Blended Facilitation: Have Your Cake (And Eat It Too)
By Danuta McCall

Posted February 11, 2013

Several blogs and news portals have picked up on a Forbes Insight Study conducted in June ‘09 that found 84% of the 760 business execs surveyed preferred face-to-face meetings over virtual contact, even though the economic downturn had obliged many of them to reduce travel and adopt technology solutions for virtual meetings. Executives identified the following benefits from face-to-face meetings: building stronger, more meaningful relationships (85%), the ability to “read” another person (77%), and greater social interaction (75%). 80% felt that face-to-face interaction with co-workers is necessary for effective teamwork and complex decision making.

As I read, I frequently felt like chiming in with “yes, AND….” (as a consultant, I rarely if ever say “yes, but…”). In my opinion, the paradigm of either/or – virtual or face to face – is a limiting context in which to evaluate business collaboration. Thanks to collaborative technology, it’s simply no longer an all or nothing proposition.

We at Facilitate.com are great proponents of “blended facilitation”. We believe that today’s meeting leaders have the opportunity to blend asynchronous, virtual and face to face activities to create a streamlined, cost-effective yet highly engaging experience. To do this successfully requires understanding which element of the group process benefits from which setting.

Let’s apply this to a problem solving meeting. Often the first question to ask is “What do we already know about the problem to be solved?” Here, we are pulling information from participants who have the experience and knowledge to help us frame the problem and set the stage for idea generation. This step lends itself beautifully to an asynchronous activity – an online discussion topic or wiki, or a survey if quantitative knowledge is to be gathered. Without being directly interactive, the group is nonetheless collaborating in building a shared context for future discussion.

The next step might be a virtual brainstorming session in which you ask participants to generate possible solutions, thinking outside the box. Web-based collaborative meeting software, wikis or mind mapping applications are tools that help a group to rapidly capture, organize and prioritize ideas. Balancing computer input with verbal discussions keeps everyone engaged and away from their email.

The final selection of solutions to pursue may involve a complex decision making process that combines equal parts hard criteria and gut instinct – best done face to face. But as a result of your asynchronous and virtual pre-work, the decision-makers (possibly a subset of the original group) are fully informed and ready to go. The process takes a fraction of the time it might have if it had been conducted entirely face to face.

Sometimes it makes sense to do the sequence in a different order. Let’s say your company is implementing a customer advisory board that will convene on a regular basis. Definitely bring your best clients together face to face for your first meeting to build the trust and rapport you need. Once the initial relationships have been established, offer the opportunity to convene virtually. Use collaborative meeting software to help prioritize issues and actions, then use asynchronous discussion topics or surveys to check in regularly for feedback on your initiatives. Your CAB will remain loyal and productive because they are fully engaged and their time is valued.

By blending the right elements of asynchronous, virtual and face to face interaction, managers can have their cake and eat it too – and in doing so, eliminate the expense of unnecessary meetings, improve the productivity of everyone involved and get the most impact out of face to face time.

To read the Forbes study, go here. http://www.forbes.com/forbesinsights/Business_Meetings_FaceToFace/index.html What do you think – are virtual meetings simply face-to-face wannabes?

Posted by Danuta McCall