Facilitation – the first skill a new KM team needs to learn

The most valuable skill for the Knowledge Management professional is the skill of facilitation. This is one of the first skills a new KM team must learn. 

20131205 Graphical Facilitation Workshop
Photo by Nicholas Wang on Flickr

Knowledge is created and used by people – it needs to be externalised an internalised by humans, and in today’s world that usually means people working in teams or in networks. Wherever people interact, facilitation becomes an enabler.  Certainly once knowledge is documented it needs to be treated as information, which is where skills of information organisation become more important than facilitation skills, but this accounts for only about 25% of KM work.

The other 75% requires interactions with and between people;

  • Knowledge is created through interactions between people, for example team meetings such as After Action reviewLessons capture, where learnings are discussed;
  • Knowledge is internalised through interactions between people, for example Peer Assists where a project team internalise lessons from others, and discuss what this may mean to them;
  • Knowledge is most easily transferred through interactions between people – either face to face or electronically mediated; in community of practice meetings ann online discussions.

 The quality of these interactions directly affects the quality and quantity of the knowledge transfer, and facilitation is the key factor in enabling high quality interaction.

You can’t just assume that any interaction results in a high quality exchange of knowledge, as there are often many barriers – barriers of hierarchy, of shyness, of lack of trust or openness or honesty, of taking shortcuts, or cross-talking, or asserting without listening. Good quality facilitation can help remove these barriers. In fact, as my post on “a group is its own worst enemy” shows; unfacilitated groups will often introduce facilitation or moderation just as a way to keep discussion fruitful.

The role of facilitation

Effectively identifying and exchanging knowledge in a conversation or meeting requires

  • High quality interactions between people 
  • Open behaviours – listening, exploring, not criticising 
  • Good listening 
  • Dialogue, not discussion, assertion or argument 
  • Balanced input from many people – not a few people talking, and the others listening
  • Following a process – exchanging views, divergence, convergence

The role of facilitation is to make it easier for a group to effectively deliver these high quality interactions. The role is one of assistance and guidance, not control. The facilitator looks after the process and behaviours of the conversation while the group looks after the content of the conversation.

Facilitation is not

  • Teaching  – you are not teaching the group about meeting process, you are helping them to deliver results from a process or conversation 
  • Coaching – you do not coach them towards the right answer – you don’t know the right answer – they do! 
  •  Reviewing and assessing – you will not tell them at the end whether they conducted the meeting correctly or incorrectly – you make sure they do it effectively.
  • Team leadership – the team leader is always interested in the outcome, and cannot facilitate effectively. The facilitator is almost never the team leader.

Tasks of KM facilitation

Some of the KM processes require more active facilitation than others. Facilitating a Peer Assist, for example, is relatively light-touch, while facilitating a Retrospect requires much greater involvement from the facilitator. Some of the tasks in the latter case include

  • Asking the questions. An After Action review or Retrospect is all about questions – What happened? Why did it happen? How do we repeat or avoid this in future? These are open questions, and the facilitator’s role is to make sure each one is asked, and each one is fully answered.
  • Ensuring equal input. “Susie, you have been quiet so far – what are your views on this?”. “Mickey, thank you for that, now let’s hear what some of the others think”
  • Identifying themes or common threads in a discussion “Many of us have identified planning as a problem in this project – I wonder if we need to have a short discussion on planning“ 
  • Clarifying confusing statements , or ask for more detail on lessons “Mr Lao, you said that it was important to plan properly – can you tell us what proper planning would look like?” 
  • Summarizing and organizing the ideas “If I can just summarize our discussion, we would suggest that in future, projects approach planning by ……….” 
  • Testing for agreement “Is that a fair summary of the discussion? What do you think?”

Gaining facilitation skills

There are many organisations (for example the International Association of Facilitators) that provide general training in meeting facilitation, and one of the first things a new KM team should do is attend such a course. 
They then need specialist training or coaching in KM facilitation, to perfect the specific skills of knowledge capture, of facilitating online communities of practice. The US Army, for example, provides extensive AAR training, and you can find many of their videos online.

Find yourself a good KM training company to give your team the core skills they need. Contact us if you need help.

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