Moderated workshops help improve efficiency

Evaluating and developing a business in the software industry

Companies often complain about workshops taking up too much time for too little benefit. One solution: moderation techniques – although moderation in itself is not a general panacea. It’s simply a methodical approach that allows moderators to maintain an overview of entire tasks. Of course one needs to define what input the company can expect from a moderator. According to experts at the Winnenden-based Steinbeis Transfer Center for Advisory Services for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses, these are professionalism, being results orientated, efficiency and neutrality. The experts helped a software company specializing in doctors’ practices to run a moderated workshop aimed at analyzing the company and its business development.

The company was founded several years ago with only three employees. The recent upturn in the German economy led to a rise in business and now the company employs eight people – two project managers, a secretary and five programmers – plus the managing director.

Without a doubt, the small software company is doing well. But even companies that are flourishing have problems and the potential to do better. For example, neither project manager had had management experience in their previous jobs. Their management style was considered slightly unprofessional by the managing director and other employees. Also, the company had grown so rapidly it had not had time to capture business processes clearly as they had mostly grown disproportionately to the turnover. The company also saw sales potential in other customer sectors but it had never carried out a market analysis or developed marketing strategies.

The managing director decided it was time to run a one-day workshop with all employees, naturally including both project managers. The aim of the workshop would be to analyze the current situation and work out ways for the company to move forward from here. They had no set ideas about who should moderate the workshop, although the managing director had toyed with the idea of moderating it himself as up until this point he managed all meetings. Meetings tended to be short, however, with only one or two people involved and a clear agenda. For the content of the workshop, one of the key issues was whether the managing director would be unbiased and objective enough to run it. He was also worried about how he would deal with conflicts within the group and never-ending discussion.

One of the benefits with external moderators is that they are impartial, unbiased and unaffected by conflicts within the group. Because they do not need to become intensely involved in the topic or content of the workshop, they can focus better on the core task than somebody who works for the company.

For this reason, the managing director of the software company decided to bring in outside help. In selecting a moderator, it was important for the “chemistry” to be right, and he also placed emphasis on good qualifications and plenty of experience with similar types of companies. He came with his wish-list to the Winnenden-based Steinbeis Transfer Center who took on the task of moderation for him.

The aim of the moderated workshop was to look at the company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats based on the tried and tested SWOT analysis. With this, the group should work up solutions to existing problems and ways to keep the company moving forward. A useful and equally reliable tool for organizing a moderated workshop is to break it down into stages. So the software company’s workshop was divided into five parts: preparation, the introduction, a work phase, conclusions and follow-up.

The workshop uncovered the company’s key strengths as: “programming skills” and “customer loyalty”. Its weaknesses were identified as “management”, “working processes”, “entering new markets” and “the accounting system”. There was intensive discussion among participants about the strengths and weaknesses they identified as well as the opportunities and threats but it culminated in tangible next steps which were captured in binding action plans.

For instance, “management” weakness was addressed by agreeing to lay down management principles, create an organization chart, and draft and implement an employee questionnaire. They would also introduce regular Monday morning meetings. The participants also decided to send the two project managers on a management seminar.

Over and above the moderated workshop, the software company was given coaching sessions organized by the Steinbeis Transfer Center to provide on-going support while each action was being implemented.

The type of moderated workshop run for the software company – to analyze the company and look at its development – is just one example of moderation techniques. Moderators are normally used in quality circles, working sessions involving managers, sessions looking at ways to solve communication problems between departments, defining and allocating assignments in development departments, discussions and meetings in production teams and following through decisions.

With the right moderation techniques, company workshops become a lot more efficient and provide more benefit to the participants. It also helps avoid endless discussions, slow progress, one-upmanship, and events just staged to create a good impression. Badly managed meetings and painfully slow working sessions become a thing of the past. As well as inspiring others, sharing ideas can be extremely constructive. The result: specific actions that are achievable and binding.

Further, moderated workshops allow people to work out next steps together. This is reflected in motivation when they implement these next steps. Involve people in a decision and you gain more buy-in than if you just tell them about a decision: people who would otherwise just be affected by a decision are now involved in the decision. So the benefits of moderation techniques can be leveraged. And levers are there to be used!  

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