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Adaptations of IF Process in Online Discussions

IF’s policy possibility discussion process was developed with face-to-face meetings in mind. From time to time I have been asked whether or not this process might lend itself to use in web-based discussions or video-conferencing of various types.

IF has been fairly cautious about such adaptive uses of its process in its own projects, but has approved my use of online discussion for one of the panels in my current global security project. In addition it has encouraged me to follow and observe other technology-based discussions and report on lessons learned.

The first discussion online discussion that used adaptations of the IF process occurred in 2009 and was a six month-long development of energy policy possibilities. I served as coach to the list-serve moderator of the discussion involving participants in four upper Midwest states. This discussion utilized the basic IF process fairly faithfully in discussion, but deviated from its structural format in relying only on one panel. It ran fairly smoothly in this very bare bones online approach and was supplemented by several conference calls at its conclusion.

The second discussion was a climate change discussion conducted in the weeks before and during the Copenhagen conference.  The moderator of the energy discussion also moderated this conversation. Most discussions were “live”, although there were also considerable amounts of postings, distributed attachments, and web links utilized by widely dispersed participants (including one reporting in from Copenhagen).

This second discussion started with a warm up discussion of the previously developed energy possibilities in order to acquaint panelists with the nature of “possibilities” as IF describes them. The timeframe was extremely compressed and challenging. It would have been very difficult to develop coherent possibilities had it not been for the experience of the moderator in translating IF process tasks to this format and the dedication of the participants to log many more deliberative hours than we had a right to expect.

As one might suspect the results of these two discussions could be criticized by those who disapprove of the possibilities. It is not for me to defend those possibilities, but I do feel it is worth noting that the level of participant engagement was high and the level of facilitation was exemplary. It is much more difficult for a facilitator to use personal capital in such environments.

My third online experience in the global security project is ongoing and got off to a slow start owing to some missteps on my part as moderator. Lesson #1: the moderator I had mentored in the first two discussions made this look easier than it was for me.

With that modest reserve of experience under my belt at this time I can offer some observations about how IF process works in online and video discussion:

  • The moderator/facilitator needs a comfort level with the technology and needs a toolkit of adaptive facilitative technique that relies more on anticipation of barriers to participation and less on “facilitative presence”.
  • The participants also need to be adept in the chosen technology and platform. If not, expect to devote time to tutorials. Substantial unevenness in skill levels among participants can drive a wedge into your developmental discussions.
  • There is some suggestion that these types of discussions work best where they are multi-layered: live online discussion, frequent postings and archival documents on a list-serve or website, and, perhaps, additional individual vehicles such as blogs.
  • Online discussion works especially well in exploratory work where lists are compiled and ideas are produced in lightning rounds. Wherever and whenever brainstorming is called for online discussion shows great promise.
  • Developmental work of fleshing out concepts seems more difficult online than face-to-face and requires greater facilitative support. Facilitators can help drive this with draft documents that attempt to capture the essence of discussion and create starting points for further development.
  • Final editorial work of any possibilities developed also falls more on the facilitator and requires some sort of agreement with the participants about who “owns” the work product: the individual originating the concept, the group, the facilitator, the sponsoring organization? Better to get participants to sign off on the effort as a citizenship exercise as opposed to something akin to intellectual property.

You may still have questions about why anyone would undertake the fuss of such discussions. I asked myself the same things several years ago and since then I have discovered a multitude of answers. But two of those answers seal the deal for me. First, it allows you to tap widely dispersed talent and bring people into discussions who could not otherwise participate. Second, young tech-savvy people seem hungry for this sort of thing.