(Very) asynchronous online negotiating

Relevant time-keeping device

As I’ve mentioned before, part of my new role involves designing a negotiation exercise of an online, asynchronous programme.

This presents a number of rather basic problems, so consider this a bit of my attempt to try and work them out.

First up is the asynchronicity.

A fundamental part of negotiating is interaction, so if you can’t do that there-and-then, you have to deal with a major challenge. In this case, our usual cycle for students is a week, within which we set work for them to fit around their other commitments. Since most of our students are working, or have other major life obligations, that means it’s really hard to ask for anything speedier.

Even if most could turn things around in a matter of days, we can’t be certain that everyone can, so those not able to would suffer in the exercise.

Secondly, there a debrief issue.

The materials we produce are intended to be used for several years: our role is relatively separate from delivery, as our system of associate lecturers handle most of the pedagogic queries and support. If we accept that negotiation must have debriefing (and I certainly do), then how do we fit that into this system? Is it my work, or associates’, or do we have some generic points to reflect upon, and how would any of these models operate?

Finally, we have the tiny question of scale.

I don’t know how many students will be using this exercise in any given presentation (as we call our delivery), so I need a negotiation that can cope with both a large number of participants and a varying number of participants. Our plans say 80, but that’s neither here nor there, except in the most general of terms.

Oh, and I have to assume none of the students will have any prior experience in negotiating.

So what to do?

I’ve been working around some different abstracted options for a while to handle all of this, and it might be useful to consider these for a while. They vary by how much of a ‘negotiation’ they involve, since that interaction issue strikes me as the most fundamental one.

Obviously, the starting model is a set-up where there is direct student-to-student negotiation: it’s prototypical and best allows them to develop practical skills. But it needs much time, much support and debrief. Plus you have to work out roles.

So maybe you could have instead a ‘negotiation’ with an automated interlocutor: a ‘chose-your-own-adventure’ approach, effectively, but with a computer programme rather than a paper-based text. It can be played individually, paths/outcomes are fixed so feedback is easy, but it’s not so very much like actual negotiating.

A different direction would be to ask students to do the prep work for a negotiation: drawing up negotiating briefs, setting out positions and the like. This is crucial part of negotiating, so it’s prototypical, but without the pointy end of testing out ideas. It’s more manageable for support and debrief, but probably isn’t as engaging.

And most distantly of all, you could ask students to study a real-world negotiation, through the lens of some theory. That’s also a good skill to learn, but it’s not so hands-on as any of the others.

In short, it’s a world of compromises.

For our purposes, we really want to build practical skills, so we’re currently closest to the first option: the ‘proper’ negotiation. As we often discuss here, the purpose of the exercise needs to be clear to you and to the student, otherwise it’s pointless making choices. In that sense, having the discussion with the rest of the team was an essential step in moving this on.

My tentative model right now looks like the following, working within the constraints I have.

In my 4 week block for this, and alongside other work they need to do, I’m planning to give students a crash course in how to negotiate (week 1); two (and maybe three) rounds of negotiating (weeks 2-4); and some debriefing (week 4).

The block topic is international challenges to political stability, so I’ll be using a climate change topic as the substantive focus, which also allows me to use a UNFCC-style format, with a couple of hundred roles that I can allocate to individuals. Those roles will have an order, so we start by populating key representative states (in terms of the different preferences) and then work through to everyone else, so we can accommodate the varying numbers. Probably that means making a generic position pack, plus some headlines for each role, with some requirement to expand on that through their own research.

The training would be some materials on practical negotiating, plus an option to download a small crisis game, to play offline with friends/family or even just to muse upon.

The main section would then require students to post positions/text on a forum each week, ideally to build a single text for final approval. This will require relatively simple technology, but does rely on students to be able to build coalitions and engage in discussion, which will be an issue for some.

To keep debrief viable, we’d probably need to start with a draft text – to keep things within relatively clear bounds – then provide cues to students to aid their own reflection, with some debrief points that could track key issues within the draft. This should make it more possible to keep associates on top of what’s gone on.

And that’s about as far as I’ve got on this.

There are lots of practicalities to work through, at all steps, but we think the basic design is viable. As I work through those, I’ll write more, but I’d love to hear thoughts.