Monday, 6 January 2014

Want to engage your members in online conversation but not sure how to manage it? Here’s an idea.

Online discussions are a great way to engage a busy and geographically dispersed membership in learning and professional development. But online discussion boards can often get out of hand, and which of your staff has the time to manage them anyway? No one? Maybe your members do.

A technique I like to use in managing online discussions is known as “spinning and weaving”.

It works like this.
  1. Choose a piece of content (video of a conference session, journal article, interview with a senior member, newspaper article, etc) to form the basis of the discussion.
  2. Set a rough time frame (eg 2 weeks) for a discussion on it.
  3. Ask a member – the “Spinner” – to kick-off the discussion with an overview of the content, and their reaction to it.
  4. As other members join the discussion, the Spinner responds to participants’ comments and insights, and uses these to further stimulate discussion by posing questions to the group and drawing out ideas.
  5. Towards the end of the discussion period, ask another member – the “Weaver” – to read through the posts and create a summary of the discussion, addressing the initial spin and the journey the discussion took. This process has two objectives. Firstly, it signals an end to the discussion. Secondly, it creates an artifact, or new piece of content, which can be re-purposed (input into a conference paper, a “what our members are thinking” section in your journal, etc).
  6. If you realise that the timeframe you originally set for the discussion isn’t right – change it. Lengthen or shorten as you see fit.

Keeping the discussion on track

Part of the Spinner’s role is to keep the discussion on a rough track. This is not to say that discussions can’t take interesting journeys – the best ones often do – but there is an outcome to achieve in the discussion, which is anchored by the initial content piece.

If your association has a Code of Ethics/Conduct, consider invoking it for the discussions. If you plan to use a platform such as LinkedIn groups for the discussions, have guidelines for how to engage in productive discussions, and reserve the right to delete offensive or inappropriate posts. Also ensure that the discussion is not used by members to promote their services - there are other avenues for that.

Start out the discussion with a statement of intent – something like: “In this discussion on the article by Jo Bloggs in the latest issue of Our Journal, we aim to consider her views on the topic of XYZ, bring our own relevant experiences to the conversation, and perhaps, respectfully challenge her and each others ideas, in order to further our own individual and collective understanding of XYZ.”

Benefits for the Spinner and Weaver
  • Many will welcome the opportunity of taking a lead role in a discussion amongst their peers. 
  • Taking on these roles may raise their profile amongst your membership.
  • The limited timeframe enables Spinners and Weavers to schedule time for their roles, rather than having them open-ended. 
  • Spinners and Weavers (and contributors) can be acknowledged in the final output, and any future use of it.



  1. Thank you for this advice, Anne-Marie. So often I am initially interested in a discussion thread, but get lost in the random postings. I really like the idea of the 'weaver' summarising it all at the end - this would save me a lot of time! A question - if the woven summary is used in another forum, as you suggest, would it be necessary to get permission from the discussion contributors? Or is it better to keep it all anonymous?

  2. Great question Michelle. Given that I am not a lawyer, my layman's answer would be that you could do either. I'd clarify the approach that you want to take in the terms and conditions of the group, or at the end of the "spin" post in each discussion (or both). If you are planning on including names, suggest people contact you directly if they want to opt out of being named, or having their post included in the weave. If in doubt, ask a lawyer.