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Group specs

Facilitator or expert? Effective groups probably have no need for facilitators. But most work groups are not very effective, says Paul Fox.

Recently I received a telephone call from someone requesting a facilitator. The caller wanted someone with expertise in motorway communication systems to run a workshop. To the caller's surprise, I told him that he was asking for an expert rather than a facilitator.

The word expert in this sense refers to a person trained by practice and experience to impart opinions on a given subject. Facilitation, on the other hand, means 'to make easy'.

Facilitation is a group process; a facilitator guides members of a group to pool their knowledge and expertise in order to achieve a goal or complete a task.

I have noticed a growing trend for people in the construction industry to label themselves as facilitators, probably because their technical expertise or experience is greater than that of the groups with which they work. From my point of view, however, the terms expert or lecturer seem perfectly adequate to describe a person who tells someone else what to do or what is right.

Skilled construction industry professionals do not necessarily make good facilitators - just as the best facilitators are seldom technical specialists. A facilitator is an expert in group processes. He uses this expert knowledge to monitor what is happening within a group and to intervene when things become difficult for the participants - when it looks as though they will not succeed in achieving their purpose if left to their own devices.

Effective groups probably do not need facilitators. But most work groups are not very effective - especially diverse, newly formed project teams.

To help decide whether you need an expert or a facilitator, you should consider whether you want someone to provide you with answers, probably based on how things have always been done, or whether you want someone to lead a group - an individual with no preconceptions of what is right or wrong, possible or not possible.

It is, more often than not, a great advantage for facilitators to have no understanding of the technical issues that the groups are there to resolve. Most often, the people who have been brought together have all the content knowledge they need, but they use patterns of behaviour that produce ineffective group functioning and poor results.

On successful partnered projects the success comes from a change in behaviour and attitude, not a fundamental change in technical approach. Where groups are dominated by someone who has authority - whether this authority is determined by position or conferred voluntarily by the group - the effectiveness of the group is dependent on the skills of that person in authority, not on the expertise or creativity of the group.

For the construction industry to achieve improvements in performance, it has to move beyond the traditional, authoritarian master/slave working process.

Many opportunities are being lost because history has taught us it is not good practice to impart bad news to the wage payer. Contractors and consultants will not, or cannot, tell clients about client action that is costing the project - even for those enlightened clients who want to know. Subcontractors and specialist suppliers have a similar relationship with their paymasters and react in a similar way.

Yet openness and honesty is the key to group effectiveness.

There is a growing desire among workers to be part of the decision making process. The less people are consulted, the more likely they are to look somewhere else for an organisation that values their opinions and feelings. Their knowledge is for sale and not necessarily for money.

An effective facilitator will not step over unspoken issues, rather bring them out in a nonadversarial way to be dealt with appropriately in a win-win solution.

Facilitative management will be critical for organizations wishing to attract and retain the best workers, respond to demanding clients and produce creative solutions for profit.

Paul Fox is a team leader at Simpson Norris International, a global network of facilitators and consultants.

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