Coping with COVID: How can participatory trainers adapt?
What they do not teach you in Board Of Directors (BOD) training programs?
Ram Singh, the chairman of a Farmer Producer Organisation (FPO), does not trust his auditor. “The numbers that he writes in the audit report are not what we know about our FPO’s business”. Aditya, the CEO of another FPO is concerned about the tax notices. “The Government announced that there will be no tax for FPOs for five years, and we did not pay, why is the Income Tax department sending us a notice to pay MAT. Our CA says it’s better to pay, else we will face penalties.” Shanti Devi, FPO Director, says “Our members expect the best price even for lower quality of vegetables, but traders pay us lesser price even for good quality of vegetables – handling the farmers’ expectations and the market realities is a tightrope walk for us”.
As FPOs grow, how should trainers incorporate the practical challenges and these day-to-day struggles and anxieties of Ram Singh, Shanti Devi and Aditya? How do we simulate real-life problems in a training environment that will enable BODs and CEOs to reflect, understand and explore solutions?
At Skillgreen we believe “co-owning the problems of participants” is critical even before we begin any training. Thus, rather than mechanically go through a curriculum, we have found need assessment with participants provides space for their articulated and tacit needs and expectations. Every FPO is different and hence sessions need to be customised accordingly.
Beyond expertise: Collaborating with local partners
Customised solutions require more than subject or domain expertise. Trainers need to be familiar with the local culture and language. With an emphasis on building empathy with participants, Skillgreen engages trainers familiar with participatory learning approaches from partner organisations across the country.
The process of identifying partners started in 2018 when Skillgreen started work on the trainers guide for capacity building of board of directors of FPOs. Several partner organisations realised the need for a manual and voluntarily contributed to developing it. After the launch of the manual at IRMA, Skillgreen conducted six Training of Trainers (TOTs) across the country. Many participants took part as trainers in subsequent events during which they gained experience and sharpened their critical facilitation skills.
Out of 150 trainers trained by Skillgreen, a survey revealed that while half the trainers used the methodologies, many did not get an opportunity to practice or often had to follow the training design prescribed to them. Of those who used participatory tools, a third, have become experienced trainers and participate in Skillgreen trainings across the country. A network of at least 500 local trainers is critical to overcoming the skill gap and last-mile connect in the ecosystem.
The trainer pool includes facilitators (Lead Trainers), co-facilitators (who support the Lead Trainers) and expert facilitators (subject matter experts like Chartered Accountants, value chain and market linkage experts etc.). Despite differences in roles, the trainers have a common understanding of the process and work in tandem to achieve learning objectives.
No two trainings are alike
In a participant-centric approach, the session plan and how the session unfolds depends more on the participants than the trainer or facilitator. The facilitator creates a learning environment and provides necessary stimulus, looking at the need of the participants. Our experience of conducting learning sessions with over 120 FPOs and over 1000 directors has reiterated the need for customised learning sessions.
In conventional training approaches, there is a blueprint that is followed through one-way knowledge imparted in classroom trainings by the trainer resulting in low outcomes. In contrast, a facilitated learning approach leads to the design of a series of learning checkpoints. Based on iterative feedback by participants, sessions are curated to stimulate interest and systematic learning in topics. Sessions lead to action plans and the learning-by-doing approach stimulates further interest that is supported through mentoring and follow-up workshops. Not surprisingly, the participatory learning approach is more efficient and effective in achieving learning outcomes.
Can participatory learning survive COVID disruptions?
The unrelenting spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered face-to-face trainings difficult necessitating adaptations to learning strategies. Skillgreen changed its methods even as core principles continued.
Skillgreen has conducted several participatory online sessions on statutory compliances for FPOs, Basics of financial statements and has also facilitated the preparation of actionable business plans for FPOs in an online format. Our belief has been that if there is a hunger for learning, then the medium is secondary. Cooperation, understanding among participants and facilitators are key.
We often hear participants say, “the online sessions are very participatory and it feels like a face-to-face workshop”. Network issues, less familiarity with technology, and the impersonal nature of online medium remain a challenge. Participants and facilitators miss the intense discussions and need to contend with a lower attention span.
The online format enables unprecedented scale and outreach, making learning more accessible and decentralised. Unlike SHG (Self Help Group) trainings in the past, capacity building budgets of most FPOs are very low. The online format offers a low-cost solution to their learning needs.
Considering these tradeoffs, rather than looking at a binary of online vs face-to-face approaches, it would be interesting to explore how we could balance the use of these methods to address the learning needs of FPOs, once the situation returns to normal.
About the authors:
Jagdish and Parthasarathy. T are rural management professionals, associated with Skillgreen, a social enterprise developing decentralized structures facilitating learning events with FPOs & rural entrepreneurs. They can be reached at email@example.com
Prof. Shambu Prasad is a Professor of Strategic Management and Social Sciences at IRMA and has been mentoring Skillgreen.