Picture this: A training session is about to start. About 10 minutes before class is set to begin, a huge rush of people enters the room. Some participants start wandering about looking for a seat, others head straight for the restroom or the coffeemaker. Inevitably, whenever your training is scheduled for one department or for a larger “all-hands” training, one will begin to see that participants tend to sit next to the people they already know, filling in the back row of seats. And then there is always that group making their presence known — talking loudly, laughing and claiming a whole table as their “kingdom.” So, you take a deep breath and think to yourself — here we go again.

If this training scenario has ever happened to you (or maybe it’s just been our experience), we have a strategy to alleviate some of the uncertainty, allowing the trainer to focus on the training. As our scenario illustrates, the learners are already looking for guidance, and they’ve only just set foot in your classroom. How do you handle it? What should you do first? Welcome the introverted, quiet ones or introduce yourself to the alphas within the group? You already know that there are personality differences amongst your learners, but what about their life experiences?

Luckily for our fellow L&D professionals, we have some tried-and-true ways to foster greater interaction among participants. It is a known reality that learners are diverse, so why not capitalize on one of the critical elements of diversity: varied backgrounds, especially professional experience, even if the experience is in various industries. Organizations that want to be leaders in training and development are keenly aware that they must prepare their training programs with perhaps the greatest age variation that has ever existed in the workplace, not to mention the usual challenges of coping with varied career experience, motivational factors and multiple training and development paths. Our strategy, then, is to utilize this reality to both foster greater participation and to drive our training objectives.

This article presents a facilitation technique which can be added into any company’s training toolbox. Here are three areas on which this article will focus:

  1. How to utilize a round-robin technique to add networking opportunities and skills, while also showcasing the varied level of experience and expertise in the training session.
  2. Illustrate how this technique enables each participant a chance to engage with co-workers he or she may not otherwise be able to interact with on a daily basis (or even at all, depending on how large the organization is).
  3. Share how employees may benefit from the variety of perspectives in the training session.

The Technique

Typically, a round-robin is facilitated like a tournament, challenge or competition, where each person has the opportunity to play with or against one another. Some trainers use it as a teach-back, or even to train on a certain procedure or process where each participant must fill in the next or missing step in a procedure. “Evil” but effective. In addition, a round-robin training strategy is an excellent technique to use group settings whenever a trainer wants the participants to generate ideas.

In our case, we wanted participants to share their experiences in order to generate possible solutions to some company challenges. Our round-robin technique allows each learner to gain additional perspectives from one another, regardless of their experiences or exposure to the training topic. Although three categories of employee experiences tend to be used most often in our strategy, this facilitation strategy is flexible and allows for multiple applications to be utilized within an organization.

When using this facilitation technique, it is important, as a best practice, to use the experiences and backgrounds most appropriate to the organization and to the training session’s learning objectives. We see our facilitation strategy as a “fresh take” on the classic round-robin:

  • The goal: To foster multiple perspectives on a given training topic, especially effective at training sessions which are focused on problem-based scenarios, solution-generation or for strategic planning.
  • The strategy: To deliberately group the learners — prior to when the training session begins, which is a key element to this strategy’s effectiveness. This is done by mindfully pre-grouping participants by their experience level prior to a training session, instead of letting the participants sit next to the coworker whom they know so well.
  • The result: A more organic interaction can be cultivated, which can yield a collaborative approach to problem-solving.

This strategy is based off of one of Malcolm Knowles’ theories on adult learners. Active participation in planned experiences — such as discussions or problem-solving exercises, an analysis of those experiences and their application to work or life situations — should be the core methodology for training adults. Adults learn and retain information more easily if they can relate it to their past experiences.

The Categories

The learner’s experience can be divided into three categories: new hire, mid-level and senior-level. These are the three categories which have worked in our experience. However, this training strategy does not necessarily involve grouping or ranking by job title, nor does it need to be by organization levels within the company:

  1. New hire: Someone who is new to organization. This can range from an employee who is new to both his or her career and to the company/industry. Experience can be up to two years.
  2. Mid-level: Someone who may have many years’ experience within the company/industry, yet new to your company. Experience can range from two to 10 years.
  3. Senior-level: Someone with vast experience both within the organization and industry. Experience is typically more than 10 years.

The best way to group by experience is to know the experience of the learner prior to attending the training session. This information can be acquired by a registration form and then arranged as much as possible into triads, with one learner representing each of the experience levels. In an ideal world, each group would have at least representative. However, this is rarely the case. The groups might end up being one senior-level with two newbies. Or a group may only have mid-level experienced learners. And that’s okay: Just know that, as a trainer, you may have to offer additional support and guidance to those groups that don’t have a more “seasoned” learner.

If you don’t have or can’t get the participants’ experience levels prior to class, you can have each learner identify themselves and situate each group in a different area of the training room. You can then pick a representative from each group to form a more balanced triad. Again, you may end up with some lopsided experienced groups, but the end result is to get varied experiences. Even if their years of experience may be similar, they may have different perspectives from job location or interaction with mentors and/or leadership.

The Rationale

Why does this deliberate grouping work? The “newbie” or new hire brings a fresh set of eyes. For example, the newbie may simply ask the question, “why?” or ask the reasoning behind a course of actions they are supposed to take. The mid-level  person may have just encountered the topic scenario and can describe what she or he did to resolve or complete the task at hand. The mid-level learners may also be able to recall their first experiences on the job and may even be able to provide advice along the lines of “Here’s what I wish someone told me my first day on the job.” And the participants with the most experience can offer what they have learned over the years and how their knowledge of the training topic, skills and abilities morphed with each encounter. These learners will usually be the ultimate example of “learn from my mistakes” and can even act as a mentors or guides to the other learners.

The Benefits

Here are a few of the possible benefits of using this facilitation strategy at your next training event. Our round-robin strategy:

  • Fosters the known benefits of peer collaboration and peer learning.
  • Increases employees’ networking skills.
  • Encourages all participants to share their unique expertise.
  • Enhances the company’s learning culture.

A great way to determine if the collaborative learning experience worked (or not!) is to ask about it on the course evaluation or learning survey. The statement could be written as an agree/disagree statement or based on a Likert scale. The results can then be shared electronically with leadership. However, we have found the best way to get learners’ reactions is to build a discussion around the experience. Comments from past training sessions have been everything from, “I learned so much just talking to my other teammates,” to “I’ve been doing this job for so long I forgot all about the little stuff and why I do it a certain way.”

As L&D professionals, we know the value of our training programs and we strive for the learner to gain new perspectives, knowledge and skill sets. So, it’s critical that every learner be engaged, from the new hire to the learner who is about to retire. The efficacy of this facilitation strategy is that it purposefully fosters and encourages learners sharing and utilizing their vast experiences to solve challenges or to create new opportunities for their organization. Moreover, by building the training session on a solid foundation of learning objectives aligned to the organization’s goals, the stage is set for a successful training event. As we know all too well, without setting the objectives in place on the front-end, neither the employee nor the company will see the connection, let alone appreciate the value of the training event.