Sunday, April 29, 2007

Updating my basic article on online facilitation

OK, what do you think should a) come out of this article, b) is missing and needs adding in, and c)needs to be better reframed for the current context. This article had its genesis in 1999 and has been updated about every two years. What do you think? Feedback GRATEFULLY accepted in the comments or email me. (Pardon the funky formatting. I'm short on time for HTML tweaking!)

Facilitating Online Interaction

Originally from: Last updated 4/07
  • From Webster's: Facilitation \Fa*cil`i*ta"tion\, n. The act of facilitating or making easy.

  • From Wordnet: facilitation n: act of assisting or making easier the progress or improvement of something

  • "to free from difficulties or obstacles"

  • "to make easy or easier"

Online Facilitation is the set of activities used to assist a group in achieving its desired activities together. This may be done by an individual or it may be the collective practices of a group to facilitate itself. The practice emerges from the classic skills of offline facilitation, but adds the elements of the technical practices using online interaction software, along with the complicating factors of distributed interaction where we cannot rely on accustomed offline communication elements of body language, tone and the affects of being in the same space at the same time.

In the early days of online interaction, facilitation most often was confined to asynchronous text based interactions, or synchronous chat. Today, the fast evolving range of tools has expanded the type of environments we can interact in, as well as expanded the social forms. No longer are we interacting in bounded or closed groups, but in open and always shifting networks. This challenges and expands what it might mean to "facilitate online."

This article is about the facilitation of bounded groups. However, this is now just one subsection of online facilitation. There really is a huge need for more knowledge about network faciltiation.

Why Facilitate Online?

Online group interactions do not always "happen" spontaneously. They require care and nurturing: facilitation. The core of facilitation is to serve the group and assist it in reaching its goals or purpose. Some describe this role as a gardener, a conductor, the distributed leadership of jazz improvisers, a teacher, or an innkeeper. It can be this and more.

Levitt, Popkin and Hatch, in their article "Building Online Communities for High Profile Internet Sites" wrote, "Communities are organic in nature and site owners can't make them successful or force them to grow. As site owner can only provide the fertile ground on which a community may grow, and then provide some gentle guidance to help the group thrive. Much of the challenge in fostering an online community is social, rather than technical."

Decades of practice have confirmed this. We can create starting conditions, which are crucial. We can role model and describe processes to assist groups. But rarely can we construct a path that is the singular source of a group's success.

Facilitation is a balance between functions that enhance the environment and content, create openness and opportunity, and functions that protect the members from harassment. It involves the sacred rituals around freedom of individual expression while preserving something of "the common good." It is juggling, tight-rope walking, often without a net. The distance to the hard cold ground varies with the community or group goals. The clearer the purpose, the easier it is to craft the facilitation approach. Purpose provides participants and facilitators expectations upon which they can base their actions. However, some groups thrive on diffuse purpose and with little facilitation, so take all the subsequent advice carefully. Context matters. There is no single way, path or method.

Facilitators foster member interaction, provide stimulating material for conversations, keep the space cleaned up and help hold the members accountable to the stated community guidelines, rules or norms. They pass on community history and rituals. They "hold the space" for the members. Perhaps more importantly, hosts often help community members do these things for themselves. Without someone taking on these responsibilities, it is easy for an online space to get sidetracked, disrupted or simply abandoned. For more specifics on online facilitation, see Some Considerations for Facilitating Online Interaction.

Who is the Facilitator?

There are two ways to answer this question: from the website perspective and from the group perspective. For organizations that create websites spaces for online groups, facilitation is often from the site ownership. The facilitation can be to attract and hold people on the site, to maintain a certain style of interaction and to maintain the site. The purpose is often driven by the site owner's goals. For groups with their own goals who choose to interact online the facilitator may be the convenor, team leader, outside facilitator, instructor/teacher, or simply an interested member. Their purpose is focused on the group's needs and goals.

The online facilitation role may evolve within a site or group. Small groups may have just one facilitator, while large online spaces with many subgroups and topics may use teams.

What Specifically do Online Facilitators Do?

Facilitators in offline situations have certain established roles providing leadership, focus, stimulation for group interaction, support, team building, refereeing, dealing with problems, timekeeping, responding to member feedback and group regulation. These may also be needed online, but there are also differences due to the technologically mediate nature of the environment. Communication has a few more challenges, there is always an element of technological skill, plus there are the advantages and disadvantages of electronic tools.

Facilitator approaches depend on the nature of the community or group. Some communities, such as conversational "salon type" communities, need a very low-key "host." Communities that focus on sharing expertise or providing support and assistance need very clear and rapid responses. Teams may benefit from distinct leadership qualities. Others need facilitators to help raise the overall skill level of the community to facilitate itself.

In general, there are four frameworks for online facilitation:
  1. Understanding of group facilitation as it occurs face to face and online. What is similar and what is different.
  2. Knowledgeable about design. Ideally, they are involved in the conceptualization, design and implementation of the online space to ensure that group member needs are accounted for. They participate in pre-assessment and planning.
  3. Grounded in the group's purpose with full understanding. They can convey it clearly to group members.
  4. Prepared with tools and processes. Online facilitators must have basic technological and process skills.

Facilitators use their group facilitation skills to enable the group to meet it's goals. How this is done varies with context. Generally, this involves a group of processes which include:

  1. Entry and engagement processes which help members become active participants
  2. Supporting sociability, relationship and trust building
  3. Constructing, adapting and modeling norms, agreements and accountability
  4. Support discussion and dialog (foster communication)
  5. Support divergent, convergent and task-oriented group processes (help get work done)
  6. Anticipate and work with conflict and abrasion to both allow emergence of new ideas and protect people from harassment
  7. Work with full understanding of diversity in learning style, culture and personal styles
  8. Understand and make visible group participation cycles and "rituals" in the online environment.
  9. Summarize, harvest, weave and support appropriate content and connections
  10. Provide basic help as needed with the tools
  11. Ensure the space is kept "tidy" and navigable.

Online facilitators' most important skills are as a skilled group facilitator and genuine, authentic communicator. In a text environment, that means people at ease reading and writing with care and clarity. In audio or video based communities this expands to verbal and physical skills we may have mastered offline. To get a sense of some of the variety of facilitator roles, you may wish to read first hand from Hosts on Hosting. As you consider your role compared to theirs, you will probably find that you are doing a combination job, utilizing skills from all areas. You will note that most of those examples come from early online communities. Many things have evolved and changes. With the lifecycle of a group, the role varies over time as a community matures and members start to take on various roles.

People have created many metaphors to describe the role of online facilitator that help us visualize the roles. Here are some examples along with links to resources:

The Social Host

The social host or "host as innkeeper" is the most well-known online facilitation model originating out of long time discussion communities like The Well, Electric Minds (note, this page seems to be rarely up anymore) and Salon Table Talk. This is the most familiar role, but is not the ONLY role. As a dinner host brings together the elements of a successful party, a social host helps create an environment where the members feel comfortable to participate. Part conversationalist, part counselor, part role model and sometimes even part bouncer. They are also usually part of the conversation.

Applications include:
  • social, conversational communities, socially-oriented social networks
  • helping entrants feel "at home" and acclimated in work groups and communities of practice
  • customer service

Key skills include:
  • greeter
  • social skills
  • conversation stimulator (content, style, process)
  • sometimes utilizes a persona or a "character"
  • conflict resolution (particularly in open, public online communities)

Links to articles on this style of hosting, as well as some hosts on hosting who play the role with panache.

The Team or Project Manager

In communities with a strong task, work orientation or subject focus, the team manager pays attention to adherence to focus, timelines, task lists, commitments and process. This can be a leadership and/or support role. This can be aided by the use of static web pages to organize information, the combined use of linear and threaded conferencing space, and the regular use of summaries and reviews. Skills include traditional project management and organizing.

Applications include:

  • Virtual work groups and teams
  • Online events (especially time-delimited)

Key skills include:

  • traditional project management skills
  • writing and summarization skills
  • technical skills such as HTML to create information and summaries with visual impact
  • ability to abstract information and process it for the group

Links to articles

The Community of Practice (CoP)Facilitator (or Coordinator)

CoPs share and build knowledge around a practice. Part of this process is being a group - having identity and reputation, being able to have agreements and some sense of accountability to the group. Facilitating CoPs online can focus on some of these "sociability" and relationship issues. It is about creating conditions, rather than enforcing process. This includes helping members get to know each other, articulating and making visible agreements, and watching/nurturing group dynamics. Skills include group facilitation and a working knowledge of CoPs.

Applications include:

  • Internal formal and informal CoPs
  • Cross organizational CoPs
  • Formal and informal learning communities
  • Communities of interest

Key skills include:

  • Group facilitation skills
  • Cybrarianship
  • Passion for community
  • Ability to facilitate facilitatative behaviors within the community

Links to articles

The Cybrarian

Cybrarians represent the gift of knowledge and information. They are "topical" experts. Cybrarians help members find information internally and externally of the community. They organize information and make it accessible. And they stimulate interaction with the introduction of or pointer to new and relevant information.

Applications include:
    Virtual workgroups and teams
  • Topic-oriented conversation communities
  • Help desks
  • Distance learning settings

Key skills include:

  • web-savvy research
  • strong organizational bent
  • love of learning and information

The Help Desk

In online interaction spaces where there is an ongoing influx of new members, there is often repeated need for simple help pointers on using the software or understanding the community purpose and guidelines.

Applications include:
    E-Commerce and service organizations
  • Larger communities where new folks need help with the software

Key skills include:
  • technical understanding
  • patience
  • clear communication skills

The Referee

Good cop or bad cop, this is the role of bringing attention to and/or enforcing community norms, rules and procedures. Referees help the community regulate, protect members and deal with problems. For example, if a community has a policy of no posting of advertising, the host has the job of deleting offending posts and asking the poster to refrain from posting ads. The clearer the rules, the easier the job. Likewise, where there are no clear rules, this job is often perceived as authoritarian and arbitrary. Referees are often not "regular members" who are "just part of the conversation," but a role apart. These tend to be employees of online community sites and have rather small facilitative impact on a group.

Applications include:

  • social, conversational communities
  • topic oriented discussion groups
  • customer service
  • workgroups
  • ecommerce sites

Key skills include:

  • thick skin and a slow fuse
  • Internet experience
  • familiarity with common nettiquette

Links to articles

The Janitor

It can get messy in cyberspace, as we leave our words in conferences and topics. The Janitor tidies up forgotten topics by freezing and archiving, redirects activity if it is in the wrong area, and generally tidies up.

Applications include:

  • any community with multiple spaces
  • high volume spaces

Key skills include:

  • familiarity with software
  • attention to detail


In some online interaction spaces there are co-facilitators. This can be very helpful in busy or large spaces where one person cannot cover all the territory. It allows the work to be spread out when volunteers are used. Co-facilitating can also provide training opportunities, pairing an experienced facilitator with a new facilitator.

Facilitators as Role Models

Facilitators are the most emulated members of a group -- no matter if they are modeling positive or negative behaviors. They are often the first members to be challenged. Integrity, patience, a good sense of humor and a love of other people will be valued in any host. And as virtual communitarian Howard Rheingold so aptly wrote, "One point of heart is worth ten points of intellect."

Sometimes the facilitator is also a "member" of the group. Keep in mind when playing multiple roles in a community that people may not know what role you are "playing" at any one time and react in ways you might not anticipate. Facilitators might see themselves as also "just members" of the community. Members may not. This distinction becomes critical when there is cause for intervention or problem solving. No longer will you be perceived as "just a member." And in some cases, you will never again be considered in that role. You are most often held to a higher standard.

Learning Online Hosting and Facilitation

Most people get their training "on the job." But you can do more to prepare. First, assess your facilitator qualities. Check out the list at
and consider your self awareness by checking out the article on Facilitator Self-Awareness at

There are web sites and courses to inspire and guide you. Check out Full Circle Associates Online Community Resources. Participate in an existing community and seek out experienced facilitators to observe. Many are generous with ideas and can be mentors. The Electric Minds community provides members a chance to co-host, to get support as hosts with a topic devoted to hosting, and has established a mentor system for new users to the system. This range of support allows the community to "grow their own" hosts and provide some backup for existing hosts. Non profits are often looking for help with their online communities. For more ideas, see "So You Want to Be an Online Facilitator" at http:/

You can also participate in forums and email groups like OnlineFacilitation created for online hosts and facilitators. Similar forums exist on other community building systems.

Links to Facilitation Resources

The Art of Hosting Good Conversations Online - Howard Rheingold - the quintessential guidance for conversations centered spaces

Gail William's Online Community Building Concepts - "almost proverbs"

The WELL Hosts' Manual

Forum One Guide to the Web-based Discussion Forum Sector - excellent site to explore who is doing what with online communities

The Moderator's HomePage A fine collection of links with an emphasis in online education.


Blogger Frances Bell said...

This is interesting and timely for us who are starting an online social network for women working in IT (we'll publicise the url when we are ready to welcome new members). I wonder if there are additional issues related to social netowkring from the individual point of view, e.g. constructing an online identity - professional or not. Also issues of public private are important - how can a facilitator help newcomers be aware of public private nature of spaces and , more important, behaviours.

1:15 AM  
Blogger Dissident said...


great article - very comprehensive and very relevant to me at the moment as I try to explain the concepts of on-line collaboration and facilitation to various Directors working across the government education sector. Have put more details about this in my blog (Dissident), but suffice to say, you've enabled me to produce the job spec I needed for my 'change coordinators (aka on-line facilitators). Many thanks.

3:57 AM  
Blogger Nancy White said...

Frances, good suggestions. I was reading a blog post today of D'Arcy Norman who was talking about the relationship of his blogging to his participation in social networks and things like twitter. This intersection between traditional online group spaces and these new tools and spaces has vastly increased what it means to live and thus facilitate online. I think there is a whole other article on that, on identity and on the shifting nature of public and private online. Lots of good stuff.

He Steven, I'm glad this was useful on your work. Now THAT is great pay off! YAY!

6:10 AM  

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