Monday, November 4, 2013


Introductory Comment

What I present here is a group discussion methodology which is much more complex and requires much more effort than the usual methods. However, if one is sincere about wanting to capture the input from participants, this methodology is well worth the extra effort.

In my previous post, I described how contributions in discussion groups are almost always filtered and distorted as they are recorded by scribes and repeated by reporters. The wisdom, knowledge, passion, and depth of the discussion participants is often lost in the translations. "Final reports" are usually poor representations of what actually transpired in the discussion.

I have used a different technique based on the assumption that every word in every statement by every participant is important.

I will describe how the process worked in a typical project. I will first describe the setting of a hypothetical discussion event:

A community service organization is about to launch into a strategic planning process and they want to do a comprehensive assessment of their current performance. They decide that they need input from all of their stakeholders: Board members, staff, clients, funders, partner agencies, suppliers, etc. They develop a list of key questions for which they would like answers. They also want to give each group a chance for open comments that they feel are important.

The Process

Focus groups are arranged for each of these groups. In this example, all participants are gathered in the same place at the same time. Each focus group is limited to about 6 to 8 people in order to allow for plenty of input opportunity from each person. Each group is homogeneous; that is, all members are from the same group: board members, staff, clients, etc.  (There can be other situations where you want mixed groups to develop mutual understanding. That is not the objective in this scenario.)

Each group gathers around a small table. There is a discussion leader for each table to keep the discussion flowing, on topic and to watch the time, All members have the list of questions that will be discussed. In the middle of the table is a recording device capable of receiving voices from all directions (or a hand mike which can be passed around). The discussion proceeds through all the questions and open discussions. The complete record of the discussion has been captured at each table. The recording identifies the group involved. Maintaining identities of each speaker is optional, but usually not necessary.

The crucial part of this methodology comes into play at this point. here are the key functions that need to take place now.

The analyst identifies the list of entities that will be used to define each part of the audio file. Here are the entities that I normally used:  
Group (Client, Staff, Board, etc.)
Question being discussed (1,2,3,4....)
Response Type: Positive,  Negative, or neutral
Subject (This would include a long list of subjects which can be added to as new subjects show up. Some examples to illustrate this field: funding, cost control, staffing levels, leadership, strategic planning, budget control, legislation, community involvement, transportation, staff training, etc.)

Each statement will be analysed so that it is fully defined. It will be known to what question it refers, what group it came from, whether it was a positive, negative, or neutral point of view, and what aspect of the subject was mentioned. (Usually the person making the statement is not identified, but there are valid exceptions to this.)

An important design factor needs to be mentioned here. Statements in many cases will be complex and multi faceted. One statement could refer to two or more subjects, could be partly positive and partly negative. Because of this, you really need a well designed relational database to manage the data. A simple spreadsheet would not be an efficient way to process this material. Each statement may relate to one or many subjects. Each subject may be referenced by one or many statement. These are known as :many-to-many relationships which are best handled by a well-designed relational database.

1.  Each audio file is transcribed, verbatim.
2.  A separate copy of the transcription is then parsed, i.e. broken down into sentences or parts of sentences that deal with different subjects.
3. Each statement is assigned the attributes that apply to it. Group, question, Responses type (positive, negative, or neutral), subject or subjects alluded to.
4. Then all of the responses from all of the groups are combined in the same table structure in order to facilitate a very comprehensive analysis. We often describe this process as slicing and dicing the data.

The end product of a survey such as this can generate literally hundreds of thousands of observations  obviously more that anyone would have time to consider, absorb, and react to. The analyst will conduct a large number of queries in order to identify the most descriptive and revealing snapshots of the data, and builds these into a report.

General Reports 
Here are some typical high level reports that might be presented:

Percentage of positive, negative and neutral statements.
  - same for each Group (staff, clients, board members, etc.)
  - same for each subject dealt with in the survey
  - same for each question on the survey

Percentage of positive, negative and neutral statements on each of the questions discussed.

Listing of all the personal statements from each group on each topic; then the same for all the negative statements.

Comparisons of all groups on a spectrum of issues arising within the discussions. Special note can be made of major differences among various groups - not to decide who is right or wrong, but to understand the different perspectives within each part of the organization.

Normally the recipients of the reports will find that many of the observations confirm their own perceptions, but at the same time they find many surprises - surprises that come about when the perspectives of some groups in the organization differ from theirs. We often find major divides in perceptions from people at different levels of the organization (executives. middle management, front line staff, and clients) and this kind of open participatory discussion is very effective in providing full understanding of why the perspectives differ.

It is not at all unusual when this kind of report is presented to the organization for people to present additional questions. This style of study makes it easy for us to drill down into the data to answer specific queries. For example, if someone were to ask if there is a correlation between those who expressed concern with the leadership in the organization and those who were positive about the need for strategic planning, it would easy to make a query to answer that question.

It is fairly difficult to describe this whole process. I hope that the above is sufficient to give you a sense of how this approach works.

I am having difficulty to enable comments but readers on this blog format, but if you have questions, I am in the phone book. On Facebook look for "brockest", or write me at Box 492,  Blyth Ontario N0M 1H0, and I will answer you.

Blog address is

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


You may have had this experience before.

You are in a group that is discussing a serious matter of business, social issues, goals and objectives for an organization, etc. 

It is decided that the ideas that come our of the discussion should be captured for future consideration. If the group is rather large, it might be broken down to small separate groups which will allow everyone to have a better chance to participate and express their ideas.

Typically, there will be a recorder for each small group listing the points made on a flip chart for later sharing with all the other groups.

When all of the small groups have completed their discussions, the large group will re-form and someone from each group will orally describe the highlights of  his/her group. While this is happening, another person is summarizing those presentations perhaps on a larger chart or smart board.

Quite often, this final summary will be printed up and sent out to the participants for their reference. 

I wonder if you have had the same feeling as I have had in these groups.

I look at this final summary. Then I think back to the great discussion that we had in that initial small group. There is usually little resemblance between what I remember of our discussion, to the sparse, disconnected, scattered phrases and diagrams in that final summary.

What has happened is that the rich ideas expressed by the discussants have been reduced to a few key words, interpreted with varying degrees of accuracy by the recorders, re-interpreted by the group reporters and then by the final reporter and recorder.

The end product is usually, I would argue always, a faint shadow of the original. The richness is lost, the meaning is at least somewhat distorted, the passion and excitement of the original expression is lost.

What a shame! If the organizers were sincere in wanting to capture the ideas and views of the group, they have to be disappointed in the "pablum" that usually comes out of this multi-filtered process,

I have developed a solution for this problem. I have used this system and it works. It involves a lot of work and considerable specialized skill but the end result is worth it. My clients were ecstatic about the rich report that emerged. In fact, the report that comes out of it is usually considered richer than what was derived by being part of the group.

That may be hard to believe, but if you know about the process, you will understand why that is so.

If you are interested in finding our about this, please look for my next Blog entry which describes my methodology.

(This format does not allow for comments from readers.)

Brock Vodden

Friday, October 4, 2013


We realize that Blyth Public School is gone and will never return.
But there are a few things surrounding the loss of the school that none of us should forget.
I refer to the manner in which the Avon Maitland District School Board, its members and its senior staff conducted themselves, and the way the Minister of Education and her officials encouraged those behaviours.
When someone lies to me, or deliberately does something to me that is unwarranted, unfair, and harmful I will never enter a trusting relationship with that person again unless I am given absolute proof that he or she has transformed himself or herself in some spectacular and convincing manner.
We should apply the same standard to public servants who mislead us and betray our trust. We must not forget! Not ever!
The school board and staff misled us. They manipulated the ARC process so that the Blyth business community and our municipal council were not involved to represent us. Only one of the ARC meetings was advertised in the Citizen. Their spokesperson publicly denied those proven facts.
Board staff long denied rumours that they were planning to move Grade 7 and 8 students into F.E. Madill School. In a meeting we had with two senior staff and a contractor, the word slipped out that they had been planning this for the previous three years. The flustered administrators tried in vain to cover up the unintended disclosure.
Our school board representative never asked for our opinions, never explained why she voted to close our school, and never apologized afterwards for what damage the board did to our community. Some representative!
And then the whole sham was white-washed by a facilitator who ignored the intrigue and scolded us for objecting.
The end  results of these events are what they are, and will not be changed. But my message is that we must not forget about the ethical breeches and the manipulations done by people who should have represented us. We can only guess what other secret schemes they are harbouring if we renew their mandate.
Brock Vodden

Monday, May 27, 2013

Blood Money From Sale of Our School

Former Blyth Public School

Director of Finance for Avon Maitland School Board, Jane Baird-Jackson, proudly announces that the sales of this school and one other (Brussels) have been concluded. She adds that there are very tight restrictions on what these funds can be used for.

It is important to point out that there were also "tight restrictions" on how the AMDSB could go about deciding which schools to close. The board paid very limited attention to those rules, board and staff members routinely manipulated the ARC process to frustrate the community's needs and rights. They gave out false information, ignored the community's petition. And the Ministers of Education through that time period turned a blind eye on the entire sordid process.

We are not told what those restrictions are on the use of the blood money they are getting from these sales, but we as a community cannot trust that the uses will be of any benefit to this community. Given the board's track record, can they be trusted to adhere to these restrictions?

Gone are the days when school trustees represented the community by whom they were elected. Instead we have only leeches which draw out our blood and build monuments to themselves at enormous and unnecessary public expense.

This community has been severely damaged by this board's malicious theft of our school. Whatever the board decides to do with their ill-gotten gains, our only consolation is that there is nothing else left that they can steal from us.

Monday, May 20, 2013




BR & E  is a process which has been in use for many years and was adopted in Ontario in the late 1990s by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). It is an important economic development strategy, an important adjunct to the popular strategy of attempting to recruit businesses and industries from other places. The argument behind B R & E is that "we need to build on what we have, by doing whatever we can to keep the businesses we have and help them to succeed and grow. Businesses that we can lure from other communities may be just as likely to slip away somewhere else, whereas our existing businesses already have an allegiance to us. Why not do our best for them?

I was involved with the introduction of BR & E in Ontario in the late 1990s by OMAFRA. Along with four or five others, I was on the committee chaired by Harold Flaming which developed the original questionnaire as well as the procedures that would be used throughout the process. The program was tested in several communities throughout southern Ontario. I worked with the pilot program for Seaforth and along met periodically with all of the pilot teams around the province to compare notes and fine tune the program.

We were all very proud of what was achieved by these pilot projects, and now, many years later, we can still see the benefits of the things we learned and the relationships that were formed by that entire process.

In recent months many more B R & E projects have been launched across Huron County. In most cases we see similar kinds of success due to the identification of challenges and the discovery of new visions all of which lead to positive plans and renewal. I have noted that the questionnaire has undergone some updating and refinement, but a surprising number of the questions remain the same as those of the original survey document.

Unfortunately, some of the projects completed recently have failed to measure up to the potential of B R & E quality results. In my view this has come about because along the way some groups have made changes that they feel will improve the process in certain ways, but in so doing, they have eliminated some of the very qualities that made the BR & E process so successful. Chief among these changes have been measures to make the process more efficient. In many cases these efficiencies have eliminated some of the activities that contributed enormously to the success of the program. This is a program in which the steps in the process of doing it are all important and part of the original design. Somewhere along the line newcomers have seen this as a simple completion of a questionnaire. They have missed many of the essential points that have had as great an effect on the community as the survey itself. In other word the process of the project is of as great an importance as the final report itself.

I will indicate some of the original features that have been altered by some groups:
Direct involvement by municipal council.
The B R & E process has been so successful in large part because it put together the elected officials, municipal staff, business representatives, and other community members. All the members see that the whole community is working together determined to make the community better for present and future business to serve the community more effectively. Thus it was not just a matter of the work that these people did, but a matter of how they perceived other people and other segments of their community.
Later groups have felt that that arrangement was very inefficient, and have a “lean and mean” committee with perhaps a staff representative from the municipality and a committee of mostly business people. In some cases they hire one or more “experts” to do the interviewing, complete the forms, and submit these to OMAFRA for processing. This is certainly more efficient if seen as nothing more than a form filling exercise, but completely lost is the community impact which was derived from the joint participation of members of the total community. It's a cheap way of doing the job that misses the rich results that should be available. 
Volunteer Interviewers
The original design called for a large number of volunteers from the community to do the interviewing. Most of these people are very busy and cannot afford a huge amount of time to devote to this task. Thus the aim was to have a large number of interviewers each performing from two to four interviews. In that way the interviews could be completed in a very short period of time – probably within two weeks or three.
The other feature was that each interview would be conducted by two volunteers: one to ask the questions, the other to record the responses on the questionnaire form.
There were two evenings of preparation to familiarize the interviewers with the questions in the questionnaire and to prepare them for responding to questions that the interviewees might ask. Some role playing exercises were held which added to the comfort level of the interview teams both on interviewing and recording.
Not surprisingly, this demand for dozens of volunteers appeared to some as a huge waste of volunteers. For several years now I have not heard of any groups that have taken this route. The loss, however, is enormous. In the Seaforth pilot, great care was taken to impress on everyone that these interviews were given in confidence. The questionnaire form would be sealed and sent to Guelph for processing unseen by any other individuals. The exception to this would be a “red flag” item: some issue that came up in the interview that required immediate attention by someone or some body. In this case, the interviewee would give permission for the team to present this information to the individual who was designated as the red flag coordinator who would then take the issue to the appropriate authority for resolution. That might be the Mayor, the Director of Public Works, the telephone company, the landlord, the neighbour, or whoever had the authority to deal immediately with the matter.
This approach had a huge effect on the entire community. It involved a huge number of regular community members who saw first hand the genuine concern and effort being put forth by their community and business leaders to make substantive improvements in the community. It increased the amount of civic involvement. The effect showed up in the crowd that showed up to hear about the results of the BR & E project.
The BR&E is a whole community event
The BR&E program is intended as a community-wide process – not just a council or a business project. When it is taken over by one or two segments of the community, it can be turned into a very divisive process with finger-pointing, blame-laying, community fragmentation, and the very kind of dysfunctional behaviour which might be one of the major obstacles to retaining and attracting businesses.
The ideal is to get all groups together, ensure that all are in agreement to the goals of  B R & E, and go forward to determine what “we” need to do to retain and attract business in our community. Otherwise it can become a witch hunt whose only purpose its show up the inadequacies of “those other people”.
The Municipal council must be involved in the planning and organizing of the project because it will have a major role in dealing with obstacles or issues that arise in terms of public works, water, sewer, storm water, traffic, roads, etc. Also, it is essential that the councils members have a complete understanding of the B R & E purpose and goals and their responsibility in working with the community to address these issues. Furthermore, as the project is dealing with the issues arising, the council can advise the participants of the opportunities available through the municipality as well as to constraints under which they operate.
It is important as well to have a representation of regular citizens working on the project. Some could be on the central committee but a large groups could serve as interviewers. Besides those functional roles, they will serve as ambassadors to the community at large spreading the word about the goals of the project and building anticipation for the outcome and encourage participation and support for the remediation that takes place to implement to changes recommended.

A common trend is to minimize the involvement of large groups of volunteers to assist with the interviewing. The mythology is that those early projects were bogged down with volunteers, were very inefficient, and the projects dragged on for 6 or 8 months. I am aware of some projects that took an inordinately long time, but they were always ones that involved only overworked staff who had difficulty finding time to do the interviewing. My recollection of the Seaforth pilot is that the interviews took place over a period of no more than three weeks. (that is just my recollection. I was on a team of two. We had about three interviews that took place in a span of two weeks.) The results were sent quickly to Guelph for processing. They were a little slow coming back because they were still adjusting to the process, but were in reasonable time. The process was not only more efficient than the consultant route being used now; it was much more productive as a result of the other benefits of community involvement.

We have witnessed a few B R & E projects which have failed to achieve the optimum results that are generally reached by the original process.


I attended a meeting last week in Seaforth at which the Gateway Rural Health Research Institute was signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Western Ontario faculty of Medicine and Dentistry as an agreement to work together to enhance the education of medical and dentistry students as well as to contribute to our rural health across Canada and our understanding of the special health issues in this rural area. Attending that meeting and directly involved in that institute were several people who began working together on that B R & E program almost 12 years ago and are still working together today.

Brock Vodden