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How to Engage Distributed Stakeholders

By Joan Davis, Virtual Collaboration Consultant, J Davis Consulting, LLC www.VirtualBA.com

You may be fortunate enough to have your project team close by and can call them together for a face-to-face huddle any time of the day. But perhaps your project impacts a broad region and your distributed team or stakeholders are out of reach. If this is the case, the obstacles of virtual meetings—lack of visual cues, unseen distractions, remote participants feeling disconnected, and so on—have meeting hosts struggling to revamp their facilitation style. Fortunately a body of knowledge is developing around techniques to overcome these challenges, and many of the tool options include collaborative features that encourage remote participation.

Virtual Conferences

Virtual conferencing technologies support real-time conversational or written interactions, and enable recording the communication, whether audio or text-based. The degree of verbal or written interaction is a factor of purpose, audience size, technical capabilities, cultural and language differences. Smaller group size (eight or less) enables more conversation, less use of text tools to collaborate. With larger groups there is less opportunity for everyone to speak and the meeting leader will have a greater need for feedback and awareness of participants that are not engaged.

One way to ensure full participation is to incorporate audio breakout sessions—a little used feature found in many teleconference and web conference tools. Prompt the attendees with a question or situation to respond to in individual reflection then split the attendees into private conversations of two, three, five people to share. Allow sufficient time for them to engage each other, and then bring them back to report on each group’s outcome. They’ll thank you for the experience.

Written interactions can also overcome the limitations of verbal communication via text-based brainstorming, threaded discussion, a quick survey, and anonymous input, with the added time-saver of concurrent entry. Most web conferencing tools offer non-verbal mechanisms used to interact with virtual attendees during a session:
  • Polling. For voting, prioritizing, sequencing, rating, ranking. 
  • Surveys. For feedback, short commentary, open question response. 
  • Quizzes. Multiple-choice testing to assess learning retention. 
  • Q&A. For attendees to concurrently write short questions for presenters to address while speaking or answer in writing, privately or publicly to all attendees. 
  • Chat / Instant Messaging. Smart phone or webinar tool for concurrent text entry directed to presenters or all attendees.
Putting it to use

How can you leverage virtual collaboration tools to make your own work more efficient?  To demonstrate I’ve sketched out a few virtual collaboration scenarios.

Innovation: Collaborating across regions to brainstorm ideas.

Virtual brainstorming allows staff at remote and local offices an equal opportunity to reflect and contribute their unique perspectives. This is one advantage that virtual meetings deliver over face-to-face: participants can concurrently offer ideas and do it anonymously. The outcome tends to generate a more true and robust collection of insights and concerns.

How is it done?One option to try is the text chat function common in web conferencing software. Participants attend at their own computer by clicking on a link to the “meeting room” URL and audio connection instructions. Pose a question to stimulate written brainstorming contributions and ask everyone to concurrently type their responses. The Chat window will provide a shared scrolling view of the individual answers. If the topic is sensitive skip attendee registration so that the typed entries are not attributed to the submitter’s name.

Process Improvement: Engaging workers in organizational change.

Virtual collaboration space enables a dedicated spot for field offices to check in, offer ideas, and give constructive feedback on their own schedule, as preparation for gathering together as a team via virtual conferencing. Your stakeholders can post to discussions about how their roles could evolve or comment on a new workflow that could expedite processing. Respond to that feedback by carving out a virtual meeting agenda that addresses the identified needs: give demonstrations, deliver targeted training, and together design new and improved ways of operating.

How is it done?Use asynchronous methods—different time, different place—to collect contributions over a period of time, and combine that with regularly scheduled live conferences to expand on the written dialog. The synchronous or live activities can be delivered as a combination of video clips, teleconference, and web-based presentations, depending on the need.

Team Building: Conduct multimedia roundtable discussions recognizing individual accomplishments.

Sharing the controls of a webinar allows the meeting host to delegate parts of the presentation to others. Assign the presenter role to each of your team leads during a virtual awards conference. Allow each region to share reports, applications, and other exhibits that describe the contributions of their local outstanding performers. Widen the invitation list to include all your distributed workers for the applause and congratulatory remarks to be heard organization-wide.

How is it done?The presenter role in web conferencing software carries with it extra functionality that attendees don’t have. As presenter, you can share anything on your computer—a print file, a video clip, an application, or your desktop—so that all attendees see what you see. Exchange your flipchart for the shared “whiteboard” feature to track keynote discussion points or draw a diagram. When done, simply pass the controls to another presenter to share their local material.

Conclusion

Managing distributed projects is geographically challenging, but virtual collaboration tools can help erase the miles—same time, place doesn’t matter—with the goal of making your distributed group feel and behave as if they share the same room. Synchronous methods for live meetings coupled with asynchronous collaboration before and after a live event will help you to gain contributions and consensus from your team members and other stakeholders, wherever they are.



Joan Davis is known as the “Virtual Business Analyst”, formerly of Philadelphia and now residing in mid-coast Maine. With over 20 years solving complex insurance process and systems design issues, she has turned her attention to the practices and tools that create an effective meeting space for distributed teams. Joan manages the Virtual Facilitators’ Forum on LinkedIn, a subgroup of the Professional Facilitators Network, and provides consulting to Clients who want to create engaging group experiences that improve communication and processes for global projects. She can be contacted for consultation on connecting distributed teams at theVirtualBA@gmail.com.