Raising the Bar on Online Event Practices

Alan Levine wrote a deliciously provocative post on last month that I’ve been meaning to comment upon, Five Ways to Run a Deadly Online Seminar . When I read it, my head was bobbing in agreement and recommendations.

Alan shares 5 deadly things. I’d like to re-frame and talk about the skills we should be cultivating and the technology we MUST demand. It has been a while since I wrote about synchronous online facilitation is a focused way.  Plus, I guess this is a natural follow on to this week’s rants on Skills for Learning Professionals and Knowledge Workers (Part 1, part 2, part 3).

First a brief recap of Alan’s 5 “no-no’s.”

  • Make it hard to even get inside. (inside the online meeting room)
  • Don’t let your participants know who else is there. (mask or don’t show attendee list)
  • Make it hard or impossible for the audience to communicate with each other. (no shared chat room)
  • Don’t greet the audience or make them feel welcome.
  • Ignore your audience, make ‘em wait til you fill the hour with your voice, do not involve them at all.

Alan also mentioned Jonathan Finkelstein’s Learning in Real Time (book and web site) and Jon’s mad skills .  Spot on, CogDog!

First of all, let us NOT take our bad meeting and event habits from offline and simply dump them online.  If we start by making better meetings and events, our online events will benefit. By better I mean more participatory, with attention to both the purpose of the gathering and the process.

Before I get into some suggestions, let me offer a tip when you raise the issue of improving meetings and someone says “our meetings are great!” Is this the person who always talks? Who dominates conversations? Who controls the agenda? If so, ask the  people who have to experience this person’s meetings. Often decision makers think everything is just fine because the meeting meets THEIR needs. Look beyond!

Now, suggestions.

  • Focus attention: Synchronous events can provide a heartbeat for an ongoing community, group or network. We put them on our agenda instead of saying “I’ll do that later” and they focus our attention.
  • Design appropriate process: Think about your process design options. World Cafe’s online? Breakouts so more than one or two people can speak. Back channel chat to engage more than audio channels. Turn taking. Breaking presentations down into 7-10 minute segments alternated with interactive periods to maintain engagement. If you have a task to do, consider what steps are needed and design them into the process. Lots of items? Have an agenda.
  • Interact: Content can be compelling, but if you have people’s attention, why not focus on interaction and conversation and save the pushing of content for asynchronous. The exception is when the content is so compellingly delivered that it becomes entertainment. (And I don’t mean that in a trivial way. I mean it in the sense that the presenter so engages us, we are truly listening and captivated.)
  • Facilitate!: Don’t let passive disasters happen. If no one else is stepping up to make your meetings better, take the lead.
    • Heike Phipps doesn’t sit back and let the five bad things happen. She is an active online event designer, facilitator and technology steward.  For a Learntec Event this spring, she decided to experiment with a F2F presentation technique called Pecha Kucha, but ONLINE. She asked for volunteers. I didn’t have any slide decks to run with, so I said, you give me your slides and I’ll invent the narrative. Heike didn’t blink and said yes. On the fly, we created something fun, engaging and on-topic for the learning at hand.
    • Jennifer and her team at WebJunction are great role models. They hosted me last month and wow, what a great job they did. They had a technical host (Libraryguy), an overall host and someone to do live closed captioning to enable those with no access to audio or with hearing impairments to participate in the webinar. Pretty cool!
    • Webheads in Action Online Unconference also showed some creative and very participative chops when they hosted me in June as well. They didn’t wait to be asked to join in the chat – they were chatting, peppering me with questions and generally haveing a good time. Frankly, I think they would have been fine without speakers, they had such a good set of practices to engage with each other!
    • Welcome people as they arrive – simple! Thank them at the end, not just the “presenters.” Simple!
    • Encourage people to welcome each other and move away from a hub/spoke form of interaction. Chat rooms are great for this. Encourage facilitative practices from everyone, not just the facilitator.
    • See more synchronous facilitation examples here.
  • Technologically prepared: Tools can make ya or break ya.
    • The fabulous team at BGSU, hosting the BIG CHANGE Webinar Series, have been trying to find an affordable tool for their events. For the one we did in April, we experienced the snags of a platform with limited interactivity.  This made us work twice as hard.
    • If you must use a less than useful platform, practice a lot and keep your design simple. For more in depth use of  tools, build the group’s capacity to do this over a series of meetings.
    • Design simple, topic related activities that help people learn the tools rather than “telling them” how to use them. We don’t usually remember what we were told at the top of the meeting until we USE the tools in question.
  • Practice, practice practice: Regular meetings build both organizer, presenter and participant skills for making the most out of online events.
    • Last year George Siemens and Stephen Downe’s CCK08 “uncourse” included weekly webinars. I was a guest one week and I was impressed at the engagement practices of the PARTICIPANTS. Lisa Lane reflected on some of the live meeting practices in her overall review of the experience.
    • Leigh Blackall also provided the participants in his online facilitation workshop a chance to design and practice their online event chops with a series of synchronous and asynchronous events.
  • Go visual! Engage the visual senses with shared white boards, pictures instead of miles of bullet pointed slides, video segments and visits to compelling websites using application sharing tools.
  • Blend: Tony Karrer and friends have been offering a range of synchronous events from hour long to multiple day blended synch/asynch events and are building a set of practices.
  • Build on established practices: Telephone skills are a great base for webinar skills. Who are the phone conference call pros in your organization? What are their tips?

What would you add?

Deeper Skills for Learning Professionals…Part 4

It is fascinating to see what strikes a cord. This series on Skills for Learning Professionals and Knowledge Workers (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) have spiked the old hit-meeter and shown up on Tweets all week. There have been many thoughtful and insightful comments and the other blog posts responding to Tony K’s Big Question have been fabulous. (I keep adding the links at the bottom of Part 1).

Michele MartinToday Michele Martin posted an important amplification to  the “Four Meta Skills” from Part 1. Michele offered the caution around online  homophily. She said I didn’t go far enough with the four and she is very right. She deepened them.

Michele, your observations are so good, I’m pulling in a rather lengthy quote, but I urge everyone to go read Michele’s full post, especially the science references at the start. (Emphasis mine.)

In it she says that scanning, filtering, connecting and sense-making are critical skills.  I agree with this, but think that maybe Nancy didn’t go far enough in thinking about how we develop these skills. She offered a series of excellent questions to ask ourselves in terms of our ability to do things like scan and filter, but they don’t take into account the habits of mind and psychological behaviors we bring to the table in developing these skills.  In light of our tendencies toward homophily and pre-conceived ideas, it would seem there are deeper issues at work that we need to consider:

  • When we are scanning, how do we combat our natural tendency to only “see” information that fits with our preconceived notions of the world? The skill of scanning isn’t just about how well we are able to manage a stream of information. It’s also about our ability to actually SEE information in its raw form.
  • In developing our filtering skills, how do we ensure that we are not filtering out information that doesn’t fit wth our existing concepts and frames? I suspect that many, if not most of us, are likely to apply our filters in a way that shields us from data we may not want to consider. But this is not effective filtering behavior, particularly if we end up filtering out key data that would change our decisions or ideas about how things work.
  • Creating a knowledge network is important, but if we are creatures of homophily, seeking out like-minded connections, then are we really using this skill to its full advantage? How do we make our networks diverse? As I’ve pointed out before, social technology tends to collude in this process of connecting us to like-minded people, for example suggesting friends who share our interests. But how do I ensure that I’m connecting to people who think differently than I do?
  • How do we become capable of objective sense-making based on the actual data that is coming into us, rather than our IDEAS of what the data means? I think that the tendency to interpret information as its coming into our brains is so ingrained we don’t even realize it’s happening. That’s why “beginner’s mind” is an aspiration, rather than something most of us are able to do on a regular basis.

Again, these are not just skills for learning professionals or knowledge workers. They are literacies that most of us need in the “modern” world. Online and offline.

Thanks, Michele! Your other post, Are Knowledge Workers the New Blue Collar Workers, was also terrific. I deeply appreciated that you asked why these skills aren’t getting traction and if some of them will be subsumed by computers.

Skills for Learning Professionals…Part 2

Update: Part 3 is here.

It is hard to let some Tony Karrer disappointment persist. After posting my 4 Meta Skills for Learning Professionals in response to Tony’s July “Big Question,” he commented:

Nancy – I was super excited when I saw that you had posted on the topic. But you surprised me because I expected something quite different. I like your meta skills, but …

I was hoping that you would provide insight into the core skills and knowledge around communities and networks that learning professionals should have?

As you know, I strongly believe that in the future all knowledge workers will need the ability to effectively participate in communities and navigate networks in order to perform their work. And, this is one of the bigger skill gaps that exists.

What’s the 5 minute and 60 minute learning piece that all knowledge workers should have to go through so they will be better at this?

Then, going to learning professionals, I think there’s an additional level that is community / network facilitation. As learning increasingly happens through communities and networks, learning professionals need to be able to facilitate this.

Again, what’s the 5 minute and 60 minute learning piece that all learning professionals should have to go through on this?

Tony, I’m glad you were super excited. And I’m sorry I disappointed you! So I’ll bite. But I’m worried about the 5 minute thing.  I don’t think community skills reduce to 5 minutes. We can certainly talk about them in 60. But learn them? Uh uh. That may be blasphemy in a 140 character world. Fast is not always the best or only way. So maybe what you are looking for Tony is the 5 and 60 minute rationale pitch! 😉 Instead, I’ll offer some 5 minute conversation starter questions for each element. This might be interview questions if I were hiring… 😉

A bit more on why I don’t think this can always be  fast? Maybe it is because at their root, community skills are very related to the four “meta” skills and are acquired not just through explanation, but through practice. Like most valuable skills, knowing they exist is just the door opener.

Learning Community/Network Skills for Knowledge Workers and Learning Professionals

First, some context. I deeply appreciate that Tony distinguished between community and network learning skills. While there is overlap, my experience is that there are some fundamental differences. (See this post for more on me, we and the network).

Additionally, I pondered a bit the distinction between “knowledge workers” and “learning professionals” and in my heart of hearts, I have a bias that knowledge workers are learning professionals, but perhaps not always responsible for the learning of others.  But I do think facilitation is a key knowledge workers skill in the network era, so for the sake of this post, I’ll treat the two the same but recognize that is oversimplification. And in Part 3 I’ll look at some of the differences when it comes to facilitation…

Ok, here we go!


In a world of information abundance, knowledge workers and learning professionals need to be able to scan, both through the discerning use of aggregating technologies and their own ability to quickly read, and estimate the quality and value of the information passing by them in this “river.” An adjunct and related to the next two skills is the ability to generally bookmark or capture material relevant to their immediate needs and work. (One simply can’t do this for everything, thus the caveat.) The five minute questions would be to ask 1) What are your daily information scanning practices? 2) How do you maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of that time but still hold enough space for the unexpected and different, that stretches your learning beyond what you think you need to know? (In other words, how do you keep from getting stuck in a particular information rut?)


Filtering is picking and choosing from what you scan to apply it or share it with others. This is an added layer of discernment over scanning and a more systematic practice of tagging and saving, and a connecting of information to work and other people. This is also tied to the next skill of connecting. The 5 minute questions would be 1) how do you pick from the material scanned to go to the next step of using or acting on that information? 2) How do you amplify the value of your scanning and filtering so it has applied value to you and to others both directly in your communities, more peripherally in your networks? (I.e. do you annotate your bookmarks? How? Why?)


As Juri Engstrom has noted, successful  social networks are not just about people connecting, but people connecting around content or information objects that matter to them. Today’s knowledge worker connects to people with whom she has direct relationships with and interacts with on a personal level, and with people she connects with around information or objects, where the relationship is about the content, not (at least initially) the people. It is object-centric relationship. The skills knowledge workers need is to be able to find and form connections, keep track of them, and have ways to activate them. The latter is related to community leadership and network weaving. But at this skill level, I’m talking about connecting people and information.

Note: writing and verbal communication are key skills underneath connecting. If I were to be hiring someone today, I’d want to see them read and write under pressure. 😉

Again, this is a combination of savvy use of technology, the combined application of scanning and filtering joined with the connective tissue of relationships and networks. 5 minute questions? 1) What are your key learning communities and networks and how did/do you find them? 2) What practices do you use to activate your communities and networks to achieve particular goals? 3) What do you do to give back and nurture your communities and networks?

Synthesizing & Sense Making

A river of information is only the raw material for knowledge work or learning. It is in the synthesis and sense making that it becomes useful to individuals, communities and networks. Sense making is part education, part experience and practice, and part natural talent. Some people work towards sense making in a linear, step by step fashion. Others are more global thinkers, hopping around the information seeking patterns. In our world, the global thinkers tend to be activating communities and networks  and the linear thinkers help dig deeper. We need the full range.  So if you are a learning professional who is a linear sense maker, partner with a global thinker and you then have more of the network and the thinking at your fingertips.  5 minute questions might include: 1) What are your practices and how much time do you allocate for synthesizing and making sense of the information that flows by you? 2) How do you leverage your communities and networks to help you make sense?

Asking Good Questions

This probably should have been one of the meta skills because it goes to scanning (what am I looking for), filtering (what has value), synthesizing (what does this mean), connecting (who might use this?) , reflecting (did this work?) etc. But when I talk about asking good questions, it is beyond simply remembering to ASK in the first place, but when asking others, to ask questions that deepen knowledge and learning. Questions open up possibilities both for the individuals involved, and for their wider communities and networks. They are key to innovation and ownership of learning.  Peter Block is a master at asking questions about community and commitment to one’s community. The folks at Strachan Tomlinson send out a weekly email newsletter with incredible, thought provoking questions.  Check out Dorothy Strachan’s book, Making Questions Work.

A graphic recording from NancyTechnology Stewardship
Like it or not, technology is a reality of our lives as knowledge workers and learning professionals, so we had better have basic, functioning skills that allow us to find, evaluate and use technologies relevant to our work. If we are stewarding for our communities and networks, we have to add the elements of helping others develop their technology practices, scan for and learn from the practices of other individuals and help fold that into the community and/or network practices. This means not being dogmatic about tools because “they work for me” recognizing that technology is designed for groups, but experienced – and experienced quite differently – by individuals. The 5 minute questions? 1) How do you learn about and learn to use new technologies? 2) How do you introduce and coach others to use technologies? 3) How do you integrate practices across 2 or more technologies?(integration)

Dang, this is getting long. I think I’ll continue in a part 3 tomorrow to include Community Leadership, Network Weaving and Reflective Practice. Phew! But, of course, don’t forget the Four Meta Skills.

Tony, is this more of what you were hoping to see?