The 5Cs - #1: Control Technology

  • June 27, 2018
  • Alexandre
  • Articles

"Digital facilitation”. Put together, those two words seem to go hand-in-hand in an obvious and self-evident way. And yet, after years of experience and hundreds of collaborative workshops, I noticed that it wasn’t always the case. Hence the idea of writing a series of articles on the 5 principles (or, as I call them, “the 5 C’s”) to give you all the keys to, truly, facilitate digitally. First step: controlling the technology.

Once upon a time…

June 27 will forever remain engraved in my mind. June 27, 2012. A few months after its foundation, Stormz was chosen by an important French company to organize a workshop, the second of its short existence, for 300 of its top-executives in their own offices. In other words, this was a golden opportunity to shine, show what we’re capable of and position ourselves in the French milieu of corporate collaboration. We arrive at the client’s office, checked with their technical team that the Internet connection ran smoothly and that everything was up-and-running. When participants arrived, we handed iPads to every groups of three people. The workshop started. After a few seconds, one of the participants raised his hand: his iPad got disconnected. Easy to handle: I connected it back. A few seconds later, another raised hand. And then, the snowball effect: dozens of people started raising their hands one after the other, in such a way that, for a few moments of peaceful ignorance, I thought the audience was honouring me with a wave. Far from it: whenever one iPad was reconnected, others were disconnected. The technological hydra. The nightmare of any facilitator.

End result: our first large group collaborative workshop, our baptism by fire, was a failure. Thanks to last-minute improvisations, I managed to facilitate the workshop all the way to the end. But the user experience was completely ruined: we later discovered that the local WiFi was set up to allow only 25 iPads to be connected simultaneously. We lost the client. But learned a valuable lesson.

Controlling the technology: Facilitation 101

Six years have passed since that experience, both traumatizing and lifesaving at the same time. That’s why I’d like to use that ominous anniversary date to talk about the first of the five “C’s”: “Controlling the technology”.

Anyone who has, at one time or another, organized a collaborative workshop, an event or any random meeting knows that a single technical problem, malfunction or glitch can have wide-ranging catastrophic consequences on the collaborative experience. We learned this lesson at our own expense. And I know that many of you have had similar experiences.

Being in control of the technology is the most pragmatic and prosaic principle of all, but also the most fundamental one, the bedrock of any successful event. Wanting to facilitate a workshop with high-tech tools is all very nice, but worthless unless you know the technological workings of your event inside out.

Tip n°1: Controlling the devices

We started thinking about that issue well before June 27, 2012 of course. But we initially only took into account the most obvious technical aspect: the devices. In our case: the iPads, that we generally distribute per groups of three.

Whichever they are (tablets, smartphones, laptops or wide touchscreens), you absolutely need to make sure that the devices are of good quality, reliable and efficient. Ever since our first workshop, we have been working with the same two contractors to rent iPads for all our European and North-American events. Both of them are Stormz-trained and certified and lend us, for every event, ready-to-use tablets: up to date operating systems and web browsers, fully charged, clean, fast and efficient. You have no idea how much pressure this takes off.

If the devices are supplied by your client or the participants, a thousand things might go wrong: will there be enough of them? Will they be fully charged? Will their operating system be up to date? If, on the other hand, you have full control over the devices, you won’t need to ask yourself all these time-consuming and painstaking questions.

Of course, we also sometimes have to rely on somebody else’s tools. But even if the devices aren’t yours, you’re responsible for them and for how well – or badly – they work. Many precautions have to be taken to that effect: be in constant contact with the relevant I.T. staff, make sure everything will run smoothly and ask all the questions you need (as many times as necessary). Every detail is important… And if you’re not sure which questions to ask or you’re afraid you’ve missed one important aspect, contact us! We’d be glad to help!

Tip n°2: controlling the software

A state-of-the-art tablet is all very good, but for what use? The second aspect to take into account is the technology itself, the software(s) or application(s) you will be using. For us, it’s the Stormz app: an application created over six years ago and constantly improved and upgraded to make the collaborative experience more comprehensive, ambitious, efficient and smooth, whatever the workshop’s format. If we hadn’t had complete control over the Stormz application, Stormz as a company would probably never have survived its first year.

For some, the technology might not be home-made or developed in-house. In that case, you need to make sure that everyone who is called to use it is fully trained. You also have to make sure that the application is used according to its core-purpose – for instance, many collaborative software are highly efficient with small groups but will be unable to handle large workshops with dozens of participants and hundreds of contributions.

Tip n°3: controlling the WiFi and internet connection

Back to June 27, 2012. Or, to be more precise, June 28. During the emergency meeting we held to discuss the previous day’s grandiose failure, the idea of the Stormz Box was born; an idea born out of critical shortcomings and which completely revolutionized our facilitation. Thanks to the Stormz Box, we are now able to turn any venue (room, conference hall, tent, castle, train, etc.) into a secure and performant technological space; into a kind of comforting and self-sufficient collaborative bubble sheltered from any technical malfunction or data leak. The Stormz Box is a local, autonomous and portable network, our own WiFi router to connect automatically all the devices we need, our dedicated server from which we never part.

Internet connection problems are as common as they are devastating. Every facilitator is likely to have a dozen painful memories on that topic. And, although it’s a well-known fact, we’ve realized that the issue wasn’t treated with as much care and discipline as it ought to be. My main advice would be to never trust a priori or at first glance the internet connection and WiFi of a new venue: this way, you’ll be sure to take all the necessary precautions, with or without the Stormz Box.

Tip n°4: controlling an online workshop

Many precautions should also be taken to ensure that online workshops run smoothly: did you check that there wasn’t any fire-wall? Did you plan to open a helpline to help participants running late? Does the facilitator fully master all the software that will be used? Did you schedule a 15-minute buffer time before the start of the workshop to make sure everything is running smoothly for all the participants? If an experienced and talented facilitator can, faced with sudden malfunctions, improvise last-minute solutions during an onsite workshop, this gets slightly more complicated for online events. This is why it’s critical you conduct all the necessary tests well beforehand.

Be flexible, up to a certain point…

Those tips apply to any kind of workshop. However, the scope of your technological risk analysis may vary following the size, nature, goal and format of your event.

You should be able to adapt. For instance, you can find yourself in a situation where all the technical equipment is supplied by the contractor or the venue’s own I.T. staff. This is the most uncertain configuration, and will force you to test and be in regular contact with the relevant outside people. At Stormz, our WiFi access points sometimes have to be connected to the venue’s own internet. But whatever the level of “technological comfort” we are faced with, our teams are also trained to help clients and contractors to have full control over their technical environment.

That flexibility only works up to a certain point. When we realize that, despite our ready-to-use solution and recommendations, the conditions of a technological environment completely under control are not met, we prefer to turn down the offer. It rarely happens. However, the few times we accepted the offer despite having noticed weak links, glitches and mishaps always occurred. Nothing that couldn’t be handled with a little creativity and by working hand-in-hand with our partners, but the collaborative experience of the participants wasn’t as optimal as it could’ve been.

And remember: having your entire technological environment under control will enable you, on the day of your workshop, to focus entirely on the real added-value: facilitating collaboration.

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