Making an impact
Wright, N. (2004) 'Making an Impact', Training Technology & Human Resources, September-October, p16 (part 1); November-December, p16 (part 2).
This short article introduces ‘applied learning seminars’ as a simple, practical means by which to increase the positive impact of training interventions. It also explains how to tackle common facilitation difficulties in order to ensure that positive benefits are maximised.
What is an Applied Learning Seminar?
An Applied Learning Seminar (ALS) is a semi-structured opportunity for people who have attended an event, such as a training course, to discuss, plan and practise how to apply what they have learned into their actual day-to-day work contexts. [See also: ‘Down to Earth: An Introduction to Applied Learning’ in Training Journal, January 2003]
What is the role of the facilitator?
The facilitator’s role in an ALS is to:
· Make sure the group stays focused on the chosen subject area
· Make sure the seminar retains a practical focus
· Help the group if it gets stuck
· Keep everyone involved
Some tips and techniques to help the facilitator in this role are outlined below. For more detailed practical advice, see Widdicombe’s book, ‘Meetings that Work’ or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, have a glance at Doel & Sawdon’s, ‘The Essential Groupworker’.
Practical tips and techniques
Making sure the group stays focused on the chosen subject area This can be one of the greatest challenges for the facilitator, especially in a lively group or one in which the subject area is highly emotive. The point of the ALS can easily become lost or sidetracked and the unsuspecting facilitator can feel marginalized or overridden. I suggest three things that can help reduce these risks:
Make sure that everyone is informed beforehand (e.g. when invitations to the ALS are sent out) of the specific purpose of the meeting. For example: “The ALS will help those who attended the introductory workshop on negotiation skills on 7 December to apply what they have learned into their day-to-day work practice.”
Reiterate this purpose statement at the beginning of the ALS, writing it up visibly on a flipchart, and check that everyone is clear about it. If discussion starts to get sidetracked, taking the group back to the purpose statement (e.g. by subtly pointing to the flipchart) can be a simple but effective reorientation technique.
Start the ALS by taking participants back to the original training event using ‘imagination’. This can be a very effective way of engaging participants, especially if the original event was some time ago. “Tell me about what happened on the day: what you covered on the agenda, how it was done, what was the best part of the day, how you came away feeling” etc. This provides a platform to move on to key application points.
If issues arise that don’t relate directly to the ALS but become a preoccupation of the group, jot down the issues on a flipchart in crystallised form. Making explicit, visible note of the issue in this way so that it will not be forgotten will often release the group to return to the main ALS topic. For example: “Note: Need clarity on authority to conduct negotiations with external parties.”
I would advise, however, being aware of inadvertently picking up responsibility for tackling such issues following the seminar by simply stating to the group something along the lines of: “This is an issue that you may want to pick up outside of this meeting.”
Making sure that the seminar retains a practical focus
Keeping participants focused on practical application of learning in the ALS can be another challenge for the facilitator. The ALS can easily drift off into abstract issues or protests from some group members that the training was not sufficiently relevant to the unique challenges of their particular roles. I suggest 3 things that can help to reduce these risks:
Apply the techniques outlined above.
Tackle objections (sensitively) by turning the focus from negative to positive. For example: “OK, so you don’t think that technique would work well in your situation. Let’s spend a bit of time thinking about what would.” If that doesn’t work, try doing a ‘negative brainstorm’ with the group (fairly lightheartedly, if possible) which allows participants to let off steam by writing down objections on a flipchart. When this part of the exercise is completed, give the group the task of finding creative ways to overcome as many of the objections listed as possible.
Every time discussion seems to drift away into issues or abstractions, intervene in the discussion with something like: “That sounds like an important issue. What could you do about that in practice?”
Helping the group when it gets stuck
Groups can get stuck from time to time, especially in short-term, fixed-life groups such as ALSs where participants have very limited time (typically 90 minutes) to work together to achieve their task. The role of the facilitator as ‘leader’ becomes particularly important in this kind of situation and I have found that the following techniques can be helpful.
There is a real skill in helping groups keep to time. In order to avoid over-running and failing to meet ALS objectives, emphasise in invitations that the meeting will start on time, keep a clock or stopwatch within your view and open the meeting by reiterating its finishing time. Punctuate the meeting with ‘time signals’ such as: “We have been discussing this point for 30 minutes and we have 90 minutes left. Do you want to continue with this point or to leave it and move onto something else?” And don’t forget to allow time for a coffee break.
Occasionally, participants may report that they don’t know enough about the ALS subject area to confidently apply learning to their work. The skill of the facilitator in such situations is to help the group determine whether the lack of knowledge is real (i.e. the group really does not know enough about the subject to progress) or apparent (e.g. the group lacks confidence in applying the knowledge it does have).
A ‘mapping’ question can be useful in this situation: “It sounds as if you are not confident that you have a good enough grasp of the subject to apply it to your work. Let’s have a look at what you do know about the subject, even if there are significant knowledge gaps at some points, and see whether there is enough to work with for the purpose of this seminar.”
If it turns out that the gaps are so great as to mislead or frustrate the group, it may be appropriate to suggest that the group considers undertaking further study, research and/or training in the ALS topic area before agreeing to reconvene at some future date.
It is possible for group members to clash, especially if they have strongly-held opinions about how the ALS topic area should be tackled. If the conflict appears to be becoming hostile or entrenched, it can be helpful to intervene with something like: “I can see that you have very different views about this matter that feel very important to each of you. Let’s acknowledge the differences at this stage but put the issue on hold so that we can return to the main focus of the ALS.”
If this approach fails and the conflict continues to block the group’s progress, stay calm and try calling a 10-minute coffee break to allow the ‘dust’ to settle before reconvening.
Keeping everyone involved
Helping to make sure that everyone has chance to join in the seminar discussion and any other activities (e.g. role plays) that might take place is a key role of the facilitator. This can be tricky sometimes if there are very quiet people in the group (e.g. reflective by nature, or under-confident) or very vocal people who might dominate discussion. There are, however, lots of useful techniques that can prove helpful if things become problematic in this respect, for example:
Affirm the input of the dominant member, then explicitly create space for others to input. “You have raised some important points here. Now let’s see if anyone else in the group would like to comment.”
Suggest that each person writes down his/her thoughts/ideas individually before discussing, and then go around the room asking each person to share in turn.
Agree (in a fairly lighthearted way, if possible) that no person in the group will speak more than once until every other person in the group has had chance to speak.
Invite input from people who have not spoken, directly but sensitively: “John, is there anything you would like to add at this point before we move on?”
Suggest that participants jot down their thoughts, ideas and questions on sheets of flipchart paper (1 sheet each, or between 2) and blutack these on walls around the room. Give the participants 5 minutes to wander round and read the sheets and then ask them to prioritise 3 key issues that they would like to tackle together in the seminar.
Split into small groups to tackle specific tasks, then allow each small group to feed back to the large group. This technique provides opportunity for people to speak who do not feel confident in large groups and also allows more than one task area to be tackled at the same time.
Establish basic ground rules at the start of the seminar (e.g. confidentiality) that will enable everyone to participate: “Some groups find it helpful to spend 5 minutes at the start of an ALS deciding what group rules should be used so that everyone can feel free to join in. What do you think would be good basic rules for this group?” Be careful, however, that you don’t spend so much time on creating rules that the main purpose of the seminar is lost(!)
Practical evidence suggests that the use of ALS as a means of grounding learning in practice can prove highly effective and thereby adds considerable value to an initial investment in training. I would recommend, therefore, that if you haven’t tried working with this supplementary methodology before, it is well worth incorporating into standard development and training programmes.