Convening research excellence and beating the budget squeeze: 15 top-tips on managing expert e-discussions

This was originally posted on the IDS Impact and Learning team blog.

We all know that a demanding funding environment where delivering more for less can often conflict with personal and institutional commitments to the environment and to diversity agendas.

Digital technologies have provided development institutions with many opportunities for being more effective and efficient (in a broad sense). But when it comes to the efforts to substantively engage others in co-critiquing, re-constructing and advocating for research excellence, it seems that we still rely on face-to-face gatherings.

Why aren’t we making more use of the Internet for debate and discussion?

As an approach for supporting policy influence to instigate real change online discussions seem to offer benefits that real-world events can’t.

For starters, they enable us:

  • to instantly connect disparate individuals from around the globe
  • to enable participants to engage around their existing commitments
  • to provide a safe(r) and empowering space for private discussions
  • to instantaneously document the event for retrospective viewing
  • to avoid the substantial time, cost and environmental overheads of bringing individuals together

Unfortunately, generating online discussion is much harder than it might seem. Despite the plethora of new tools for commenting and contributing to the web, stimulating user generated content remains a real challenge.

It is worth remembering that while the ‘like button‘ sets the standard for easy / ubiquitous interaction across the web, in October 2011 Facebook chose to quietly remove its discussion functions completely.

A quick Google search shows that genuinely great e-discussions are rare – instead the web is littered with numerous poorly received examples with few if any comments.

What factors help make for ‘great’ online debates? What can we learn from each other?

I’d like to share some lessons that IDS and partners have learned in our recent experience convening experts’ e-discussions with prominent researchers / actors / practitioners as participants.

During 2011 and into 2012 we have used the Eldis Communities platform to host several such events on a range of topics, including: climate change, food security, philanthropy, social movements and gender mainstreaming. The events have been commissioned by the likes of Irish Aid, Oxfam and The Rockefeller Foundation.

While each is unique, they all share several commonalities. They are co-produced with partners, are funded by / contribute to wider programmes of work and are held behind closed doors.

One event focusing on Gender and Food Security* really stands out in particular in teaching us how to be highly effective at stimulating participants. In that situation, which lasted just 48 hours, a group of around 30 individuals collectively generated nearly 100 substantive contributions across 3 threads.

Top-tips for successful experts’ discussions:

Here are some ‘top-tips’ that we learnt from doing this and other discussions (PDF). They highlight the wide range of things an e-discussion project team can / should do to maximise the chances of success.

If you don’t have time to read all 15 points, here are my personal top three:

  1. Plan it with the same attention to detail that you’d give real-world events – e-discussions, like all social events, can buzz with energy or descend into an awkward silence. The time-pressure during them is intense and attempts to revive a flagging situation can look clumsy. So set things up well in advance and you’ll be less likely to need to ‘get someone talking’ during the event itself.
  2. Scrimping on the budget is a false economy. While a successful online discussion will cost a fraction of a real-world event it pays to think carefully about the particular roles required and recruit project team as appropriate. Fund them generously (in staff time / direct costs), give them plenty of lead-in time and reserve a slot after the event for reflection.
  3. Ensure your VIPs (Very Important Participants) feel special. As they are almost certainly super busy, persuade them to give up some of their precious time by making your invitations personal (not just the greetings!), mention those who recommended them, and highlight other eminent participants who will be involved.

Lastly, do what any good host does: keep calm and carry on…

** Thanks to Susanne Turrall (convenor) and Carl Jackson (facilitator) who played critical roles in this event and helped to pull together our learning from it.**

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