Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Cost of Being Late

I have observed in an organization where I frequently give training that 25% of the people in the course are on time regularly. The rest of the people come later, and usually by 15 minutes after the start time of the course, everyone is there and we can begin.

In this organization, meetings are the main space for collaborative work, and people can have up to 4 or more meetings a day.

In this case, for the 25% of the people who are on time to meetings (which start 15 minutes late), they lose 1 hour a day of waiting around for people to arrive and for their meetings to start.

If your staff is 200 people, then 50 people are losing 1 hour a day to late starts. If 50 person hours of work per day is being lost, that makes 250 hours a week lost in waiting for meetings to start due to late arrivals.

250 hours a week is effectively 6 staff members whose complete time is being spent sub-optimally, they could go home and get paid to do nothing.

That's 1000 hours/month, or 12000 hours per year, which is 250 work weeks, or over 6 person years of work lost to an organization every calendar year from people who are 15 minutes late for meetings...

Friday, March 23, 2012

Going Large: Tips for Running Big Conference Facilitation Teams

Last week we were facilitating at a major environmental conference in France with 16,000 people. We had been working with the Secretariat Team for 2 years throughout the preparatory process to help shape the agenda, work with the governance team, contribute ideas to the design and help facilitate stakeholder input to the overall process. All of these preparatory events had from 40 to 400 people, frequently all in the room at the same time.

And it all culminated last week in the final week-long conference which featured hundreds of events, many in parallel (often 30 at a time), and an offer to the different organizations hosting conference sessions for facilitation support.

Our Facilitation Team of 6 Facilitators was international (with multiple language skills) and during the week we facilitated, or supported as facilitators, 63 sessions ranging from 5 people to 2000.

In between these events - which made up over 141 person hours of facilitation - we were everywhere in the venue doing everything else - we met our session leads and their teams, held multiple preparatory meetings, briefed panelists and speakers, made flipcharts and group work templates, found materials hidden in boxes under tables, checked rooms, sweet-talked "volunteers" and technical staff, tested microphones, and more...

This is the second mega-conference (not counting all the ones from 200-500 people) where I have had a Coordinator role for a Facilitation Team. It is interesting to think about what makes these kinds of Facilitation Teams work best, as there are lots of unknowns, the environment is constantly shifting and changing, and often the Facilitation team - which is usually a distributed team with regional and language diversity in our cases- has not previously worked together. Here are some things that seemed to help us have a positive experience and impact last week:

1) Share Schedule Overview

Everyone had a completely different schedule, and although for some sessions we paired up, the pairs were almost always different. So having one shared schedule that showed everyone's activities helped us understand each other's commitments each day (each hour even) and get a sense of where the Facilitators were and who could help out or pinch hit if need be. This schedule took the form of a matrix with all of our names in rows, and the days of the events in columns. Each person also had their systems too, but that was what we shared.

2) Communication - Set-Up and Tools

On our first day (even before in my case) we took everyone's cell phone number and put it in our smart phones (everyone had one). As we were almost always in wifi zones (although there were different passwords in different parts of the conference venue which was annoying), we signed up for WhatsApp and used that for free, or SMS when that was not possible. That was the main way we kept in touch throughout the week. We only rarely phoned as we were so frequently in meetings, sessions etc. Our smart phones helped us get last minute emails from our session leads (clients), as there were many last minute changes, and also helped us forward documents to the central printing facility.

3) Pick a Homebase

We needed to have a homebase for the team in the Conference venue where we spent our whole day (it wasn't easy to get in and out of security quickly - you could get stuck for 45 minutes in line at the metal detectors), so we used a central space inside called The Agora - a large tent with a cafe, bistro tables and chairs, and lots of flipcharts - which is where we had a number of our sessions. There was a backroom there where the conference technical team let us store our bags securely and where they had drinks and snacks for staff, as well as the supplies. When we were done with our different events during the day, we would meet back there quite naturally and sit down at one of the bistro tables (often with one of our team facilitating a session on the stage beside), have a coffee and talk through what happened. By the end of the day the coffee would turn to a glass of wine and a review of that day and the next. It was so important to have that central place to meet and also to relax and regroup after high pressure and often very politically sensitive sessions.

4) Hold Breakfast Meetings

Every morning we met at 07:30 together for a meeting to discuss our schedule, any changes, any help we needed, and most importantly any relevant information we were getting. In these huge events, information comes in from all sides, through the organizers, through email, through our session partners, so this meeting was a way to get everyone there to share what was going on that was relevant to people like us who needed to move quickly and nimbly through the jungle of events, delegations, and the extended organizing team. Sometimes this was fun information - like the time of the Mexican evening reception in the Exhibition space - sometimes this was about one of the security gates being closed or needing a second, special electronic badge to get into the opening session because Heads of State were attending. (We also tended to eat dinner together each night if possible, but those weren't "meetings", more like wonderful getting-to-know-you opportunities.)

Finally, and most importantly...

5) Find Great Facilitators

This is probably the most important ingredient in running a Facilitation Team at a mega-Conference. You need Facilitators who both master and can use their facilitation tools flexibly. Because weird things happen at mega-conferences:
  • You don't know the group size in advance, even in a room of 400 people, you might get 50 or standing room only. So you need to be able to scale up or down your design on the spot;

  • You might not know who is actually "in charge" of your session. Because many of the sessions are co-hosted, you might be dealing in the design phase with a young staff member from one organization, and then onsite, senior managers come in with their advice and desires, so you need to be ready to change, or hold your ground, in the hours (or even minutes) before your event starts;

  • You can't see the space in advance. At least before you get there, and once you are there you can look, but at that point the design can be rather fixed. We received information about the seat set up, and whether we could put things like flipcharts on the walls in advance, which was helpful, and we had to trust that this would be the case.

  • You can't depend on having set up time before your session. Each event had ostensibly 30 minutes between scheduled sessions. However, most sessions ran over (not ours of course!) which meant that we might only have 10 or 15 minutes to set up the room - and this could include cleaning up after the previous group, and rewriting the nameplates because so many speakers changed at the last minute. So we had to have everything made, sorted, and folded in advance and ready to pop up on the walls, or put on the tables, or hand out. 

  • You have to be able to deal with high emotions. In a conference of 16,000 and so many events, both your session organizers and your participants have been on the go non-stop from morning to night. They are tired, they might feel exposed, they might be outside their comfort zone (we saw some of that as most people were technical people who all of a sudden are on stage in front of hundreds of people talking about their work). So there is quite a lot of bedside manner needed in events like these, and sometimes it is just a matter of gently adopting a take-charge attitude and getting things done for your session host teams who are effectively working together for the first time, and doing something (organizing a conference session) which they only do once every three years. Not to mention the fact that you (the Facilitator) are asking many of them to steer away from their safe, comfortable, default format of Panel of 13 speakers followed by 10 minutes of Q&A with an audience of 200 people.
All in all, our feedback from our session hosts was really excellent, and it is still coming in. We worked well together, we laughed alot, things within our control went more or less smoothly, and our session host teams were satisfied. And we learned a great deal about how to support and make more interactive these mega-conferences.

It is hard and can be exhausting, but the engagement you can foster from facilitating large groups to more granular outcomes can be both surprising and pleasing for participants, who report that they get even more from facilitated sessions - more engagement, more networking, and more learning (and even some ideas on facilitation that they can take home and use themselves) - spreading facilitation far beyond the walls of that enormous conference centre after the mega-event.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Badging: The Future of Learning?

Our team (LEAD and Project Wet) just competed as Finalists in the DML Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition which was sponsored by Mozilla Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC. And while we ended up unfunded winners this time, we greatly enjoyed the opportunity to create a badging project together that we intend to pursue.

But what is badging? And what gives it potential for enhancing learning in the future?

As a part of the Open Badges Project, an open source infrastructure is being created on the web that will serve as the ecosystem for a wide range of electronic badges that many organisations can issue and display.

Now how much jargon did I just use to try to describe this? Let me try again...

Imagine that you take a course, online or in person, that gives you some skills in systems thinking. At the end of it you have the choice of a certificate in paper, or an electronic badge. You choose the badge. What do you get?

The organisation that ran the course is the "Badge Issuer", and they have a set of criteria that you have to meet to get the badge. These might be that you 1) showed up, 2) engaged actively in the conversations, and 3) passed a little assessment test or did a project that showed that you understood and could use the new tools and skills (or maybe just that you showed up).

So now you qualify for a badge. The Badge Issuer sends through a message to the Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI) run by Mozilla, and a badge comes back directly to you (the learner) in a "Badge Backpack" which is a personal online space where you can collect your badges. At this point you might only have 1 badge for this systems thinking course in your backpack. But the backpack is there now, and you can take other courses and get other badges that will start to fill up your online backpack.

Now what can you do with your badge? There will be a number of "Badge Displayers" who will let you post your badge on their site. These are sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, your website, Wordpress, and job and recruitment sites. As the learner you have complete control over where you post your badges. They don't show up automatically anywhere, and you can manage them, delete them, or put some here and there.

So what does the badge do? Some badges that you might already be getting on FourSquare or other sites are mainly icons, or pictures of your achievements (like being the first of your Friends to go 4 times in a row to the same coffee shop). The OBI badges would have more data in them, so that when you clicked on the badge you (and anyone who sees them displayed) would find out more about what you had to do to get the badge, who issued the badge, and potentially what your "score" was on the assessment.

This all a part of the "Metadata" that is "baked" into the badge. Metadata means that when you click on the badge you would get a small screen that would give you and anyone who views it this information - it is effectively a gateway to evidence about your learning. There would be a "Criteria URL"  which would give people the criteria that you had to achieve to get awarded that badge. It might be that you just needed to show up (but maybe you flew 10 hours to get there, so that was a real achievement), or that you had to pass a test by 75% to get the badge. All of these things would be the same for anyone who had that badge.

The second URL that would be baked into the badge could be an "Evidence URL" which would be different for each person who got the badge. This would be the evidence that you produced during your learning process - such as the title of your systems thinking project, or your individual grade (you only needed 75% but you got 95%).

All of this would be embedded, or baked, into the icon of the badge. It would also remind you of what you did to get it.  All of this would be a part of the badge that would come flying into your badge backpack. The badge issuer would have built the criteria into the badge before you came into the systems thinking course, and then added your evidence once you were done. Voila you have a badge!

Why badges?

We are learning all the time. We learn on the job, we take additional courses, we learn through mentoring and coaching. There are so many valuable ways that we augment our capacities, many of which go completely undetected by our peers, teachers and employers (current and future). Children learn important life lessons through extra curricular activities, but these do not show up on their grade cards. College students learn about collaboration, project management and negotiation through their courses, but these do not show up on their transcripts (although they might be the most important qualities for a new employer). As adults, we might include on our CVs that we are good managers, or have good people skills, or are are excellent communicators, but potential employers have no effective way to check this and we have often have no opportunity to prove this to them - no real evidence to show.

And these skills, through our badges, can travel with us whereever we go - our personal Backpack will stay with us. And while we might have started it during our school years, we can keep and add to our badges throughout life as an electronic portfolio of achievements that we can keep to ourselves or share.

In the future, employers might seek certain badges for specific positions. A certain mix of badges might qualify you for an internship. You might want to change your career path without going back to university; and launching a concerted effort to work on and achieve a number of badges in relevant competency areas might be what it takes to prove that you are qualified to make that shift.

Badging inspires some heated debate - detractors talk about the comodification of learning, and about the impact of moving from intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for learning. Proponents point to the empowerment factors - that badging allows for self-regulation and more democratic learning and it provides a cost-effective way for people to get an education. All interesting indeed.

This is an experiment, and from the sounds and efforts that the Open Badges community is making around it, one that will get a good run while people tinker around with the concept, build the ecosystem, and start issuing their badges. By this time next year, you might have your first one...