The global explosion of information technology and online activity is increasingly transforming our patterns of human interactions. A growing number of people are adopting new media habits and engaging in a new form of many-to-many dialogue in a way never before seen.
The availability of robust online engagement tools now provide a means of sharing information, fostering rich discussions, soliciting feedback and obtaining input into organizational decision-making - all online.
So why consider moving online? Online engagement forums can be genuinely deliberative spaces for inclusive, transparent and civil discussion. These spaces can allow for participants to voice opinions, exchange ideas, and arrive at conclusions and decisions through reflective deliberation, at a much lower cost per input than traditional methods.
Online spaces also offer the potential for greater reach and higher levels of engagement. Participants enjoy a high degree of flexibility to connect “anytime, anyplace”, and can connect with a broader range of perspectives and ideas than they would through traditional face-to-face interaction. Online forums can also reduce the potential for discrimination by eliminating social status cues from the discussion environment. In addition, they can take groups beyond discussion and reflection, and move them to collective action and more active forms of participation.
In some cases, the online phenomenon will completely replace face-to-face interaction, and in other cases it will serve to complement it.
There are a few key considerations that one should keep in mind when moving to the use of online engagement tools:
Engagement: First and foremost, people are busy and getting their attention can be a significant challenge, so consideration must be given to an appropriate stakeholder identification and recruitment campaign. Once participants are on onboard, there must be regular interaction with them to keep them engaged. Online work requires self-motivation, and it is critical not to underestimate the need for moderation and community management. Typically, some form of recognition system is critical to foster and sustain participation.
Participation Gap: There are two dimensions to this issue. The first issue relates to the required stakeholder knowledge to participate effectively. It is important to provide participants with relevant background material on the issues being discussed to ensure informed participation. The second issue relates to the variability of access to and ability to use online technologies. Media Scholar Henry Jenkins labelled it a “participation gap” in “social experiences between [young people] who have a high degree of access to new media technologies and those who do not. ” This gap can be addressed through proper design and training.
Design: The success of any online engagement is dependent upon a proper design. It is critical to avoid the naïve optimism that can result from focusing on technological potential without consideration for proper design elements. As with any traditional engagement, the objectives and desired results must be clearly articulated and meaningful to participants to ensure their buy-in throughout the process. Along with the right participants and their willingness to engage, you must ensure that the online tools selected are appropriate to the initiative and that proper engagement processes are utilized to facilitate effective collaboration. The unique needs of participants must be taken into account, which includes understanding their expectations, capabilities and need for training to participate effectively. In order to minimize training requirements, the interface must be intuitive, engaging, user-friendly, well-structured and transparent. Other design elements include adequate time to provide input, clear and explicit timelines, and regular, clear and succinct communications.
Transparency: Participants need to trust that their opinions and contributions will be heard and will make a difference. An online engagement process must be transparent and it must value participant input - altering or censoring views must be approached with great trepidation. Finally, as is the case with any successful engagement, there must be a binding commitment from the sponsoring organization that something will be done with the input received.
The online world is offering great opportunities for organizations to tap into the wisdom of their stakeholders. The most successful organizations understand how to use these platforms to engage their stakeholders, solve problems, develop new ideas and products, and to develop sound public policy. On a final note, it is important to recognize that distance can muddle attempts to communicate and can open up occasion for misinterpretation. It can also undermine the expectation of responsibility and action that face-to-face environments foster. In cases where the concern for miscommunication outweighs the ability to overcome these considerations, then serious thought needs to be given to bringing participants together face-to-face.
Marc Valois, email@example.com
Melanie Poulin-Delisle, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Intersol Group, www.intersol.ca
In next week’s blog, Brin Sharp will touch on the importance of trust and trustworthiness in teams and organizations