Networks, f2f and promoting participation – the Helvetas experience

July 06, 2010 | bit-wartung | Learning Elsewhere |


Rating: none

Riff für sdclanWhy should you bother for participatory methodologies in f2f meetings of networks, if frontal plenary sessions seem to be so much easier to organise? The value added does not only concern the atmosphere and output of a f2f meeting itself, but also the way network-members will collaborate virtually beyond the meeting.
Riff Fullan, knowledge coordinator at Helvetas, shares with us his reflections on the Helvetas experience in network facilitation.

By Riff Fullan – Networks can help us transcend individual limitations by bringing people together to discuss, share, learn and work more effectively. To realize the potential of networks, it is crucial to promote and support participation of network members. This element of facilitation is often neglected because organisers get caught up in gathering and distributing the content related to our work. Of course content is important, but we should also be aware of the potential of collaborative thinking and working that a network represents.

This is why Helvetas places a lot of emphasis on designing participation into our face-to-face workshops. We believe that not only are such meetings more productive, but people also enjoy them and benefit more from them. There are various methodologies we use to foster participation. Some of our favourites are: Fishbowl, Talk/Chat Show, World Café, and Open Space. All of them are fun, tend to create conversations rather than presentations, and provide ample opportunity for participation, even with a larger group of participants. You do not need a professional facilitator, though World Café and Open Space are a bit trickier without some experience. The most important thing is to have a facilitator who is an active listener and who is able to dynamically manage interactions among participants.

Participatory processes in networks:
why and how?

  • In an increasingly networked world, organisations and individuals need to work more and more in networked ways.
  • Accelerating growth of information and interaction means people need to collaborate on filtering what is relevant out of the flood.
  • Whether it is a specific meeting or the ongoing interactions of a network, promoting participation and ownership are key.
  • For organisational change purposes, we need to broaden facilitation capacities throughout our organisations.

How to choose the right methodology? It depends partly on your organisational culture, what ‘feels’ right, as well as what you are trying to do. Some are more useful for sharing ideas, others for generating action plans, others for producing outputs. So, it is a good idea to read up a little on each methodology, and to see what uses are recommended for them, in order to inform your choice. Links to a couple of toolkits you can browse are included at the bottom of this post.

Still, it is hard to go wrong with a methodology that gets people talking to each other, especially in small groups. Look at the simple mathematics: having 4 simultaneous small group discussions versus a presentation in plenary represents 4 times as many people talking at a given moment. Of course, not every situation demands participation. For example, if you have detailed information to deliver, it may be better to use a more traditional format. However, even then, it can be very useful to have a dynamic dialogue around such information rather than a standard question and answer at the end.

Thus, if the idea behind the meeting involves exchanging ideas, joint learning, producing outputs collaboratively, etc., you can tap into people’s experience and expertise much more effectively by maximizing interactions among participants. People are social beings as well, which means they will be more enthusiastic about interactions than about sitting passively as an audience. This also tends to lead to higher levels of retention of ideas, to greater creativity, and to stronger bonds among participants.

Here we can also see the potential advantages to networks of facilitating participation (not only at face-to-face meetings, but online between such meetings): a network will thrive when its members feel a sense of commonality, when they know each other, when they interact with each other.

An added advantage is the ‘collective wisdom’ that develops when a group of people with similar interests bring their minds together. Individuals are no longer able to keep up (if they ever were) with new information and dialogue in their fields of expertise. Consider this: according to the ‘Did you know?’ video series produced by XPLANE: You can now access over 1 trillion web pages. In 2009, more video was uploaded to Youtube in 2 months than the US television networks ABC, NBC and CBS combined would have broadcast if they had been broadcasting continuously 24 hours per day, every day, since 1948! The computer in your cellphone today is: 1 million times cheaper, 1 thousand times more powerful, and roughly 100,000 times smaller than the single computer at MIT in 1965.

We live in a world of rapid and massive technological change, which fuels an increased and often chaotic interlinking of individuals, markets and societies on a global level. Development work is becoming ever more complex, and we need to work in networked ways in order to deal with this complexity, and to be sufficiently flexible to respond to changes in our environment. It is this realization that informs SDC’s promotion of thematic networks as an organisational change strategy that is future-friendly. This involves difficult changes in the way SDC staff work, but to the extent that such changes result in a dynamic and interlinked organisation, they will substantially improve SDC’s capacity to cope with and to adapt to a world in constant motion. 


Comments to“Networks, f2f and promoting participation – the Helvetas experience”

  1. We entirely share Riff’s observation on how important participatory ways of facilitation are. Beyond the reasons he gives, we argue that there are conceptual reasons (in a motivational and epistemological sense) to choose that way – both related to the nature of human behaviour as well as the reality of how we can (and cannot) work living systems that constitute the reality we’re dealing with.

    If you’re interested, we have compiled some ideas here:


Leave a Reply