Facilitation for engineers and scientists

Posted by  Andrew Rixon —April 19, 2006
Filed in Collaboration

EurekaIt’s interesting how I’ve found myself drawn into discussion lately around the difficulties of facilitating engineers and scientists. If facilitating engineers and scientists is difficult, imagine then, the challenge of how to educate, train and inform engineers and scientists on ‘how to be more facilitative’. With many organisations now developing communities of practice to meet strategic knowledge management objectives such demands on scientific and engineering staff may be more common than you think. Given that ‘being facilitative’ is one of the requirements for successfully nurturing and developing communities of practice, how does one go about about being facilitative?

Of course, nothing is impossible. Scientists and engineers are at a disadvantage though. The big disadvantage I see is that scientists and engineers often live in fear of (publicly) asking stupid questions. When you have spent most of your life training to be ‘a problem solver’ or to ‘have the answer’ some light is shed on the problem of being facilitative. Being facilitative requires one to often ask what appears to be stupid questions, maybe even naive questions. At least I think so. If you’ve spent alot of your time, training and effort, being the one to answer questions, how hard is it going to be for you to ask “what do others think?”.

I think that being facilitative requires one to be happy with not knowing and yet maintain the desire to know. For group sensemaking this is a critical insight. If the facilitator is willing to live with the uncertainty of not knowing, which by the way is where you will find yourself spending alot of time as a facilitator, the group will find itself getting to better outcomes. Being happy with not knowing yet maintaining the desire to know sets up a great precondition for sensemaking. Dissonance. For a scientist and engineer who might presume to know, the possibility for group sensemaking immediately starts to close down.

As we have been finding from our reflective practice on language in facilitation, language is something which emerges from a mindset and there definitely appears to be a mindset which goes along with ‘being facilitative’. I’ve blogged before about what I think are foundational elements for facilitation, many of these reflect this mindset element.

Facilitation is more than just finding some great processes like you might at the citizen science toolbox and applying them. Though this is a great place to start. Facilitation is something you have to get your hands dirty with to learn. Action learning if you will. Once you start you will soon learn the power of empathy, asking stupid questions and laughing at yourself along the way.

About  Andrew Rixon

5 Responses to “Facilitation for engineers and scientists”

  1. Dave Snowden Says:

    Well in my experience engineers are some of the best people to work with in KM (as are scientists). They are fairly open to admiting they are wrong, but not at all open to engaging in processes that have little or no meaning, or do not deal with real world issues. They are not afraid to ask stupid questions, but they are intolerant of stupidity.

  2. Andrew Rixon Says:

    Hi Dave,
    Great to hear you. I thought this “fluffy-bunny” / art luddite post might bring you into conversation.
    I agree that scientists and engineers can be grounded and reluctant to jump into airyfairy approaches. Maybe skeptical is the word, hopefully not cynical.
    I think that this culture of ‘intolerance to stupidity’ is what closes down group sensemaking and possibly presents a big challenge for scientists and engineers attempting to ‘be facilitative’.

  3. dave Snowden Says:

    I always felt that Diogenes got a bad press. Cynics, generally care about things, so they do not put up with nonsense. COnvince them you are serious and capable and they come on side.
    I did promise Shawn that I would aim to correct your fluffy bunny tendencies 🙂

  4. Matt Moore Says:

    In terms of communities of practice, scientists have a long & venerable tradition (Henry Oldenburg being a great exemplar of an effective community builder) of community building.
    I think the critical distinction for a scientist is the judged competence of their interlocutor. If you are perceived to be incompetent then people won’t play with you.
    Plus the more general issue of trust (which is certainly not limited to scientists). A mathematican friend of mine tells me that mathematicians are terrified of being proved wrong in public (because proof is the currency of maths – and if there is a single chink in your logic, you are toast). This means that the discussion of possibilities rather than absolutes has to be negotiated – and people can be cagey about discussing things in open forums.
    Also what are the differences between scientists & engineers? Engineering often involves the creation & examination of alternatives. It is also highly pragmatic.
    One way to explore this might be to read some jokes:

  5. andrew campbell Says:

    Is the use of ”airy fairy” symptomatic of a dialogue between specialists in a highly limited clique-like forum?

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