Monday, July 20, 2015

Three tools to support communication and learning in a KM project

One of the projects that has kept us busy over the past 15 months is the support and facilitation of KM activities in the Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) programme. The project has different components and activities and, from its inception, we looked at how technology could support communication and learning in and around the project. This blog post will provide a quick overview of three of the tools that we’ve been using in this KM project.
BDSKM blog - click to enlarge

3 simple principles for technology selection 

But before we go into technology, here are some of the principles that guided our selection of possible digital tools:

  1. Know your audience. We engaged with grantees in the early stage of the project, to understand their current behaviours in terms of information, knowledge sharing and communication. 
  2. Tools follow functions. In one early meeting in the process, grantees defined specific KM activities they were interested in. From this, we mapped out a series of possible tools to be used, selecting the most appropriate and accessible. 
  3. Private and public spaces. While we tend to favour the creation of ‘open’, public online spaces there was a specific need in this project for two kinds of spaces. The first is a more protected space, to enable people to share tentative or critical ideas that they would not like necessarily to share in a more open space. At the same time we wanted other spaces that are more public, to be able to interact and engage with a larger online audience. 

Tech overview

To support and enable communication and learning, we opted for a simple, straightforward digital system using 3 tools:

  • A Wordpress blog - Publicly available at, this simple blog is the digital home for the project. It offers different online spaces, such as the Curated Updates, which are openly accessible for anyone on the Internet. Other pages, such as the KM Talks and its subpages, are private, only accessible to the core project participants. In these private pages, participants share their reflections about learning from the project, and learning about the way they learn
  • A Dgroup community - With membership by invitation only, it includes again just the closer circle of participants directly involved with the project and the KM support team. The Dgroup is key in supporting different types of communications in the project: from informal information sharing between group members, to facilitated and focused e-discussion on specific questions, to reflections and learning stories emerging from other activities in the project. 
  • A Mailchimp newsletter - The newsletter is sent on a monthly basis, presenting the content that is published in the Curated Updates section of the blog. Initially sent to the core group of project participants, its membership has grown beyond this reduced number of recipient to reach about 160 WASH professionals, a good indicator of the relevance and value of this service, as reported in a previous blog post. 
Around this core, simple toolkit, we also made use of other supporting technology such as Adobe Connect for online webinars, Google Drive, Dropbox and OneDrive to collaborate on documents and share files and folders, Skype and Google Hangout for live meetings.

In the next post, we’ll take a closer look at the Wordpress blog, why we opted for an installed version of the software instead of using its free option and the core plugin we’re using to expand the functionality and features of the blog.

Friday, June 19, 2015

How to encourage engagement in virtual meetings?

Virtual meetings are here to stay. Increasingly, organizations in our sectors are promoting the use of online web conferencing and web gathering tools to organize learning events, team and project meetings, information sharing sessions, etc. Budget cuts, the increasing availability of technology solution, and the way we are more and more working in decentralized, virtual teams, all ask for online meetings that are well designed, facilitated, and engaging.
webinar by Jules on Flickr

So how to make this happen? What are the options and techniques to make a virtual meeting more productive, participatory and engaging?

To explore this questions, yesterday I joined a webinar organized by CORE Group and the Knowledge Management Task Force of the TOPS FSN Network. Even if it was late at night for me, I was very happy I joined the event. Both the conversations that emerged, and the way the event was designed, were a great learning experience.

Virtual meetings are… 

Even if I joined the meeting few minutes after it started, I immediately knew I was in the right place. A slide in the middle of the screen was asking me “When you think about virtual meetings, what’s the one word and feeling that comes to your mid?”. And the answers I was hearing from the other 20 plus KM and communication professionals that were in the room, they all resonated well with me.

Virtual meetings can be unpredictable. For as much as we may like virtual meetings, there’s always the possibility of a technical failure. Your keynote and presenter may be late or not show up, or you may have a lower attendance that you had expected. Users may not be familiar with the conferencing platform, making it more difficult for them to engage with the technology and the other participants in the event.

Virtual meetings can also be very demanding, with a lot that goes into preparing and delivering, in terms of time and manpower. You need at least one producer, a chat host, a note taker and an MC. Sometimes these roles can overlap, but it works better if the various tasks are split between different people.

On the other hand, virtual meetings are a necessary, and they’ll be even more in the future. And they allow a great deal of experimentation in the way you bring people together to interact online. 

Engaging participants to speak up 

We were brought into separate breakout rooms according to the answers we had provided to a pre-event survey. While one group discussed how to create engaging content for webinars and online meetings, in the room I was assigned to, we looked at options to stimulate participants using their microphones. Different techniques and approaches can be used to make this happen:

  • Users’ need to know how to open their microphone, so sending some pre-webinar information on how this work may bring you a long way when they have to start interacting. 
  • There’s a clear and understandable sense of ‘fear’ when talking to a group of strangers online that you don’t know and can’t see. So creating trust amongst participants and a safe environment for everyone to feel comfortable with is very important. 
  • The use of breakout rooms is an excellent way to create safer and more intimate spaces for conversation, where participants may be less afraid to contribute their opinions. 
  • Also a progression through different means of communication can help in building trust. You start with introductions via chat, then move into breakout rooms, and then in plenary. 
  • If you want participants to contribute, have clear, open ended questions they can relate to and engage with. 
  • Most important, don’t be afraid of silence. There’s often a few seconds where nobody wants to speak, that awkward, short but long moment of silence. If you’re the facilitator, let it be. Eventually someone will take the floor. 

Preparation, design and facilitation are the key to success 

The webinar was very practical and participatory from the very beginning. The organizers had gathered our inputs before the meetings, and this info was used in defining the questions we addressed in plenary and in the the breakout rooms.They also made great use of the conferencing technology (Adobe Connect - the platform we use ourselves for online and blended meetings), using polls, chats, different meeting layouts and progressing swiftly through various techniques and tools in facilitating the session. Moreover, they made attendees take responsibilities for facilitating parts of the session and reporting back to the whole group.

It’s true that the participants make the webinar, and a webinar is good only as the participants engage with it. But what yesterday's webinar demonstrated to me once more is that investment in preparation, event design and good facilitation techniques are the things that will make or break your next virtual meeting.

I’d love to hear what are your obstacles in producing and facilitating virtual meetings, and what you’ve learned from your own experience. Have something to share? Please drop a line in the comments below here!

Monday, June 01, 2015

Agknowledge Share Fair - Recordings of virtual and blended sessions

As I wrote in my last post, we recently supported 4 sessions from the Agknowledge Share Fair in Addis with options for remote participation.

If you hadn't have the chance to attend the event in Addis or online, here's where you can watch the recordings of the sessions we supported.

Note, the videos are mostly unedited so use the navigation on the left end side of the Adobe Connect recording playback to skip through the different parts of the video.

As you'll see, it's not an easy job to combine onsite and online facilitation and ensure participation and engagement. But with practice, experience and the desire to experiment, a lot can be achieved to create participatory, blended meetings. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Blending online and offline meetings - 5 short lessons from Addis Share Fair

Earlier this week, we supported 4 sessions from the Agknowledge Share Fair in Addis with options for remote participation. As well as giving people that could not travel to Addis the opportunity to participate in part of the event, for us this was also an occasion to experiment more with Adobe Connect and how to use it to support online and offline events - and blend them together.

In designing the remote participation, we had decided to try with different formats and modalities of e/participation.
  • A webcast of a session from Addis via Adobe Connect, with online interaction carried out via chat and breakout rooms
  • Two sessions where the conveners joined in remotely, and online and offline participants interacted in various ways from group chats to bilateral chats to small groups in breakout rooms
  • A blended session with activities in parallel on site and with a fully blended group, with two people from Addis joining three online participants into Adobe.

We’ll be having a debrief with the rest of the team that supported this experimenting. And we’re collecting feedback from participants, to understand how they have experienced these sessions, and how they can be improved. But to get the conversation started, here are 5 quick takeaways from this recent experiments:
  1. Online and offline have different pace and dynamics
    We probably all knew this before but experimenting to bring remote participation into a face to face meeting confirmed how interactions and exchanges have a very different pace, online and offline. In the former, the feedback loops are much slower.
  2. Split the processes - and bridge in debrief
    Because interactions work differently online and offline, running the two in parallel is easier to manage. You can have the same activities F2F and online, but these may have to be facilitated in different ways. For example, you may go through a set of 1 to 1 chats between physical participants, while having a group chat with all virtual participants. The exchange and cross over between online and offline can be done in the debriefing sessions.
  3. Blended ain’t easy
    It’s very different is when you try to have physical participants interacting in small groups with online participants. This requires a lot of preparation, and an optimum use of the technology, not only to avoid sound issues but also to make sure participants can interact using text, video and voice.
  4. You need a team
Depending on the type of e-participation that you want to enable from a face to face meeting, you may need different people being part of your facilitation team: two facilitators (one onsite and one online), one technical host and, if the onsite facilitator isn’t experienced with blended meetings, one ‘blender’ who connects online and offline from the physical meeting room.
  1. Always have (some) Plan B(s)
    Always be prepared for what can go wrong. For example, in one occasion we lost the video and audio feed from the room - it’s important to have ways to notify participants immediately, and be ready to fill in this gap with other activities.

We’ll keep on reflecting on this experience and experimenting with tools, approaches and facilitation techniques, and we’ll make sure we share our findings here. Let us know what your experience is with blended online offline meetings and what we can learn from other experiences.

Pier Andrea Pirani

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Learn with us online at the ‘AgKnowledge Innovation' Process Share Fair

On 25 and 26 May, we'll be joining the ILRI communications and KM group in Addis Ababa and several partners in the AgKnowledge Innovation' Process Share Fair.

The focus of the event is on the "design and delivery of truly effective ‘process’ improvements that lead to applied innovation, social learning and value for money (in agriculture)."

While Pete will be onsite in Addis, I'll be connecting online; together we'll facilitate and host one session on social reporting. We'll also provide technical support and participate in the other 3 sessions that are open for online participants.

To help us organise we’ve set up Eventbrite pages for the four sessions currently open, so please register here (all times East Africa Addis Ababa/Nairobi):

We’re experimenting with different types of online engagement, from a simple webcast of a Liberating Structures workshop session to more interactive formats, with presenters both online and in the room, and participants able to interact equally with those physically and remotely in the room.

If you're interested in learning and experimenting with us, please do register for the sessions and join us online next week!

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Role of technology in knowledge sharing: the case of DECCMA

A couple of months back I blogged about the project we had last year with IDRC, to set up a collaborative KM platform based in the Google Apps for Work for their CARIAA research programme - and the subsequent work to create an M&E dashboard using the same technology. 

So I was very happy when I got notified by Blane Harvey of a recent piece that has appeared on the newsletter of E-QUAL, a European Union funded International Collaborative Project.

Starting from page 12 of the newsletter, a clearly writtent article provides a view into the use of the platform by DECCMA, one of the consortium that forms CARIAA. Better yet, it provides a story from a user perspective, on how technology helps and enables knowledge sharing in a decentralized, multi disciplinary project.

I recommend reading the (short) article to see what solutions technology has offered to the DECCMA team, and the CARIAA project at large. Here some quotes from that I find particularly interesting:

"Spread across 3 continents and 4 time zones, running a research project like this would have been difficult had it not been for the boon named internet! Emails, Skype calls, Google Hangouts, feeding in monthly progress via Google forms, responding to Doodle Polls and answering questionnaires keep us on our toes day in and day out. Monthly catch ups with Soton, work package (WP) meetings with the WP leads, DECCMA Management Committee (DMC) meetings are held every month over Skype or Hangout."

"For any multi-country research project, knowledge management plays a pivotal role. As a part of the CARIAA Program, DECCMA has the advantage of using the Knowledge Management Platform. The Google Apps for Business edition on the domain are available to Consortia members of the four projects and IDRC to better facilitate CARIAA Consortia’s communication and coordination processes within and between each other. KM is about how the CARIAA Consortia will communicate and coordinate within and between each other, and with the CARIAA Project Team as program activities are implemented, research evidence is generated, and lessons are learned."

"Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) is an important part of any project and this task has been streamlined with the use of this KM Platform. [...] Users can view the running data and review the existing log files to avoid duplication during entering data. Finally, all these data are collated and archived quarterly. With a user-friendly approach enabled by the bliss of technology and dedicated people to upload these data , writing reports based on M&E outputs is no longer an uphill task."

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Measuring the quality and reach of a curated news highlights service

In my previous blog post, I introduced the process and tools we’re using to publish a monthly curated news update about about water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) as part of the work we are doing to support KM in the Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) programme.

With 9 monthly issues published so far, how do we measure if this activity is working well, and grantees are using the curated news put together by their peers?

As we’re using several tools to run our Curated Updates, we also make use of several metrics and indicators that form our basic M&E system. But before we dive into this - and what we’ve learned from our own monitoring and evaluation - I think it’s important to mention that this activity is intended for a rather small audience, with an initial list of around 50 recipients and website that is purposely not indexed in search engines.

Nevertheless, some useful lessons can be identified also from a small project like this one, and maybe scaled up to larger initiatives.

How useful is the service? 

From what we can see, users make use of this curated news update. They do open the newsletter that hit their mailboxes regularly during the first week of each month. Out of the many different things you can monitor in MailChimp, we decided to focus primarily on open rate and click rate. As you can see from the image below, MailChimp provides you also with benchmarks and average for your industry, and we’ve been pretty happy to have an email open rate which has constantly been above what MailChimp consider the industry average.

Besides the generally positive informal and anecdotal feedback that we receive from users, we can also see that the they appreciate the service: the list of subscribers keeps growing, in spite of the fact that we don’t do any active promotion of this service. So the list growth is all driven by peer recommendations and suggestions, with subscribers encouraging their peers to register for the service as they find useful to receive a monthly newsletter with a few, key resources that are already filtered and digested by experts, and whose judgement they can trust.

Are users clicking on the suggested links? 

In general, resources shared through the newsletter are opened and users go and read the original document. MailChimp provides automatic tracking of the links included in any newsletter. However, for some technical reason, this didn’t work at first with the RSS driven campaign, and we failed to properly track clicks on links in the first few issues of this Curated Updates service. So while figuring out the issue (which we did eventually, thanks to the great MailChimp support team) we started using Bitly to shorten the links for each curated update resource included in the newsletter.

This gives a better idea of what resources resonate with our audience, where the click happens (if on the newsletter, on the website or elsewhere) and where the audience is located. Through Bitly, we can also see if the link is re-shared on other social media channels, allowing us to have better link tracking and potential insights into where our audience interact online.

How valuable are the resources? 

The RatingWidget Wordpress plugin allows us to get a better feeling of the usefulness and relevance of each single curated news item for the users, and to understand the appetite they have for different types of contents. As we’re using the pro-version of this plugin, the ratings are nicely collected and displayed in the RatingWidget dashboard, as illustrated in the image below.

As you can see, the number of votes remains low and we find it challenging to encourage users to make more use of this feature. However, we believe it remains a valuable addition to our M&E for this activity. Ideally, the perfect scenario would be to include the rating widget directly into the newsletter campaign, but this doesn’t seem possible from a technical point of view - or at least, we haven’t yet figured out how to do it!

Publish, review, adapt, publish...

This activity has been planned around a “publish, review, adapt, publish” cycle for 12 months, and indeed for each of the issues we’ve been publishing so far we’ve been tweaking and adapting the newsletter, the way we present the content in it and online, as well as some of the tools we adopt to track users’ behaviours and preferences. Each time, we try to learn something and put it into use in the next issue - the curators from a content point of view, looking for resources that resonates more with the audience; and us from a technical point of view.

We’re running the service for a year, which comes to an end in July 2015. As we review how it worked we’ll share what we learn and update our findings on this blog..