Insights on Virtual Collaboration

by Rachel Klein, Partner of Strategic Initiatives at Catalyst:Ed

Settle in, folks, we’re in for a long fall and winter of Zoom meetings. But this doesn’t have to strike fear in our hearts. As it turns out, virtual meetings and conventions can be well-done, engaging, and dare-I-say: even better than sitting in a hotel ballroom for three long days, eating rubbery chicken.

Since COVID hit, our team at Catalyst:Ed has had the privilege of meeting and convening with some amazing people and organizations as part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Networks for School Improvement (NSI) and Intermediaries for Scale (IFS) portfolios. Each of these portfolios was built using evidence that collaborative learning via routine in-person convenings can accelerate the pace of learning across a network. Now that our learning and connection is exclusively virtual, we thought it would be helpful to surface the collective expertise of our partners in this work, and have done so in our newest paper entitled A New Paradigm for Collaboration: Virtual Network Support. Two of our key insights include:

  • There is a lot of potential to leverage continuous improvement (CI) tools and mindsets for this challenging time. CI helps us get into the practice of rapid-cycle experimentation, encouraging us to constantly try new things and gathering quick feedback from participants to assess whether or not they work. With this information, we’re able to adapt our practices quickly and learn meaningful lessons to be utilized in future virtual events.For example, in a recent virtual convening that we organized for the IFS community, we tried a few different things to bring in a spirit of interpersonal collaboration, including:
    • A Slack workspace for those hallway conversations you might have had in-person.
    • A happy hour for playing virtual games to simulate social activities that happen after meeting time while on the road.
    • Open “connector time” via a ballroom-style platform to replicate the experience of in-person networking, including personal agency over whom to connect with and transparency surrounding who else from the community is engaging personally.

    Of these, the happy hour didn’t get high marks from participants, but the connector time was a rousing success. As such, we will work to incorporate it into our community-building efforts going forward.

  • Virtual spaces should not keep us from having conversations about equity or speaking truth to power. It is more important than ever to call out power imbalances where we see them, to learn new skills for dismantling racist systems, and to continue a dialogue about how opportunity gaps continue to hold back BIPOC communities in the United States.
    In our recent IFS convening we:

    • Hosted a keynote speaker and followed it with breakout sessions, which gave the community an opportunity to dig into the provided framework and talk about its applicability to their work. The community has prioritized continued training on this framework so we can instill the practices in our work.
    • Empowered community leaders to design and lead sessions, which allowed a wide range of voices, perspectives, and ideas to shine through the three days. Participants reported that this helped with engagement and added depth to their learning.
    • Hosted a virtual “unconference” where participants went deep into power dynamics in grantmaking and the higher education support sector. It was a wonderful, honest conversation and it happened on Zoom!

As we remain at home and reimagine what collaborative work and collective learning looks like, we will continue to innovate and identify promising practices. To learn more about how to set up strong virtual spaces, and for more insights, we encourage you to read A New Paradigm for Collaboration: Virtual Network Support. Please share it with your colleagues and let us know what you think! Drop us a line anytime at [email protected].

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