September 15, 2014

Selena McLachlan

3 Benefits of Online Consultation

Community consultation, or simply stated, providing a forum to hear from stakeholders and constituents, is quickly becoming a favoured and best practice amongst collaborative leaders. It’s also quickly becoming a mainstream, public expectation – “If a decision being made impacts me, I want and expect to have a voice in it.”

As leaders, we all want to create a meaningful forum for as many of those voices as possible to be heard and considered, but how? By what means? And at what time and cost? With a plethora of methods such as town halls, committee meetings, focus groups, surveys and comment boxes – all with their own pros and cons – one method, online consultation, is quickly proving to fill in the inherent gaps of all the others combined.

Here are three key benefits of using an online consultation process.

Equal opportunity for participation

We’ve all been there before – at a town hall or committee meeting – when it’s impossible to get a word in edgewise. Either because we weren’t comfortable voicing our opinion, or the mic turned into someone’s personal soapbox. While methods like these have their place, they often unintentionally alienate the majority of stakeholders.

As leaders, it’s our role to ensure that equal time and energy is allotted to each group or perspective. We have a responsibility to remove barriers that may prevent participation, such as providing a comfortable space to share thoughts and ideas, where even the most self-conscious or shy member of the community can have a voice. One such leader and ThoughtExchange customer is Dr. Becky Berg, Superintendent of the Marysville School District in Washington, who is convinced that online engagement is the answer. It increasingly offers one of the most effective and cost efficient ways to increase participation, while providing a safe place to share thoughts and ideas. And as Dr. Berg says, “We are accountable to the people that we serve, so every voice is vital.”

Time and again it’s been proven that the collective wisdom in the “room” is always smarter than any single person in it – and that includes us as leaders.

Shorter timeframe means faster decision-making and more frequent engagement

In so many ways, we as a society, have become addicted to speed. Whether it’s the speed of the internet, fast-food, or even online-dating, we’ve become accustomed to finding the answers to our needs “now”. Decision-making is really not that different. Our stakeholders want and expect us to make decisions faster. But add to this the complexity of making decisions which involve all members of your community, each having a voice – at their convenience – and you’ve got a difficult task at hand. With this expectation looming, there’s no time for drawn out meetings or lengthy proposals.

Large-scale online consultation ensures that the speed of the engagement process does not undermine the quality of the decisions made. In fact, the significant increase in community participation realized and the forum it provides for meaningful input and exchange of ideas, leads not only to quicker decisions, but sounder ones too – with the added benefit of being able to engage more often as a result of the time gained. And when it comes to making important strategic decisions that impact everyone in a given community, who wouldn’t want that?

More people means more diversity and more ownership

Whether we’re talking about a membership, group or association, most stakeholder communities are made up of a mosaic of people with varying beliefs, cultures, demographics, and socio-economic backgrounds. This level of diversity adds a definite degree of complexity for any leader seeking buy-in from its stakeholders. But as all good leaders know, it’s well worth the effort. Buy-in leads to trust, mutual respect, understanding and ultimately ownership of decisions made – which is the glue that binds any community.

Understanding issues from as many diverse perspectives as possible, offers true insight into important issues not found amongst like-minded individuals. It also provides an opportunity to demonstrate that all perspectives are important, no matter where they come from or how popular they are. Interestingly, diverse opinions are often worrisome for many of us, as we tend to equate diversity with minority views. In fact, using online consultation, the exact opposite is true. It allows you to hear from the “middle majority”, whereas many traditional methods such as town halls, often boost the polar views of minority members.

Needless to say, the task of making the “best decision for the best number of people” becomes all the more challenging as diversity amongst our communities grows. Online consultation, while not without a few of its own limitations, remains the best form of engagement when it comes to increasing participation. The more people, the more diversity. The more diversity, the more inclusive and sound the end decision is.

As Dr. Becky Berg echoes, “It’s hard to make good decisions when a town hall meeting only brings out a few dozen people on even the most contentious topics. It’s really exciting to be part of a movement that goes beyond traditional methods to building a long lasting robust relationship with our community.”

What types of consultation have you tried lately?

Selena McLachlan

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