Enhancing the effectiveness of online groups: an investigation of storytelling in the facilitation of online groups
Thorpe, Stephen John
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Building relationships in the world of online groups is a recent, exciting and challenging area for the field of group facilitation. Evidence has shown that online groups with strong relationship links are more effective and more resilient than those with without them. Yet, the processes and techniques to effectively facilitate the building of these online relationships are not yet understood and there is scant empirical knowledge to assist practicing group facilitators in this important task. Challenges arise when many of the embodied aspects of inter-personal communication, such as body language, tone of voice, emotions, energy levels and context are not easily readable by group members and facilitators. Many of the well established group processes and interventions that facilitators rely upon in face-to-face situations do not translate effectively or are simply not available in an online group situation. Storytelling, however, presented one approach from the domain of face-to-face group facilitation that might translate well online. Storytelling is well known as an enabler for people to connect at a deeper and an embodied level. It can be highly effective at building strong social ties and group resilience – right across a wide range of settings. This thesis inquired into storytelling’s potential for online facilitation practice with the question of how is storytelling beneficial in building relationships in a facilitated online group? Starting with the premise that storytelling will be an effective approach, eighteen facilitators from the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) came together to collectively research the area using a participative approach. The intent of the approach was to involve online facilitation practitioners in the research so that their motivations, ways of looking at things, and questions could have value and that their experiences would be at the heart of the data generated. A variety of online software tools were used including: email, Skype™ conferencing, telephone conferencing, video and web conferencing, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), blogging, online surveys and within the 3-D interactive world of Second Life™. The study affirmed that storytelling assisted relationship development across a range of online settings. As anticipated, storytelling aided identity creation; scenario description; describing conflict and to articulate learning edges. The availability of an extra text channel during a primarily oral communication is seen as a potentially valuable contribution to the art of storytelling. In addition, the study offers a challenge to the storytelling field in proposing that direct contact between teller and listener is not always a priori requirement. The blending of roles raises some ethical challenges for online facilitation practice. The also inquiry confirmed that software tool selection was critical for ensuring full participation and buy-in to online group decisions. The 3-D, avatar-based medium of Second Life™ assisted with emotional connections. A range of new opportunities emerged through co-researchers engaging with the research process that inform the practice of group facilitation. They expand the role and horizons of the online facilitator in relation to the wider profession of group facilitation. Reflections are made about the International Association of Facilitators Statement of Values and Code of Ethics for Group Facilitators and IAF Core Competencies and some guidelines for the practice of online facilitation are offered.