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I once served on an advisory group process that spanned a number of months and consisted of a steering committee, a workgroup, three subcommittees and a couple of ad hoc committees.  I was not the facilitator but a participant and as the weeks unfolded, I found myself increasingly frustrated by the lack of process for facilitating the management of documents.  That lack, meant that meeting minutes arrived in various inconsistent formats.  Worse, minutes were consistently presented as sketchy and random notes rather than an effective process/decision summary.  There was no accessible centralized file archive of documents presented at meetings nor were there version controlled copies of the recommendation papers being developed by the subcommittees.  The bottom line is the lack of document organization negatively impacted the productivity of the group.

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I compare a document management plan to the “operating system” of a computer.  The user of a computer doesn’t turn on his/her computer and think “hmmm is my OS X or Windows XP working today?” –okay maybe you question your Windows operating system- but in general one does not often think about the operating system even though it is what makes the computer work. While we word process or email, or work with databases and spreadsheets the operating system makes the experience seamless.  In the same way document management should be something operates in the background as a critical operating platform that supports the facilitation process. Effectively managing documents needs to be part of the facilitator’s “operating system” because it is essential to the facilitation process.

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In this day of age, I cannot imagine a facilitation consultant working with a client without creating a shared electronic workspace for the effective management of documents.  In fact, I have presented a two-part overview (Part 1 & Part 2) of facilitating in a shared electronic workspace.  In this post I would like to focus on the facilitation skill of developing a document management plan for creating, storing, editing and distributing of written materials.  I believe that the facilitation skills associated with managing documents requires three distinct planning phases that include: 1) defining and mapping data, 2) creating people networks, and, 3) creating connections between people and data.

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Defining & Mapping Data:  At the start of every project, the facilitator needs to be clear about the expectations relating to documents being developed and the associated documentation process.  In general, a larger facilitation process will include: a) progress documentation b) reference documentation; and c) production documents.  Process documentation includes such things as meeting agendas, minutes, process summaries, and workplans. Reference documentation, might be reports, articles, manuals, slide presentations that collectively comprise the project-based information library. Production documents are those documents that become part of the project deliverables.  For example, facilitating a proposal development process, the production documents would include the narrative, budget, forms and appendices.

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Once the documentation requirements are defined, they then need to be mapped in order to be accessible. Specifically mapping includes: a) using a defined hierarchy of folders, b) standardizing naming conventions for files, and c) for really complex projects defining the knowledge taxonomy or folksomony (the subject of another post to be written). Finally decisions need to be made as to how the documents will be accessible.  Ideally, electronic documents need to be centralized on shared drive or collaborative workspace.  If there is a print document file system then it is the facilitator’s role to provide access to the document files.  Going back to my opening advisory committee example, every advisory committee member was given a 3” binder with tabs. Possibly a good start but then again, not all materials were distributed in a print format; rarely were the agendas or handouts three-hole punched; and none of the documents had clear version control (i.e., creation date headers or footers).

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Creating People Networks:  The second consideration in creating a document system is to determine the people need access to what information and how is the best way to keep them informed?  Going back to the advisory board example, we could be confident that randomly someone who should have received the communication would be left off the distribution list. The facilitator’s response would inevitably be, “I did not know s/he needed the information.”  In good document design practice, at the beginning of the process, information users need to be defined clearly and given appropriate access to materials. For example, are there decision makers or stakeholders external to the process that need to be informed as the process unfolds? Part of facilitation planning needs to include creating a clear picture of the people network involved with the process.

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Creating Connections Between People & Data: The final consideration for creating a document management plan is to create the appropriate connections between the documents and people network.  How the participants will use the documents in a facilitation process requires some thought.  If data and documents are categorized into process, reference and production, it suggests connecting the team with documents in different ways.  Process documents, such as meeting minutes and workplans, may be filed in an online repository or distributed (three-hole punched) for filing into binders.  However, within minutes and workplans are often tasks that should be called out to make the information useful.  Many web-based shared workspaces have functionality for document storage as well as the creation and assignment of tasks (yet another argument for supporting facilitation with technology).  However, even if meeting minutes are distributed by email as an attachment, good facilitation will “call out” in the text of the email message the action steps and tasks, responsible person(s) and due dates.  For reference documents, it is useful to associate the name of contributor to the document itself (either as a tag, or as part of the file name). If this connection is made explicitly then team members with questions about a resource can go to the document owner  for clarification and/or expansion.  Finally, team members accessing production documents need to have permissions assigned, such as “read only,” “read and edit,” or  “approve or delete” and, of course, the facilitator must ensure version control.

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Taken together, the process of thinking about documentation, documentation use, and how the two interface is key to the facilitation processes. Developing a documentation plan as part of facilitation should be standard practice, although I have encountered few facilitators who are so intentional about this process.  To be successful in this area, a facilitator needs to be familiar with concepts of information ecology and knowledge management in addition to having strong technology competencies. The benefits of investing the time and energy in document planning are seen in greater productivity, efficiency of the process.  For facilitators, understanding document management is essential when there is more at stake than running a good meeting.

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Again, you comments are welcome.

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Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.