Turning Networked Participatory Action Research Into a “Train the Trainer” Model

In another article, I wrote about the “spokes on a wheel” design for networked participatory action research (NPAR). The concept is simple. Organizations, businesses, or educational environments that are challenged by the need to create complex change in a hurry can support hubs of participatory action research (PAR) teams in their various work environments. For school systems, each school might be a hub. In a large multinational business, offices in various countries might be hubs. In a public service environment, various work task teams might be hubs. These small groups of people will be undertaking a year of action research where they study what needs to happen to create the change in the area under their control, implement small steps towards that change, measure the results of those steps, and finally report on what they have learned and their strategic plans for the future. These clubs or teams come together into the center part of the wheel to meet as a larger group approximately every two months for one day. These meetings are facilitated by someone who has deep experience in helping people through this practice. This article will take this model one step further and addressed the question of how does management establish the expertise in-house to facilitate networked participatory action research in future years?

The Train the Trainer Model for NPAR
Creating systemic change is a multiyear process. Therefore, to cut costs, businesses or educational institutions will want to develop the facilitation skills to continue a NPAR design over multiple years. This requires a team of people in-house who not only know how to facilitate groups, but also know how to deal with the inns and outs of supporting teams to successful participatory action research outcomes and reports. What are the steps involved?

First Step: Choose the People You Want to Be Trained
Prime candidates for facilitating NPAR teams will have demonstrated certain qualities. These include: endurance, a sense of humor, flexibility, a clear focus on the desired outcomes, and problem-solving skills. A desirable plus, but not absolutely prerequisite would be experience in facilitating large groups over extended period of time. Naturally, any company investing in the education required for people to become trainers, hope that the employees they choose will be with them for multiple years after the training is over. These people should also believe wholeheartedly in, and be cheerleaders for, the reform efforts that are creating the need for that and par groups.

Second Step: Train the Future Trainers in Action Research
The usual procedure for implementing a year-long NPAR dynamic change effort is to enroll the people in the hubs or teams, and then give them an overview of what they will be expected to do. Then the actual meeting every two months facilitation starts at the most convenient time their the organizational calendar. As an example, many schools operate from the fall and late spring. To do NPAR in that situation, the first meeting of teams would be in the spring of the year prior to the year in which the change process would be implemented. For convenience sake, the future trainers meet for a couple of days at a time-period surrounding that initial spring meeting. The future trainers have different needs than the hubs or teams. They need to know more about action research, the theoretical and practical challenges associated with it, and they need to be given some time in advance of the actual project, so that they can research and ask questions. I like to involve them in a beginning action research cycle that runs from the initial training through to the beginning of the change process. The topic for this article is all about action research, and a discussion of the local cultural issues and challenges that this form of process may involve. In this preliminary time-period, it is also useful for the future trainers to bond as a group, and get comfortable with the person in facilitating the process.

Third Step: a Year of Meetings and Several Cycles of Research
Once the change process begins, the facilitator or consultant should be on premises one or two days every other month. During the first meeting the facilitator works with the hubs or teams of people to facilitate their understanding of action research, and the planning of what will go on in the months following that meeting. Everyone leaves with a clear agenda and commitment to accomplish certain tasks. However, we all know that things go awry once teams are confronted with the daily challenges of their work environment. That is where the future trainers come in. They act as the local eyes and ears for the facilitator, creating communication where needed when they see the process breaking down. In subsequent meetings the facilitator comes in for two days, the first day to work with the future trainers, and the second day to work with the team’s. During that time this person first is first caught up on what the future trainers see as successes and challenges. Field trips are also taken as necessary to see sites. But on the second day everyone meets together and the facilitator moves the process along by introducing the next set of ideas, working tools, and challenges. Once again everyone leaves with a clear sense of what they are supposed to do in the subsequent two-months.

Fourth Step: Ending the Cycles, Transitioning the Trainers, and Celebrations
The way you end a year cycle of change is as important to the sustainability of the project as the beginning. In this case the facilitator will need to gradually pass the baton of facilitation from himself or herself to the local future trainers, thus enabling complete local ownership of the change effort by the time the teams complete their report. Once local teams finished their reports it is equally critical that they come together one last time and celebrate their successes, commenting on and committing to their strategic plans to carry the change effort forward in future years.

During that session, the new trainers will more fully understand the supports they need to give the first-year sites, as they plan to bring on more teams, or more activity in future years. Networked participatory action research has consistently proven to give transformational results to local change efforts in complex situations. This is true because it empowers people to look seriously at their own work. For this reason it is equally critically important that the people being trained as trainers complete their own action research during the year they are being trained. They have to know in their heart why this process is so successful, how to maneuver past the sticky points, when to bring in flexible problem-solving, and when to just stay with the task knowing that positive efforts will pay off soon.

This train the trainer model successfully transitions a large change effort from the hands of the consultant to the hands of local leaders, where it belongs, and where it will have the most effect long-term.

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