Don’t Start Out Of The Blue – Start Online

It isn’t really necessary to know people to start working with them online. Many of you probably have communications with people on Twitter or LinkedIn or Google+ that you have never even met – and probably never will meet. It’s not hard to exchange ideas and support each other if you share a common interest.

The same is true for people that form a group because they will all show up to your face-to-face training or event. They, too, have a common interest and even if you have never met them, you can start your work with them online before you will lay eyes on them.

In fact, starting online may even enhance the process your event or training is intended to support. You can use an online start to help your participants get to know each other and to find common ground. They can start brainstorming about certain issues, and exchange ideas and experiences. They can structure their ideas and come to conclusions. They can start reading up on materials you provide and already ask questions about these. You can even instruct them online with a screencast for instance. Or you can assess the level and areas of their knowledge via a survey.

There are many possibilities. Which aims and which tools suit your process best is a matter of careful selection and some experience. And, of course, as always: trial and error.

In the workshop Flashing Start, my colleague Gerdi Keeler and I introduced a small group of mainly trainers and educators  to some easy-to-use tools that can be useful in an online start. As our main aim was to show our participants how you can engage with your group before you actually meet them, our workshop started online. During a week participants received small online assignments, each with a different aim:

  • Getting to know each other;
  • Brainstorming;
  • Structuring ideas;
  • Providing instructions; and
  • Visualising information.
Online tools for training

Tools used

For each aim we offered a different tool, or in some cases a few alternative tools that participants could choose from.

In the face-to-face part of the workshop we discussed the different tools and their possible uses.


Some of the more interesting points raised include:

  • In a safe online environment you share more than you would have shared in a first introduction round in a face-to-face event;
  • Online exchanges changes the way you think about some things;
  • In a safe online environment you are together, and not alone. Even though you are all sitting behind your own devices, in your own office or home;
  • In a safe online environment things start happening – conversations arise about unexpected topics;
  • It is nice and fun to learn things online, to share your products and ideas and then get feedback and reactions;
  • If others are contributing online there is a bigger (peer) pressure to also share something yourself;
  • Positive feedback by the moderator or facilitator is extremely important.

The last point points to the biggest challenges related to online starting: the role of the facilitator.

If you plan to facilitate an online start – or any other online part in a blended curriculum or process for that matter – be prepared to invest loads of time and energy!

You will need to be available in the online environment, as well as via e-mail and phone, to deal with (technical) questions and you will need to be ‘there’ to support the process by means of positive and encouraging feedback, reflection questions, follow up assignments and questions, and so on. This is not something you can easily do on the side, at a reserved time slot. You simply need to be felt to be present all the time.

However, if you are prepared to invest the energy and time needed, you will be rewarded with great results. Your face-to-face event or training can be much more focused and to the point, and your participants are fully engaged from day zero!

If you are interested in learning more about using online tools to increase your effectiveness and to make your events and trainings more attractive and engaging, check out nul100 (in Dutch).

Flip Snack booklet about Flashing Start – part 1

Flip Snack booklet about Flashing Start – part 2


Online Polling

Whether you are working online or face-to-face with a group it is useful to know what is going on with the people in your group. Are they getting new insights? Are they satisfied? Are they still engaged?

If you are working face-to-face you can of course easily check by taking a look at the group. However, we all know that there are always some people that are hard to read or that hardly speak up. With an online tool you might get them to talk and express themselves.

View only the mood of those you are following

View only the mood of those you are following

A funny tool you can use during a (face-to-face) meeting or workshop is Moodpanda. Participants can rate their mood and provide a “reason” for the grade. It’s easy to change your mood status, so participants can easily keep their status up-to-date.


The downside is that you need an account to use Moodpanda and that you will need to follow the people in the group if you want to keep track of the group only. Otherwise you get a feed of everyone using Moodpanda at that moment of which your group is a difficult to discern part only. If you follow others you can choose to have a feed of people you follow only.

Once set up, you can react to other people’s status or simply “hug” a person in need of some TLC  (If in real need, the Moodpanda comes to the rescue, too!, see picture below). Moodpanda can provide insight into what your participants are willing to share regarding their current mood and can add a new level of interaction to your activity. It can show you relations and interactions within the group, as well as the relation between a mood rating and the activity you are doing with the group at a certain moment. Thus it can be a powerful tool to check if you are still on track or if you need to make changes in your plan.

Moodpanda to the Rescue

Moodpanda to the Rescue

Another tool you can use for getting a grasp of participants’ opinions during an event or afterwards is Polleverywhere.

Poll in Polleverywhere

Poll in Polleverywhere

You can start a poll with or without having an account. If you do not create an account your poll will be saved for 2 weeks. People can reply online (phone, computer) or via sms. A poll can consist of one or more grouped questions, and questions can be open or multiple choice. It is possible to post replies more than once from the same computer, which can be practical if not all participants have their own device with them.

Overview of responses

Overview of responses

Results can be shown in different ways, and if you take out a paid plan you can even export the results.

More visual ways of sharing the results with your group are the live text wall and a word cloud.

Live text wall showing replies

Live text wall showing replies


Results in a word cloud

Results in a word cloud

Polleverywhere is different from Moodpanda in that you can prepare a poll beforehand, there is no live interaction between participants (although you could show the results as a moving, live text wall) and participants answer anonymously. Results are kept, and not lost in a feed that you would need to scroll through.

Polleverywhere is a bit easier to set up than SurveyMonkey or FluidSurveys, but the type of questions and answers is more limited, too.

The possibility of showing a live text wall of results of Polleverywhere during an event can be a very nice way of sharing inputs and using these as a basis for further discussion, same as the word cloud way of presenting feedback that makes very visual which are the main key words used by the group.

I used both Moodpanda and Polleverywhere for the first time last week and found both of them useful – and easy to use. Try them and see for yourself how interaction with your group may change!


What I Learned from Trying to Introduce Social Media in 2 Organisations

In the last 6 months I have been busy with 2 failed attempts to help 2 organisations work with social media. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Well, if you like to learn, then it was!

So why did I fail?

Basically – who knows! But I have a few ideas that I would like to share.

Again Yammer!

Again Yammer!

What I tried to do was to introduce different social media tools that would help these organisations to share information, ideas and experiences, to collect documentation in one place, and to collaborate on joint strategies and plans. In both cases there was a genuine task to be carried out, which could benefit from using these tools and which had a limited time frame with an upcoming deadline. Really a hot idea. Or so I thought. And at the start, they liked it, too.

But then – nothing further happened. In one case, the task was postponed to some future date as yet unknown, and in the other case a Yammer network was set up which was used by only few people who used it only to send out ideas and information but were not really aimed at two-way communication, collaboration or engagement. The task did not get done.

Very rough "assessment" of the two organisations

Very rough “assessment” of the two organisations

What I found interesting when I started to identify reasons why was that both organisations had quite a lot in common. They both consist of  “loose parts” that work independently based on a clear task division and very clear “stay out” signs for others, with only one of the parts being focused on the organisation as such. The part having the organisation itself as a main task is working on things like strategies, policies, fundraising and the like, whereas the other parts implement activities and do not commit a whole lot of attention to strategising and such.

Within the organisations there is limited informal communication and limited personal contact between people, especially between people from the different sections. Perhaps as a result of that, there is a limited connection between both people and the functions being carried out by the different sections, and it looks like people do not feel safe enough to share freely. They may feel judged by others, they may feel that others cannot be trusted with certain information, they may be afraid of meddling by others.

In short, internally all signs for open communication through social media or otherwise are a fiery red.

No wonder nothing happened!

Hand Heart Head

Hand Heart Head

So what did I learn from all this? A lot! And probably more than if everything would have worked out perfectly!

  • Whether you can successfully complete a joint task using social media depends a lot on to what extent you can complete the task without social media – social media can make your life easier, certainly, but if it is impossible to get people to work together offline or via e-mail, then social media may not do the trick.
  • Collaborative capability depends on the level of development of an organisation, network or community and on its internal organisation and culture. The fact that there are common tasks does not necessarily mean that such capability exists.
  • The role of a facilitator is limited – a facilitator can definitely smooth the path but cannot from the outside in “enforce” a collaborative environment, especially not within a very limited time frame.
  • That is not to say that a facilitator needs to be completely helpless in the face of such a situation. A facilitator can perhaps more easily than the organisation itself notice what is going on and can re-group; try to find another angle and another path to achieve the learning, change or strategic objectives set by the organisation or individual.
  • A facilitator needs to keep his or her cool at all times! Patience is key to getting there. And getting there is key. All the rest is just what happens on the way.
  • It helps a lot if a facilitator can stay enthusiastic and motivated, even if a new path needs to be cut out through the jungle.

Thankfully I found that I was able to remain enthusiastic and optimistic and that in the few moments that I was not, I had a variety of social media networks and tools available to me through which I could share my experiences and questions. Or through which I could play my way back to optimism!


Developing Communities

Communities are formed by persons – even if they represent organisations. So if you want to support a community in its development, you have to focus on the needs of the actual people involved. This is for me one of the eye openers of the webinar Digital Habitats of Communities with Nancy White, organised by En nu online on 21 February 2012.

So what are those communities that we spoke about? A community is formed by a group of people with a common interest, value or goal, that build a joint identity. The community provides a sense of belonging and meaning, that is valuable to the members and that makes them want to contribute to the community itself as well.

Nancy White: 3 perspectives on a community

Nancy White: 3 perspectives on a community

According to Nancy White, there are 3 types of stakeholders in relation to a community: the members, the leadership and the sponsors. The sponsors are for instance the organisations that are represented in the community by certain members. While a community should focus on its members and on offering value to them, it should definitely also pay attention to the needs of the organisations behind these members.

Balancing the needs of these stakeholders and of the community itself as a whole needs a clear view on what the community is actually about – what is the reason it exists, and what is its focus at a certain moment in time? What activities can suit that focus and what tools can be used to facilitate the work of the community?

Through their research into communities and their development, White, Wenger and Smith developed the so-called spidergram. The spidergram shows 9 possible orientations of a community at a certain point in time. The spidergram is not a static “test” that you take only once and that provides a roadmap for all time. As a community develops it may shift its orientation. Another important thing to note about the spidergram is that no community scores high on all orientations at the same time, not even a very well-developed one. In that sense, the spidergram does not provide an ideal direction.

So what then does the spidergram show? It basically shows you where the community is at, at this moment. What is the current focus of the community? This in turn can help you define the activities that will deliver the most value to the community and the most suitable tools to facilitate these activities.

Example of a Spidergram filled out

Example of a Spidergram filled out

These are the questions the spidergram can help you ask:

1. Are meetings important instruments for the community to discuss and decide on common viewpoints and steps to be taken?

2. Is the community focused on developing and implementing projects – sets of tasks that are related to each other and lead within a certain time frame to certain, defined and projected output and results? Mind you, a project does not need to be an externally financed official project, internal development of a new practice can also be considered a project.

3. Does the community reach out to expertise? This expertise can be available within the community, and be accessible for instance through an internal resource directory.

4. Is there space within the community to discuss “whatever it is that we need to talk about right now”? In spidergram terms, are there open-ended conversations? Interestingly, this orientation can be strong both in new and in mature communities!

5. Is the community working on producing common content? Like developing documents together, sharing information, capturing lessons learned. Content and projects rather often form a strong starting point of communities as the activities tend to bring people together for a very clear common purpose, that can inspire them to develop into a real community.

These 5 orientations focus on activities of a community. The 4 orientations below  focus on the relations within the community and the relations the community has with the outside world.

6. Is there space for members of the community to each have their own experience – is there space for individual participation? Even though togetherness is a crucial feature of a functioning community, every individual involved will have his or her own experience from this being together, will get out something different than the others. This could also be interesting for the others – to hear a different perspective of what was gained.

7. Is there some level of cultivation of the community? Is someone taking care of the togetherness? Is someone ensuring that new members get to know the others and get to know the community? Are things that need to be shared in fact shared?

8. What is the external focus of the community, the context? Is the community engaging with the outside world, or is it focused on its own goals and activities? There is no right or wrong in being either externally or internally oriented – some communities do not need to lobby with outside stakeholders to achieve their aims, while others could not reach their goals without strong ties to external parties. When scoring your spidergram be aware that an internal focus should be scored closer towards the bulls eye, whereas an external focus should be scored more towards the outside of the “circle”.

9. Are there different relationships within the community? Meaning, do people have one on one relations with other community members or are there small sub-groups of people that share also outside of the “official community channels”? Such relationships do not harm the community, provided of course they do not focus on nasty gossip about other community members, in fact they can help forge stronger ties within the community.

Each of these orientations can be supported by the community leadership or facilitators with different online and offline tools. In selecting and applying tools you should, however, keep in mind to bring value to both the members and their organisations.

View more from Nancy White

More information