What kind of facilitator are you?

Designing effective training is one thing. Designing training that can be delivered effectively (by you or by someone else) is a bit of a different animal. It doesn’t matter whether the training is being delivered in-person or virtually, the person delivering the session is an enormous X Factor in whether the training will be effective or not.

For a number of years, when I’ve led a train the trainer program or a facilitation skills training, I’d use an activity like you see in the following image to help participants understand the difference between a subject matter expert and a facilitator (and then to identify where they fall in the continuum):

To be sure we’re on the same page in terms of how I’m using the words “SME” and “Facilitator”, I’d use the following characteristics to describe each one:

A Subject Matter Expert (SME) is characterized by:

  • Deep technical expertise
  • Specializes in specific content area(s)
  • Focused on delivering information (often times lots of it) into people’s hands
  • Operates with an assumption that the audience will benefit from the knowledge and expertise being shared
  • Presenter-centric delivery

A Facilitator is characterized by:

  • Deep expertise in adult learning theory
  • Content agnostic
  • Engages people in conversation and dialogue
  • Focused on the process of learning, not necessarily the content at hand
  • Comfortable navigating activities
  • Emphasizes how content is set up and debriefed as much as he/she emphasizes the actual content
  • Audience-centric design and delivery

Often when I’m delivery a train the trainer, people feel they know where I’m going with this, and nobody wants to be labeled an SME.

“I definitely try to engage the audience.”

“I think I facilitate, but I’m not content-agnostic.”

That’s why I don’t ask people to label themselves one or the other, but rather I ask them to identify where they may fall on the continuum. It’s helpful to know your starting point in order to make sure you can grow and develop into the best training professional possible.

Yet, as I played with this concept more, I began to like this 2-dimensional continuum less and less. For example, where would Bill Nye the Science Guy fall? He’s certainly an SME in all sorts of things science-related, and he’s very engaging, audience-centric and focused on the process as much as the content.

Recently I have begun using the following model as a replacement for my 2-dimensional continuum:

If you’re designing training programs for someone else (or if you want to make sure you’re designing to your own strengths), this matrix may be quite helpful to keep in mind.

Into which quadrant do you think that you fall?

Into which quadrant do the people you design training for generally fall?

Quadrant A

When I first showed this matrix to my colleagues, one person asked: Who would ever want to be in Quadrant A?

I don’t think anyone wants to be in Quadrant A, but many people are put into this position every day. Think about the HR generalist who is asked to lead new employee orientation and speak to all sorts of aspects of the organization and explain the function of various teams. Think about a team meeting in which a manager has been told to present a new policy that’s been thrust upon her and her team.

In this quadrant, the presenter has little subject matter expertise and is generally not paid to train others using adult learning principles. It can be uncomfortable for people in this quadrant to deliver training.

If you’re designing training for someone who falls into this quadrant, you can’t expect the presenter will use (or even care about) adult learning principles. Keeping the content and any appropriate activities as simple as possible will be the name of the game.

In addition, things like handouts, job aids, resource sheets indicating where to go for more information and perhaps even video recordings of someone who knows more about the content can all be helpful.

Quadrant B

This quadrant is where your prototypical subject matter expert would fall. Very smart people who are employed to make money for their organization by being good at their primary job. They’re not generally paid to also be top notch presenters.

Even so, I used to design in-house train the trainer programs in hopes that they’d develop an appreciation for adult learning and how people retain information. And to their credit, many subject matter experts I worked with did develop that appreciation and bought into the idea that their presentations could be both informative and engaging.

Asking presenters in this quadrant to deliver highly engaging presentations, facilitate tricky conversations and rehearse until every element of their presentation is perfected is probably an unreasonable request, and it’s important to keep this in mind when designing for presenters in Quadrant B.

Similar to Quadrant A, some elements that can be very helpful in designing for presenters in this quadrant include handouts, job aids and reference sheets pointing people where to go for additional information. Helping give structure to any stories the experts may want to tell can also be helpful in keeping their presentation tight and focused. Adding in some questions for the audience to think about prior to and/or after someone in Quadrant B presents can also help keep everyone engaged.

Quadrant C

Ask anyone with an MBA and they’ll tell you that the best place to be on a 2×2 matrix is the upper right quadrant. This model, however, is very much situational.

I mentioned Bill Nye the Science Guy before. He’d probably fall into Quadrant C. This quadrant is made up of very smart people who also deliver participant-centered presentations intended to engage their audience.

While I design a lot of training, there would be very few instances in which I’d actually fall into this quadrant. And honestly, I don’t want to. I don’t want to have to know all the most intricate details about the various topics for which I design training. The value I offer my clients is not to be a subject matter expert on their content, but rather I can help develop a meaningful training program for their experts to deliver.

Of course, if you’re designing for presenters who fall into Quadrant C, you may be a bit like a kid in a candy shop. You can go crazy with your activities, being confident that the presenter will not only be comfortable in delivering a participant-centric program – ensuring directions for activities are clear and conversations can be facilitated effectively – but that the presenter will also be able to answer most questions the participants may ask about the content.

Quadrant D

The upper left quadrant might be the place you’d find pure facilitators. It’s certainly where I’d place myself when I’m working with most of our clients. The subject matter expertise that presenters in this quadrant bring is a deep understanding of adult learning and the ability to facilitate conversations.

On the other hand, if a presenter falls into this quadrant, it may be very helpful (and important) to ensure a subject matter expert could be available for some or all of the session in order to answer content-related questions.

When designing for someone in this quadrant, technical material in the form of guides, binders or handouts can prove extremely helpful. That said, presenters in this quadrant should feel extremely comfortable facilitating discussion, debate and delivering effective activity instructions to help guide the learning process.

What do you think?

It’s said that all models are wrong, but some models are useful. Is this a useful model for you? How might you adjust it to be even more useful?

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