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The Trainer’s Tool Everyone Loves to Hate: The Facilitator Guide

President Of TrainSmart, Inc.

You wouldn’t think that facilitator guides would be a particularly controversial topic.  Maybe controversial is too strong a word. Let’s just say professionals who have used or created facilitator guides throughout their careers have strong opinions on the subject: not just which style is most effective but whether or not standard facilitator guides should even be used.

As a trainer, you will find yourself in two distinct situations. Situation one: you are handed a facilitator guide developed by someone else and expected to train from it.  Situation two: you are asked to create a facilitator guide so other trainers can deliver the same workshop that you do.  In order to be successful in using or creating a facilitator guide, you need to understand what works and what doesn’t.

Sometimes called the facilitator’s manual, proponents view this document as the key to a well-thought-out and organized training session. When executed correctly, it guides the facilitator/trainer on all aspects of the training session. This includes the table of content, room setup, facilitator preparations, learning outcomes, detailed script, instructions for activities, pictorials of visuals, and time management.

The challenge is that there isn’t one definitive template or format for facilitator guides. To paraphrase Forrest Gump – a facilitator guide is like a box of chocolate, you never know what you’re gonna get.

While variety in a box of chocolates has its tasty advantages – it also has some unappetizing drawbacks; the same can be said of the state of the facilitator guide in today’s training environment.

As Kim Rayner, Strategic Growth and Change Partner at JPMorgan Chase, says, “Every pro I’ve worked with has a preferred style, it is truly a challenge to use one created by someone else.”

Some are formatted in the notes section of a PowerPoint with minimal talking points.  Others are complex documents with lengthy scripts, multiple icons, tables, highlighted notes, and detailed timing for every segment of the workshop.

Talk to four different facilitators/trainers and they will give you four different opinions on whether or not facilitator guides are even necessary.

Dick Hearns, Chief Operating Officer, Training & Development Interventions in Johannesburg Area, South Africa, says, “I don’t like prepared Facilitator Guides, as they present the material the way the writer sees the subject and leaves little or no room for a true facilitator to use their ability as a facilitator. I prefer to take a Learner’s Guide and make my own FG as part of my preparation.”

Those sentiments are shared by Irasema Perrot, a 20-year veteran of the Computer Training Industry who says, “If the facilitator has the objectives for the class and a suggestion of class exercises or reference materials he or she should be able to conduct an excellent class. If the instructor relies strictly on the facilitator’s guide, in my opinion, the class will be boring and not very successful. Creativity, flexibility, and spontaneity are the keys to leaving students with the necessary skills taught.”

At the same time, there are many facilitators/trainers who see facilitator guides as an essential part of the training process.

“I completely support facilitator guides,” says Harlan Kilmon, PMP, Professional Project Management Trainer and Consultant, Technical Team Lead, Microsoft Project/Project Management.  “The main problem I’ve seen is they end up as a “script” with which facilitators feel, or have no, ability to adjust dynamically to the needs of the attendees.  Kilmon added that many “modern” facilitator guides lack a layer of information that previous facilitator guides used to include:  clear training objectives, learning objectives, and minimum student takeaways.

Chantal Bilodeau, who is a training advisor with the Red Cross in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, is also in the pro facilitator guide camp.  “we use them regularly to standardize practices since our trainers come from different backgrounds and experience. Although there is always room to adapt and select activities if need be, i.e. when you’re running out of time, most of our facilitators enjoy them and find them truly useful.”

Many trainers who like the concept of a facilitator guide are less than enthusiastic about the formatting of the documents they receive.  The problem for many is that instructional designers often create one document that serves as both a learning document and a presentation document.

The information trainers need when they are in “learning mode” is very different than the material and information they need when they are in front of a classroom.  Presumably, the trainer has studied the guide inside and out before entering the classroom to understand the learning objectives, the content flow, and the amount of time they should spend on any one topic.

It’s the difference between reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace and reading the SparkNotes (CliffsNotes for the Baby Boomers) version of it. Once you’ve read War and Peace, SparkNotes serve as an easy-to-use guide that highlights themes and storyline.

That’s the approach that Travis Wickesberg, M.Ed., a Lead Instructional Designer at a computer manufacturing firm, took when the organization decided to revamp all of its training materials.

“We went with the less-is-more approach. We really focused on preparing the trainer for the class and activities. When it came to content, we agreed to provide just enough context to give the trainer a good understanding of what needs to be done/said for each slide. We didn’t script anything, and we agreed to use the T3 to clarify and add color where needed.”

Given that there is not one or two or even three elegant solutions for the development of facilitator guides, what are some best practices? For Christine McKenzie Terry, Associate Director at eMINTS National Center at the University of Missouri, a key best practice is to make sure the development of facilitator guides is a team effort. “They are designed as a tool to help make our jobs go more smoothly. They are not a script, and the only required components are the goals and objectives[…]We like to create FG in Google Docs that our facilitators can copy and adjust. They include tips for different types of environments or audiences and small and large group variations. That way a facilitator can remove unneeded information. That new copy of the guide also serves as a record of how the session was differentiated.”

Another facilitator guide best practices to consider:

Include the visuals. That may sound like a no-brainer, but there are many facilitator guides that do not link the content to the visual.

Create a space for facilitators to share experiences.  A particular activity may work well with one group and may fall flat with another. When facilitators have a place to share what worked and didn’t, it creates an environment for continuous improvement.

Update regularly. Facilitators are often expected to provide detailed feedback on sections of the facilitator guide that need updating. Too often, those comments fall into a black hole with inaccurate or outdated information remaining.

Do you have a best practice? We’d love to hear from you!

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Leslie has over 25 years experience in the training industry. Her responsibilities have included sales, hands on management and software training, curriculum development, needs analysis, usability testing, and project management. Her strong training background, organizational skills, and exceptional development expertise, augment her extensive sales and marketing abilities.