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How to Collaborate Online with Bart Doorenwert (part 1)

Luke Szyrmer September 29, 2020 37

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There are patterns of offline and online collaboration which can supercharge your ability to run interactive meetings. Dig into peer learning as a collaboration tool with Bart Dooerenwert.

About Bart Doorenwert

Bart Doorenwert is a master facilitator, problem solver, and community builder. He discovered peer learning when building entrepreneurial communities on frontier markets. He is also the author of the Peer Learning guide available for free at:



There’s a big misconception about what interactivity is and and see it being interpreted a lot as showmanship. I see a lot of people with workshops or people with events bringing stuff online. The first priority they have is to is the show with the bells and whistles and the lights and the whole operation turns into a live news broadcast studio, green screen. If you look at the people listening in, they’re still basically watching a TV show. You are listening to the Elion Remotely podcast, the show dedicated to helping lead distributor teams under difficult circumstances.

I’m the host, Luke Scherba, and I’ve participated in or distributed teams for almost a decade. As a practitioner, I’m speaking with experts on leadership, strategic alignment and remote work to help you navigate the issues start facing after you get. Today’s episode is on interactivity in the context of working online and in particular around problem solving. Essentially, you need to be interactive to solve problems effectively as a group. The biggest tool that I’ve actually come across in terms of this is thinking about problem solving as a form of group learning, particularly in conditions of high uncertainty like we have with the pandemic.

This episode goes into what true interaction means, and it’s not about putting on a circus and show. So let’s dig in. Welcome to the podcast part, very excited to have you on, so to talk about interactivity and peer to peer interactions, both in person and remote. So could you tell us a little bit about how you got into peer to peer in the first place?

Yes, I have a background in agriculture engineering here. Learning has always been a part of how farmers in agriculture learn, where they take turns and visit farms and then run through the numbers and they look at the cows, look at the crops and compare. We did not invent peer learning. It’s been there forever. We’re also not the only dudes to make a framework after graduation and work for the universe. As a researcher for some time, I got into more of an education role.

I got into the play of designing these types of workshops and what I really liked was the experiential workshop angle where people were able to learn something about theory or concepts, but then immediately within that same workshop, apply that to whatever project they’re working on currently. So the curriculum, which comes from the conversations you have with the people in that community and what’s hot, what are the current questions? One of the big things people are working on struggling with.

Right. And then your curriculum will be about that. And you have to figure out, OK, it’s a good topic. So how do we inject knowledge from outside or maybe within the community and get people to meet to exchange on those topics and learn from each other?

The way I’m hearing it, there’s an interactive component, but there’s also a it depends on who you’re with in the room component to it.

Also, in terms of learning, part of it is exactly knowing what experience and expertise is in the room, but then also knowing which expertise or experience to invite into the room if something is lacking and invites such a person as a role model or as a as a coach who could do a clinic in a way to apply outside expertise in some of group into the context of the group. So everybody sees this as something I can use and interesting and new knowledge that helps me.

What’s the role of self direction and all of this?

If you’re learning from peers, it’s pretty big. Yeah, it’s all about self direction.

I think peer learning applies best in circumstances or topics that are the frontier type of topics where it’s pretty new and there’s not a lot of knowledge known or formalized about the area and people need to find their own way. Then if you are operating at the frontier, you have to be there for a reason, which is that you want to be there yourself. And that’s the key of the self directed elements.

And what are its different points to traditional education in business?

It’s it’s it’s a conventional learning depends very heavily on centralization of knowledge, formalization, and then broadcasting it and repeating memorization. And it’s distributing no knowledge and it works for that circumstance. It’s a stable, stable conditions, things that have been the same for a very long time. And people need to learn about these things. That’s the type of education that works.

And then you check that they’ve learned something basically. Yes. Yeah. Whether they learned a thing that you said or spoken. Yeah, yeah. But when you’re dealing with frontier topics, when yeah, there’s a lot of new things and a lot of unknowns, then the whole structure of learning becomes more exploratory and you have to learn from the other explorers. They’re barging in without trampling around in the frontier. And I’ve tried things and learn things and also things you should not be doing or that how they failed and share those types of stories.

It’s learning from personal anecdotes. And the way you spread that information is by getting those experience into the room and figuring out a format, a way of exchanging amongst people how that knowledge can be spread in the group. It’s not even the books haven’t been written there. The founders working on interesting topics don’t have the flashy consultant PowerPoint deck gets to present the keynote. It’s in their head the stories and they’re good stories. And it become even better if you mix them with a group of people that actually can directly apply that knowledge or just reflect and sparerib it.

OK, so I’m hearing you say this. How would that apply to this particular problem in working with? The main difference is that in the traditional conventional trainings and adjudication goes, is that you depend very much on the expert who’s gathered a lot of information, has a history of gathering relevant information that expert broadcasts and shares that type of information and learning works more with. Peers and learning in a group and using the wisdom of the group to solve problems.

Great knowledge and share.

Is it about creating knowledge or about solving problems?

The main goal for the entrepreneurs practically is to solve problems and also to reflect on perspectives, things that might happen in the future. This is just not about reflection as well as in creating knowledge. I think that sort of comes when there’s a pattern of conversations or topics around those problems that keep repeating. And then somebody will say, oh, we should make a framework out of this or book about this. And then, yeah, that sort of materializes out of those interactions.

There’s less of a teacher and parent earning your teachers or the other people in the room that you interact with and reflect and guide you.

One thing that kind of comes to mind is you’re speaking of frontier type situations, frontier markets, lots of unknowns. What are your thoughts about the pandemic? Basically putting all of us on a frontier? It’s very exciting.

How has peer to peer learning as an approach to the mindset, as a tool been useful for you and other practitioners?

I think for one thing, it’s brought people to question a lot of the premises they have about what remote was or what it could mean for them, for instance. So before you’d have meetings physically and it was just the way things were done. And so the rest was via email or phone, but meetings in person were like the main thing and things. I’ve spoken to a director of a big municipality here in Holland at the beginning of the pandemic, we had a sort of a gathering of these types of people that ventilates about all these problems we have with going remote and how do you keep people connected and learning.

You described this very strange setting where the whole organization had never heard of chat before as a formal tool they would use or video calling. But how do you do that?

And they try to implement their own traditions as to how to organize meetings where there would be one person talking most of the time and see that augmented like the virtual setting where people were just nodding off and they uptimes meeting. They were in and it broke completely. And because people are running into sort of these realizations like, hey, what I am used to doing does not work in this virtual context. People are questioning a lot like how do I need to change this?

How do I need to make it work? And the interesting part of I’m hearing now the months of doing have said I’m hearing stories of people actually inventing new ways of teaching, of interacting in meetings that are super interesting. And they’re here to stay. And eventually, I think when we get out of this thing, hopefully, but I don’t know. Who knows? Yeah, I think a lot of ideas and concepts will stick and we’ll have a different way of of interacting and working together, be it remote or in person that in that way, because now we have to re-examine the whole the whole way.

We’re we’re communicating basically from scratch with this and it’s opening up minds in a way. So in that sense, it’s an exciting time. Yeah. And I mean, as an educator, I get to try a lot of things as well, which is fun and interesting. Yeah, yeah.

It’s very much almost expected and not even allowed. But you have everyone interacting with is also trying to adapt and that kind of thing now.

So you have clients that freak out by the idea of you trying something new, like I’ve never tried this before, but have you built it up before?

Interactivity. This is a topic that seems to come up quite a lot in terms of Zoome meetings. Presenters are afraid of whatever they’re doing won’t be interactive and everyone’s just going to be mute and flossing their teeth. And on the other hand, you have participants which need to sit through hours and hours of streaming content of varying quality and relevance. What does interactivity mean in this context?

I think there’s a big misconception about what interactivity is and and see it being interpreted a lot as showmanship. And I see a lot of people with workshops or people with events bringing stuff online. The first priority they have is to is the show with the bells and whistles and the lights and the the whole operation turns into a live news broadcasting studio with green screen.

If you look at the people listening in, they’re still basically watching a TV show or expecting one or at least they should look at the basic interaction.

It’s not very different from just the zoo meeting, it’s just looks nicer if it has something gratifying to see animation and things flying and panting cameras and switching perspectives, but that still is not the interaction that you want. I think what interaction really means, what people are looking for is more control over interacting and contributing in a group setting, especially when you’re looking at a remote situation. I think one of the hardest thing I had to figure out online is how to give people control over what topics they want to raise, if they want to dive deeper into something.

How do you halt the process and focus on that? How do you give people a sort of a menu or things to choose from so they can pick where they want to talk about rather than me determining? We’re going to talk about this. And those are all things that you do in a in person period setting more intuitively because you have space, you have people, you have breakout room tables, and you can shift people around each. So it’s easier to organize.

And when you’re doing that online, you have to really think the basics. OK, so so does Zoome allow people to choose their own breakthroughs? Know, OK, how do we create that atmosphere that people can freely navigate the menu of what you want to offer and and and interact with the people they need to be interacting with.

So it’s almost like creating a space in digital space in the software and the structure around which the interaction can take place. And it is constrained by the features of the software you’re using. But at the same time, those features themselves aren’t actually what’s important. It’s the human interaction.

Yeah, what I, I’ve seen is that there’s like a basic set of features, for instance, with Zoom that anticipates a very minimum level of interaction like raise your hand right question chat checkbox, give a thumbs up emoji. Right. Those are basic forms of interaction. But like when you want to do really funky stuff, like giving people the choice to which breakout rooms they want to join, Zoom does not have that built in the way. And I think it never will because it’s a very highly customized way of interaction.

But yeah, as a facilitator for a certain process, like, I want to make that happen. So how do I do it? And then, yeah, you find workarounds with whiteboards and you put links on whiteboards. Right to personal zoom links. So people click on the whiteboard and pop into a certain room and just label a Post-it with a topic or something people can choose. And there are workarounds. It’s interesting just to figure out a very basic way of giving people the power to navigate a crowd and then become part of a smaller subgroup where conversations take place and then it starts to 30, 40, 50 hundred people.

Some room, it’s dead, right.

It doesn’t go up to five people in a room. Then you can have a natural way of talking in conversation. And that’s the trick that you have to do. And that’s what I would consider interactivity.

I wrote an article a while back about how certain software programs are designed from the ground up for interaction amongst people. I think a lot of these whiteboard apps, they like mirror or mural.

They’ve been around in one form or another for a few years. But now they’re finally mature enough that you actually can use them.

And well timed with the pandemic, they start coming because those things have been a blessing.

It’s just like even recently discovered what else works is a concept of skeuomorphism where you have interaction digitally with objects that look like the thing in real life to iPhone had that with like their first apps, like YouTube was a TV and the calendar was like a diary, but a leather bound diary. I can click it. It looked like the thing in real life. And, you know, with whiteboards you’re able to make like a stage. I was literally just took a picture of a stage on there.

And then you put a picture of a person or you put a topic on stage and you focus on stage and you share your screen the stage and it works. It gives people a sense of, OK, we’re focusing on this. You can put like arrows and areas and you can decorate with plants and you can you make something of it which gives people a feeling of, yeah, this person or this environment that I’m entering is yeah, it’s taken care of and people are giving people the thought into it.

And it works, engages people’s. Yeah, it brings focus to discussions, whiteboards. People can also take control. They can make stuff. They can take notes, they can share notes. They can even when the meeting’s done, they can still use the handles of the people that were. In the meeting on the boards and you start side conversations, you can still use the artifacts that you’ve made during whatever meeting that. So, yeah, I think they’ve been a blessing and they work working and did things in South America with Peru is a very bad Internet connection.

And it worked. They just it’s amazing stuff. You’re working with a group that’s trying to solve a difficult problem. How do you think about the group goals and the group dynamics when you are going into a peer learning session?

The first thing is you need to create a setting where people can bond and it should be a safe space where people can open up and share. Because if there’s a defensiveness, if there’s competitiveness in a group, it becomes very hard to unlock or even get good questions on this question. I don’t know this. What is it about? People don’t pretend to know everything.

And when somebody has a problem, they will solve it instantly. You want to create a setting firstly of openness and familiarity within the group. Then you spend like time to cultivate that very actively and consciously enter a new group. Sometimes it’s established right. And do a couple of things that feel like they’re in it and we can move ahead. But sometimes you need to start from scratch and find very basic human common ground before you delve into whatever challenges or problems before.

So one of the things you try to do is in a group setting to remove jargon from the way people talk, because then there are people who just don’t understand it and they feel inferior or incompetent in a way.

You know, it’s also a setting where you use authority of people who are a bit further or more advanced to actually help actively help the young guys. And you can tag people as a sort of manager or the curator of the group because who needs to be helped write in a clinical setting. There’s interesting interactions that you can think of to help these people come along as usually, yeah, when new people come in or people who don’t speak the language or are a bit timid, the conversation has to go to very elementary wording.

And that’s when people actually realize, like, oh shit, we actually know what we’re doing here. We explain it to this new person. So that’s a big problem. And it’s also like what you’re trying to do with it, essentially with peer learning, is to combine new spheres of knowledge that have not been combined in any way before. So in that same space that you’re trying to create, what you’re doing is telling people that this is new.

So we need to still figure out how to talk to each other here. And the best way we can figure out our common language is by very practical stuff that we’re doing and collaborate and to see if we can work together. And it’s not nobody has the one answer or the right answer here. What we’re trying to do is actually figure out how to collaborate. And having somebody who feels like new or alien to that environment is actually very of interesting, sort of bottleneck to work with.

Let’s see how we can put this person into a capacity in another capacity that will work where they where there are their knowledge or their experience or their super powers will be expressed in the way we interact and collaborate. So that’s very much part of that. That saves a safe space, setting it and dealing with particular anxieties or apprehensions that people might have as a facilitator. Somebody is quiet.

You can just defer the conversation to them or ease them into the conversation by asking them questions or you’re getting them to share about what they don’t know and then maybe tell you that you don’t know that there’s anybody else in the room know about this, connect people in that way.

Tell us about the book. The peer learning guide, that’s been an interesting journey and writing that I think the main reason why this is for ourselves to be an. Talking about peer learning for a couple of years, we’ve been applying it and learning and we saw this shift in the way you do things with more matured, more advanced communities versus starting communities and. And we’ve got to think, OK, so how do we work, like how do we do these things that we do and how do we design programs of a week or two weeks, like how we do it, but how do we do it?

It’s available online, the website is peerlearning.is or is you can read all our writing, basically our sort of book, we had the idea of making a book out of it, but we did not get any further than a collection of sort of our chapters online. But it’s all there. There’s also a drip newsletter. It’s automated, you sign up and then every three days you get a. A little excerpt from the book, some explanation, some chapters to read to ease you into the matter of if you if you find it interesting and if you’re interested, then we definitely still like to hear from you and get feedback on what we’re working on.

It’s just the first sort of the Voyager probe. Maybe that’s just sending that thing out there and then seeing what type of alien mind will say, hey, I understand that.

Yeah, I’m going to use that word. I want to get in touch with you. Well, we tried to do is list formats, but give people which formats to pick for which particular. Circumstanced, how do you sequence formants? That’s great. Bart, thank you very much. So that was quite an intellectual whirlwind of an episode. I think my biggest takeaways are the principles at work, in particular the idea of inverting control and letting learners lead so that learners can solve problems themselves and enabling that as a group, regardless of whether you’re doing it online or offline.

I think that’s a really powerful principle that really helps speed things up in terms of coming to good solutions. The other thing is to think in terms of who knows whom. Even in an organization where you do have a lot of people, various people interact only within their own immediate groups, which tends to limit the amount of knowledge that they’re exposed to.

So, in fact, deliberately looking at who can be introduced together so that it’s useful both within the company and sometimes even outside of it, can help really speed things up in terms of getting a good interaction going. A fruitful, most important. So our next episode is going to go slightly in a different direction. He’s looking at achieving results and what that actually means in practice, in particular, what it means for leaders and managers. So tune in next time.

Thanks for listening to this episode of the online remotely podcast, if you enjoy the show, please leave a review on iTunes, Google podcasts or wherever you get your podcast.

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