« »
August 2, 2004 » 6:04 pm

Wikis And Face-To-Face Events

Face-to-face gatherings are very good at generating a large amount of enthusiasm and momentum. Unfortunately, that energy usually dissipates soon afterwards.    (204)

Here’s what generally happens: Folks leave the event exhilirated, but exhausted, and return only to discover a daunting pile of work. By the time they’ve made their pile manageable, the only artifact of their gathering is a lingering feeling of, “Oh yeah, that was fun.” The work that was done and the work that was to be done is mostly forgotten.    (205)

For the past two years, I’ve been designing a set of processes that use online tools to maintain and even increase that energy after an event. I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with bits and pieces of the methodology at the past two Planetwork conferences and the recent AdvocacyDev convergence to varying degrees of success. At the MGTaylor 7-Domains Workshop last month, I finally had a chance to test the methodology in its purest form, and I was extremely pleased with the results.    (206)

The Process    (207)

The process is based on two principles:    (208)

  • The event itself must result in a living Group Memory, not just an event memory.    (209)
  • Participants must be literate in the tools used to collaborate afterwards. Otherwise, the tools become an impediment.    (20A)

The process addresses both of these principles simultaneously by using the online tools for developing that Group Memory during the event itself. This gives people — especially non-techies — the opportunity to orient themselves around the tool in a comfortable environment. The better integrated the tool is into the event process, the more accelerated the learning.    (20B)

What makes a Group Memory alive?    (20C)

  • Group ownership. The problem with after-the-fact proceedings or journals is that participants aren’t necessarily invested in the results. Hence, they’re likely to ignore them. How many participants read event proceedings after the fact? One corrollary to this is that Group Memory does not have to be polished. A rough diagram developed by the group as it worked is more valuable than an edited summary of the event written by a third-party observer and published several days afterwards.    (20D)
  • Dynamic. You have to be able to add to a repository and refactor existing content.    (20E)

Tools    (20F)

Wikis are an outstanding tool for Group Memory. However, simply making the tool available during an event will not automatically result in Group Memory. The end product of Wikis at most conferences is not usually representative of the attendees at large. The main reason for this is that the percentage of participants who use them is usually fairly low.    (20G)

Wikis also tend to be underutilized because they are advertised as conference space and not community space. Organizers don’t expect them to be living spaces for continuous discussion and collaboration, and hence, they aren’t.    (20H)

(A quick aside on Mailing Lists and Group Memory. Contrary to what one might think, Mailing Lists can be very effective as a Group Memory. It’s possible to refactor existing discussions by posting summaries, a common practice in many effective online communities. However, Mailing Lists alone tend to be much more useful for participants as a Knowledge Repository than for outsiders. I think Mailing Lists are far more powerful as a complement to other tools, such as Wikis.)    (20I)

7-Domains Workshop    (20J)

I always felt that the best people with which to do this experiment were the good folks at MGTaylor, because their events:    (20K)

  • Are action-oriented and highly interactive.    (20L)
  • Consist of large, eclectic crowds, often technological newbies.    (20M)
  • Emphasize face-to-face, multimodal interaction. This presents interesting design challenges, because they usually discourage laptops at their events.    (20N)
  • Place great importance in documentation and assembling knowledge.    (20O)

How did this differ from some of the previous events Blue Oxen Associates has worked?    (20P)

  • There were many non-techies at Planetwork, and the Inter Active sessions took center stage. However, despite Jim Fournier and Elizabeth Thompson‘s best efforts, Planetwork was still a talking-heads conference (and a good one at that). Planetwork gets a special mention, though, because that’s where I first met and worked with Gail Taylor.    (20Q)
  • AdvocacyDev was highly interactive, it was fairly large (40 people), and the Wiki played a central role in the design. However, the group was already very familiar with Wikis, and those who weren’t were technical enough and motivated enough to figure them out quickly.    (20R)

The 7-Domains Workshop is a semiregular gathering of the folks in the MGTaylor network, practitioners of the process. There were about 60 participants representing a number of organizations, including Vanderbilt Center For Better Health (our host), Cap Gemini, and the VA. The purpose of the gathering was self-evaluation and collaboration on improving both individually and collectively.    (20S)

My primary role was to help integrate the Wiki into the design of the event and to support Wiki usage during the event. I also assisted in other Krew duties. In addition to being a somewhat ideal audience for my experiment, I had a few other advantages:    (20T)

  • By nature, the participants were interested in collaboration, experimentation, and learning.    (20U)
  • Most of the participants owned and brought (at the urging of the organizers) laptops. The center had wireless ethernet, ethernet jacks, and several kiosks for those who did not have computers.    (20V)
  • We had outstanding facilitators and a great Krew. These folks quickly oriented themselves to Wikis before the workshop and naturally assumed the roles of Wiki gardeners during.    (20W)

Workshop Design    (20X)

I played a very small role in the design of the event itself. Of the four facilitators — Matt Taylor, Gail Taylor, Rob Evans, and Bryan Coffman — Matt and Gail understood Wikis quite well. In fact, their conceptual understanding of Wikis was much more advanced than their proficiency with the tool, which I think is quite unusual and impressive. They had insights into the tool’s potential that many people who are quite skillful with the tool never see. Gail had also worked with me at both Planetwork conferences, so she had some experience with what did and did not work.    (20Y)

On Gail’s suggestion, the primary group exercise at the event was to write a book. The exact topic and format was not specified — that would evolve as the workshop unfolded. The only thing that was understood was that everybody would participate — participants, facilitators, and Krew.    (20Z)

The book exercise solved many problems. Like most MGTaylor events, it built knowledge assembly into the workshop process. More importantly, it made the participants responsible for that assembly, which kept them invested in the content. Traditionally, the Krew is responsible for documenting the event and assembling that knowledge afterwards into a journal. At this event, the participants documented the workshop themselves using the Wiki. This not only sliced two days off of the Krew‘s normal responsibilities, it also freed them up to take more of an assembler role, and it allowed both Krew and facilitators to contribute to the discussion in ways not previously possible.    (210)

There was no training. On the second day of the five day workshop, I spent about forty-five minutes talking to the entire group about the philosophical underpinnings of Wikis and about ten minutes demonstrating the Wiki itself. With other groups, I would have skipped the philosophical discussion entirely. Beyond that and a one-page Wiki formatting cheat-sheet, there was no training. I was on-hand to help, as were the Krew and facilitators, and participants were encouraged to help each other.    (211)

As an initial exercise, we precreated pages for every participant. We then asked people to add some information about themselves, then to go through the Wiki and comment on another page that interested them. Having people write in their own pages allowed us to avoid a massive edit conflict problem. It also gave people a fallback if they were unsure of where to add content, and it populated the Wiki with a lot of useful and interesting information. People are social animals. We like to read about other people.    (212)

The Results    (213)

As expected, a bunch of people were skeptical about the Wiki at first. By the end of the week, the Wiki had over 400 pages of rich and interesting content, and a month later, people are still using it. Several people gushed about the tool — Holly Meyers, one of the Krew, loved it so much, she wrote a manifesto entitled, “Wonderful Wiki.” Many asked me afterwards about setting up Wikis in their own organizations.    (214)

The “book” synthesized a lot of group knowledge, which not surprisingly centered mostly around the MGTaylor facilitation process. There were also several interesting thoughts and stories about collaboration in general. One group of participants chose to tell their story in murder mystery form, a surprisingly effective medium that ended up captivating quite a few people.    (215)

Throughout the week, Alicia Bramlett, another Krew member, evolved the Wiki site design, highlighting content we felt was important. (She also put together a very cool movie of the event, which we showed to the participants on the last day, and which appropriately received a standing ovation.) The other Krew members and the facilitators were actively engaged in contributing to and gardening the Wiki throughout the week. (It should be pretty obvious at this point what I thought about these folks — they were awesome.)    (216)

Watching people use the Wiki was a special treat for me. I learned tons about the tool’s usability, stuff I’ll report on eventually. Most people learned the tool quickly and easily. I had more trouble getting people connected to the wireless than getting people using the Wiki.    (217)

I ended up adding a new feature to PurpleWiki — visited pages — during the event. I realized that several people were having problems navigating the site after editing the pages, and I knew that having a list of recently visited pages would help resolve that. It was already on our list of things to do, and it was an easy feature to add, so I did it.    (218)

Shortly after the event, I was delighted to see a new function evolve from the Wiki. Because people were from all over the globe, one of the participants suggested that people post useful travel information on the Wiki, which several people did.    (219)

I’ll have more to say on all of this at some point, including a more formal report of the results.    (21A)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

« »

5 Responses to “Wikis And Face-To-Face Events”

  1. Is there a SharedGoal for post-meeting activities?

    Did the wiki become the actual content of the “book”, or was that a separate process?

  2. The Wiki became the actual content of the book. No finite SharedGoal emerged for the entire group, but several finite goals emerged for smaller subgroups.

  3. Our ability to use a wiki for our documentation process allowed us to make a quantum jump in our process. This was our first experience with the tool and we look forward to co-creating its utility over time.

Leave a Reply