A regular part of our activities at Community Works is the design of processes that enable communities and organisations to achieve their aims around planning, training, exploring new directions or bringing different people together to discuss a complex issue. Recent examples include:

  • Short online sessions for NGOs in Chile and Ecuador to discuss organisational development and community engagement strategies
  • Developing theory of change statements with organisations in India and Australia
  • Planning for a training workshop on community development for a disability services provider in Sydney
  • >Forest management planning workshops in three rural communities in Australia
  • Designing capacity-building sessions on mental health for support workers in communities affected by floods in Pakistan.

In every case, there are judgements to be made at the outset and during the work itself about the way the process runs (its tone, pace and level of interaction) and the content to be included. The more we are involved in this work, the more I have understood that the value to the participants depends enormously on these judgement calls. This article offers reflections on the subject taken from our own practice.

The most important starting point for optimal decisions on the process is to appreciate and empathise with the participants who have been invited. The answers to simple questions have great value, such as who the participants are, what kind of work they do and what their expectations are likely to be? A level of accuracy around the replies to these questions is very helpful in designing the process, especially if there is no time to meet or to survey them in advance.

Let’s consider an example to illustrate the point. We are often asked to run short training workshops on, for example, monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) or community engagement for teams delivering health-related services. The individuals have probably been recruited because of their skills and background in a specific health field, like working with people vulnerable to addiction or supporting young mothers. While the training might be critically important to them, the participants may not have had any exposure to the subject before. In fact, they could be anxious that the training will be very technical and not easy to understand.

In a situation like this, we spend a lot of time working out the best way to build people’s confidence around a subject. In the case of MEL, with its language of indicators, data collection and analysis, participants might feel that they are being asked to become researchers, but without any prior experience in that subject. The pace of the workshop and the choice of content is therefore vital if they are to feel they have achieved progress through a short training workshop.

Another situation common to our work is the design of community consultation processes. Let’s say a large organisation, such as a government department, is developing a plan for the management of natural resources in a region and they wish to consult with local people. For this to be a meaningful process, the key judgements to be made are around the level of openness and inclusivity that is desirable within the constraints of time and other resources. Who will be invited to participate? How much of the consultation will be conducted through surveys and how much will be in-person? How many locations will be the site of a consultation workshop, especially if travel distances are large?

In a recent example of this kind of process, the key judgement call was that work in small groups would be an effective way to make sure everyone had a chance to talk about the key issues. It also provided an opportunity for everyone present in the workshops could hear everything that had been said by everyone else. In other words, we prioritised openness as a principle instead of using the time available to analyse what the groups had discussed. Everyone’s voice was heard because their comments were written on cards and read out to the entire participant group. The analytical work was deferred to the next part of the process. The result was that the workshop generated content for later analysis and feedback was that this was most valuable to the participants because they felt that their work had been taken seriously.

Turning to another scenario that is common to Community Works, we are often asked at the outset of a process about the degree of interactivity that will be involved. By this, I mean how much of the process will be characterised by presentations followed by questions and answers as opposed to a more interactive approach using group and individual exercises that emphasise everyone being active in the process.

It might be the case that some staff of organisations actually resent being required to attend workshops and that some community members are tired of meetings. For that reason, it might be assumed that those people come along intending to sit back in their chairs and listen, but not necessarily to participate actively. Our experience is that we have never received feedback that there was too much interactivity in a workshop. My starting point in planning a process is therefore to aim to get people active and engaged from the start, but in a way that takes into account who the participants are, how reserved they might be, their comfort in the main language of the workshop and their physical ability to move around if we are proposing exercises that require people to be up on their feet. In other words, the judgement to be made on interactivity ought to be influenced by our empathy for the people who are going to be there.

The best recent example of a decision we made to be highly interactive was in a training workshop conducted by Javeriana University, Community Works and Kindred for a group of mental health professionals in Colombia. Participants ranged from senior academics and experienced physicians to early-career practitioners and students. They responded to the group and individual exercises put to them by energetically drawing visual models, responding to questions we posed and taking part in role-playing scenarios. This approach may not have been effective with a less open group of people, but here it maximised the value of the workshop for everyone.

These reflections point us in a similar direction. The design of professional and community workshops and related processes must start with an appreciation of the people who will be participating. Investing time in finding out who is coming, the relevant aspects of their backgrounds and their likely expectations is fundamental to achieving the best results for everyone. At the same time, the information needs to be used for careful judgments on the design of every aspect of the process.