Face-to-face meetings of SDC networks: What have we learned so far?

June 23, 2010 | Adrian Gnägi | SDC Networks |


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Adrian picture for sdclanBy Adrian Gnägi

This is the first post in a series focusing on network face-to-face events.

In October 2008 SDC changed its organizational structure: the former geographical/thematic matrix structure was changed into a single line operational structure. Thematic networks were created to exchange and capitalize experience. Until May 2010, 4 of the new networks had held their first face-to-face (f2f) meeting. This post sketches 6 issues which merit reflection when preparing and planning for future f2f events:

  1. Content overload
  2. Time allocation between inputs, exchange, and unplanned
  3. Event facilitation and animation
  4. Network constitution during f2f
  5. Reporting
  6. Carrying f2f community dynamics over into virtual exchange

While there already are a few “lessons to be learned” from the f2f events of the employment & income, decentralization & local governance, DRR, and gender networks, for most issues we basically do not know much more than what the problems are. The issues therefore are sketched below as fields of tension.

1.  Content overload
When reflecting on network f2f programs, organizers typically are torn between two orientations. On the one hand side, they try to design an interesting agenda that will motivate network members to participate in the event, and that will prove to line managers their staffs’ time is well invested. On the other hand, they want network members to interact as much as possible, to strengthen social bonds between members and thereby to lay the ground for trust based virtual exchange later on. The experience shows that content orientation tends to override network orientation during the preparation time, resulting in overloaded f2f programs.

2.      Time allocation between inputs, exchange, and unplanned
Related to the content versus network orientation is the tension between time allocated to inputs, exchange, and unplanned. It is difficult to justify unplanned-for time in a f2f agenda, but event evaluations consistently show that participants are frustrated by too many too long inputs, not enough time for participatory in-depth digest, and little space to discuss what really counts for them. Here there seems to be a clear “lesson to be learned” for future network f2f events: one third input, one third exchange, one third open space. 

3.      Event facilitation and animation
According to good event organization practice, a several-day-event with typically 40+ participants should be externally facilitated and animated. But network f2f events are very much about community building, they are the opportunity for Focal Points to symbolically assume their role in their community. Depending on the role Focal Points want to play in their thematic community, external facilitation and animation might not work: while there should be no problem if they want to play a hosting or secretarial role for the network, tensions are obvious if they want to be leaders or animators themselves. The “lesson to be learned” is that event facilitation asks for a carefully weighed decision, balancing Focal Point leadership aspiration, facilitation skills, and opportunity costs of a taxing and risky role.

4.      Network constitution during f2f event
Especially in the beginning of the life cycle of a network, network constitution has to be put on the agenda of f2f events: network purpose, roles & responsibilities, and action planning are just a few of the items that need to be treated openly for community ownership to emerge. Different ways to do this have been tried out by the 4 networks that already held their f2f: in the beginning of the event, all during the event as parallel track to content discussions, and at the end of the event. The accumulated experience points towards “network constitution by stealth” as promising strategy: future network working modalities are pre-conceived by the event organizing team and built into event working modalities; when they are explicitly talked about towards the end of the event, they have become “us” and “normal” – they are community identity already.

5.      Reporting
“Social reporting” would be good international practice for events like network f2f: every participants contributes to real-time reporting on many different channels (Intraweb news, blogs posts, videos on youtoube, pictures on flickr or Picasa etc.). But most network members have never done this before, many are not at ease with web 2.0 tools, and reporting after a full taxing day of participatory reflexion is not exactly popular. At its worst, reporting becomes a daily post-midnight job of the organizing team. A promising strategy to tackle this contradictory issue might be to engage a professional media person, who takes over some of the reporting tasks and at the same time trains participants in social reporting.

6.      Carrying f2f community dynamics over into virtual exchange
According to international good practice in network development, communities linked up via virtual networks should meet at least once per year face to face. The main argument is that virtual cooperation requires trust that can only develop in face to face human interaction. By turning this argument around, f2f events are expected to stimulate virtual exchange. This has not really happened – yet – with the 4 networks that held their first f2f. We do not know why. We hope that the issue is “not yet”, that virtual exchange will pick up. When discussing experience with f2f events during the last Focal Point workshop on May 19th 2010, the issue of carrying over community dynamics from f2f into virtual exchange was the single most important topic debated.


Comments to“Face-to-face meetings of SDC networks: What have we learned so far?”

  1. Patrick says:

    Congratulations to this launch and let the sharing begin!


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