Over here Al Selvin links to several related blog posts which I find particularly interesting. Read them all (they’re short). In this post I address just one part.
In It’s about the experience, Al says,
Ultimately what matters for approaches like Compendium is not the notation, the software, or the theory; it’s the experience they make possible for people participating in them. The technical or procedural components are enablers but not determiners. It’s what can (but doesn’t always) happen in actual practice, in real sessions, between the people that is the real essence.
Practitioner skill, in one form or another, is often what makes the difference.
When it comes to face-to-face sessions I couldn’t agree more. A skilled facilitator can be effective with no technology at all, especially so if a few participants are themselves skilled in group interaction. And some technology has the opposite of the desired effect. Put a screen at the front of the room and arrange everyone in standard theater-style seating (rows of chairs) and you risk turning a room full of people who might have been interested in engaging with each other into an audience engaged with the screen.
Some of the most useful sessions I’ve led or been part of used primitive yet very effective technology — crayons, colored pens, masking tap, and large sheets of paper (child-tech or craft-tech) — which enables everyone to be directly involved with both each other and the process of creating group artifacts. It also gets people moving around, helping each other tape papers to the walls, discussing what should go where, walking around to talk about what they see. That physical movement and interaction, in contrast to sitting in rows of chairs or even around a table, makes a huge difference.
The downside to the low-tech version is the additional work necessary to cast the results into a useable digital form, although that can be done after the session using a combination of a Compendium-like tool and a digital camera. Using high-tech tools in a session is a trade off between their getting in the way of group interaction and creating the persistent digital artifacts in realtime. Obviously a combination of high and low tech can be used if resources allow.
In any case, underlining Al’s point, the biggest factor in the quality of the session is usually the facilitator whether it’s the nominal one or a participant who effectively takes on that role.
Of course face-to-face sessions are only one way sensemaking occurs. The rest goes on in a wide variety of ways including individual work, ad hoc face-to-face interactions, and all the asynchronous methods made available via the web. This is where sensemaking tools can have a huge impact and the facilitation role is completely recast — necessarily so given that no one has a physical presence.
And that leads to a different set of use cases that sensemaking tools need to address that I’ll take up in a subsequent post. (Preview: can we analyze facilitation skills and find ways to incorporate them into sensemaking tools?)