Back in July through my work with Royal Roads University I was able to help facilitate the coming together of over 90 people – in person and online – to discuss the establishment of a Community of Practice (CoP) for administrative professionals at the university. The short event was a great success and I’d like to share a little here about what facilitation processes we used to help make the event productive and worthwhile.

I was brought in to the project a month or two before the session by a working group of administrative professionals who wanted a facilitator to assist their efforts. We co-planned a very participatory agenda for the 1.5 hour meeting because we wanted to create a lot of space for the participants to provide their input. We hoped to hear lots of ideas from them about what they wanted their Community of Practice to look like and what it should accomplish.

The working group wondered if we were going to need to engage participants both in person and online so they put out an invitation to the event, offering both opportunities. Sure enough, several people were interested in being able to attend online and so we knew that we had to “double design” an agenda for both modes. This meant that everything we planned to do in person, we had to figure out a way to engage people who would be attending online to get to the same result. The working group decided to livestream the event using BlueJeans, a platform that would also allow online attendees to type chat messages to each other.

When the day came we had over 70 people in the room and about 20 online. I was the facilitator in the room, alongside a few members of the working group who opened the day and presented a couple of key pieces (such as welcoming the group and setting the context). We assigned someone from the working group to interact solely with the online attendees and ask for and encourage their online participation.

These were the processes that we were able to engage the participants in during the bulk of the session:

Introductions

With such a large group we knew that we couldn’t go around the room and do introductions round robin-style. To help the participants know who was there we created a “dot voting” board that they could place a dot on as they entered the room, to show which school or department they were from. (We had identified the working units on the board in advance.) We showed them the completed version of this at the start of the session. We also included a few minutes near the start of the session for casual introductions at individual tables. I invited people to introduce themselves to the people at their tables and also stand up and introduce themselves to people at other tables if they wished. (What a buzz!) Online participants introduced themselves to each other through the BlueJeans chat function. We acknowledged how many people were taking part in the meeting online to the group in person so they were aware of the strong presence online.

1-2-4-All

One of the first activities of the session was meant to help the group think about why they wanted to start a Community of Practice, the purpose for doing so. What was the value to them in creating this? What did they need or want from such a community? I facilitated the in-person group through a 1-2-4-All activity from Liberating Structures, which had the following steps:

  1. 1 min individually to think
  2. 2 minutes in a pair to share ideas with each other
  3. 4 minutes in a foursome to share more, and
  4. a large group debrief with the whole room, where we got to hear some of the ideas discussed.

Online, the group was asked to contribute to a Padlet bulletin board to share their ideas about the CoP’s purpose.

QuestionStorming

Next I facilitated a QuestionStorming activity to help the group think about general priorities and opportunities that they saw for the Community of Practice. Whereas the 1-2-4-All had asked them to think about the “why”, this in this section we asked them to think about the “what“…what could the CoP address for them in future meetings and events?

What is QuestionStorming?, you might be thinking. For this activity, I gave participants the instruction that they could only brainstorm questions to be asked about what they wanted the CoP to accomplish. We provided some examples to show them how to frame questions, such as “How can we improve our processes around invoicing?” or “What opportunities are there for me to learn about [insert topic]?” I asked participants to capture their questions on sticky notes – one question per note – and place them on two whiteboards on one side of the room.

I thought the QuestionStorming activity might encourage the group to think more in an ‘appreciative’ mindset about possibilities instead of perhaps getting mired in the problems that they thought a Community of Practice could solve. (I think it worked!) During this section the online group again used Padlet to contribute their questions and they did so robustly. (They were actually the most active online group I have ever seen in ‘dual mode’ events like this that I’ve been involved in.)

Station Brainstorming

Next we wanted to create space for the participants to talk about the “how” of their Community of Practice. How would they organize? What structures would they put into place? Who would come together to help lead it? We organized five themed stations around the room on the following topics:

  1. Participation & Contribution
  2. Shared Leadership
  3. Resources & Technology
  4. Communication
  5. Activities

I invited everyone to “gallery walk” to at least three stations over a period of about 20 minutes. In this section we not only wanted the group to contribute ideas at the stations, we really needed them to write their ideas down, so we had preassigned working group members to stand at the five stations to help ensure that ideas were captured on flipcharts. Again, we used Padlet for the online group, asking them to contribute to five sections of a Padlet about the same topics.

Theming

Remember that QuestionStorming activity above? Well we knew that activity was going to generate a LOT of questions, and so we had pre-planned that, during the station brainstorming section, two people would sort and theme all those question sticky notes. It took them some time – we did have a lot of questions! – but after the station brainstorming they were able to report back on the themes that had arisen about what the CoP could accomplish. Of course we included ideas from the online participants in this ‘harvest’ as well.

Closing

To close the session, one of the working group members talked about next steps for the CoP and thanked everyone for coming. It was only 90 minutes but we got a lot of ideas and data from the group! People were just buzzing as we formed up for a group photo at the end and later that day the emails were flying about how happy people were with how everything had went. The staff participants and the working group were quite pleased with all they had accomplished in this first, large group CoP meeting.

It was a pleasure to work with a team of administrative professionals to launch this Community of Practice at RRU. Not surprisingly, they were hyper-organized, very willing to take on roles to support it all to happen, and thoroughly great to be around in the process. I wish them the best of luck in their work together.

[Featured image from Jerry Meaden on Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0]