Synergy or Oxymoron? Reflections on Asynchronous Facilitation
By Gurpreet Gil

Posted November 15, 2009

In this research brief I will share some of the experience of Synergy,a project exploring the use of collaborative meeting software to facilitate asynchronous group activities. This research was funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education in the UK and led by the University of East Anglia in partnership with the University of Hertfordshire. Read the full report on this study.

As a staff development officer working in Higher Education, a key aspect of my role is to support staff in their efforts to make improvements in working practices. This aspect of organizational development is best achieved by creating opportunities for shared learning and reflection. Here at the University of East Anglia, we have used collaborative meeting software for a number of years to support the facilitation of face to face group development activities.

Most staff developers see themselves as facilitators of the learning process – knowledge is distributed throughout the organisation and the learning process happens when people successfully collaborate with others. The role of the facilitator is to encourage this process by providing a clear framework for discussion, creating opportunities for dialogue to occur across different groups and communities of practice. Sounds great doesn’t it? If only it were that easy!

In reality, availability of the right people at the right time is often a major issue and what appears to be a successful outcome for the group who attended can subsequently be undermined by the absence of key individuals. This is where collaborative meeting software comes in, by offering a solution that enables people to be involved in a facilitated meeting, irrespective of their geographical location and existing diary commitments.

Blending the best of both worlds
So what did the Synergy project learn about asynchronous group facilitation? Drawing on our case study work, we found that a blend of face to face and asynchronous working caters for different ways of thinking and communicating. Although in most instances people do like the immediate social interaction of face to face environments, we were surprised to find that many actually preferred the asynchronous way of working and felt it was a valuable additional technique, which enhanced face to face group working. The main reasons cited for this were the convenience and ease of use; the extended time frame which allowed for reflection; and total anonymity, which provided a greater degree of freedom.

Why are these factors so important? Because they promote participation which in turn promotes learning. Our case study work demonstrated how asynchronous working, using the collaborative meeting software product FacilitatePro, assisted organisational learning by:

  • Consulting a broad range of people with different viewpoints
  • Informing decisions by allowing multiple voices to be heard
  • Capturing distributed knowledge and promoting ‘joined up thinking’

We found that the blended approach to facilitation supports these practices by maximising the time, space and resources for individuals with different perspectives and different ways of thinking and working to engage in dialogue with each other. Hierarchies and power relations were reduced through complete anonymity, encouraging the participation of all. The content generated provided a basis for the creation of new knowledge in the form of products such as strategic and project plans, glossaries of information, and teaching and learning processes. These are essentially products of organisational knowledge and are representations of new working practices.

A changing role for the facilitator
The final point I want to make is that working asynchronously with groups requires a change in the role of the facilitator, who becomes less ‘centre stage’ and more ‘behind the scenes’. In face to face sessions, the flow of social interactions is dynamic and the interplay between different members of the group is managed in real time. In contrast, the pace of asynchronous activity is much slower, with discussions developing over time. The facilitator will monitor activity and check that the group keeps on task. Questions and insights can be raised with the group – but interventions might not have the immediate impact in focussing attention and interest, as they would in a face to face setting. Nor is the facilitator able to ‘read’ the group, for example, by observing body language and how individuals interact and work together on certain tasks.

However, the approach does have some distinct advantages. Rather than having to ‘think on ones feet’ in situ, there is opportunity for reflection and consideration of the content generated, and time to think about what the next stage for the group might be. If followed up with a face to face session, the facilitator has ample time to prepare – and this preparation can be better informed. Often, facilitators are expected to cover a lot of content in a short space of time. Asynchronous approaches can relieve the pressure on time by starting discussions in advance. The facilitator has a clear sense of what people are thinking about and because participants are already focussed on the relevant issues, this can make the job of facilitating the group much more straightforward. Asynchronous working is a useful addition to the facilitators’ toolkit, particularly if blended with face to face facilitation.

Posted by Gurpreet Gil