(Yes, that’s a lot of thinking that went on in the learning session. We were doing introductions and experiences for the first 20 mins so my mind was allowed to wonder. Ssh.)

Which brought me back to – what about the learning session I’m part of. That you attend. That we mandate our people go through. How do we incorporate social media as a live facilitation tool, as opposed to an add on after the event, or making content available via the LMS, or writing a blog post about experiences.

I’d wager that maybe 98% of us L&Ders just never considered that this was a possibility. I know I never have.

What do I mean by this? Well here’s what I don’t mean. I don’t mean the inclusion of TED videos or YouTube videos to illustrate a learning point. I don’t mean using Prezi as an alternative delivery aid.

I mean things like this:
– Asking the group to use their devices to immediately research a definition for a topic, which becomes part of the learning session e.g. “we’re here to talk about conflict resolution. Go online and spend 5 mins looking for a definition which you’re happy to share with the group”
– Asking the group to use a mindmap app to create the content for a group discussion e.g. “We’re going to think about how to apply what we’ve learned about the Thomas Killman Inventory. Use a mindmap app to create this and we’ll share with the group on the screen.”
– Asking the group to learn about different presentation styles on a presentation skills course e.g. “Spend 10 mins watching some YouTube videos about different presentation styles, and we’ll talk about what they meant for you, and how you could try one of those in this training.”

Right, now we’re getting innovative. Now we’re pushing the learning experience of people to be more relevant, and highly engaging. I’m not suggesting building social into every activity we do as facilitators. Like any good facilitation tool/technique/technology, it has to be purposeful, and it has to add value to the learning experience.

Last week I said that I like to play when it comes to facilitation.

Let’s really play.

(footnote. I don’t know if the term ‘social facilitation’ has been used in this context. If it hasn’t, I totally bagsy copyright on it.)