NC Evaluators Week: Why your online evaluation capacity building efforts are doomed to fail by Chris Lysy

Hello my fellow evaluators. My name is Chris Lysy, and I am a freelance evaluator, designer, and trainer based in Cary, North Carolina.  My consulting work involves helping organizations deal with the virtual shift (shifting programs from the “real world” to the “virtual world”).

Over the last couple of decades lots of organizations have evolved from being fundamentally place-based operations to global digital entities. An evolution that started well before COVID.

Yet for some reason we still have this image of an organization being a place where people who work together regularly come into face to face contact.

Cartoon / illustration of two individuals where one says "Where is everyone? I brought doughnuts" and the other is saying "Either remote or working from home. I only come in because I like the quiet."

So why are your online efforts doomed to fail?

I believe we consistently underestimate how much the social environment has changed as the virtual world has grown.  

  • A 60 minute webinar is not the same as a 60 minute in-person brown bag. 
  • A virtual summit is not the same as a multi-day in-person conference.  
  • A 30 minute zoom chat is not the same as a cup of coffee with a colleague.

It’s similar, not necessarily better or worse, but different.

A lot of what has been written about evaluation capacity building is focused on what concepts to cover. It assumes that evaluators know how to effectively engage people at an organizational level. For the pre-virtual organization, that could mean showing up with free doughnuts in the lobby or hosting a large event in the “big conference room.”

But in order to bring the same level of change in the virtual world, we have to approach the capacity building challenge differently.  Or else our efforts will be doomed to fail.

Capacity Building Requires Community Building

Most organizations are not full of vibrant virtual communities. IRL (“In Real Life”) when people get together, community happens. Not so in the digital world.  People tend to know their teams (from regular Zoom calls) but they might not know anyone else outside their project bubble.

So if you want to engage a certain community of people (say project leaders or internal data people) you have to start by building that specific virtual community.

Cartoon illustration of two people where one is saying "I hear your company has a digital community" and the other is saying :Yeah, we launched out internal social network a few years ago." The first person asks "Does anyone use it?" and the second responds "no."

A Dead Forum is NOT a Community

Yes we all have lovely dreams of an active forum where people go to ask questions and support one another. But the reality is that good forum communities are hard to build and often require far more people than you even have in your organization.

A Webinar Lecture Series is NOT a Community

Somebody wants a community. So they create a webinar lecture series with topics of interest for that specific community. That might work for community building IRL but it doesn’t work the same online. Do this instead.

  • Hold webinar conversations, not lectures.
  • Source presenters from inside the prospective community.
  • Hold panel webinars to distribute the content responsibility and increase exposure to peers.
  • People need to see/hear people to connect, so encourage cameras/headsets (just don’t require them!).
Cartoon illustration where a person is at a computer with headphones on and is saying "I got the email and thought 'I'm free at 2, so why not?'" and the person on the computer screen is saying "So why did you join today's webinar?"

An Email Newsletter is a Good Place to Start

It’s easy to create and just shows up in their email inbox (no need for them to visit a specific site or remember any kind of password/username). You can source newsletter content from the community and it pairs really well with a conversational webinar strategy.

Want more guidance?

I created a short practical guide.

Image of a flyer for Virtual Community Building 101: Because Virtual Capacity Building Starts with Virtual Community Building by Chris Lysy of freshspectrum.com

You can download it here: Virtual Community Building 101 (https://freshspectrum.com/downloads/)

The American Evaluation Association is hosting North Carolina (NC) Evaluators Affiliate Week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from NC Affiliate members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

2 thoughts on “NC Evaluators Week: Why your online evaluation capacity building efforts are doomed to fail by Chris Lysy”

  1. Laurietess Batong

    Hi Chris,
    Thanks for sharing this blog post. I’ve learned about this website through my course, Program Inquiry and Evaluation, as part of Queen’s University Professional Master of Education Program. This post caught me attention because I experienced the points that you have highlighted. Few months after our schools closed down due to COVID and the teachers switched to online teaching, the administration tried to build a virtual community with all of its teachers from different sites. This virtual community was intended to support its employees, however the method employed proved to be counter productive. As you have mentioned, in the digital world, when people get together, community does not automatically happen. I really appreciate that you pointed out that “a webinar lecture series is not a community.” Our school organized lots of webinars and some of the speakers were actually fellow colleagues. At the end of these lectures, teachers were feeling “zoom fatigue,” this outweigh the intended benefits. If some of the webinars were conducted as conversations instead of lectures, where participants are encouraged to turn on their cameras and microphones, then the teachers would not have detested all those webinars. You also wrote about creating an email newsletter to make it easier for participants to get access to the virtual community. Interestingly, our academic coordinator announced that she won’t be sending out emails instead it the teacher’s responsibility to keep tract off the announcements posted in the channel that was created. For me, this made it more manageable, I did not have to read numerous emails, and the username and passwords are the same as the organization’s. There are a couple of things that I would like to add about digital community building based on last year’s experience. First, assuming that all participants are tech savvy in navigating all channels, forums or shared documents, is not advisable. This would create lots of misunderstanding among the participants. Second, as an evaluator at a school such as ours, looking into the smaller communities or groups is beneficial. For example, these small groups that were formed because of shared interests or assigned committees have information that would great help the evaluation process.

  2. Barry Henderson

    Thank you very much for your article, Chris. As I read through it, I had a couple of IRL LOL’s. The freshspectrum illustrations are brilliant. I am a Vice Principal at an elementary school in British Columbia. I am currently enrolled in a master’s course on program evaluation. I couldn’t help but nod in agreement with your assessments on the differences between online and in real life community building. The last 18 months have been challenging in all aspects of life but the educational experience of students and staff throughout the pandemic has proved to be quite the struggle. British Columbia was the only jurisdiction in North America that has had students in the classroom for the entire pandemic (save for a one-month closure in April, 2020). The benefits of having students and staff in the classroom far outweighed any negative consequences (we had some stressful moments as our school had six COVID notifications throughout the year). The one area that proved to be extremely difficult to overcome was the building of community within the school. Due to safety protocols in place, we were unable to meet as an entire school (assemblies were online) or as a staff (meetings were also done virtually). I can’t agree with you more with your comment that the virtual meetings are not the same as IRL meetings. There are definite advantages to the online experience (behaviour during assemblies was never better and staff meetings were efficient) though something was missing. The social connection that we need as individuals within the school environment was not nurtured by the online experience. As a staff we tried to pivot to build a sense of community among adults (we started an online book club that was a great forum for discussion and community building) but as the school year came to a close, we all looked forward to a return to a school environment that is more face to face as opposed to screen to screen.

    The NGO PACT defines Capacity Development as “a continuous process that fosters the abilities and agency of individuals, organizations, and communities to overcome challenges and contribute towards positive social change. Though often developed in response to an immediate and specific issue, capacities are adaptable to future opportunities and challenges.

    I feel that as evaluators, it must be difficult to work collaboratively and build the required relationships with only online interactions. Donuts go so far with the building of trust. I look forward to watching the video on Virtual Community Building 101 to gain some insight on how as a staff we can come together with common goals and dreams virtually.

Leave a Reply to Laurietess Batong Cancel Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.