Monday, December 21, 2009

Facilitating multinational Peer Assists

My name is Jo Cadilhon. I’m a technical officer in charge of marketing and quality improvement at FAO’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. I’m also interested in discovering knowledge sharing tools and methodologies that will support and facilitate my technical work. As such it is an honour for me to be a guest blogger on Gauri’s mumblings..

Following on from my first guest post on using peer-assists to support face-to-face knowledge sharing, I would like to give my facilitator’s viewpoint on the two peer-assist workshops I facilitated at the Regional Agro-industries Forum for Asia and the Pacific (RAIF-AP). In particular, I wish to reflect on the challenges I faced to facilitate these peer-assists among multinational strangers.

I first discovered the peer assist methodology at a knowledge sharing course that Gauri organized for FAO and the CGIAR in October 2008 and found it was a great technique to use the knowledge of the people assembled in the group to try to solve real-life problems. However, the group had already interacted for a full month online and over three previous days face-to-face. We knew each others and could really relate to each other as peers. I wanted to try it on a technical issue and in a setting where the peers do not necessarily know each other that well but are all involved in a similar line of technical activity.

When the organizational committee of the RAIF-AP was pondering how to root the forum into real-life problems and avoid it becoming yet another talk shop, we decided to insert peer-assist workshops into the programme. This way, at least some of our participants selected to be peer-assistees would go home with something we hoped would be useful for them.

Before the forum we invited all forum participants to submit to the forum secretariat a problem they were facing and which was in line with the forum’s main technical topics of discussion. Out of around 90 prospective participants we received ten ideas for peer-assist workshops. My colleague Stepanka Gallatova selected nine of these she deemed were the most interesting and assigned them to each facilitator. Our limiting factor was the number of facilitators and meeting rooms available.

I ended up facilitating two peer-assists on the topic of develop quality in food marketing chains, which happens to be my area of technical expertise. However, I tried to keep to my facilitator’s role of inviting contributions from the peers assembled in the room. My two peer-assistees – both of whom I had worked with in the past – were a Burmese gentleman facing quality and safety problems in the oilseed industry of Myanmar (see: photo) and then a Sri Lankan gentleman describing processing and theft issues in the spice industry of his country.

The first challenge I faced even before the peer-assist had started is that my two peer-assistees had naturally prepared a powerpoint presentation to describe their problem. I had to invite them to reconsider their communication format as we had no projection technology available. I encouraged them to distill the information on their industry and the problem they were facing into just one poster chart. I also allowed them to bring print-outs of photos of the problem they faced and a poster describing the products involved.

There were four or five peer-assist workshops running in parallel and all forum participants were free to choose where they would go. I managed to get 6 to 8 peers in my sessions. Colleagues who facilitated peer-assists with only three peers reported that it went fine nonetheless. Thus, the number of peers in the room should not be seen as a limiting factor.

Once the peer-assist had started, the first objective was to get everybody familiarized with the problem being faced. I asked the assistee to describe his problem in five minutes. Then I paraphrased the key points to make sure I had understood correctly while also giving an opportunity for the peers to listen to the same story a second time but in a different wording and a somewhat neutral English accent. Finally, I invited the peers to ask questions to clarify the problem further.

Then I went round the circle of peers inviting each one to provide ideas on how to solve the problem while I took notes of the contributions on a flip chart for everybody to see.

I thought the oilseed peer-assist went really well as there was a good mix of peers: policy makers, technical experts in marketing and post-harvest handling, food safety consultants, and an NGO involved in developing food quality with farmers. The advice given ranged from very practical and technical actions to policy and nationwide oilseed industry development programmes to be considered. We also covered all the different stages of the marketing chain from the farmers to the consumers while considering the role of the different support organizations that could help tackle the problem being faced. The peers asked me to rearrange the content of the flip chart so that the contributions from the peers were reported following the different stages of the marketing chain. The peer-assistee has since then gone back to Myanmar, discussed the results of the workshop with his manager. He has already sent me back an action plan of how the project he is involved in to develop the oilseed sector will follow-up on the advice contributed by his peers.

Personally I thought the Sri Lankan spice peer-assist was not as successful because the peers got blocked by a fundamental problem for which nobody could find a solution. Sri Lankan spice growers see their harvest being stolen on the trees as early as three months before maturation of the crop! Therefore, all the other advice on how to improve the post-harvest treatment of spices was conditional to finding a solution to the theft problem. I believe I also made a mistake by starting the round of peer comments from my right side (just to change from the morning session where I started from my left side). However, it so happened that all the food safety and post-harvest international experts were sitting on that side; they gave lots of useful suggestions but they may have stolen the show as the subsequent contributions of the Laotians sitting on the other side did not sound as impressive, although they were still relevant.

I enjoyed the whole process. My two peer-assistees wrote to me later saying how useful the comments from their peers were. The other peer-assist facilitators, the rest of the participants and other coorganizers of the event also gave excellent feedback on the very relevant choice of this knowledge sharing method. It is testimony that peer-assists can be used in a multinational setting and with peers who do not necessarily know each other beforehand but who are all involved some way or another in a similar field of activity.


Nancy White said...

Jo, this is fabulous. Thanks for sharing back out the stories. I was particularly taken by your observation of the order you went in the second group and its impact. I wonder a couple of things:

* was it the culture or the culture of expertise?
* should we, as facilitators, not go in a sequence if we know something like this might happen or would that be more disruptive itself?


Jo Cadilhon said...

Thanks so much Nancy for your feedback.

I just thought when coming to the Laotians at the end of the circle of peers: "Rats! The three experts with international expertise have already shared so many stories from other countries, the inputs from the three Laotians left in the peer circle might not seem as interesting to the assistee now. I should have started with the Laotians so their peer contribution would still look really useful at the start."

A colleague of mine always starts his workshops with an icebreaker that involves debating contentious and light statements. The debate is held first in pairs, then in quartets, then groups of 8, then groups of 16, and then if possible the whole group (total not more than 20 people). This starts the participants debating about the technical issue we will tackle later, allows them to meet each other and come to the conclusion that it is difficult to come to a concensus within a group. Most important for the facilitator: the facilitator gets to pinpoint the natural leaders and those participants who are good, lenghty, or shy speakers.
This then allows the facilitator to adapt his or her facilitation technique and order of inviting participants to speak.
So now, when I facilitate a meeting, if the facilitation methodology does not limit and equalize the speech time of participants (as in the workshop method or brainstorming), I do tend to ask the inputs from shy participants first before inviting the talkative ones. I don't think it is disruptive if the facilitators looks like he or she is taking a random order and eventually allows all to participate.


Jo Cadilhon said...

Blogger used an old identity I had created for a test google group last year on eating out in Rome.
I can't seem to delete my previous comment either. I've now changed my google settings to show my real name.

Let's see who has written this comment now.

Gauri: you can reject this post if you wish. Just let me know who submitted it.