Mid-Stream Lessons on Facilitating Collaborative Learning Groups

Lynn Scarlett, CBI Board Member and former Deputy Secretary at the U.S. Department of the Interior, stated at a recent conference that the world today requires environmental mediators to address issues of increasing complexity, over a longer timeframe, and with more participants. This trend towards complexity resonates with what I’m seeing in my work at CBI.

Over the past three years, I’ve worked with several groups that employ “collaborative learning.” Organizations and communities undertake collaborative learning when they have shared questions and no one of them is able to adequately answer the questions. Unlike groups doing joint fact finding, who may be in conflict and seeking a particular resolution, collaborative learning groups are doing research to address challenges they and their communities have identified: “If only we knew how new stormwater management approaches worked in our local soils!” “If only we understood the role of our shores in the river ecosystem!” These collaborative learning teams, funded by the National Estuarine Research Reserve System’s Science Collaborative, are working to answer complex topics by bringing together researchers in multiple areas of expertise with those people who want to know the answers to the questions being asked (end users or stakeholders).

Along the Hudson River, a collaborative group including engineers, ecologists, and social scientists are learning how human manipulation of the shoreline affects local plants and animals, how to manage shorelines to improve habitat and community resilience, and what changes local communities can expect in the future. In Ohio, a collaborative team including stormwater engineers, modelers, and watershed management experts is monitoring how new approaches to stormwater management work in local clay soils, and modeling likely results of different stormwater treatments for local conditions. In both cases, those doing the research meet monthly to share their progress and findings. They also meet several times a year with end users — those who are likely to take up the findings and do things differently as a result of the project findings.

Of course, there are many challenges when working collaboratively with large groups on complex subjects over several years. Below I share some thoughts on a few of the common challenges that arise, how CBI deals with them, and what we have learned in the process.

A. Providing Clear Boundaries 

Facilitation Lesson: Scope collaborative learning projects very carefully at the outset. Seek to describe on paper what is being undertaken and why, and put it in language that is understandable to a lay-person. Revisit this written scope regularly to be sure project activities are on track — or to update it as needed.

Large-scale projects may have multiple objectives and time scales and they may have many teams working in parallel. And because they have many participants, it may be difficult to set fixed parameters around the project: Who gets to pursue which question? How should the scope be set, and can it evolve over time as participants learn more? Complex topics lend themselves to expansion, and project staff often ends up spread too thin when trying to manage each sub-issue and evaluate what results mean.

At CBI, we’ve addressed expansion challenges by using a team of primary researchers for regular progress check-ins. The team touches base at least every six weeks and reviews all plans for new work, testing ideas on how to proceed. While one person has final decision-making authority in these projects (the Principal Investigator), generally the group comes to agreement about how to proceed and what makes the most sense.  We’ve developed a list-based approach of recording all questions needing answers, which prevents related but non-essential activities from pulling the team off-task.

B. Identifying and Maintaining Expertise Quality Control 

Facilitation Lesson: It is important to be very specific about the questions being asked and to require a defined level of expertise to answer them. Add a requirement into sub-contracts that the expert form his/her own review team and also set aside a portion of time to seek review and respond to comments.

When stormwater experts and community liaisons collaborate, they may not be able to determine what an effective cost analysis of stormwater tools looks like. When ecologists and engineers working together want to figure out what regulations apply to development projects along a river, they may not know who could provide an effective legal analysis — and they may not know how to scope a request for proposal or how to disseminate it to qualified candidates. In addition, when a collaborative learning group receives results that are outside the expertise of its members, the group is likely unable to evaluate the quality of the results.

At CBI, we’ve dealt with these issues of expertise and quality by identifying and maintaining a repository of knowledgeable colleagues to assist with scoping tasks. They form review teams to help us clarify project needs, review draft documents and evaluate the final results.

At times, we have been unable to address a topic because it is so broad that it is not feasible to clarify a scope that contributes to the project without overwhelming it in terms of cost and scale. There have been other times when a work product took a huge amount of time, yet failed to provide answers relevant to the project. In these cases we’ve worked with the researchers and sometimes moved through the challenge to get to solid outcomes. Other times, we have had to seek assistance elsewhere.

C. Translating Results So They Are Understood and Used

Facilitation Lesson: When writing a scope where the work and results need to be understood by people outside of the area of expertise, require 1) a testing component (time spent sharing lessons, hearing feedback and questions from end users, and making related revisions) and 2) a translation effort (a written executive summary, memo, simple brochure or description of findings).

Experts in a particular field frequently speak in language understood only by like-minded colleagues. In a collaborative learning process, this inclination towards jargon and dense language should be avoided. In one project, when we realized no one on the collaborative learning team was willing to read even one of a number of 40-page engineering documents, we refocused our committed engineer and asked him to write a series of 4-page documents designed for non-engineers. Similarly, an ecological team worked to translate their highly technical results (which were published in a peer reviewed journal) into a two-sided brochure of key lessons for landowners. The brochure successfully used simple messages and photographs to communicate the ecologists’ findings to a wider audience.

We’ve dealt with these challenges by writing “translation” into the scope of work. This includes producing written summaries and briefs — and taking time to share results with other researchers and end users to learn what makes sense to them, and what needs to be clarified or explained differently in order to be useful in the final product.

D. Coordinating Among Numerous Participants

Facilitation Lesson: Expect coordination to take real commitment and time. For a multi-year project, it may take several days to develop a timeline and detail major project activities. Keep careful meeting summaries and complete to-do lists. Graphic representation of the areas of work can be helpful, as can one or two people dedicated to shepherding the entire project forward.

Coordinating multiple research projects with a team comprised of people with different areas of expertise takes time. Understanding the work of the different specialty areas, figuring out how their efforts contribute to the project, and discussing each segment of work early, mid-stream, and towards the end takes ongoing dialogue. Just reviewing a list of action items over the phone can take 20 minutes. In addition, if the timeline of any single project component changes, it may affect other pieces of the project. For example, if modeling work hasn’t been completed, translating the modeling results to share with decision makers can’t begin, even though it may be a key part of the initiative.

CBI has dealt with coordination challenges by keeping very detailed action item lists (an old facilitator best practice that can’t be beat!). We also have regular check-in calls or meetings — holding meetings at least quarterly on all collaborative learning projects — to be sure that everyone is aware of schedule changes or likely delays. In addition, the people responsible for overseeing the project work together even more frequently to keep things on track.

Finally, building good relationships is critical for collaborative multi-year work. Laughter and some down time together is always productive in the long run, as people who understand and like one another are more apt to trust each other, even during inevitable periods of difficulty.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/IITA Image Library