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03 Oct 2013

RDA II plenary – a Working Group co-chair’s perspective

Being a Working Group (WG) chair at an RDA plenary is a challenge in terms of both being well organized and keeping in touch with the many other activities and demands that take place during a tightly compressed and buzzing meeting.

First of all, preparing and moderating the actual WG session is just one piece of leading a RDA Working Group. At the RDA 2nd Plenary (16-18 September, 2013 in Washington D.C.), we had a short report about the previous WG activities at the beginning of the meeting on the first day. Preparing the five- minute presentation however turned out to be actually very helpful as it demands to take a look on past activities and helps to focus the session goal. More importantly though, as a WG chair you must also plan for a fair amount of time you spend – during other sessions, coffee breaks and other meals – on coordinating ideas and work with other WG chairs or members, particularly if there is overlap or potential conflict. For the PID (Persistent Identifier) Information Types WG, this came up frequently for the Type Registry and DFT  Data Foundation Terminology group interactions.

Inspiring debates
At the first plenary, we had made the experience that no matter what you keep aiming at in terms of session scheduling and managing everyone’s time – don’t expect your plan to last more than perhaps the first ten minutes. Given that a WG must progress towards its deliverables, it thus made sense for us to have only very few presentations and much more focus on inspiring debates and creativity. An RDA Working Group session is not a conference workshop, but really a working meeting. So we decided to mostly limit presentations to a short introduction and from there on direct a focused debate with several background scenarios in mind of how it may progress.
All in all, this went very well. The short introductory presentation we had set up to get newcomers of the group up to become acquaint ended in a large debate that took more than an hour and clarified several core issues (with an original 20 minutes planned for just the presentation without questions). One thing I can definitely conclude at this point is that RDA folks are very engaged in debates and it does not matter whether you have ten or fifty people in the room, there will be heavy discussions which – be assured – also take place between audience members. Moderating these is a challenge on its own. For our group, we had expected as much and had laid out some strategies for how to channel discussion points, mostly using our use-case driven approach as a guideline.

Working towards deliverables
We also felt the need for making some forceful progress towards our WG deliverables, as these are the key factors that our success will be measured by in the end. We had agreed some time before the meeting that we would put our use case documents out for discussion, but given the unknown location details and mindset of the session members, we were unsure what approach would work best. So on the actual session day just shortly before the meeting we decided to tape our documents to the walls of the room so that our group members could get up, walk along the line of use cases and interact with them and each other. This worked quite well: We could estimate severe issues with use cases or their individual popularity just by noticing groups of people standing in front of particular sheets and arguing. We had invited everyone to subscribe to use cases by name and also to scribble down any comments and corrections on the sheets. We met both goals and we were very satisfied with how this approach worked out in general.

Critical issues pointed out
Towards the end of our session, when the group size started to shrink after the last coffee break, we entered more technical debates (which at least to my experience are very much impossible to achieve with group sizes larger than really a handful of attendees). We had some critical issues pointed out to us, and we appreciated the debate this started - how the current set of use cases might still be too high-level given the WG scope. While these topics need to be resolved in the coming weeks and months, I am certain that the focus on the use cases was the right choice for the session. From my perspective, the key point was not just to give the working group time to digest the use cases, but also to mildly enforce an obligation to do so while we are all together in one room – everyone’s time is precious, particularly at the face to face plenaries, and that amount of time must be used efficiently.
I cannot say how these methods would work for other WGs, as every group and case statement and set of deliverables is different. But for a pragmatic approach that tries to come to some form of tangible outcome in the end, I think some amount of enforcing debates is necessary. Many discussion topics are prone to going in circles very quickly, and some method must be used to break this, even if the discussions are useful in the long term – which a WG does not have the time for.

Written by Tobias Weigel, German Climate Computing Center (DKRZ) / Universität Hamburg


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