Where Facilitation and Social Networks Intersect
By Danuta McCall

Posted May 01, 2009

An essential aspect of the philosophy behind social media is community ownership of information. The advantages of this are the wide ranging input contributed by interactive members and the speed at which responses appear when the network is active. The disadvantages lie in the uncertainty about the accuracy of the information that is put out and the difficulty of sifting through the sprawl to find what is relevant to you. It becomes challenging to maintain focus, direction and deliberation.

I read a thought provoking post the other day on one of my favorite blogs, Polis, in which the author described his first month’s experience using Twitter to connect in a meaningful way with his community of political journalists. He writes: “[Twitter] seems to do two things that we always hoped New Media would do. It provides us with a way of having regular conversations with our core networks. It allows us to share one thought with many interested people. Secondly, the Twitter networks seem to interlink outwards in a creative and efficient way.”

That sounds promising…. So how do social media really impact collaboration? Sharing information builds relationships around a common interest. From this community of interest can emerge a collaborative solution or work product. What transforms it from community sharing to collaboration is an outcome-oriented facilitation process. And that’s where facilitators come into the picture.

So now the question becomes how do social media support the facilitation process? Here is what Loretta Donovan, who uses social media extensively in her practice of Appreciative Inquiry had to say:

“Web 2.0 opens new avenues for gathering materials, sharing ideas and accelerating collaboration with low cost, easy to use tools. Their application fits well within generative, participative approaches to facilitation since they increase the transparency of the process to the larger organization, democratically involve participants in co-creating information that documents the face-to-face sessions, and promotes seamless collaboration as performance transitions back to the workplace. A great example of this is currently underway at Fairleigh Dickinson University where the Student Learning Outcomes Assessment (SLOA) Forum is using a blog to extend the conversation of the committee, archive minutes and grow a repository of resources. This is a public blog, so anyone at FDU can see the postings that talk about the ongoing work and comment on them as well.”

And Joseph McIntyre from the Akous Group writes

“As facilitators we need to be aware of new ways to effectively bring groups together, both when we work with them in a meeting room and when they are spread out across the globe. Web 2.0 tools are much more than the latest Internet buzzword. They reflect a set of attitudes captured in software that very closely match the core values of most facilitators. For example, facilitators are very concerned with accurately capturing the input of all participants. Web 2.0 supports this by creating tools that allow participants to co-create powerful information stores on their own, with only facilitative guidelines. Wikipedia is the pre-eminent example of this. Creating meaning from information is one of the core tasks of groups, tools like “tagging” – applying definitional words to articles, pictures, just about anything – creates a “folksonomie” that can accurately capture themes a group identifies.

One tool that captures the essence of Web 2.0 is Attendr (http://attendr.com), which is a “mash-up” or overlay of Google Maps and a variety of other software including Flikr and Technorati. This is specifically designed to help groups learn about their members prior to a meeting or project. Participants are invited to a unique Attendr event for which they create a personal profile that can include photos, URLs, bios, and most importantly a series of tags that capture their interests. Once all of the members have entered their profiles, Attendr creates a geographic map showing the spatial relationships between people. But that is just the start, members can identify who they already know in the group, creating another map of connections, and who they would like to meet. But perhaps the most useful feature is the tag cloud that is created. By clicking the words in the cloud, you can quickly see others who share your interests and the overall mix of interests in the group.”

Social networking tools are no substitute for good facilitation technique. But these days, more of the substance produced by groups collaborating occurs outside the traditional meeting model (whether meeting virtually or face to face), and social media and other Web 2.0 applications should be part of every facilitator’s toolkit. What do you think?

Posted by Danuta McCall