Tag Archives: facilitation

Where can I find a meeting room?

Sign saying "Quiet please, meeting in progress" by Ed YourdonWith so many entrepreneurs and start-ups going gung-ho developing Apps for this, that and the other. And with gazillions of bits of web content created every hour or is it now every minute. You’d think I’d be able to find an up-to-date and useful list of meeting venues in Wellington.

It seems every single time I begin thinking where to hold an event I start from scratch. Not only have I attended a few events in my time, I’ve printed out details and scored the odd promotional folder.

I can never remember the details, and I’ve lost all my notes and pieces of paper. So, I start from scratch. Enter into the Google search box: “Meeting venue”. Hit “Enter”.

Sigh! Up come the familiar list of websites: Venue Hire, Corporate Events Guide, Wellington City Council community directory, Hire it Now.

None of the lists are complete. Some are extremely dated and need to be refreshed, replaced or nuked (are you listening WCC?). Interspersed amongst places suitable for humble gatherings, are many catering for weddings and cocktail parties, and for those with bulging budgets.

It’s not only time a consuming process to find suitable options, but generally the lists shine little light on venues suitable for the modest budgets of those working in civil society or in third sector organisations.

After narrowing down potential options, then begins the laborious process of finding one that is free and affordable. I won’t mention who wanted $695 for a short after-work session. This is one I politely declined using, even though it was available.

So, I wonder, is there a better way.

Can the crowd perhaps step forward? Is there enough in this idea for people to help co-create a public list? A list that has useful categories or keywords for event types. Perhaps ratings as well as facts. How about a dash of panache – I can’t think if there is any reason for all these lists to be so damn drab.

The idea of listing things on the web is a path well trod. The subject matter may be different, but the notion of collectively creating lists has been around since the early days of the Internet.

Nobody I know would ever want to take responsibility for such a burden as keeping a list up-to-date, myself included.

Yet, I wonder if updating tasks are small and discrete. And the values of accumulated data high. Perhaps, just perhaps, this could take-off. It’d be easier enough to start with a wiki editable by anyone. There could be a template for each venue (one per page), keywords, and an index.

Before I do anymore thinking, I’ll wonder out loud: do others experience the same sort of hassles finding rooms for events? Or is everyone is super organised and keeps really good records themselves?

While I ponder on whether this is a problem unique to me and whether some budding entrepreneur may like to tackle this challenge, I’ve got some preparation to do for the Wellington NGO webmaster event I’m hosting tomorrow night. It’s time to do some baking.

Photo credit: Ed Yourdon

Looking for plums on K Road

A blue bowl containing three plumsWhen I’m facilitating a meeting or workshop I like to have something on the table for people to munch on, gaze at wistfully or even turn over in their hands.

A small offering helps pass the time during any dull bits and it makes people feel valued as you’ve gone to some effort to think of their needs. Offering sweets or peppermints is easy. This is perhaps why all the corporate venues have the hard, little white rocks.

When I was walking from Grey Lynn to the NGO I was working with on Thursday I wanted to get some plums. A generous big bag.

Being seasonal fruit was really appropriate for the group I was working with, not to mention the health benefits. A colourful addition to the setting I hoped.

At this time of the year plums are falling off the trees. But not so on my route along Karangahape Road. Not a plum tree, nor did the shops stock them.

I stopped looking in little dairies after number five. The fruit on offer was, well, totally insipid. One shop, whose owner had the audacity to list on its signage the promise of fruit and vegetables for sale, stocked a desultory bag of yellowing oranges in a fridge. About seven bananas, 20 apples and a few more oranges was all I saw.

Nor did I see a greengrocer on K Road, though there are plenty of stodgy bakers and greasy take away outlets. Makes sense I guess. Who is going to opt for a peach or plum when they’re out on the town.

Packaged foods with long shelf lives (ie crisps, sweets, nuts, etc), starch and fatty foods make money, but fruit obvioulsy doesn’t. How can it be that the market provides all this, but ready access to plentiful, fresh and healthy fruit is scarce. No wonder we’re facing an obesity epidemic.

Fortunately, even without a bowl of elusive plums the workshop went well.

And in the end I summoned up a gift for the participants. The night before the workshop I stumbled on the replica of the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, created in 1200, at St Columba Church in Surrey Crescent. It’s “a quiet place so that we, who are unable to make long retreats from our busy lives may find refreshment in these small havens of peace.” I thought storing away the idea of a place to step back from the hurly burly of the project (and work as usual) might come in useful.

No plums but maybe something more lasting.

Photo credit: Anushruti RK’s photostream

Online community in NTEN-Discuss? Part 2

After talking to both Ian Runeckles and Gavin Clabaugh, members of the NTEN-Discuss online group, I really started thinking about the importance of ‘context’ to an online community.

Rather than concentrate on the current incarnation of the group, both Ian and Gavin talked about where it all started. The current group has it’s origins in meetings between IT advisors working with not-for-profit organisations which started being run in the 1990s. The circuit rider network included face-to-face meetings as well as a mailing list (which continues to this day, even if largely supplanted by NTEN-Discuss).

Face-to-face gatherings have grown in scale, with about 1,400 people attending the last annual NTC meet-up in April 2009. There are also dozens of small local chapters where people meeting in person regularly. Access to a member directory means any of NTEN’s 6,000 plus members can get in touch directly with others. Both the numbers involved and the many years events have been held over means during the life of both NTEN-Discuss and its antecedents many people have actually had contact with one another face-to-face.

Unless there is some form of annual refresh cycle, Gavin says he sees many groups die out over time so he firmly believes meeting face-to-face is necessary to “rekindle the essential human elements”.

As well as the offline meetings, people can interact with each other online in different ways, including attending regular webinars, contributing to multi-author blogs, and by adding material to shared resources in libraries, notepads, etc.

The discussion forum definitely doesn’t stand alone.

The official NTEN-Discuss moderators have light touch within the forum. Ian said he couldn’t see how additional facilitation services would benefit the group. By continually feeding discussion and setting the general atmosphere, the current facilitation approach kept things working.

Gavin was also sceptical about the need for more active facilitation. He says this was tried in the past with mixed success. And he points toward the nature of the group as not requiring more active input.

I am not sure the topics (remember that magic ingredient above — a clear focus and purpose and a shared set of goals and beliefs) would actually lend themselves to more active facilitation. The discussions are usually queries for information or referral. I often characterize NTEN Discuss as a giant random access knowledge management system: I can ask it a question and it coughs and sputters and (sometimes) shoots out an answer. The topics are relatively mundane and wouldn’t lend themselves to facilitation — at least I can’t think how.

A large volume of active contributors can actually undermine a forum. There is a sense that there is a natural equilibrium or balance for people to sustain their attention. Gavin suggested 200 was the maximum number of active and semi-active participants as with any more things go bonkers and people can’t handle a discussion with more than this number. A specific number wasn’t mentioned by Ian, but he sees a ratio of active to inactive participants as constant across all forums regardless of the total number of members.

Understanding the wider world in which NTEN-Discuss inhabits helped me reach the conclusion that more active facilitation is probably unnecessary. I wonder how this insight informs other discussion forums?

Thanks to Ian and Gavin for taking the time to share some history and thoughts.

BTW: This post is the second of a two part assignment exploring whether the NTEN-Discuss forum might benefit from more active facilitation of some sort. See part 1 and more details about the Facilitating Online course.

Does community exist in the NTEN-Discuss forum? Part 1

Each NTEN forum has a map of where members are based.

Each NTEN forum has a map of where members are based.

I was heading to the library self issue machine with a couple of items under my arm – one book on parenting, the other a computer magazine – when I stumbled on “Managing Online Forums” by Patrick O’Keefe.

There’s a whole wad of advice in the tome. O’Keefe promises to “show site owners and administrators how to create a safe and entertaining community that users will return to again and again”. It’s based on O’Keefe’s practical experience moderating forums and running something called the iFroggy Network, plus other forums he owns.

The book is listed as an extra resource for the current blogging assignment in the #FO09 course I’ve joined in. We’re looking for online community in discussion forums. Does it exist?

If my practices are anything to go by, I really do wonder. I tend to randomly visit forums and mostly only when I need something, rather than visiting on a regular basis. Although many forums require me to join, it’s such a low threshold to overcome: giving away my email address and agreeing to terms and conditions isn’t onerous. I don’t really feel bound to the forum ‘community’ just by signing up. Without a prod or peer pressure, it’s easy to slip in but not necessarily join geared up to participate.

I notice there are very active discussion forums around. Just take a look at on TradeMe and ones run newspapers like “Your Views” the NZ Herald or “Comment is free” at the Guardian: they’re incredibly vibrant. Some niche forums also thrive, such as the Black Dog Message board – set up “for people living with depression and other mental illnesses”.

Of all the forums I dip into I’ll talk a little bit about the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) member only “NTEN-Discuss” affinity groups. It’s one of the most regularly used of the 120 affinity groups set up by members. When I wrote 1,325 people were signed up, out of a total of a 5,996 NTEN members. Each affinity group has a blog, news feed, wiki and library, as well as a discussion forum. You can read posts online or contribute via email.

The beauty of the system NTEN use – for the technically minded it’s a social media enterprise platform offered by GoLightly – is the amount of choice I’ve got as a member: I reveal my address or not, let people see my profile and even add my location to a map. The setting for the group are very easy to see, and you can contact the moderators from any page.

There’s a fair amount of activity in the forum. Nearly 4000 posts in the archive, since the new and improved NTEN-Discuss forum was launched in September 2006.

The things I notice about the forum include:

  • Friendly conversational language, but it’s by no means bland as people forcefully express their views at times
  • Members have a visible presence, mainly through their avatars with anyone new to the group highlighted on the main page
  • Any conflict (if there is any) seems to be handled by members themselves, with very little visible intervention by moderators
  • A simple count of the number of posts made by each member gives some idea of peoples online reputations
  • The terms of use are easy to find, though there are not groundrules for this particular forum
  • A clear, though very general common purpose for the group is adhered to by members.

This list includes most of the things I’d expect in an online community: common interests or aims, rules and guidelines of some sort, adjudication if people misbehave and a means to have a social presence, and most importantly active participation. It’s a very comfortable place to be, with all the characteristics of an online community I’d suggest.

Looking at “Managing online forums” to see if any light is shone onto the presence of community I don’t find a lot of help. O’Keefe does not seem too interested in helping readers identify whether community exists in their particular forum. Instead he’s offering a step-by-step guide to ‘managing’ community. Facilitation doesn’t seem to come into, merely enforcement of rules.

My next step is to talk to a member of the forum about their opinions whether the forum might benefit from more active facilitation of some sort. I’m also interested to see what they say about whether there is a pulse, a lifeblood. I’ll report back soon.

91 insightful seconds about online community

If you’ve got a spare 1 minute 31 seconds take a look at this short video from Nancy White. Logoactivo sums it up in his comment: “That´s great advice: “getting good at asking questions”. Incredible, in less than 5 seconds she´s made it clearer than any 2 hour social media conference!”

Pithy, to the point. Why say anything more.

Though if you do want more, interviewer Robin Good introduces the video in a post about “Online Community Building Strategy: Good Advice from Nancy White”. He interviewed Nancy in his home town of Rome where Robin runs Ikonos New Media.

(BTW: I’ve been following Nancy’s work since meeting she visit Wellington last year, see my post “Dags and dingleberries”, 24 August 2008.)