E-facilitation – Facilitation gone online. How to smite the bite!

June 08, 2011 | Manuel Flury | Methods & Tools |


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Olivia Hartmann II swBy Olivia Hartmann, AGRIDEA
The e-factor is omnipresent in the West and increasingly also in other parts of the world. It has become difficult to imagine a life without it.
BUT – the e-factor in facilitation
is actually a rather recent development.
A look at a young skill and how to skillfully use it for learning and exchange – Part I. 


Looking at the history of the development of communication means I came to realize what a recent development the internet and with that e-facilitation actually is! E-Facilitation  – the art of sucessfully planning and guiding online interactions of various kinds and with a wide variety of purposes – has existed for barely 15 years. 

The importance of online interactions for learning and networking is immense! Never before it was as easy to get access to so much information and so many information bearers! Today, we are able to discuss e.g. “the role of markets for rural development” with everyone involved in related projects, their partners and whoever else is interested in that topic. And just look at the social media and their impact on lobbying for a given cause! A huge potential!

The big challenge, however, is how to make use of that potential. A lot of information is lost in cyberspace as fast as it had surfaced, or sometimes even faster. Much of the writing that is going on is never channeled into something useful. Discussions go in loops or do not come to an end, or then to a very abrupt one, without any conclusions or excerpts of the most important aspects.

Now – this is where e-facilitation comes in! Good e-facilitation ensures not only that online interactions are planned well and implemented in an effective and efficient way, but also that the results/outputs are harvested and made available in an appropriate form to the concerned persons. Also – the choice of activities, the timing, the tone and style of guidance,…. – the e-facilitator has a crucial influence on how openly people share, how much and how motivated they participate and also, how useful the output is and therefore lastly how easy it is for people to learn!

E-facilitation is thus an important lubricant for the learning and networking machine! Learning and networking can be done without e-facilitation or with bad e-facilitation all right, but a good facilitator makes it all much more efficient and effective!

E-facilitation as as skill becomes more and more important – there is a general trend towards online interactions and communication. It often seems to be taken for granted that everyone knows what e-facilitation entails and how to go about it. People seem to think that a good f2f facilitator automatically knows how to facilitate online, too. But – is e-facilitation really just the e-version of f2f facilitation? In my experience not.  

First of all, e-facilitation covers a wider area and thus bears different, additional challenges beyond the ones of f2f facilitation.

  • Face to face facilitation is confined to a situation where everyone is present at the same time in the same location and with a relatively defined group of people (interaction mode: fixed time/synchronous/in-time, fixed place).
  • E-facilitation, however, includes a larger variety of possible settings and modes of interaction.  In-time interactions – e.g. in a chatroom, an audio conference room, or in an e-conference room with whiteboard (interaction mode: fixed time, fixed cyberspace), but also facilitation activities taking place in the interaction mode any-time/asynchronous, fixed cyberspace, such as discussion forums, blogs or wikis. Furthermore, all of these online activities can again be conducted with a defined/limited group of any size, or they can be open to anyone. The later bears specific challenges in terms of how to adress and facilitate and how to help the “unknown” to overcome the fear of the “unkonwn”.  

Secondly, e-facilitation not only includes handling more settings and situations than f2f facilitation, the online scenario also necessitates different methods or scripts (series of methods) to reach the same goal.  

In theory whatever can be done by f2f facilitation can also be done online…. In practice the online and f2f scenarios are quite different to handle. So, the script/programme for a one-day f2f event cannot just be implemented online (e.g. to avoid travelling due to vulcanoe ashes?!).

The example of Group work

Group work is quite handy in f2f meetings. In an in-time online setting it is at best difficult and complicated to organize and implement at worst impossible.
Direct copy-paste of a method/step of a f2f event into an online setting is not advisable. Therefore

1)     analyze WHY a (set of) method(s) was chosen in the f2f context. What was the inherent logic and the intended effect of it? In case of setting up a programme from scratch, ask yourself, what is the final goal of the interaction what are steps that lead up to that goal
2)     define a set of activities (write a script) that leads the group through these steps; if more than one script/method is possible chose so as to fit the persons involved (agility online, connectivity needed) and your own liking.
3)     Once the programme/script is outlined do the reality check –  are you really getting what you wanted? Can the involved persons handle the suggested activities online? Ask other persons to take a look to see whether you deviated from the original goal!

The “splitting into groups, report back and discuss in plenary” method is useful in f2f workshops, to get many opinions and to stimulate more active involvement of the individuals; groups also allow to speed up a process – partial aspects are discussed in groups and only the main issues are taken into the plenary discussions.  How could this method be transferred into an online setting, if splitting into cybergroups is not possible or feasible for whatever reasons? One possible script for that could be: 

  • collect opinions and arguments (for partial aspects) beforehand in a forum or wiki–  good facilitation enhances participation; summarize points for overview and as common base of discussion
  • if necessary let people react to summary (e.g. by weighting, dis/agreeing, giving priority… e.g. with doodle)- find key issuse for discussion
  • Final discussion – discuss issues and decide. In-time is very handy here – ideally f2f or as audio conference with whiteboard. Asynchronous possible, too, but needs well paced facilitation. Online, in-time: fast and easy clarification; but with big groups is an extra challenge! Always ensure decisions are visualized 

You can see – that simple method so often used in f2f workshops can be a rather complex, long process online. BUT – you can collect, discuss and distill the ideas of a great number of people without having to bring them together physically, and only for few hours in cyberspace.

So, online and f2f settings are quite different in terms of the HOW to DO things. At the same time there are many similarities between them in terms of basic principles and approaches.

The first and foremost goal of an e- as well as a non-e-facilitation is to support and guide the involved persons to reach the set objective of a given interaction in a efficient and effective way.
In both cases it is the facilitator who is responsible to chose/suggest the appropriate methods, steps and processes to fulfill that objective – “appropriate” meaning with due consideration of a wide variety of factors, such as e.g. objective and duration of the (series of) interaction(s), intended output and who is responsible for it; the kind and number of participants, their relationship, available infrastructure, technology and tools (soft and hardware).
Also it is always crucial to discuss and clearly define the tasks and role of the facilitator to avoid missunderstandings and and confusions (e.g. often an issue in smaller groups: thematic contributions and summaries by facilitator yes or no?).
And, last but not least, proper planning combined with flexibility in the implementation are half the rent for successful facilitation online and offline.

More about specific issues with the e-factor will follow in Part II of this blog soon.


Comments to“E-facilitation – Facilitation gone online. How to smite the bite!”

  1. rohner francois says:

    Thanks Olivia for this very helpful introductory comments on a rather challenging topic. I am now very much looking forward to your part II which will deal – I hope – with practical aspects of online e-facilitation. I wonder whether I’ll ever get used to it.


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