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Is Virtual the new Reality … Are you making the most of the opportunity?

How much of your life do you now live “virtually?”
Apart from allowing us to stay in contact with family and friends in distant locations, platforms such as skype are increasingly becoming “business as usual” in the world of work. Working virtually allows us to collaborate on projects and conduct webinars with people on the other side of the world. It allows me to mentor a group of facilitators based in 7 different countries, host on-line book discussions, and facilitate groups on-line. I can coach someone in New Zealand without getting on a plane.
I deliberately make a distinction between coaching, mentoring, chairing, training, moderating, hosting and facilitating – and the latter is the most challenging to do well on-line.

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In an on-line discussion group a colleague recently asked “Virtual facilitation, when it works well and why does it work well?”

I posted that critical ingredients for success from my perspective are: clarity about purpose; people knowing how to work within the platform; adherence to etiquette and plenty of planning, preparation and communication before the event. Having someone manage the technical aspects of the meeting behind the scenes is a real bonus – managing the shared screen, alerting the facilitator to chat comments, handling calls / emails from people trying to join the event when it’s already started etc. ?Well it’s a bonus for smaller meetings but a necessity for larger meetings.

And be prepared for anything. Earlier this week my modem dropped out just prior to starting a group session on Webex. So the meeting cancelled itself – and I had to set up another meeting right on start time … a helpful participant sent an email to the rest of the group to be on standby for new instructions 🙂

Don’t assume it will be easier, faster, cheaper (for you to do properly) because you are sitting on your behind in your office. In my experience to do it well requires a tremendous amount of preparation, specialist knowledge about how to use different platforms and how to get people engaged virtually – and often a lot of on-line follow up work.

Getting people engaged virtually is another thing – the dynamic of a virtual meeting is very different from a face-to-face meeting (that’s [email protected] is virtual speak). Unless we have everyone on video (which is impossible for larger meetings and also uses a heap of bandwidth), we can’t see facial expressions or body movement, sub vocals are not available because people are often on “mute”. We can’t see how people are reacting towards each other. People speak only in turn (and their turn is often “controlled” by the facilitator). Many other natural patterns of communication that forge the dynamic of a group are not available. So there are interpersonal as well as technical challenges – and the facilitator needs to concentrate intensely to engage participants in meaningful interaction with each other.

For this reason virtual facilitation has its limitations and challenges. I would be very wary of facilitating a virtual meeting convened to address interpersonal relationship problems and conflict within a team. I was asked once and declined the gig.

And more and more we are in 50/50 meetings with some participants attending virtually while others are there in person – in face I am facilitating in this situation next week.

Virtual is not limited to on-line meetings. There is a huge range of tools nowadays and you need to think about what is the best fit for purpose, budget and accessiblity. Private discussion groups and portals allow asynchronous interaction – great when people are in different times zones and/or need to give considered viewpoints and ideas.

There are applications that allow us to collaborate on documents in real time. Polling and survey tools to gauge reactions to options,

Just like the “good old days” we still send around an agenda and documentation; people read comment on documents individually and collaboratively; there are still informal small group “corridor” meetings; people still caucus by “phone”; have side conversations

How are you maximising the opportunities virtual meetings and interactions present for you and your organisation? There’s more to it than meets the eye and we can show you how.

At Illuma we’re in the process of designing an on-line training program on process design called The Architecture of Facilitation. The course will utilise podcasts, webinars, on-line discussion groups, skype, email, document sharing and more. Participants can work synchronously and asynchronously and we’re scheduling it to fit across a 10 hour time zone. If you are interested email us for more details.

And if you’re interested in facilitation and want to join this group – follow this link


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