Are you a Trainer or Facilitator, or Both?
As you read this article, think about how the terms ‘trainer’ and ‘facilitator’ are used in your organisation. What do these words mean to you?
I have read and heard it said that “facilitation is about process whereas training is about content,” and that “a trainer is a content expert, while a facilitator is a process expert.” (1)
People who make such statements seem to mainly fall into two groups.
- The first are those who think training is bad (you don’t train humans, you train animals) and facilitation is good (I don’t train, I facilitate learning).
- The second group are those who see facilitation as a non-training activity, focused on group processes/interaction with the aim of increasing group effectiveness. (2) These people use the general term ‘facilitation’ as shorthand for specific forms of group work, e.g. facilitating group problem-solving or decision-making.
Good Trainers are Facilitators
The idea that training is just about content, not process, is based on a very limited view of training. For example, it has been said that “It [training] assumes that the trainer/instructor has some knowledge, skill or attitude to impart to the students or participants in the training event,” and that “training and content consulting are about the trainer or consultant sharing their expertise with a group.” (3)
This is a narrow perspective that sees training purely as an input-oriented event, rather than a guiding and influence process, and is typically characteristic of ineffective training. Those who spend all their time ‘imparting to the participants’ or ‘sharing their expertise’ are presenters, not trainers. As the saying goes, “telling ain’t training.” Training may involve being a ‘sage on the stage’, but it more often than not requires being a ‘guide by the side’.
More than 35 years ago Dugan Laird (a pioneer in training) said:
“The truth is that in recent years our perception of the effective instructor has changed sharply. We are less concerned with platform skills; we are more and more concerned with skills in facilitating learning in others.” [emphasis added] (4)
And about 10 years later Robert Craig said, “The term facilitator is continually being used in our profession. All but unknown a decade ago, it has become the “in” thing for trainers. To paraphrase Carl Rogers, we cannot “teach anyone anything, all we can do is facilitate their learning”.” (5)
According to two online dictionaries:
Facilitation is “the act of assisting or making easier the progress or improvement of something” and facilitate is “to help bring about.” (6)
Given the above definitions, facilitating is an activity that anyone can perform; hence anyone can be a facilitator, including trainers. In fact, facilitation is now so widely regarded as crucial to effective training, that the terms “learning facilitator” and “course facilitator” have become widely accepted.
Both Process and Content are Important
Skilled trainers are highly concerned about process, during both design and delivery (including what happens before and after formal learning events). In particular, they understand how to use training methods/processes to activate appropriate learning. They therefore design and implement processes to create learning and processes to leverage its application in the workplace.
In group training situations, the training processes have to address participant interaction (individuals, pairs, teams, group). By facilitating collaborative processes that draw on the existing knowledge and skills of the group, it is possible for trainers to create learning without providing any content at all! This is not dissimilar to a facilitator providing a group with a decision-making process and facilitating its implementation. The main difference is the focus on increasing individual rather than group effectiveness.
To say that training is only (or even mainly) about content is nonsensical. To be effective, we have to be concerned about both process and content. And this means that we have to be good facilitators. Whether we call ourselves trainers or learning facilitators, facilitation of learning lies at the heart of what we do.
So how do you view training and how is it viewed in your organisation?
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- “A trainer is a content expert, while a facilitator is a process expert” is from Jean Barbazette, The Art of Great Training Delivery, John Wiley and Sons, 2006, p.85.
- For example, “Facilitation is the design and management of structures and processes that help a group do its work and minimise the common problems people have working together”, Thomas Justice and David Jamieson, The Facilitator’s Fieldbook — Third Edition, AMACOM Books, March 2012, p. 5.
- James Campbell, Defining Forms of Group Work, Professional Development Pamphlet Series: No. 1, The International Association of Facilitators (European Region), 2007, p. 5 & 14.
- Dugan Laird, Approaches to Training and Development, Addison-Wesley, 1985, p. 25.
- Robert Craig, The ASTD Training and Development Handbook, McGraw-Hill; 4th edition, 1996, p. 483. Carl Rogers said: “A person cannot teach another person directly; a person can only facilitate another’s learning.”
- Princeton WordNet, 2021; Merriam-Webster Online Collegiate Dictionary, 2021.