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Stakeholder Conversations: The Key to Long-Term Strategic Direction

Engaging with the community in productive conversation
University Business, June 2018

Conducting meaningful conversations with stakeholders is vital to inform and validate the strategic direction of any institution. However, many traditional methods of gathering this input—such as surveys or town hall meetings—are flawed and can be misleading, often being disproportionately influenced by the loudest or most negative voices.

This web seminar focused on identifying more effective ways to foster these meaningful conversations. A vice president from the British Columbia Institute of Technology discussed how BCIT leadership launched an initiative to create engaging, productive discussion with staff members as part of a broad, ongoing strategic planning process, through a structured online method of gathering prioritized feedback. 

Speakers

Kevin Skelcher
VP Client Solutions
Thoughtexchange

Tom Roemer
VP Academic
British Columbia Institute of Technology

Kevin Skelcher: It’s important to us at Thoughtexchange to work with our clients to address engagement challenges. For example, how do you deal with the loudest voice in the room, dominating conversations, not hearing from everybody, moving beyond some of the basic tools of surveying and into a more meaningful and in-depth conversation? And then how do you use that information to build consensus and agreement for change?

Our mission as an organization is to bring people together, and we do that using a combination of software and service.

We have a service team that helps deliver these major projects and that helps train your people to use the tool and build capacity.

Our software works by inviting people into a three-step process:

1. We ask them to share some thoughts about a topic or an idea—just some things that are important for them.

2. We get them to consider and then rate the thoughts of other people.

3. We look at what rises to the top. What surfaces, what are those unique ideas?

In our analysis, we do some work around the data to help you understand and use the findings in your decision-making processes. We have a series of visualizations that we use, and those visualizations have a lot to do with understanding which themes and sub-themes that information fits into, or where some of the shared interests are. What are some of the ideas that are polarizing, or have the highest levels of tension, and where are some ideas that have the highest levels of agreement?

That matters because by getting the group to have a conversation, they get exposed to different ideas, and they can actually start to learn about unique things that they hadn’t thought of. They can see that their thoughts are being reviewed and rated by the group, and so they have this experience of being heard. Then, ideally, they can see how their contribution is used in their leaders’ decisions.

That’s what the participant gets. On the leader side, they learn from the group. And they share that in a way that’s open and a way that’s vulnerable, and that then helps build respect and gives their participants a sense of being listened to.

Tom Roemer: Our core mandate is workforce development. What we wanted to know from our community is, “What does that mean to you? What would you like management to see? What’s the direction you would like to take with us?”

The traditional channels like surveying and town hall have some serious flaws attached to them. So we generated an initiative called “ED Talks—Ideas Worth Sharing.” Of course, that’s a facetious link to TED Talks, but it was just meant to get the conversation going.

We went out to our community and explained that this was just a very brief internal discourse to solicit the thoughts and ideas they might be harboring. It was based on our mandates, on some of our core activities, and it involved all faculty, all staff and all management. Thoughtexchange was the main tool to solicit these ideas.

How did we do? We were blown away, quite frankly. I had hoped we’d get about 200 participants, with maybe 300 to 400 ideas posted, and maybe around 7,500 star ratings. Instead, we ended up with over 400 participants—which is somewhere in the neighborhood of one-third of the faculty—and we had almost 800 ideas posted, and pretty close to 18,000 ratings. It was a massive, massive participation, and that comes on the heels of a large engagement survey that occupied people for a long time.

We then asked Thoughtexchange to help us in determining the outcomes, because with 800 responses, it was a bit hard to figure out where the center of the response lay. It was interesting to look a little bit at Thoughtexchange’s algorithm. There’s way more than what meets the eye. The discussions with Thoughtexchange, with their experts, brought a lot of things to the fore that we would have probably overlooked.

All in all it was a pleasant experience. We are now using Thoughtexchange again as we engage in our strategic planning process. We have broken down that process into six distinct steps, from talking about values, talking about facilities and so forth. The more often we do it the more participants we get. We’re very happy with the product, and it has definitely done for us what we expected it to do.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please visit universitybusiness.com/ws032818