I have organized my facilitation practice around a range of practice foundations, which helps as I work with potential clients.   In recently discussing a potential large-scale facilitation with a client, I found myself  drawing from the foundations of performance improvement and empowerment education to help frame the project.  At first, the client was jumping ahead to facilitation methodology as I was still trying to wrap my head around the process. As we spoke, it became clear that while the primary goal of the facilitation was focused on operational planning that there was a secondary goal to foster a nascent learning community.  With that perspective in mind, I focused the discussion around the larger process of facilitation before discussing facilitation methodology and suggested that the methodology would reveal itself if the process was clear. Once we agreed that the process needed to align both goals (community-building and operational planning) the rest of the discussion focused on the “how” of the convening (e.g., would open space or action planning be an appropriate methodology). The challenge of the facilitation was to both create a useful operational plan and accelerate the curve of the developing learning community.  Had we launched right into methods planning we might have missed the larger process. In this post I would like to describe a basic framework of group/organizational learning and discuss its implications for facilitation design.

If you were to align models for program planning, strategic planning, instructional design, organizational learning, and knowledge management, it would become apparent that the contour of all these processes includes a similar pathway of gathering information, making connections between information, interpreting information, and acting on information.  Specific to structuring a “learning group” facilitation there is the added dimension of community building. As such a learning group processes needs to be grounded in a participatory framework (more on frameworks) while moving through four phase pathway that looks like this:

Generating:  For most group processes, the first stage of the convening is to help all participants gather and share information.  Whether the information is derived from a structured assessment process in advance of the meeting or is a real-time sharing process, participants need to open the universe of information before moving to understanding and action.  In addition, when you are trying to help nurture a learning community it is critical to build interaction and participation into the generative phase.

Integrating/Interpreting: The second stage of the learning group pathway is to begin to create a share understanding of the connections between information.  As a group starts to move towards learning the process of synthesis begins to take place.  In group settings this is also the stage where participants begin to weave together socially.  In this context, the process of integrating and interpreting is both a constructivist activity and is also a social exercise where transparency, listening and sharing become stated values.

Participatory Meaning:  As the group’s understanding how the information connects together as a whole, the group is then able to start to create meaning out of the information and begin to sort and choose what is relevant and actionable.  In essence, the actions of this stage are prioritizing and narrowing.  Critical to this stage is that the process of narrowing must be grounded in principles of inclusion, voice and democracy.  Without a sense of authentic participation and ownership, the process of collaboration and network weaving is undermined.

Creative Action: The final stage of of the process is moving towards creative action.  This is the point where the group decides “what’s next.”  At the end of the day, all group process requires the facilitator to focus on concrete next steps.  For a learning group process, the next steps must also include discussion of what’s next for the social network weaving.  There needs to be the dual focus on both “where is the group going” and “how will they get there together.”

In talking to my potential client, I suggested that, on the surface, the process of moving from information to action looks like the primary task of most facilitation processes. However, if organizational learning is also a goal for the process, the second layer of “movement” is not just about information but the “movement” of social relationships.  The implication for such a facilitation process is that the facilitator should not only understand how to manage a group process but also understand principles of coalition building, adult leading, empowerment and constuctivist learning.  In a day when the processes networking weaving and organizational learning are, in many ways, more important that creating a product, facilitation becomes a higher order practice that simply “running a good meeting.”

As always, your comments are welcome.

Book for your bookshelf

Nancy Dixon: The Organizational Learning Cycle

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Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.