Online ToP Group Facilitation Methods training – I am convinced!

ICA AssociatesI was pleased to have the opportunity to join one of the new online ToP Group Facilitation Methods courses of ICA Associates of Canada the other week. I had been sceptical of the value of online training for face-to-face facilitation, but I was impressed and came away convinced!

The Technology of Participation, pioneered and refined by ICA in over 40 years of experience worldwide, is a proven system of facilitation methods and tools that can be adapted and applied to help all sorts of groups accomplish a wide variety of tasks together. It has been central for many years to how I work myself. Today’s Group Facilitation Methods course was first piloted in the early 1990s, and is now delivered by national ICAs and their local partners all over the world to many thousands every year. In my own 20 years of experience of the course I have become familiar with many variations in how it is and has been delivered, not least which of the core ToP methods are included in the standard two days of training – only Focused Conversation and Consensus Workshop, or also Action Planning. Tailored, in-house courses vary even more widely in their formats than scheduled, public courses.  Additional courses cover additonal tools and methods, and support learners to gain the skills and competencies they need to apply them effectively in their own situations.

The basic structure of the course, however, has proven remarkably powerful and resilient across time and context. First, demonstrate each method. Second, talk through the theory of how and why it works and how to use it. Third, give every participant and opportunity to practice the method in safe and supported small groups with expert and peer feedback. Fourth, support participants to plan how they will use the method for real in their own situation in the near future.  End-of-course participant satisfaction ratings on ICA:UK Group Facilitation Methods courses commonly average over 8/10, and 10/10 is not unusual. How could such a tried and tested approach possibly be translated effectively into a virtual environment, I wondered?

One of the keys to the effectiveness of the online course, I have concluded, is the choice of Blackboard Collaborate for the virtual training room.  While many ToP practitioners have adopted Adobe Connect as their platform of choice for virtual ToP facilitation, the whiteboard facility in Collaborate does seem to work better for virtually replicating the real-world sticky wall, such a valuable tool for the ToP Consensus Workshop method.

Perhaps more important is the advance preparation that is expected of participants before the course, including advance scheduling of homework and practice time inbetween the virtual sessions. While the face-to-face course is commonly delivered in full in two consecutive eight-hour days, the virtual course is delivered in six two-hour sessions spread over two weeks or more, with considerable homework expected as well. Participants receive the same GFM course workbook, but by email in advance, and also e-books of the Art of Focused Conversation and the Workshop Book.  They are expected to review the workbook and at least the introductory chapters of the two books in advance of the course, meaning that they arrive with a good overview aleady and some considered questions to ask. This makes a considerable difference to the depth of discussion achieved online.

The first week of the online course covers the Focused Conversation Method and the second week covers the Consensus Workshop method, while face-to-face courses most often cover one method per day. Session one of each week demonstrates the method and introduces the theory, and is followed by homework to embed the theory and raise further questions to address in session two.  Session two completes the theory and supports participants to plan their own real-life practice of the method. Before the course begins they have real-life group sessions scheduled to enable them to practice for real, rather than with each other as on the face-to-face course. Session three debriefs the practice sessions, and looks at further applications for the method in particpants’ own situations.

The course I joined, with sessions timed for North America and Europe (at 6-8pm London time), was attended by six ­­participants from various locations across the US and Canada, plus me and Bill Staples of ICA Associates as guests. Another parallel course was running the same days with sessions timed for North America and Asia, and was being attended largely by a group in Korea.  Both courses were being led by veteran ToP trainers Jo Nelson and Wayne Nelson, with focusing on technical support.

The group were a mix of independent professional facilitators and managers and internal consultants within large organisations – not so different to groups I am familiar with from face-to-face public courses.  I was very impressed with how much value they were clearly getting from the course, and how much they were appreciating it. It was clear to me that the virtual demonstrations of the methods did not provide an equivalent experience to face-to-face demonstrations.  For participants with sufficient experience of group work, however, and with their advance reading on the methods, they clearly provided a perfectly adequate basis for the theory and practice to follow. Moreover, that theory and practice seemed to me to be no less rich and insightful than in face-to-face courses of my experience.  What was lost by not spending intensive face to face time together seemed to be more than compensated for by having considerably longer study and reflection time over the whole two week period of the sessions. What was lost by not practicing together with each other, and sharing peer feedback based on direct experience of each others’ practice, seemed to be more than compensated by practicing in participants’ own real-life contexts and working with real groups to address real issues. While I was fascinated by the many comparisons I was able to make between the online course and the many face to face courses I have led, the group were clearly not burdened by how the course might have been in a face-to-face version but were engaging with it and appreciating it just as it was.

I have no doubt that many learners will continue to prefer face-to-face training, and that many will gain more from that than from its online equivalent – not least those who might for any reason fail to give due time and attention to the homework that is such an essential element of the online course. Equally, however, I am now convinced that there may be many learners for whom the online course might be a perfectly acceptable alternative when face-to-face not possible for travel, cost, timing or other reasons – and that there may be some for whom a virtual environment may suit their learning style better, even when learning methods and skills of face-to-face group facilitation.

I think the key for learners will be to select the type of course that best suits their learning needs and style, and their context and preferences as well. This innovative new online course of ICA Associates is doing a great service to learners by making the ToP Group Facilitation Methods course available online for those that might benefit from it more than face-to-face, and for those that otherwise might not be able to benefit at all.

Future courses are scheduled for August and November/December 2013 – for details visit ICA Associates. Online training in virtual ToP facilitation is available from ICA USA.

ICAI Winds and Waves – facilitating new directions

This article was first published in ICAI Winds and Waves, April 2013.

Winds and Waves April 2013Welcome to this new issue of Winds & Waves, the online magazine of ICA International, on the theme of change and new directions.

Inside you will find stories of some of the change that ICAs around the world are enabling in the communities and organisations that they work with, including in the USA, Spain, Ukraine, India, Guatemala and Chile.  Also you will find stories of some of the change that ICAs themselves are undertaking within their own organisations, including in Togo, the UK and Peru.  You will also find news, reviews and feature articles, including from the new book of long-time ICA colleague Jean Houston. I hope you will find plenty to interest you, and to spark ideas for your own work and change in your own locations and in collaboration with others elsewhere.  I am grateful to the virtual global editorial team, and to all of our contributors, for so generously sharing their time, expertise, experience and ideas with us all.

ICA International is itself entering a period of significant change and development, with a new global Board in place since January and a new business plan for the new year.   I am grateful also to my predecessor as President Larry Philbrook of ICA Taiwan, and to other ICAI Board members past and present, for volunteering their time and leadership to help to shape and guide the development of our global network.  As a result of their sound management and leadership over the past years, the ICAI Board has been able to engage with members and colleagues over recent months to develop ambitious plans for strengthening and growing the ICA worldwide network this year.  You will find news of these developments also inside, and the Board would welcome your questions and feedback, and most of all your involvement.

Since my own ICA work has been mostly focused on the UK context in recent years, it has been exciting and energising for me to reconnect and re-engage internationally with ICA colleagues more in this new role, especially when I have had the opportunity to do so face to face – at the ICA global conference in Kathmandu last October, and at the ICA European Interchange in Paris in March.  Our virtual connections are also growing ever stronger. Our first online regional gatherings of the global network this year, in March, were also a real highlight for me.  Do please join us for the next regional gatherings in July.

The role of ICAI in the ICA global network is to facilitate and communicate ‘peer to peer’ support and collaboration among ICAs and ICA colleagues – in pursuit of our shared mission “to empower, through methods and values, an authentic and sustainable transformation of individuals, communities and organizations.”  I hope that this magazine may do something to help strengthen your international connections and collaborations.  Please do let us know how it does, and how it might better do so.

ICA International Board update, March 2013

ICAI Global BuzzThis post was first published in ICAI’s monthly bulletin, the Global Buzz.

The ICAI Board has met three times in January & February. Much of our time has been spent developing our new 2013-14 business plan, in consultation with numerous members and volunteers.  This is now about to be circulated in English, French & Spanish – please ask if you would like a copy, and please let us know if you have any questions or feedback.  In the process of these meetings we we have been establishing our meeting practices, including use of technology and formats of agendas, reports and minutes.

We have been able to use the @ica-international.org domain to establish new ICAI email addresses for all Board members and an email list for the Board.  We have now also established an ICAI email list for the global network of ICAs, with over 100 ICA represenatives in over 40 countries, to facilitate dialogue among and between ICAs.  Having overcome some technical hurdles, we are now in a position to establish lists also for the conference teams wishing to continue their dialogue by email after the Nepal conference.

We have submitted overdue reports in order to maintain and update ICAI’s UN consultative status with ECOSOC, and we have confirmed that ICAI’s consultative status remains valid with FAO and UNESCO as well.

We have agreed with ICA Nepal to make it’s new book Changing Lives Changing Societes available globally on a print-on-demand basis via Amazon and other channels, and will be arranging that soon.  In the meantime copies are available from the USA via Ebay.

We are now making preparations to survey the network over the coming months in order to update basic data on the current status and activities of ICAs worldwide, as a baseline for further supporting peer-to-peer activities within the network.  As we do that we will also be inviting ICAs to pay annual dues for 2013 to renew their membership with ICAI, and to participate in the first online regional gatherings of the year, on March 25-26.

Martin will be attending the ICA European Interchange in Paris, March 15-17, and hosting online sessions for those who would like to connect virtually – if you are interested to do that please contact Martin.

We are also beginning to work with ICA Canada to prepare the annual audit report for 2012.

Transformational Strategy: Facilitation of ToP Participatory Planning

Transformational Strategy - coverNow available worldwide from Amazon, as well as directly from ICA Associates in Canada.

Author Bill Staples gave us a sneak preview of this new book from ICA Associates at the ICAI Global Conference on Human Development in Kathmandu last October.

The Art of Focused Conversation and the Workshop Book, authored by Brian Stanfield of ICA Associates, covered the two foundational methods of ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP) facilitation methodology.  This new book covers the ToP Participatory Strategic Planning method in similar depth – from the history and development of the method through to the theory and practice, including numerous case studies.

Much anticipated by ToP facilitators everywhere, this book will be of immense value to all those who are looking for ways to mobilise the transformational power of shared commitment to create their desired future.

And if reading the book is not enough for you, it is not (quite!) too late to register for the ICA:UK Participatory Strategic Planning course that I shall be leading myself next week in London.  See you there!

Changing Lives Changing Societies

Changing Lives Changing SocietiesICA’s experience in Nepal and in the world

ISBN 993725358-1 – Edited by Tatwa P. Timsina and Dasareth Neupane

[June 2013: now available online via Amazon and other retailers]

The Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) is a global network of non-profit organisations advancing human development worldwide. This new book, published by ICA Nepal, was launched at ICA’s 8th Global Conference on Human Development in Kathmandu in October.  The book and the conference were among a series of initiatives celebrating ICA’s 50th anniversary in 2012. The Table of Contents and Preface may be downloaded here.

Editor Tatwa Timsina is Chair of ICA Nepal and former President of ICA International, and an Associate Professor of Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. Tatwa and his co-editor Dasareth Neupane, and the many ICA colleagues from around the world who have contributed as authors, have done a great service to ICA’s global mission with this book.  It should be required reading for all those involved with ICA worldwide, as we seek to renew and strengthen our global network and extend our global impact through peer-to-peer collaboration.  It should be required reading also for all those who share ICA’s concern ‘for the human factor in world development’.  Facilitators, development practitioners and policy makers alike may benefit from the 50 years of collective experience that have contributed to these inspiring stories – stories of practical approaches that work in changing lives and changing societies, through facilitating change with people, in communities and in organisations.

Bill Staples of ICA Associates in Canada opens the book with an overview of those 50 years of ICA experience in human development worldwide. In doing so he traces the roots of ICA’s ‘Technology of Participation’ (ToP).  This powerful suite of facilitation methods and tools is perhaps the most visible manifestation of ICA’s shared philosophy, values and approach, in what has become a diverse global network with an equally diverse range of programmes and activities.

Robertson Work, former global policy advisor with the UN Development Programme in New York and keynote speaker at the Nepal conference, draws on social philosophy, systems analysis and many years of worldwide experience.  He shares an approach to transformative leadership and innovative governance that builds on Ken Wilber’s integral theory, Jean Houston’s Social Artistry and ICA’s ToP facilitation methodology.

Larry Philbrook, Director of ICA Taiwan and also former President of ICA International, describes awakenment, engagement and formation as three core strategies for human development at the individual level – about living a disciplined life of choice.  He describes facilitation as a pathway to such individual transformation, as well as to organisational and social transformation. Bill Staples goes on to outline perhaps the most powerful of the suite of ToP methods, known as Participatory Strategic Planning, and its human developmental impact at both the individual and social level*.

Following chapters describe the practical experience and profound impact of facilitation and human development around the world, in a variety of contexts representing the diversity of ICA’s global network.  Among these, Ana Maria Urrutia tells the story of ICA Chile’s Participative Leaders Training Programme with young people with and without disabilities in Santiago. Catalina Quiroz and Luz Marina Aponte relate ICA Spain’s experience of virtual facilitation with worldwide religious groups to promote more collaborative planning and working practices. Terry Bergdall of ICA USA draws on experience in Africa and elsewhere to describe ICA’s participatory approach within the contextual framework of Asset Based Community Development.  Jonathan Dudding draws on worldwide experience to reflect on the potential and limitations of ICA’s ToP facilitation methods in addressing conflict, and how this has contributed to the work of ICA:UK and partners in developing the innovative new Kumi method for conflict transformation in the Middle East.  Jan Sanders, Tatwa Timsina et al share the experience of ICA Nepal’s Decentralised Transformative Approach to HIV & AIDS in partnership with UNDP, UNAIDS and others.  Mohammad Azizur Rahman and Md Mohsin Ali of ICA Bangladesh reflect on the experience and implications of ToP methods in learning and research in Bangladesh. Tatwa Timsina and Kushendra Mahat reflect on ICA Nepal’s experience of the Civil Society Index action research project in Nepal, and its role in development and democratisation. Wayne Ellsworth describes ICA Japan’s approach to awareness, education and transformation in humanitarian emergency situations in Chile, Haiti, Cote D’Ivoire, Aceh, Japan and elsewhere.

Even after reading regularly of many of these initiatives in recent years in ICAI’s monthly bulletin the Global Buzz and quarterly magazine Winds and Waves, and after learning of them directly from colleagues at the Nepal conference and otherwise, I was profoundly impacted by reading this book.  After 25 years of involvement with ICA worldwide, I found myself almost as excited by these stories as I was by the stories of ICA’s worldwide network of Human Development Projects that I first encountered as an international volunteer in the 1980s. Certainly the same philosophy, values and approach shine through, although the practicalities of implementation may have changed as much as the world around us has changed since then.  The internet is a case in point. Although there have been numerous books authored by ICA colleagues in recent years*, I think there has been no such global compendium to illustrate the scope and depth of ICA’s experience and approach since Beyond Prince and Merchant – launched at ICA’s 4th Global Conference on Human Development in Cairo in 1996, ‘the Rise of Civil Society in the 21st Century’.  I hope to make it a responsibility of the new ICAI Board to help to ensure that this one is widely read.

That being said, readers should be forewarned that the structure and style of the 20 chapters are almost as diverse as the authors and the contexts of their experience.  The quality of reproduction of the photographs, and some minor typos particularly in the opening chapters, might I hope be addressed in a second edition for worldwide distribution by a print-on-demand service such as Lightning Source.

Read the book yourself, and please let us know what you think!

* Transformational Strategy: Facilitation of ToP Participatory Planning by Bill Staples is also recently published and now available from Amazon, and directly from ICA Associates.

Gaining perspective, world-wide and history-long

Nagarkot, Kathmandu valleyWhat do you do to gain some perspective in the midst of the busyness of your everyday life and work, and what does it do for you?

It is now two months since I became a freelancer (facilitator, trainer &  consultant), after stepping down as Chief Executive of ICA:UK at the end of September. My earlier post explains that decision, announced in July – really a decision to end that, rather than a decision to start this.   In fact I have not yet decided to continue to freelance long-term, but I am enjoying it enough so far that I am certainly tempted.  After 16 years with ICA:UK, however, I am also enjoying the uncertainty and the potential of being open and available to alternatives, at least for now.  Of course it helps that I  do already have a few new and continuing client contracts to pay the bills, but initially at least I have been very happy to spend much of my extra time exploring before I commit myself to pursuing any next big thing.

I have long been used to what I think many would regard as a very reflective approach to my practice as a facilitator, and as a leader more generally. Reflection and learning are deeply embedded in ICA’s values and methodology, and I have been steeped in both for over 25 years now.  I guess that has only raised my aspirations, so it has been a treat for me to have been able start what I like to think of as something as like a sabbatical (although my partner takes care to remind me that I am not on holiday and do have bills to pay).  For a long time I have aspired to blog, but not found the time, so I thought I’d start by sharing something of what I have been doing recently to broaden my perspective, and where it has been taking me. I’d welcome any further suggestions…

A major feature of my last couple of months has been travel, so I’ve been in no danger of ‘freelance claustrophobia’ from working too much from home.  The first trip was to Minneaoplis, birthplace and registered office of the of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF), for a rare face-to-face meeting of the Executive Team of the global Board. That enabled me to make a stopover on my way back in Chicago, birthplace of the Institute of Cultural Affairs and home of ICA USA.  The second trip was to Geneva, home to much of the world’s humanitarian movement and venue for the 2012 IAF Europe Conference Facilitating Across Cultures: Unleashing the Power of Diversity. The third was to Kathmandu, for the 8th ICAI Global Conference on Human Development, hosted by ICA Nepal.  I attended the ‘Growing a New Sense of Leadership’ stream of the conference, plus a rare face-to-face Board meeting of ICAI International (I shall begin a term as President from January) and a two-day deliberative Open Space event on the future of ICA globally (in Nagarkot, where I took the photo above). My reflections on the Nepal trip are featured in the latest issue of ICA:UK Network News.

At home, now in London, I have attended events of the RSA including How To Change the Future, Does Africa Need Our Outrage?, How to Govern Intelligently in the 21st Century and the FRSA London City Reboot, and others including Beyond the headlines: UK public opinion on aid and development, and a meeting of the new England & Wales chapter of the IAF.  I have been enjoying tweeting vigorously (follow me at @martingilbraith if you do not already), and having time to jump into and follow all sorts of events and chats remotely, most recently #acevoconf, #drr, #leadership2013 and #charityskillsconference.  It has also been good to have the time to attend many of the 14 online AGM sessions of IAF held in October and all of the online regional gatherings of the global ICA Network held in November, to broaden and deepen those network connections and also boost my virtual facilitation expertise in the process.

Finally, I have discontinued receiving many periodicals that too often prevented me from finding time to read books, and I have begun to keep and work my way through a wishlist of more substantial reading.  So far this has included The End of the West: The Once and Future Europe, Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future , Revolution 2.0 , The Road from Empire to Eco-Democracy, the Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century, Here on Earth: A Twin Biography of the Planet and the Human Race, Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future, The Soul of a Leader: Finding Your Path to Fulfillment and Success – and (most exciting of all), the new book of ICA’s international experience launched at the Kathmandu conference Changing Lives Changing Societies: ICA’s Experience in Nepal and the World. This last one is not yet available online, but I shall try to make sure that it is soon.

Already I’m beginning to wonder how I have had time for directly delivering or developing any paid contract work. However, I have been able to continue my facilitation work with the RSA, now as an ICA:UK Associate, by facilitating a Development Planning workshop for the London Region. I have also put in quite a few days preparing for facilitation of an international cross-sector partnership workshop on Community Preparedness and Disaster Risk Reduction for IFRC in Zurich in December. I have a few other contracts coming up for the New Year, I have submitted a couple of bids for larger contracts (one UK and one global) and I have begun conversations on a couple of partnership opportunities at home and abroad. I have even applied and interviewed for a couple of jobs.

Any more substantial reflections (and book or event reviews) will have to wait now for future posts.  Suffice it to say for now, however, that my efforts to gain some perspective working a treat for me.  I have come to think of my professional expertise and interests, broadly, as leadership in human development, at the intersection of facilitation, management and governance.  I have loved my management roles in ICA:UK all of these years – I learned a lot, and I’m happy to think that I achieved some things too.   I had wondered how I would miss the management role, and I expect that I shall in time.  Fow now though, I am more than happy to focus on facilitation and governance, and to have some extra time for personal and professional development.  I am already feeling that I can make more sense of all that I have been doing with ICA:UK these last years, and how it and I have contributed in some way to fulfilling the responsibility that life in this world demands of us at this time in history.  I am feeling newly enthused and inspired by connecting and reconnecting will friends and colleagues around the world, and with ideas, old and new.

I’m also feeling pleased a little with myself for finding time to blog again at last.  Hopefully it won’t be as long until the next post. And hopefully that won’t be as long, either.  What do you think?