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Training versus Facilitation... and why you care!

Some practical guidance for recognising the difference, and what happens when you get it wrong!

For those of us in professional HR/ learning & development, this is a well- worn discussion, but I wanted to take a moment to share with a broader audience the difference between 'training' and 'facilitation' and why it matters, especially if you have a hand in designing, procuring or commissioning L&D solutions.

For years now in my practice as a learning and development professional, working with companies large and small and at all levels of seniority, I have tried to put as much distance between myself and 'training' as possible. The accusation that I am a ‘trainer’ has always felt almost demeaning.

However, there really is a place for 'training' and 'trainers', and as I look back I have often, rightly, been in that place. The problem with 'training' is that it suggests a very old-school approach to helping people grow. It suggests that power sits primarily with the trainer as the source of knowledge and answers. The trainer typically has every minute of the session planned and controlled so that it feels 'on rails' and there is very little, if any, room for emergent discussion. It will often look and feel as though the trainer is putting on a show and he/she is clearly the dominant presence in the room. He/ she will often be thinking about things like ‘keeping up the energy in the room', managing the physical space and keeping delegates engaged. Training is the right style where the learning is at the level of facts, knowledge or skills development and/ or the working group size is larger than about 10 people. For many of our graduate development programmes, this is absolutely the more effective and appropriate style.

Facilitation, on the other hand, is the appropriate style where the session needs to be focussed on emergent exploration of a problem or situation. The session will be far less structured - typically the facilitator will have prepared a few models, approaches or questions to help the group explore the question in hand - and the role of the facilitator is to provide direction, focus and 'ways of thinking' for the group dialogue. Unlike the trainer, the spotlight should never be on the facilitator. Facilitation is the right style where the answer(s) to one or a few relatively complex problems lie within the group themselves. Our recent work with the OSCE was more towards the facilitative style.

A lot of good work and investment can be undone very quickly

Perhaps unexpectedly, facilitation is the more complex and demanding skill. There is relative safety in knowing and controlling a day's training schedule, whereas it takes a good degree of confidence in your breadth and depth of experience and ability to manage a complex problem-solving discussion amongst a group of (typically senior) people to help them come to a useful resolution. Facilitation is analogous with group coaching, as training is to teaching. At Interaction, we regularly give each other feedback and proactively develop our skills so that we are able to range across this spectrum effectively, and we have a large pool of associates who are able to operate at both ends of this scale.

Getting this wrong is like to make for a painful and ineffective mismatch

Getting this wrong is likely to make for a painful and ineffective mismatch. I have known many 'trainers' come awkwardly unstuck in front of smaller, more senior audiences, and 'facilitators' fail to have any impact where a more dynamic and controlling style was required. Of course, skilled practitioners are able to adjust their style across the continuous spectrum from facilitation to training to best suit the audience. Just make sure that you have a good match, or a lot of good work and investment can be undone very swiftly.