Facilitating instructor-led training online via web meeting platforms is becoming more commonplace now due to Covid-19. Facilitating a project team tasked with developing a new training design – at a distance – is a different story. This is a report on one such project and experience…
By Christoph Meier (scil) and Team “Global Training and Clinical Education” (B.Braun)
For a number of years now, swiss competence centre for innovations in learning (scil) has been conducting more or less extended training sessions online via web meeting platforms. These online sessions were part and parcel of our blended learning design even before we were forced to switch to online-only mode due to Covid-19. Nothing really new here – even if designing and moderating a full day of online training that keeps participants active can be challenging (see this blogpost and this Online-Session for more information on this).
In the context of a project that commenced in late 2019, we have been confronted with a new situation and challenge: the planning, conception and execution of development work in learning and development – at a distance. Those involved in the process have been the members of the team “Global Training and Clinical Education” at B.Braun and myself.
Planning and preparing for training and cooperative work
The joint development project was set up for a duration of roughly three months. Travel between the two locations (Melsungen, Germany and St.Gallen, Switzerland) was deemed too cumbersome for onsite meetings. After establishing contact via email, all subsequent communication and interaction was conducted via a web meeting platform: the first introductory meeting, the discussion of the proposal as well as all subsequent training / workshop sessions.
The work programme we agreed on comprised several half-day training sessions and workshops, each with different proportions of expert input and facilitated work phases. The concept and master plan for the various work phases was worked up at a high level initially. Subsequently, each session plan was devised, reviewed and agreed upon in due course:
The spatial setup and the location of participants during the various training and workshop sessions varied. In some cases, all participants were gathered in one office in Melsungen; in other cases, participants were spread across two offices; and in yet other cases all participants were located in their respective home offices:
Work in conceptually pre-structured space
As goals, contents and facilitation were developed incrementally for each next training / workshop session, we usually collaborated in a conceptually well-defined and pre-structured space. For example, when we were discussing and working on the concept of “strong learning environment”. This is true both for phases with short inputs from the trainer / facilitator, as well as for phases during which participants worked on assignments. From a facilitator perspective, the tasks and challenges were business as usual:
- goal-oriented advancement of the thematic movement / content work;
- providing opportunities for contributions from / voicing concerns on the part of participants;
- observation of the participants and their activities; calling on individual persons if required;
- balancing thematic stringency and opportunities for contributions;
- time management.
As the team at B.Braun included members from Germany as well as members from Asian and Latin cultural areas whose mother tongue is neither German nor English, I have refrained in my role as facilitator from directly addressing individual participants. Rather, I allowed considerable space for discussion within the team at B.Braun – not least because the group situation was not always transparent to me and not all participants were covered by the webcam in the meeting room.
This lack of transparency is illustrated in the following episode: it was agreed before the first session that we would work in German language; however, it was only during an informal discussion in a break during the first session that I realised how much some participants were challenged by the German language. Nonverbal cues on this had not been available to me and we subsequently switched to English language. In this context, I found it very helpful that the project team at B.Braun not only commanded much professional expertise but also much experience with web meetings. The team was able to – at times – facilitate the discussion at their end.
Management of screens and applications
In order to enable quick switches between different activities (e.g. short presentations, references to resources on the WWW, collaborative work based on a pre-structured table, etc.) I have made it a habit of dividing my two computer screens in web meetings as follows:
- Left monitor
- Email client
- Personal digital notebook
- Webmeeting application with participant video, chat etc.
- Right monitor
- Presentation application
- Collaboration space based on Google Presentation (as separate browser window)
- Tablet computer with stylus (not always in use)
- Whiteboarding application
The screen on the right I share with participants in a webmeeting; the screen on the I do not share. On the screen to the right, I bring windows into the foreground or resize them as required by the current activity.
Work outside conceptually pre-structured space – «Beam me up, Scotty»
Facilitation was more demanding and challenging in phases when we moved outside the conceptually pre-structured frameworks. Here is one example:
At one point in the collaboration it became transparent that the target groups for the training modules are so heterogeneous that a design geared towards individualized learning is required. This raised the question of which criteria should be employed in structuring such an individualized offering: The business processes involved? Participants’ previous professional knowledge? Role / function within the company? Type of learning objectives?
It was at this point that I was tempted to call out “Beam me up, Scotty” so as to be more directly involved in the discussion at Melsungen. We improvised by having two areas for sketching ideas: a flipchart in Melsungen that was moved in front of the webcam there; and an online whiteboard shared via webbrowser and webmeeting:
This discussion was probably not as smooth and coherent as it might have been if all participants and I as facilitator had been present in the same room. Nevertheless, the discussion led to a result which participants were satisfied with.
Fruitful collaboration at a distance
Members of the project team at B.Braun in Melsungen have commented, among other things, on the (positive) experience of fruitful and productive discussion and collaboration – with some team members and the facilitator at remote locations. They enjoyed the short presentations and the discussions in the conceptually pre-structured space. There were moments of doubt and uncertainty (“Will we ever find a solution?”) which were articulated explicitly. And participants were conscious that the iterative planning of the collaboration and the next steps, the clearly defined goals and all team members being familiar with one another helped in the process. A process that took several turns to the unexpected…
Facilitating L&D-workshops at a distance: success factors
Looking back on this experience: what are relevant success factors for initiating and facilitating a training / workshop process at a distance?
- Trust and familiarity
The initial discussion (at a distance) of the entire collaboration was facilitated by a recommendation from a mutually trusted cooperation partner. Additionally, during the meetings, team members at B.Braun could build on being very familiar with one another.
- Motivation and ownership
The team “Global Training and Clinical Education” at B.Braun is highly motivated to move forward with new training designs. Also, team members are used to being active and taking on ownership in such a development process.
- Experience in cooperation at a distance
The team at B.Braun has extensive experience in collaborating at a distance, for example in web meetings.
- Tolerance for uncertainty
The solution space (Blended learning? Modularized learning? Personalized learning?) was not readily apparent at the beginning of the collaboration. And the paths taken to get there did not always work out as expected. In this situation a measure of tolerance for uncertainty on the part of participants as well as the facilitator is helpful.
- Awareness of movement between conceptually pre-structured and unstructured space
For a facilitator, it is important to be aware of moments when there is movement from conceptually pre-structured space to space that is not so structured. The latter is challenging and potentially inducing uncertainty / insecurity not only in participants but also the facilitator. It is here that a lack of proximity, transparency and audiovisual cues is most keenly felt.
- Taking the extra break to adjust
In my opinion, it is perfectly ok to make this perception (“We are at a difficult point, here”) explicit and perhaps also to take a break in the workshop. After all, collaboration at a distance is more challenging and peripheral perception on all ends of the line is limited. Such a break provides the facilitator (and perhaps also participants) with an opportunity to rethink the options for continuation – without being challenged by an ongoing collaboration process.
- Experience in facilitating online training
Facilitating training online via a web meeting platform where participants move about in a conceptually predefined space is one thing. Facilitating a workshop where on occasion movement may be outside such conceptually predefined spaces is a different cup of tea. I believe that my (Christoph Meier) previous experience with facilitating online trainings (including collaborative assignments and break out groups) has been helpful in coping with this.