Facilitating workshops for the co-generation of knowledge: 21 tips

This set of tips was written by Robert Chambers in January 2013, based on his 2002 book Participatory Workshops: A sourcebook of 21 sets of ideas and activities, which he refers to below as “PW.”

Most of these tips are generic and apply to all types of workshops for learning, and sharing and co-generating knowledge, but in the book there are many others which apply to specific workshop types.

Following the structure of the book, there are 21 tips, organised into three sections: planning and preparation, the workshop, and follow-up and actions.

A. Planning and preparation

1. Reflect on the “why?” and the “so what?” of the workshop

What sort of workshop is it? What sorts of knowledges are you hoping will be shared, learnt about and co-generated? Who might co-convene and co-facilitate? Who has what – including creativity – to share? Who can contribute to the content of the workshop and to its process and culture? Who needs to meet whom? How will participants benefit? What outputs, follow-up and impact might the workshop have? Who will any outputs be for? Who will be able and willing to follow up at once in preparing, disseminating and further developing outputs?

2. Write or co-create a concise concept note

This need not be long and should not be too detailed, lest it constrain flexibility and the scope to seize emerging opportunities. Send the note out with invitations. For more creative workshops, say that the process may evolve and may modify the concept and purpose.

3. Use workshops to get to know key players face-to-face

There really is no full alternative to meeting face-to-face. Skype, teleconferences and group telephone conversations are not a substitute, though they are more effective when you have already met face-to-face. The numerous early participatory rural appraisal (PRA) workshops, combined with the group immersions in villages of the first PRA South-South exchanges, helped us share and reinforce excitement and solidarity, and gave many of us a sense of common identity – we liked and respected one another. The workshops were occasions to look forward to. With Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), the 2011 Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council Global Forum in Mumbai had for some of us a sense of reunion, almost of family, as we met again people we already knew from the regional sanitation conferences or in other contexts. The sense of common purpose and relationships that can result is precious.

4. Co-convene

Some workshops cannot and should not be co-convened, but co-convening has much to be said for it: it means co-commitment and co-ownership, brings wider experience into decision-making, can share costs, and improves chances of follow up. One, two or at most three partners may be optimal. With more partners, transaction costs rise if they engage with the preparatory process. This happened when we had nine partners for the 2009 South East Asia Regional CLTS Workshop in Phnom Penh, with a flood or storm of widely copied emails.

5. Choose a fitting venue

The venue should match the occasion, the participants and the purpose. This is easier said than done. For a participatory workshop, the usual conditions of space, furniture, wall space and equipment apply. Relative isolation, peace and good amenities matter for writeshops, and for sharing and brainstorming workshops which have the character of retreats. One reason why the Nepal Participatory Action Network has survived for almost 20 years is that the founders had two or three quiet retreats staying outside Kathmandu to reflect, evolve and agree basic principles, plan and decide how to establish it. At the other extreme, where Ministers and senior officials are involved, it may be (but not necessarily is) advisable to move up-market for the venue. Proximity to field visits matters, although longish journeys can be turned to good uses (see 14 below).

6. Plan, but do not overplan

Distinguish fixed points from open time. Fixed points may be the start, and opening if there has to be one; the end, and closing if there has to be one; field visits; and shopping or tourist time off. From these fixed points, plan backwards with cards on the floor. List topics and activities on cards. Start with how you intend to end. Then continue planning backwards inserting and moving the cards around. Recognise rhythm and anticipate low points – usually at or just over half time – Wednesday afternoon in a five-weekday workshop. Wednesday is a good day for a field trip, or an afternoon off, or doing something different.

7. Be prepared and optimally unprepared with the programme

Government people, and some others, often want a detailed programme, especially if there is a formal opening or closing. The degree of pre-programming depends on the nature of the workshop. It is quite often politic to have a programme even though you know it will in the event not be followed. Be careful, though, if there are people coming for only one or a few sessions, or they may turn up to find you doing something else. One device is to label sessions, or half a day, or a whole day, or even more, as ‘Open Space’. This has the advantage of a meaning which is both specific, giving legitimacy, and general, giving flexibility. Optimal unpreparedness means being open to an unfolding process that cannot be fully foreseen. Where possible, avoid giving a closing time for the day – a good participatory process can stimulate energy, excitement and commitment which often should run its course.

8. Be careful and thorough with invitations

Some of those I invited to the first PRA South-South lacked relevant experience or were unable to follow up. It was a sadly wasted opportunity. The ‘wrong’ people can also be a distraction. On the other hand, and more important, failure to invite key people who should be invited, or who feel they should, can cause lasting resentment which can be deeply damaging if those slighted harbour their grudge. Be especially careful to inform and invite people in the host country, city or area. Check carefully and issue invitations well in advance if you can. This can matter a great deal with governments and government people.

9. Be aware of government protocol

When inviting specific government people, getting procedure and process right can be time-consuming and frustrating. Assuring good government participation can require a lot of care and patience. Sometimes a person you want to invite can give informed advice on how to proceed.

10. Act early for visas

It is sad how often late applications for visas prevent participation in international workshops. Ease of obtaining visas may even be a necessary factor in choice of country for the venue. Some countries have few embassies in other countries, which can delay, complicate and add to the financial and transaction costs of getting visas.

11. Identify key documents, encourage participants to study them in advance, and have them available

There may be research reports or summaries, websites, or other documents. Do not overload people, but ensure that they have the opportunity to be informed and up-to-date. Where government policy is involved, make sure that key policy statements and other documents are identified and available.

B. The workshop

12. Encourage multiple ownership and credit

Do not seek a high profile or institutional or personal recognition. Let ownership and credit be collective. Any impression that a workshop is a public relations exercise for an organisation is damaging and self-defeating. Do not allow yourself big ideas about yourself or your importance.

13. Set an informal atmosphere, and err on the side of informality

There are several ways of setting the atmosphere at the beginning (PW, pp. 5–30). For CLTS, Kamal Kar’s instruction to ‘greet others and tell them when you last did a shit in the open’ works well. Standing on a map and then making brief self-introductions is another good technique – we used it in the Nainital CLTS workshop with mainly government people whilst waiting for the arrival of the VIP who was formally opening the workshop. It is acceptable to senior people – Principal Secretaries in Tanzania were delighted and found it fun and interesting. Buses – an exercise which clusters people by type of organisation – is another; at the AfricSan Conference in Kigali, clustering by type of organisation provoked an instant animated buzz which ran on for almost ten minutes as government people met government people from other countries, and the same for separate clusters of people from international agencies, INGOs and NGOs, and one group of freelancers.

14. Make good use of car and bus journeys!

Car and bus journeys are opportunities. In Zambia we had a 3–4 hour bus journey from Lusaka to visit Chief Macha’s Open Defecation Free Chiefdom. During the trip back we could move around and discuss what we had seen. Out of those conversations came the idea of the Lusaka Declaration. Without the consensus and commitment that developed during the bus trip it would not have happened. An advantage of vehicles is the lack of eye contact much of the time, and the lack of pressure to keep talking, giving time for reflection.

15. Brainstorm to create the agenda.

This applies mainly with smaller workshops, with numbers of, say 10–50. A concept note, or a sense of common purpose, and a framework of timings may already exist. The agenda can evolve through all participants brainstorming and/or individually writing on cards which are then sorted on the ground into emergent categories. These can then be discussed and agreed. The clustered cards can then provide the basis for plenary or group activities. In several cases, they have also provided the structure for a final output. Brainstorming to decide how to handle the emergent topics can lead to a variety of solutions – some in plenary, some in groups with feedback to plenary, some deferred. In a PRA sharing workshop in Pakistan, for example, seven topics coalesced. Three were crosscutting. So four groups were formed, and each included in their agenda each of the three that crosscut.

16. Self-organising systems on the edge of chaos

Self-organising systems on the edge of chaos (SOSOTEC) is a label given to an unplanned learning process within a workshop (see PW 93,103,105,116,123–8). It is best, if not vital, not to be pre-programmed. Brainstorming onto cards and sorting them sets a starting agenda (as in 15 above). Volunteers come forward to be champions, often for clusters of cards to which they have contributed. Ideally there will be two or three champions for each subject. Between them they combine and take turns as writers, interviewers, recorders, searchers and hunter-gatherers for their topic. Each topic group sets up shop with table(s), chairs and laptop(s), together with their cards. They plan their activities, and then work as a team to tap into their own knowledges, experience and ideas, and to seek and solicit contributions from others. The process then runs itself. Variants of SOSOTEC led to the CLTS Lusaka Declaration and the Bamako Consensus, and were key to Lukenya Notes.

17. Declare a PowerPoint-free zone

PowerPoint did not seriously raise its head until the 2000s. Now, unless warned in advance, participants are liable to go to pains to prepare presentations and feel hurt if they cannot show and speak to them. But (mercifully) ‘death by PowerPoint’ has become a cliché. PowerPoint can slow and stop a participatory process: it is pre-set and rather inflexible, interrupts flow, takes time (often more than allocated), induces passivity and cannot easily respond to emergence. Very selectively and sparingly used it can be positive, especially with visuals – in presenting one or a very few photographs or key diagrams. To avoid its damaging distractions, some workshops have with good effect been declared PowerPoint Free zones. Wherever possible, plan and announce this in advance.

18. Use Participatory PowerPoint

Paradoxically, Participatory Power Point (PPP) is a brilliant, powerful and quick way of achieving agreement and consensus on a text. A fast and accurate typist familiar with the topic sits and writes, with the text appearing on a screen for all to see. The text can be composed jointly or – usually better and faster – a draft is written which is then modified. Proposed changes can be entered in italics, and then changed to normal when there is agreement. If there is a serious debate or a deep disagreement, text can be abandoned, or a small group can be delegated to go off and hammer out a revision and bring it back. Without PPP we could never have achieved the Lusaka Declaration or the Bamako Consensus.

C. Follow-up and actions

19. Think in advance about follow-up and seek agreement on actions

Follow-up needs to be planned for, but announcing it up front may be undermining. Ideally, ideas and commitments emerge from the participatory process and come individually and collectively from participants. Far too often, follow-up is lacking. Either it is promised and does not happen, or in the conditions of the end of a workshop – particularly if there is a formal closing – it is simply squeezed out by lack of time. There was good follow-up from the first Nainital CLTS workshop, with a one-page statement agreed by the workshop, a four-page summary written the day after the workshop, and a large follow-up meeting of about 70 people in Delhi about three weeks later. Follow up on text can involve time-consuming editing and iterations with the draft notes. Plan ahead and agree that someone will have the time.

20. Ensure short prompt summaries of workshops

It is widely considered good practice to have a detailed record of a workshop. If this is succinct, out in a matter of days, and widely distributed, it can be useful and multiply impact. But far too often laborious notes are taken, for example by a student who is not familiar with the subject, and then written up none too well, and much too long – a lead balloon that sinks without trace, read by no one except those who want to be sure they are mentioned. A short, punchy summary of main points has more impact. Pre-plan for this. Have time after a workshop ring-fenced for it. It is the summary that will receive the most attention, while at the same time pointing to the topics in the main text which can be consulted.

21. Convene or co-convene in your own way, and share what you do and learn