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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Conference Session Breakout

Update: 12/19/2007. There has been great discussion in the comments. I wanted to provide a bit more context for this.

The session will be workforce learning professionals (an ASTD audience). They will range greatly in terms of the kinds of organizations, their experience.

I'm trying to get them to think about the question "How might you use Blogs, Wikis, Social Bookmarking, Social Networking, Collaboration Tools in your organization?"

I have a list of about 30 ideas, but I think it's useful to think about your organization, your specific context and come up with ideas for where these things might apply. I was planning to do this in small groups and then have them come back together in the larger group. But what I'm hearing is that this is not a good choice...

Original post ... Uh oh, I just saw a post by Donald Clark slamming the use of small group breakouts during conference sessions.
It’s a tired old fossil of a format.

The topic for discussion is usually some ill-defined, banal question, so the group spend a further ten minutes clarifying what’s expected. The time left is usually far too short to get anything meaningfully debated and agreed. Even then it’s often a random selection of thoughts, rants and personal beefs.

Feedback to the group consists of a series of disjointed thoughts, often weighted towards the thoughts of the facilitator. These are scribbled up on acres of flipchart pages blue-tacked on the wall, thereby ruining the d├ęcor of the room. The problem here is that this is hardly ever distilled into any sensible points for action.

You’re generally left feeling short-changed.

Uh oh ...

I was pulling together my slides for ASTD TechKnowledge and had planned to do a small group breakout and then have each group contribute to the larger group. This is not something I normally do. And I've certainly had some of the experiences that Donald describes. Now I'm worried.

Do I still do the breakout? Or is Donald pretty much right on track?

My slides are due Friday, Dec. 21.


wslashjack said...

You already presented the key to successful breakout sessions, Tony.

Make sure each group has a specific charter: what will they discuss? what is the specific, expected outcome, and how does it support the larger topic.

They can work if you organize them right...and the benefit is a more active session. However, if you have tested the water and you don't think you have people to keep each group focused and active, you might want to call an audible at the line of scrimmage.

bill7tx said...

I agree, in general, with Don's points, IF they are taken as guidelines and NOT as totally ruling out the possibility of using small group breakouts during conference sessions.

It seems to me that the idea is to provide a way for delegates to actively engage with the information in the presentation, and a way for those delegates to then generate useful dialog with the presenter. In the typical conference breakout, there is going to be little likelihood that delegates will learn anything from each other, though of course miracles do sometimes happen. And using the guide articulated by jackslash, maybe more miracles can happen.

Might it be more effective to provide an online space for delegates to collaborate/share AFTER the conference?

Anonymous said...

My question is what will the purpose of the breakout session be? Often, in a large group, (especially on line) only a few people (if it is synchronous, those that type quickly)get to have their ideas expressed.

If you want participation, and are willing to give up control, then I think small groups are great learning tools. The ill-defined questions might get participants to go into areas the presenter might not have intended, but sometimes that creates unexpected learning opportunities. The key word in the criticism is banal. The question should be thought provoking. The other important part of the small group activity is what is asked when the small groups come back. A simple reporting is not good enough. Another thought provoking question that builds on the first one (I think of Kolb's model--small group question promotes reflection; large group promotes generalization) is needed.

Some people might feel short changed because they weren't given "the answer", but I find the dialog much more enlightening.

Tony Karrer said...

This is great input. A couple of quick additional thoughts ...

The specific question I was going to be asking (after a bit of set up) was:

"How might you use Blogs, Wikis, Social Bookmarking, Social Networking, Collaboration Tools in your organization?"

The goal would be to have lots of ideas generated by groups.

Later the session would ask for barriers and I'll mention that.

I was going to ask each group to report back with the top few (3) they came up with that hadn't already been mentioned by another group and then at the end ask if there were any missed.

Any specific suggestions on the design of that interaction would be good. However, this does feel a bit like a vague question and maybe not the best reporting.

Stephen Downes said...

I have argued before, and would argue again, that the small group format is intended to stifle dissent. It is especially effective in complex issues against groups with minimal representation.

Tony Karrer said...

Stephen, you lost me on that. Can you point to your prior arguments so I can catch up with your thinking?

Anonymous said...

I find a hypothetical situation always helps to stimulate different ideas. For example, I might reword your initial question as: If you were an IT consultant asked to upgrade an organization, what types of Web 2.0 tools (blogs, wikis, social software, etc...) might you suggest in what types of work situations? This will not only have people talk about what they already know, but also what might be.

I would then follow it up with a question such as: Based on your discussions in your small groups, what guidelines would you suggest for the use of Web 2.0? How would these minimize barriers you might have identified in your discussions?

Benjamin Hamilton said...


My $0.02 is that I find small group activities a bit of a waste of time. In fact, I usually 'sigh' when the presenter puts us into small groups. Maybe it's some 'introvert' tendencies, but what bothers me most is that the presenter can usually cover most of the outcomes and results in much less time.

Specifically regarding the barriers activity, you probably know more barriers than most people in the room. You could present the barriers you've seen and then ask the audience if there are any others they've faced. Spend 3-4 minutes having people add additional barriers and then have the audience to raise their hands if this is a potential barrier where they work (you then get a racked-and-stacked list).

The bottom line for me is that I'm at the conference to learn as much as I can, and the small group format is usually a slow way to get to the same end.

But hey, if you decide to keep it, I'd still participate in the session if I were going (I'd just give you 4's instead of 5's :-)

Anonymous said...

Personally, the problem with breakout sessions is that I find myself getting frustrated with members of the group who see the session as a chance to relax and chat, especially when they form the majority. I have had sessions where the person reporting back (usually self selected as they are "such a good speaker") makes the group's points with comments along the lines of "I don't understand this one" (usually because they played no part in the original discussion) or key points from the group are dropped because they speaker doesn't agree or understand the issue.
By the same token, some of the best collaboration I have experienced is in these sessions and they are a fabulous network opportunity if people do not know each other. They give you the chance to see how someone works and thinks far beyond the banal social settings of the breaks.
When presenting, I have usually tried to steer clear of them as I find them to be huge time wasters: they rarely run to time and generally, groups are only productive in the last few minutes of the allocated time. There are better ways to get to the same result. If you go down these lines, I would strongly suggest stringent time frames, and as has been already suggested, very clear and specific guidelines as to the purpose.

Richard Sheehy said...

Breakout sessions can be boring and non-productive if the lessons learned by each group are the same. If each group is to answer the same questions and the purpose is to aggregate the responses at the end it is my opinion that there are few benefits.

If the sessions are used to provide the participants an opportunity to practice skills that are being learned then the small groupings are beneficial to learning and provide a mini community of practice.

Anonymous said...

Rather than post a long discussion of the comments, I wrote about the entire issue of groups and group communication within a conference on my blog (
Interestingly enough, I don't think there has been enough discussion or even research on these group interactions, especially in the context of virtual groups and group learning, even though teams and groups are vital in most organizational management strategies these days.

Mark Frank said...

I guess this is too late .. but in my experience Richard and vyonkers have the key points. Just asking people "How might you use Blogs, Wikis, Social Bookmarking, Social Networking, Collaboration Tools in your organization?" will provoke a bit of a yawn and get much the same response from each group. The value will come when you do the feedback. The group work beforehand is likely to be self-congratulatory but actually limited.

As Richard says why not give each group different tasks? And as yvonkers says why not bring it to life by putting it in a hypothetical situation? E.g. give them a short description of an organisation, allocate a specific technology (e.g. blogs, wikis) to each group ask them to prepare a sales pitch on how their technology will solve the problem. Or get half the groups to sell the web 2 concept and the other half to argue against it.

Then have a vote! So they are doing it for some end.

Tony Karrer said...

As a clarification - the audience is generally workplace learning professionals.

Part of the rationale for the question is that I want them to think about where these tools might apply to specifically their organization - not to a theoretical organization. I also want them to hear ideas from someone other than me.

Ben - I'm with you on your description - and, in fact, I could cover the same ground much faster. But I'm hoping that I'll change the mindset a bit. I could do it much faster as well by asking the audience (without small groups) but I'm still not sure that gets people to think about themselves, their situation, their organization, ack.

Mark - you say - "How might you use Blogs, Wikis, Social Bookmarking, Social Networking, Collaboration Tools in your organization?" will provoke a bit of a yawn and get much the same response from each group.

Yikes - I have a list of about 20 responses that I would expect. I'm going to tee up a couple or at least suggest that they might think about some of the different audiences they have, etc. I actually expected to get quite a long list. And really didn't think there would be a Yawn. But, I've been in enough sessions that break into small groups that were total Yawn questions - no interesting discussion - that's why this whole discussion is scaring me.

Oh, and, I still have two days to decide what to do.

What's my alternative design?

Beth Griese said...

I agree with the general thought here - in most cases, breakout groups devolve into chatfests or a few people holding court on their thoughts, and the presentations back to the group at large lose even more context and meaning.

As an alternative, how what about providing a sample company/case study for the small groups to work on, or maybe multiple case studies? The background for the sample company or companies are given to the whole lecture group. That way everyone is working with the same information, can evaluate the ideas and suggestions, and use the similarities with their own companies to put together their own action plans.

wslashjack said...

With your clarifications, Tony, I would stay the course. Do your breakouts. You already provide solid value in your presentations. The interactions should provide extra value that you cannot.

I would charge each group with, not just, what 2.0 method they might use, but what value they would derive from it (the why of it). And have them get the barriers listed, but find ways around them, as well.

Instead of having each group do a stand up report, maybe you can open it up to the whole group to expand the dialog. If you don't get enough from one group, go ahead and call on them, to give them a push-start.

But you're right, you can't get them working as hard by just lecturing, as you can by charging them with thinking and sharing.

Mark Frank said...


I am sure you have as much experience as anyone else participating in this discussion. Also you know your audience, the context and what you are trying to achieve. So no doubt you will come to your own decision. However, it is fun to imagine what you might do ...

Also it all depends hugely on what has gone before amd what happens afterwards. The subject matter is fascinating, very relevant to the audience and no doubt you will be giving an ace presentation and feedback. Given all this it seems to me you could ask them to do almost anything and it would work.

However, just for fun here's an idea - assuming the key objective is to get them to apply your ideas to real situations. It sounds a bit complicated but I have made similar exercises work - the secret is to introduce it a bit at a time.

1) Before you start the break out, in plenary, ask who thinks they know an organisation (could be their own) that might benefit from what you have just been talking about. Take three or four offers and choose one that you think is stimulating and clear. If necessary clarify/simplify it (Obviously have to manage the volunteers to keep their descriptions very short). Probably need a case study of your own as back up.

2) Now split into breakout groups. Ask each group to represent a different role - sales person for whoever is implementing the technology, end-users, senior management, person responsible for implementation, whatever. Ask them to prepare their view of solution, benefits, issues - from the point of view of their role.

3) At feedback time get them to explain their position and respond to the other groups in role.

4) During feedback be careful to relate discussion back to the other situations that came up.

This maybe completely inappropriate for you - but it is the kind of thing I like to do with groups.

Anonymous said...

I'm a teacher, and I've seen these same problems in many breakout sessions at regional union conferences. Occasionally, there's a good one-on-one contact, but there's so many transaction costs involved in the choreography of getting into and out of the breakouts that the whole session loses both time and people. This sounds like a warm-up activity instead. How about: hand people a worksheet as soon as they walk in the room. List your 30 ideas (why reinvent the wheel?) and have them circle their choices for the top three. At the bottom, leave spaces for questions like "what could your organization do with these choices?" and "if you could invent such a tool, what would it do?" Also push people to answer, "what did I leave off this list?" Make it almost like a treasure hunt. Then make sure you collect the pieces of paper within ten minutes. Get a volunteer to go through all the worksheets/surveys as you do your presentation. Give people assurances that you'll get them another copy of this (maybe already have another copy in their packet of materials with the url for where the updated list will be posted). All of this will build both momentum and focus for a more extended discussion. I don't know what your lesson plan for the whole is, or your expected class size. If you think people will need a more personal interaction in small groups, leave that for the end (yes, some people will leave, but those are the breaks). Thanks for this thread.

Guy Boulet said...

Personally, I attend a conference to learn from the experts (presenters) not from the crowd. I want to know about the presenter's expertise.

By experience, within small groups, only a few people get to express their ideas. Those who have strong personality take the floor and others often let them debate, even if they do not agree.

At the same time, I would feel like the presenter do not have the answers so he wants the attendance to provide him some.

Simple interaction with the audience through open questioning works better for me.

In the end, I would rather have one hour of you than one hour of small group work.

Clark said...

Tony, I've found group breakouts to be highly valuable, such as the ongoing case study I do in my game design workshop (highly rated, I'm pleased to say). I also did one for a mobile session that I thought worked well and is similar to yours. Reflecting on what worked, I had presented some concepts, and then gave them a targeted design task. So instead of asking "within your organization", I might say something like "first, pick one of your communication/collaboration problems", and then "now try each of wiki, blog, etc on that problem".

In the mobile session I had a matrix of 'sales | engineering | management | other' by (in your case) 'blog | wiki | (other)', and had them fill in the gaps, collaboratively. It's a bit more focused, and I think the exercise would work to open up their minds around the opportunities.

Good luck!

Stephen Downes said...

Oh I don't know the various places I've objected to them - here is one place - but the objections are simple enough.

1. Small groups are used to tax the resources of a minority perspective. By splitting the discussion into five or ten discussions, you split the resources of each delegation into five or ten, which isolates members of small delegations, limits their participation and communication, and can even omit minority views in some cases.

2. Small groups can also be used to transform a majority view into unanimity. Take a convention of 100 people, 60 percent on one side, 40 percent on another. Split into 10 groups, each split 6-4. Each group votes. The resulting vote, when reporting back to the plenary, is 10-0.

3. As others in this discussion have pointed out, small groups are often the locus of misrepresentation of individual opinions, as the single person reporting back to the plenary tends to report his or her own opinions rather than that of the members of the group.

4. Small groups are used to prevent any given individual from infecting the larger plenary with his or her ideas. One person, who may have been able to sway the larger plenary, is able to speak only in the small group session, and hence, even if his or her ideas are reported back accurately, there is no risk that his or her oratory will sway the larger group.

5. Small groups tax a person's time and effort. They can be (and are often) used to disguise the fact that nothing is actually being discussed and decided. Though the groups enable more people to speak, the audiences are sharply limited, and most of the people speaking had no intention of saying anything (and hence, are not prepared, and have few coherent thoughts). Small groups are used to stall meetings, to disguised unprepared organizers, and to distract attention.

Benjamin Hamilton said...


You mentioned you could do it faster, but you weren't sure if that would get people thinking about themselves and their own situation. However, in small groups, I think those "non-internalizers" are going to be the same ones that sit back and let others drive the discussion.

There are some good suggestions above, and there are several different strategies you could use. Since this discussion may have side-railed a portion of your presentation, I offer the following encouragement. In the end, just remember that intrinsic motivation still plays big role here. Obviously, the attendees will be coming with different motivations and different expectations, and you won't be able to optimize the presentation for everyone.

I'm looking forward to your reaction to how the presentation goes over.

Tony Karrer said...

Stephen - now I understand your position. I was thinking more of brainstorming, but you are right that people will then not get their ideas heard. I appreciate that insight!

Doug - I love the idea of using some kind of worksheet, especially one they could look at ahead of time. I did that recently with a survey and it worked great - however, there was a sizable group of folks who felt I was making them work too hard - sheesh. Still, I'm actually leaning that way right now if I can figure out the logistics.

This discussion has been fantastic for me. I've never liked the small group discussions much, but it's so common that I was going to do it badly myself. I actually like several of the other ideas as well and I'm a bit torn on how to attack it. So, I've got 24 hours to get it figured out!