f2f-meetings of SDC networks – lessons to be learned (I)

September 07, 2010 | bit-wartung | SDC Networks |


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Michèle picture for sdclanBy Michèle Marin
By now, a series of the SDC networks have come up with their first international f2f meetings.  The experiences reveal a few recurrent lessons to be learned, and trigger questions on how to best manage a f2f event. The SDC Learning & Networking team reflects upon them in a loose series of blog posts.  This first post considers the f2f event as a key moment of network development, and explores the adequate level of participation of network members before and during the meeting.

How do I organise a f2f event of a thematic learning network? Shall it rather be a thematic training or a network-development event? How much member-involvement in programming and preparation makes sense? Coming up with their first f2f-event, a series of SDC thematic learning networks have been facing this kind of questions.

A critical process
F2f events of networks are mainly organized to nurture social cohesion of a community and thereby to pave the way for virtual exchange and collaboration beyond the meeting. If an established network will use a f2f to “keep the engine running”, the challenge for a new network is to “ignite the fire” for thematic exchange.
Various event-concepts may be suitable to reach this objective. So far, most SDC f2f were designed to combine two foci in variable proportions: content-work, such as thematic inputs or training, and network development, building on typical pillars of network constitution, such as: the purpose of the network; (collaborative) tools and instruments; common activities and products; and rules and responsibilities. These f2f-events most often represented the first joint activity within the network-community, sometimes occasioning “storming and forming” within the community. Evidently, the first experience will leave its mark on the identity of the community and their motivation for future interactions –a success-factor for a vibrant network.

F2f  – With or for the community?
Much as the event itself, the preparative process can be conducive to enthusiasm, ownership, and social cohesion, or, at the other end of the scale, contribute to a passivity of network members. Basic decisions regarding process-management of the first f2f taken by the Focal Point such as preparing the event with or for the network may be interpreted as a message on network culture – and eventually be hard to correct later on. In this light managing a f2f turns out slightly more complex as compared to an isolated conference or training: Leading a network to success implies a farsighted f2f-preparation, as well as “community-sensitive” process-management and communication. Moving between the axes of preparing a f2f with or for the community, and the one of efficiency, what type of involvement and at what stage? In SDC, the basic f2f-concepts would mainly be elaborated within the core group, and then 1 or 2 options suggested to the community. After consolidation, members of the community would be assigned to contribute to some part of the program, e.g. in form of a presentation on the national thematic program.  If this proved to be a quite “fast track” of preparation, participant’s tolerance for unmet expectations and unexpected changes in process and program seem to be reverse proportional to the level of ownership established in the preparation process.

While a certain methodological flexibility during the meeting is part of the game, incoherence in process and program may cause frustration and hinder further commitment of participants. In one case the overall concept of the event had been changed from a training course to a network development retreat rather late in the preparation process. In another, methodology was changed in the course of the meeting, not integrating participants’ contributions the way it had been announced. Clearly, methodology needs to be planned in detail before anything is assigned or promised to participants. Another lesson is, that stakeholders’ expectations have to be addressed explicitly and clearly explained in case they cannot be fulfilled.

The 1/3-principle
If a closer involvement of the community in programming comes with the advantages of ownership (e.g. realistic expectations; higher tolerance for changes), a participatory process proved not to be the most efficient way for network constitution during the meeting – a counter-intuitive lesson to be learned. Yet, according to several experiences the formal aspects of network constitution – “this is who we are and how we work” – best seem to be developed in advance by the organizers, followed as implicit guideline during the meeting, and just acknowledged by the community as matter of form in the end.
Most organizers had thought their programme as a compromise between content (inputs; training) and network development discussions. In general, participants did not question the relevance of the content modules, but their number and density. Interestingly, their feedback is not point up content versus network development, but inputs versus exchange.
As it seems, a successful f2f is not as much a matter of participatory processes but of a sound balance between input, interaction and exchange. Consequently, two networks (DRR, dlgn) propose the 1/3-principle as a lesson to be learned: 1/3 inputs, 1/3 exchange, 1/3 open space  – a concept worth verifying on the way to a good practice in f2f.


Comments to“f2f-meetings of SDC networks – lessons to be learned (I)”

  1. Riff Fullan says:

    Thank you Michèle, for the fascinating summary of experiences with f2f SDC network meetings so far….two things I would like to react to are:

    1) the thread around participation of NW members in workshop planning, and;

    2) the 1/3 principle

    On the first point, I am a strong believer that ownership (in many contexts, not just networks) depends upon opportunities for participation. If people are involved in creating something, they will feel ownership in it, and will normally want to continue to be engaged. I therefore think it is well worth tapping into NW member enthusiasm in workshop planning, but as you mention, if expectations are raised about what will happen, they need to be met.

    2) I also like the 1/3 principle. I have developed a somewhat similar way of thinking about workshop design over the years, with 3 elements as well: first, is to focus more energy on the workshop process than on the content (in my experience, a great deal of content expertise is already there, and it is often a matter of creating space for meaningful dialogue around that content); second, is to think about how the different parts of a workshop can build upon each other, so that you have a trajectory that leads to increasing depth of thinking around the topics of interest; finally, I also believe that a good dynamic is to have more focus on the inputs at the beginning (generally in plenary) and then increasingly on dialogue as the workshop unfolds (in other words, a trend toward increasing engagement of participants).

  2. Simon Zbinden (SDC) & Jane Carter (IC) says:

    Dear Focal Points and all the other interested folks,

    The Agriculture and Rural Development Network held a f2f event in Cochabamba, Bolivia, over 5 – 9 July 2010, co-facilitated by external resource persons (Rupa Mukerji and Martin Fischler of Intercooperation), with organisational support from the regional knowledge-sharing platform ASOCAM ( Attended by 19 network participants from five continents, the workshop used many KM tools (Story-telling, Open Space, Knowledge Fair, World Café, etc). The event is fully documented on the site

    The following points might be of particular interest for others planning f2f events:

    On KM tools:

    1) Story telling worked well as a means for participants to share experiences, in a relaxed manner. Participants had been asked to come prepared in advance, and were provided with the SDC “story telling format” to this effect – this was generally found to be helpful. In asking individuals to come prepared, the point to stress should be the telling of a story out loud to an audience; writing out a script in advance often works less well as people revert to a “reporting style”

    2) The Open Space was held close to the beginning, and was well appreciated. What was particularly important was to ensure that there was follow-up on the ideas and recommendations that came out of the small group discussions. We also made sure to return to them at the end of the workshop – this was appreciated.

    3) The Knowledge Fair was organised by country; participants had been asked to bring materials, and most people had high quality material to share. Moving around between the stalls was a good way to take on board a lot of information in a enjoyable way; the small group discussions were stimulating.

    4) The World Café also produced a lot of very creative thought and ideas, and is recommended as a good brainstorming method.

    5) One or two well prepared thematic presentations can be helpful for “setting the scene”, – but the art is to keep them to a minimum

    6) Recording the workshop events on a wiki can be an extremely efficient and attractive method of knowledge capture if (as was in our case) a person well versed in such skills is available. The one caveat is that it risks being not highly participatory – with a few exceptions, almost all the workshop information was posted by the one person mandated with that task. It is probably unrealistic to expect many SDC staff to log in at the end of a day of intensive discussions and post their own material. The type of material posted on the wiki and the form of final reporting desired are best decided in advance – in fact, the wiki could be used to serve as the workshop report, removing the need for a final written report.

    7) The (open source) content management platform that was used, and which fitted the purpose well, was

    On logistical and organisational aspects:

    1) Language issues should not be under-estimated. In this case, participants were informed in advance that the main language was English. Nevertheless, language ability was mixed, and those who had difficulty in expressing themselves provided significantly less input (despite helpful translation provided by other participants). The point is not that proficiency in one language should be expected, but that for good inter-regional exchange, it is probably best to select participants deliberately in a roughly equal proportion of the main language groups, and to provide translation. Of course this has a clear cost.

    2) Field visits are important as a “reality check” –and also to give participants a break from intensive work indoors. Nevertheless, they need to be chosen carefully, and the hosts well briefed in advance, in order to clearly contribute to the event topic(s).

    3) If located outside Switzerland, the workshop venue should be chosen to allow the capture of the regional context.

    4) The critical mass of persons for a f2f workshop is probably around 20; it is wise to allow for last-minute drop-outs and invite a minimum of 25.

    Hope this is of use to some other potential f2f planers.

    Jane & Simon

  3. Ernst Bolliger says:

    Dear colleagues
    Thanks for taking up this topic and for sharing the concrete lessons learned.
    Looking back on my experience, I would like to add three more aspects.
    One refers to the question “for or with the network”. I see it from the logic of the network structure and its members being involved in different roles with different time budgets.
    I have just returned from a network congress und thus I try to develop some thoughts through the eyes of an ordinary member of the network: I do expect that the focal point and core group come forward with a solid proposal for the f2f meeting of the network. They have time to prepare; I myself, as an ordinary member, I can not invest this much time in preparing a meeting.
    The 1/3 rule comforts me: There is input, there is room for interactive discussion, there is room for the unplanned issues. A programme with too much input sessions leaves no space for creative interaction and sharing of experience; an exclusively open space programme has a taste of desorientation, missing focus, nothing serious to discuss.
    There is a second important point: Transparency. Transparency in the programme logic: Clear links between objectives, programme, expected output and outcome. And transparent roles of all involved.
    A steering group, composed of core group members, facilitator and a few representatives of the workshop participants (the latter changing every day) can contribute a lot to transparency. And it garantees to a large extent to keep the workshop running in a balanced way: Taking into account the planned programme and appearing new challenges, core group’s view and participant’s needs and wishes. A steering group meets for half an hour at the end of each workshop day.
    And once more: Programme changes need to be explained in a transparent way and agreed upon by all participants. If not, frustrations are produced within minutes.
    A last point: I feel there is no need to limit f2f meetings of networks to 20 or 25 participants. I can imagine fruitful interaction with many more participants.


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