Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Feeling safe to learn and share

Imagine you and a colleague have just started facilitating a pretty complex and challenging learning event. 

There are about 50 participants squeezed in to a not quite big enough room and you had to start late due to issues with the conferencing venue requiring people for lots of different events to queue on the street outside. Your participants are from a wide range of organisations: local authorities, clinical commissioning groups, NHS trusts, LINk and Healthwatch organisations, voluntary sector organisations and more. You have given a bit of an introduction which describes the landscape of complex systems they are all working in. A participant right in front of you at the nearest table is busy tapping away at a laptop keyboard as the group around the table start discussing the first scenario you have introduced. Someone quietly raises an issue about that participant sharing the discussion online. You panic as you realise you haven’t said anything in your introduction about maintaining a safe space for learning.

This is pretty much what I think happened for Laurie McMahon and Sarah Harvey from Loop2 today. 

You won’t be surprised to hear that I was the participant on the laptop! (At that point in the session I was working from the document we’d been emailed, highlighting key points in the scenario and making notes on what my fellow group members were raising as issues.)

Unfortunately for those concerned, the concern raised wasn’t dealt with well at the time. But I am very grateful to Laurie for taking the time to apologise and have a very genuine dialogue with me at the end of the day, so that is forgiven. 

On to the learning - and a request for your help and ideas...

Laurie and I discussed the fact that the Chatham House Rule doesn’t really work very well. So what guidelines or starting points for negotiating ground rules could a facilitator delivering this sort of learning suggest and send to participants in advance?

I often use the following in relation to confidentiality in event and workshop participant guidelines:
Sometimes when working in smaller groups and workshops people feel they want to draw on their own experience, but may not want people outside the group to know the details they are sharing. We can’t guarantee that people you are working with will keep what you say confidential, so you must take responsibility for what you choose to disclose.
That might not quite cut it at a learning event where the facilitator might want people from public sector organisations to feel free to say things that they wouldn’t in front of the press etc. So what can we do in face-to-face learning environments so that people feel free to speak their mind and offer opinions, without concern that what they say will be attributed to them (or their organisation) outside the room? 

And then we come to online sharing. At events I organise I include in the guidelines something like:
Social media 
Staff from Dudley CVS will be taking pictures, tweeting, and making videos during the event.  We’ll ask you when you arrive about whether you are happy for photographs to be taken of you and respect your feelings around that. If you do fancy starring on YouTube or a podcast, please tell us - we’d love to feature you!

Image credit: kdonovan_gaddy (flickr) 
Again, this doesn’t prove particularly helpful for a learning event where participants might want to share learning points and useful information or links. So what could a facilitator ask to ensure a common understanding and agreement in the room about what sorts of things might be shared in what ways? 

Assume in this instance that participants are people involve in a paid capacity, or perhaps volunteers at board level of organisations. And remember that the facilitator(s) and some of the participants may not be social media savvy, and perhaps have views of twitter etc. which they’ve formed from reading sensationalist stories in the press. 

I suspect that some of you reading this might want to suggest the short and simple social media policy:  “don’t be an idiot”. But I think that might not be so helpful to people who don’t know you so don't understand that you’re not an idiot and you’re not going to tweet them verbatim and attribute everything you say.

Has anyone had useful discussions where agreements have been made about individuals tweeting their own reflections, for example? Or not mentioning or making organisations or individuals visible through what is being shared (unless it’s something like: organisation x in somewhereville have an amazing document about y - here’s the link...)?

Your experiences, ideas and suggestions are warmly encouraged, and I’ll pass them on to Laurie too.

Also huge, huge thanks to my twitter followers who helped me get through today by offering support and good advice (when I dramatically said that I felt I’d been gagged by the thought police!): @John_at_HPL @notazengarden @Hypnofix @navcaecm @marciasandel @lil_ster @jumpylegs @paulineroche @JonnyZander @watfordgap and @Donna_M_Roberts. 

And thanks to folk who were tweeting from the event more quietly than me! Ooh, and a learning point for me, following a helpfully made comment by a fellow participant - the noise of my keyboard tapping is distracting to people when there is a speaker at an event. I quickly switched to my iPad - all good :) 


  1. I would welcome these feedback and idea too. I never even stopped to think before tweeting today and I do wonder wether I should have checked first. I see it now as an automatic way of sharing my experience and thoughts and without it Iim sure I would not have some of the varied, thought provoking convos which I now have (albeit virtual). The girls in the office followed today's tweets with interest and that proved a useful basis for our catch up afterwards.

  2. Apols for not sense checking my post first (I think you'll get the gist.) #multitaskingmommy

  3. Very quick couple of strands.

    1, Is it a dislike / fear of the technology in general that raises the eyebrows? People assume i'm checking emails if i'm on my laptop, playing games if i'm on my Tablet or sending SMS messages if i'm on my phone. (All three have been suggested!) Is it a VCS thing? Do we need to demonstrate that techology doesn't fit others stereotypes or straight-jackets?

    2, There are open and there are closed events. Generally it's clear when it is a closed event and that reporting by social media isn't appropriate. But otherwise tweeters in the room provide a valuable service to the public who couldn't be there.

    Where is Chatham House in the digital world?
    There is probably more accountability and therefore less desire for someone to leak information than in a non digital space. Does the responsibility (and the buck) stop with the tweeter reporting the conversation if it is incorrect or not to have been tweeted?

    There is still a lot of learning needed in our sector (particularly at support provider/LIO level it seems) around these tools and the good they can bring.

    One for #infcamp!

  4. Thanks for putting this out there Lorna - we are all continually learning, and I was discussing my understanding of the Chatham House rule at another event today - at the time it felt like we needed Chatham House rule +, but I can't quite explain it now; I really felt for you today when I saw your tweet and couldn't not respond; hopefully we can use our learnings to help us in organising future events of all sorts!

  5. Thanks all. Like you Laura, I tweet about work on a daily basis, sharing news about what's going on in Dudley, and having conversations with people online about all sorts of work-related ideas, issues and reflections. And back at our office colleagues follow, especially when we're out at events. I was really chuffed that while 3 of us were at the Healthwatch England event a member of our admin team who doesn't use social media asked another colleague how she could look at our tweets. There is a keen interest across many Dudley CVS staff to learn about Healthwatch, and using twitter really helps with that.

    Paul, I'm not sure what 'raised eyebrows', as the person with the issue didn't raise it with me directly. And yes, I'm sure those assumptions are made about me often. I think we should have stickers for our devices (or foreheads!) saying 'I'm not texting or playing games, I'm sharing and learning online'. I take a default view that events are open and tweeting is a positive addition to the conversation and the learning. Clearly I don't tweet from or about internal meetings, for example, when we're working on things which aren't for wider sharing. But I can't quite figure out what kind of event that I would go to might take place where people shouldn't connect online.

    I think the issue around accountability and responsibility is complicated by the fact that many of our colleagues don't use social media for learning or in their occupation/profession. So they probably don't understand how (and why) we use it. I think people hosting and delivering events have a responsibility to bridge any gap in understanding - though that may be more difficult if they don't use social media much.

    Unknown - whoever you are, thank you for your support. And it sounds kind of worrying to me if lots of rules are needed at an event. Where is trust? Or maybe whatever is happening shouldn't be an event - it's the activity that is not the right option, not the lack of rules that is the issue.

  6. Hey Lorna -

    Good questions! And exactly the kind of reflection that I think helps us get closer to understanding these things...

    I'd make the case the 'don't be an idiot' is a good principle for those who are reasonably familiar w/ social media, but doesn't always come across well to others, as you say.

    When I've facilitated conferences, I always make sure to open-up w/ a bit about the potential of what social media offers. Really take 10-15mins to just highlight some of the amazing potentials, and also let people air their concerns about it...

    I don't always - but should - include a disclaimer that if you don't want something shared online, add a 'please don't share this more widely' disclaimer to your comment. And that everyone else should respect it.

    But also, in the push for more openness and transparency, I really like what Hildy Gottlieb and Creating the Future are doing w/ their board meetings, streaming each of them live, and encouraging outsiders who are interested to actively join in, via text or video, pooling a wider range of expertise and perspective into every board meeting.

    Obviously this won't work for every organisation, but I'd invite anyone reading this to think seriously about if it could work for them. If you aren't a group discussing specifically private personal info (eg - medical stuff/client confidentiality), or involved in direct action stuff that might make the actions impossible if promoted publicly in advance, you may find that it's only some combination of personal/professional discomfort holding you back. Both of which may be overcome, if the desire for open processes is strong enough :-)

    Just something to think about!

    Thanks for opening up the conversation, Lorna!



  7. Thanks Liam
    Some great ideas here which I will definitely be using myself in future. I sometimes feel frustrated that people who work in and around the public sector seem to think that different perspectives are in the room if they have people from a few different public agencies and a couple of voluntary sector folk. It feels blinkered to me as I'm not sure there edges to these systems. The things we talk about aren't occurring in a closed system - even though people might like them to be in order to try to comprehend and map them. Which is why the serendipity of conversations that can be bought in by being active online in the moment can help to really expand the learning.