|Thursday, 29 July 2004|
Managers as facilitators of learning
by M. C. Mathupala
New approaches to teaching and training are being developed and applied all over the world to make learning more pleasant and effective. One such approach is facilitation. Due the widespread application of such approaches to make learning more effective, the traditional 'tell' and 'show' methods are becoming fast outdated.
All managers have to develop their facilitation skills if they are to maintain and enhance their leadership among their staff while helping them to meet the new challenges facing organisations consequent to globalisation and competition.
This new role will become a crucial factor in our state organisations with the placement of large numbers of fresh graduates in the near future. There is no use blaming the education system and the universities for the low quality of recent graduates.
They are a resource and most of them have achieved the expected academic standards under trying circumstances that have disturbed their university life in many ways. They are good material and have to be developed to take over the responsibilities of future executives with higher levels of managerial performance.
When a manager has to perform the role of a facilitator s/he has to change from 'boss' to 'leader'. Team working has become the key word today in effective management. Facilitation skills in a manager help in boosting up the cohesiveness of the teams or work groups in his department or division thereby enhancing the productivity and morale of the total work force.
Facilitation is not manipulation of peer pressure to achieve results preconceived by the manager. It is a process of getting everyone in the group committed to common organisational goals and moving together to fulfil targets desired and agreed by the total group based on consensus, consolidated by common objectives and collective action.
The manager as facilitator has to develop unlimited patience to help the group reach consensus on all issues impacting on their overall performance. This will be a challenging task with the new graduates who have been exposed to different ideologies and outlooks on life.
Traditional training/teaching is teacher centered. The teacher decides what is good for the learners and what method is best for imparting the desired knowledge and/or skills. Facilitation is 'learner centered'. The facilitator has to understand the learning styles and backgrounds of each and every person in the (learning) team.
Psychological and educational research has attempted to categorise learning styles of individuals in many ways. One set of the more common categories divides learners into four types.
There are those who prefer to listen to someone more learned and experienced expounding the theoretical concepts and accept them as gospel truth while others would like to reflect on an analyse such principles before accepting their veracity.
There is the third category that would like to learn from practice and consolidate their knowledge in reference to concrete examples while yet others would seek confirmation of learning through real life examples and observable results.
Hence, a facilitator has to understand the most suitable learning style for each of his team members and be skillful enough to design and plan learning experiences accordingly so that all the members of the team develop at the same pace in a pleasant learning environment. All these have to be done within the working environment without any undue disturbance to on-going productive work.
Understanding individuals' learning needs and attempting to fulfil them is a simpler task when compared to developing 'group think' in a working team to achieve higher levels of productivity. When individuals get into groups their thinking patterns become modified and their behaviour shows many changes.
Any textbook on individual behaviour and group behaviour/group dynamics will explain why this happens. It is not intended to go into details here.
Managers should have the skills to understand how the groups with whom they work, operate under normal conditions as well as under exceptional circumstances. Their facilitation skills should be well developed to be able to direct group behaviour in the working teams towards the productive achievement of organisational goals. Group dynamics indicate the ever-changing nature of group behaviour.
The three main factors that influence such changes in behaviour are: (a) the leader/s, (b) situations, and (c) the composition of the individuals in the group. A manager has to keep in mind constantly how such factors affect their groups daily and in the face of any activities/programmes planned for the future.
This is a challenging task and requires a considerable amount of learning in managers especially through analysis of partial or total failures in the past.
In addition to the numerous training programmes devoted to management development in the management training institutions established in Sri Lanka, the Distance Education for Public Servants (DEPS) project provides distance education opportunities to public servants.
They have established a network of Group Learning Centers (GLCs) that can be utilised to develop the capacities of managers as facilitators.
As equipment like radio, TV and computers for web learning are available at these centers in addition to face-to-face group learning sessions, the resource persons and curricula may be focused on the development of facilitation skills in addition to subject matter knowledge and administrative procedures.
Let us now consider some of the essential skills a manager has to develop in order to become an effective facilitator.
First and foremost s/he has to possess public relations and public speaking skills. S/he should be confident of her/his ability to present information to others in a convincing and effective manner. S/he should not be scared of talking to groups large and small. This skill is very essential as facilitators have to have frequent meetings with their work team members.
Chairing a meeting and facilitation are two different things though a person who can conduct successful meetings can adjust himself to the role of a facilitator very easily.
In facilitation an agenda may be necessary but it is not strictly followed like at a formal meeting. The facilitator has to be flexible as s/he has to stimulate the members of work group to express their views and get them involved in the process of decision making based on 'group think'.
An effective facilitator will not attempt to control to the group like a chairman. He may, however, attempt to direct the thinking of the group through the infusion of her/his own thoughts at appropriate times without dominating the discussion. His actions and behaviour should not inhibit the free flow of ideas from the members.
A manager / facilitator should be adept in using brainstorming techniques to elicit the ideas of group members. He should use the most appropriate brainstorming techniques (silent, open, spider, inverted pyramid, phillips's 66, etc.) to generate and express opinions in an objective and unbiased manner so that the learning outcomes become effective and fruitful.
Listening with comprehension is another essential skill. A facilitating manager must develop his skills in listening to others to comprehend what the group members mean by what they say. In the event of any dubious situation arising out of any vague statement(s) - which are very common among Sri Lankans-the facilitator has to ask objective questions, the answers to which will lead to greater understanding and clarity.
Work groups do not have much time to be spending on discussions. So, the facilitator has to be able to conduct such discussions of short duration yet getting optimum learning effects. A discussion should not degenerate into a series of dialogues with the facilitator. Free and open expression of ideas with a minimum amount of mediation by the facilitators should be the general norm.
Knowledge of action learning systems and their application to generate learning among members is necessary for a facilitator. Some call this learning by doing or project learning.
The discussion / learning sessions should end up in the preparation of action plans or projects for members to apply the outcomes of their learning during their day to day work. This ensures continuity of learning.
The facilitator has to guide the implementation and monitoring of such projects with the help of specialists in the relevant disciplines. Such guidance is necessary not only to achieve the desired results but also to derive the maximum amount of learning in the process.
Monitoring the implementation of group plans should be made a group responsibility so that they can learn by sharing experiences during their day to day activities.
Group meeting should not be mere 'talk shops' but 'workshops' where things happen that lead to reflection and learning by the team. As some people humorously quip, they should not become NATO (no action, talk only) meetings but SALT (some action, little talk) meetings.
Hierarchical and bureaucratic attitudes in our managers have to change if they are to become successful facilitators of learning. The managers should also be prepared to learn even from their subordinates. The composition and nature of the work force has drastically changed during the last forty years with a strong trend towards 'knowledge workers'.
Management techniques are fast focusing on participatory processes, team work and collective action. The time where an employee was hired as a 'pair of hands' only is long past. Now the brain that comes with the pair of hands is considered a valuable asset.
Those brains have to be developed and directed in a positive manner. Facilitation of learning is one of the crucial techniques that support such development.
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