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5 characteristics of a powerful digital facilitation platform

By Ilkka Mäkitalo on Apr 3, 2018 6:37:00 PM

Simple, noiseless, contextual, journey-like, and workflow-based. These are the five key characteristics of powerful digital facilitation platforms—and the design principles that guided the creation of Howspace. In this post, I'll explain why each of them matters to you as a facilitator.

1. Simple

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Leonardo da Vinci

I have been working in the area of management consulting, learning, coaching, innovation, co-creation and facilitation with collaborative approach and methods for more than 25 years. Both f2f and virtually. All these years I’ve been creating new facilitation methods and software products to support this business. Howspace, our consulting software solution is the result of all these learning experiences. 

What simplicity means for me, and for us, as a design principle of Howspace software development:

  1. Participants don’t need any training. Everyone can use Howspace immediately. It is intuitive, familiar and easy to use. No login process, installation or navigation is needed. One click access is enough.
  2. For admins (consultants, developers, trainers) it is easier than Powerpoint: you can drag and drop the building blocks of your workspace: pages, widgets, content to digitalize your process.
  3. You can hide anything you don't need right now.
  4. When we are asked to develop new features, we check the idea based on our design principles: if we cannot make it in a simple way, we will not do it (until we know how to make it simple enough).

How can you create excellent customer experiences with simplification?

It took a long time for me to learn to make my processes (and Howspace) simple. But you don’t need to make all the mistakes I've done.

You can simplify your own process in practice by: 

  1. Giving simple, short and clear instructions. Video instructions work pretty well.
  2. Clarifying the context. Use simple visualisation of the whole process. Participants need to understand the big picture.
  3. Asking participants to do something that can be done in a few minutes. Focus on one thing at a time.
  4. Reducing the amount of information available at once. Take care of your workspace like a gardener. Schedule appearance and activity.
  5. Focusing on invitational approach: make sure that participants feel welcome and appreciated. Create invitation that feels personal and meaningful.
  6. Making sure participants feel that they are heard and decisions and actions are based on participants input and conversations.

Keep the simplicity on your mind in everything you do. Your customers and colleagues will love it. You can see it in participants’ activity: participation rate will be much higher when the granularity of tasks is small enough.

2. Noiseless

Life is noisy. Our environment is noisy. Our workplaces are noisy. And you know what? It's getting worse every day.

The more devices we use, the easier it is to be disturbed by continuous flow of messages, alerts and notifications. Our span of focus and concentration gets shorter all the time. (My watch just reminded me: It’s time to move.)

Most of the tools we are using are noisy: email, intranet, chats, Facebook and other social media tools... There is simply too much happening and too much information around. It’s easy to loose the feeling of control and management of your time.

What is relevant, what is not? Anyone is not filtering the chaotic amount of information for us. Anyone is not making it easy for us to pick-up the most important and relevant parts of it. We need to follow so many things in order to catch the most relevant part of information. And still it is a personal catch without connection to others and possibilities to make sense, build coordinated meaning or acting upon the things you were able to capture.

How much productivity could be improved if we could reduce the amount of noise and help people to catch the important things together? How much productivity could be improved if people could collaborate to take things forward after that? This is the challenge we have recognized and Howspace is our solution for all this.

You know the noise reduction headphones. They keep the noise out and help you to concentrate on listening to music or focus on whatever you’re doing. With Howspace it is possible to do the same for human processes.

In Howspace Noiseless means:

  1. Limiting the amount of information: You can hide everything that is not relevant just right now. In Howspace you can do it easily. You can hide pages, widgets and you can select how much information is shown at a time. You can get hidden parts shown in real time in workshops and seminars.
  2. Making the visual appearance noiseless. That’s what has been done for you in Howspace. It is designed in a way that you don’t see anything you don’t need right now. No extra buttons, background colors, symbols...
  3. One click approach: direct links – one click to the point. No navigation needed. One part of noiseless experience is the path to relevant content. In Howspace all the links are targets to current phase of the process and if you want participants somewhere else, you can do it easily.
  4. Building motivation for participation with invitations and instructions. Write or record the invitations and instructions in a way that they are short, informative, invitational and meaningful. When users know what they do, their minds are filtering the noise. That’s why meaning and motivation are part of the noiseless experience.
  5. Sorting and filtering the information in a relevant way: You can select how the information is shown. One nice feature in Howspace is a dialogue widget. Discussion can be sorted for example based on organizational structure.
  6. Visualizing the information. When there is more information than you have time to read, you can use visualization tools: word clouds and word trees.

As a facilitator you can create ultimate customer experience (CX) with excellent, noiseless processes. It’s only your job to make the participating as easy and noiseless as possible. We have now made it possible and it’s getting better and better. We are preparing fabulous new features to Howspace to amplify this principle. We are so excited about the new features but I won’t tell you anything more yet. It would be just unnecessary noise for you, but I’ll get back to you when those are available.

3. Contextual

"No context, no meaning.”
Gregory Bateson 

Working together is impossible if we don’t have a coordinated understanding of the context of our collaboration. Even though we could get something done, we would easily (sooner or later) end up to a conflict if we were missing clarity of the context. 

My former colleague Eerika Hedman-Phillips (PhD) describes context as: 

“A very useful term that can be used to make sense how and why we act in a certain way in certain situations. Every communicative act can be understood and interpreted by exploring the context where the communicative act takes place. In other words, our actions get their meaning through context. For example a phrase ”I like you” can be interpreted very differently in different places and in different relationships.“ Source: http://www.eerikahedman.com/2011/12/no-context-no-meaning.html

My context in this blog is to share our learning around virtual collaboration with our platform Howspace and share learning around the concept of context in human collaboration. These two approaches are combined and explored both as one of the design principles of Howspace platform and also as good practices when using Howspace in the context of change and learning processes. 

We take the principle of context seriously. It´s one of the five most important principles we follow. We have noticed that these ideas are useful and work very well in practice: 

  • Think your case (project) as a story or journey. That metaphor is binding pieces together. People love to be a part of a story. Howspace is build to support this way of working and time-based practices. 
  • Use coherent structure of the content and dialogue. For example when you have a video on a page, you can add discussion (chat) widget of the theme just beside it. 
  • You can do all the facilitation on the context: you can like, you can comment, you can check out the statistics of anything in the context and you can even send reminders based on the behavior of the participants just right from the context of the work. 

In Howspace, one workspace = one context (change process, event, course, community). That already makes a big difference and creates possibilities for success.

In our thinking and software design contextual clarity is based on “context markers” -theory (Cronen & Pearce):

  1. Time: You and the participants of your process know the planned schedule. You all know when your process is starting and when it is planned to end. If you try to work together in a timeless virtual environment where things are more likely floating than organized, the results can be pretty poor. In most current use cases of Howspace workspaces are built with the idea of timeline, phases/steps and storytelling/story creation approach. Technically also the visibility or appearance of the phase (pages) and the activity can be pre-scheduled so that Howspace takes care of the schedules. Howspace also supports all the variations of using time (realtime, near time…) 
  2. Place: Context is clear when we know both the physical and the virtual spaces where we work together. If the virtual collaboration is spread to several tools and spaces, the experience of contextual clarity is pretty weak. Howspace is build to cover all the relevant needs of your process to avoid all the confusion of using multiple tools within one project. In Howspace you can always show the exact place, where you are (directed link / landing page). 
  3. Content: We tend to be quite content oriented. We focus on the issues and by that content is quite well taken care of in most of the cases. 
  4. Relationships: The clarity of roles (facilitator, participant etc.) is making it easier to work together. Also the quality of the relationships is really important. Such as if we are missing trust, we tend to interpret all the observations based on suspicion.
  5. Language game: The language we use is something we don´t often dare to talk about. F.ex. the language used in a case can feel exclusive for some participants, if it is too professional or if it’s used for power over positions. Also the tone of voice used in dialogue is important part of the user experience. 

For me having a clear context has many advantages:

  1. Quick start: Orientation happens immediately. 
  2. Easy to revisit and continue: Visualization of the process makes it easy to reconnect. 
  3. Coherent communication: You don’t talk about apples and oranges at the same time. 
  4. Better results: The better the coordination is the better the results will be. 
  5. Quicker processes: You can achieve your results much quicker, when you clarify the context and your tools are supporting it. 
  6. Excellent user experience: Avoiding confusion and adding clarity works in every case. 

Build the context of collaboration carefully. Be curious and ask questions from your participants whether they share the clarity with you or not. And then clarify and simplify your process. 

4. Journey-like

I am sitting in sunny Central Park, in New York. It is such a beautiful Sunday morning. I'm sitting my legs crossed on the rocks. The laptop in my lap. Kids are playing and laughing, tourists smiling and taking selfies. I came here yesterday and will stay until next Friday. For me this visit is a business trip. And the reason I am telling all this is that the stories are an essential part of this chapter.

We, as human beings, love to connect to stories. Storytelling has always been an effective way to build communities and enable learning. It has been the way to transfer wisdom and tradition from generation to generation.

I love stories. When I was a kid, we had an old lady living next to us and she was a brilliant storyteller. Somehow she managed to talk with my parents first and then she told me bedtime stories. It was all improvised, but it was a continuum from the previous story she had told me. I found it amazing how the story always connected to my day and my life. She gave me opportunities to realise some important facts of life. She gave the space for my insights. 

I am not a true fan of lectures. Especially if they don't consist of any storytelling. Once I participated into a lecture by Dr. John Shotter in UK. Somehow I felt like being in a concert. I felt touched and emotional, but I didn't know why. I was so impressed that I decided to ask him, how he did it. He answered, that he is always resisting to explain ideas to the final point, avoiding one single truths, leaving all open. He said: “I like to open new possibilities for thinking and connections. I am opening new perspective and then I leave “a hook”, where participants can connect and hang their own thoughts. Everyone in their own unique way. I hope that everyone is getting different things from my lectures. Something new for themselves: New insights, new connection, new perspectives.”

The most powerful stories are the ones we have co-created, lived true. And then we are proudly telling those stories and the personal variations of them. 

How can we utilise these great ideas in our work context? How can we co-create stories that help us to make sense, to empower ourselves as individuals and as a community? Recent theories of organisational development are strongly supporting this approach. Meaning, purpose and engagement are more and more important success factors of modern organisations. At the same time both organisations and especially their environment are getting more complex, dispersed and quickly transforming. 

We have built Howspace for this purpose. For guiding journeys. For co-creating stories. For making engagement natural through involvement. 

Every workspace is meant to be a place for a shared journey and for creating a coherent meaningful story. What else is needed. Here's a list of practical tips:

  1. Appreciation. Everyone feels appreciated. Then it makes sense to participate. 
  2. Curiosity. We are curious about new perspectives and each others as human beings. 
  3. Facilitation. Things don't just happen in organisational context. The most valuable things cannot be forced.  
  4. Listening. When we feel heard, we feel appreciated. Everyone can have an important role in listening others. 
  5. Not-knowing position. In order to make curiosity and appreciation possible, we need to constantly look for not-knowing position. It can happen in multiple level: facts, relationships, perspectives, diversity… Knowing easily makes listening and collaboration hard or even impossible. 

Howspace helps to enable and implement these, but cannot do it all. Open mindset is always needed. 

It's time to move on. I am leaving the park now. What is your next move?

5. Workflow-based

What you need is what you put there. 

WYSIWYD = What You See Is What You Do.

Workflow-based – what does it mean? It means that instead of you adapting to the tools you use, the tool is adapting to your way of working. Workflow-based is one of the design principles of ours. If you can draw your process to the paper, you can build a digital collaboration process around it. 

We developed Howspace to support our own work as consultants and trainers. It is designed to revolutionise the way we facilitate workshops, events, change management projects, blended learning courses, particatory design (co-creation) and organisational transformations. We made it flexible. While we are working with more and more clients, we learn to make it even more flexible for different ways of working. 

Usually tools are designed based on technical structures, modules: document management is in one place, discussions somewhere else, video library can be found in 3rd place and so on. Then you need to manage them and navigate between different modules when having different kind of needs. Not very intuitive or user friendly. You need to learn and remember too much. Even if you spend a lot of time writing instructions, it will be confusing for the participants.

You should be able to start with your way of thinking and your way of designing your processes. Workflow-based thinking is utilised in Howspace both in workspace level (the whole case) and page level (phases of the process). The whole workflow of the process is build with pages and the pages are build with widgets

When you need to build your workshop session, you simply select what you need from the widgets and drag and drop all you need in the right order: Based on the workflow of your session. You can reorder them later. You can hide the parts you don't need right now. User can be easily invited to the right place with a direct link to the current phase of the process. 

When you would like to go even deeper in the facilitation of the workflow, you can edit the widgets. One great example is the chat widget. You can build an effective process with just one single widget by changing the settings of the widget.

I will give you an example. If you'd would like to start your process with a pre-assignment. You would like to hear about the expectations of your participants. You do it with chat widget. The steps could go like this: 

  1. Simplify the setting: Enable only text input, no comments, no likes, no attachments. Just a comment field and “publish” button. You can even select an option, that users don't see each others' answers before they have answered by themselves. 
  2. Put the likes on: Ask your participants to read others ideas and like the ones, that are relevant for them too. This way you guide your participants to get familiar with each other. 
  3. Put on "reply": Invite your participants to comment on others answers. Be clear on what kind of dialogue you are looking for. You can even write an instruction to the comment field. It could be something like: “How can you take this idea even forward?”  Or  “What part of the answer is relevant for you?” 

Even if the term workflow-based might sound unfamiliar in the beginning, I think you find it pretty familiar to you. Trainers, facilitators, project managers and consultants are all experts in organizing workflows. 

Would you like to try Howspace out for yourself? Start a free trial today! No strings attached, no credit card needed.

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