Virtual Collaboration – Online whiteboarding experiences from CTM
CTM has long been a proponent of whiteboarding or using wall charts and sticky notes to facilitate participation from multiple people in collaborative sessions. This works well face-to-face, but what about in recent times, when we are joining interactions online? What are the hurdles with online whiteboarding and how might we overcome them? Clare Farrukh and Michèle Routley share recent experiences and insights.
Our recent interactions have used platforms such as MIRO, Mural, MS Teams, Zoom, and WebEx Training for virtual workshop sessions, research interviews and teaching activities. The integration of multiple platforms has provided confusion occasionally, particularly when tools were new to the participants, but the vast majority of the time they worked very well.
Much of the literature guidance for remote collaboration is targeted at virtual teams – people who work together over a period of time, and, as such, have an opportunity to get to know each other and learn digital support technologies together. For collaborative workshop activities, the participants in the group do not always have this history of working together.
Generally, meetings can be improved by including graphical elements, to aid understanding and discussion. By having an online whiteboard, participants can not only gain the visual insights, but also join collaboratively in generating the visual content. It is therefore important to ensure that whatever tool is used to provide the online whiteboard, that everyone can access and use this, to enable their full participation. When introducing novelty in a collaborative session, there is a need to allow more time – whether the novelty relates to the group who don’t know each other, the technology they have not used before, or the task which they are unfamiliar with.
To support the online whiteboard, there will be additional digital tools required. Even if the whiteboard is integrated in a platform such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, the participants still require appropriate hardware – PC, laptop, tablet or phone – for access. If the whiteboard does not have integrated video and audio facilities, such as Mural, then additional software will be required. It is important that all participants have equal collaborative bandwidth – i.e. the same channels to collaborate through to avoid feeling at a disadvantage in any way. This means that if someone doesn’t have access to a video camera, it may be worth asking everyone to turn off; or perhaps asking co-located participants to dial in to a session separately.
- Overcommunicate: make it exceptionally clear what the plans are in advance, what digital support the participants will require and what is expected from them in each session. Using both visual and verbal cues is positive.
- Introduce technology gradually: design processes so that the different digital tools and features within those tools are introduced gradually as ‘natural’ parts of the different activities within a process.
- Have multiple facilitators: assigning roles to different facilitators so that someone can be in charge of process support and someone else in charge of any technical assistance needed worked very well.
- Expectations: there is a need to limit aims and increase the time available to allow people to contribute effectively.
- First access: if possible, support participants’ first access to online whiteboard individually before the workshop.
- Engagement: keep the number of people lower to maintain engagement among participants – or ensure you can have breakout rooms.
- Concerns: be sensitive to security issues.
- Simplicity: if working as a single facilitator then you need to keep things simple.
- Support: be prepared to support others by writing sticky notes on their behalf and consider need for private working time at the start of brainstorming.
- Schedule: allow for much more (x 1.5-2) time than usual in a co-located meeting.
- Pace and variety: some brainstorming time using e-sticky-notes followed by some time chatting (if group is small enough) with the facilitator capturing thoughts, worked well in one session.
- Linkages: make the most of being able to link sticky notes across template layers. When a note is moved around, the links move with it, so the linkage will be maintained / preserved and help the derivation of important narratives at the end.
- Back-up routes: if people cannot access the board or it freezes on them, then you can share your own screen, so they can see what is going on, and ask them to contribute through the chat, so you can post their comments for them.
- Plan B: if the event is important then have an alternative technology set up so you have something to turn to quickly.
Online whiteboard set-up
As a facilitator it takes time to learn how best to set up the whiteboard in advance. Some aspects to consider include:
- Double checking navigation mode (mouse, track-pad, touch) in settings.
- Highlighting a place to start on the board when people first follow the link to it.
- Locking down the features (e.g. boxes or prompts) you don’t want to be moved during the discussion.
- Allocating individual working areas and ‘ready to go’ sticky notes.
- Tagging sticky notes with people’s names before the activity.
- Using jpeg templates, wide format (16/9) and frames when designing the main digital workspace for better control, visuals and navigation.
Wrap up comment
Research feedback has indicated that participants enjoyed the virtual collaboration experiences and found them more effective than they had anticipated. Particularly they liked the digital record of the information generated and the ability to return to this in their own time, to reflect on it further and adjust it. People liked trying out the online whiteboards and it remains to be seen whether this novelty factor will wear off over time. This may be counteracted as the features on the whiteboards themselves evolve, keeping enough novelty to engage participants. There may remain a challenge of using the different platforms as they integrate more features – will we all have to be proficient in all of them? Or will there become a dominant design after this era of ferment, as there is in some many technology-based industries?
As we hope that progress is made, and face-to-face workshops become possible once again, it is likely that the online whiteboard will allow for hybrid experiences in workshops.
The research inputs come from Michele’s DBA research on digitalization of collaborative strategizing.
The practical insights for this article were gathered from multiple colleagues and collaborators – many thanks to: Maicon Oliveira, Amanda Bamford, Diana Khripko, Imoh Ilevbare, Frank Tietze and others in CTM.
Tips for online workshops, focusing on structuring the interaction and maintaining participation, have been collated from a range of sources by IfM ECS here.