Spring 2018
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CTDO Magazine

Is Consulting a Must-Have Skill for Trainers

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The argument: Trainers should be required to have consulting skills.

Many job descriptions for trainers don't mention the need for applicants to have consulting skills. Is that because it goes without saying or because it's really not a requirement to get the job done well?



B. Kim Barnes

CEO, Barnes & Conti Associates

In recent years, I have been invited to provide training in consulting skills to internal consultants, especially in the fields of human resources and IT. Based on my book with Beverly Scott, Consulting on the Inside: A Practical Guide for Internal Consultants (ATD Press), our program is based on the idea that: "A consultant uses expertise, communication, and personal skills to facilitate a client-requested change without having the formal authority to implement the recommended actions. The change solves a problem; improves performance; increases organizational effectiveness, efficiency or profitability; reduces cost; or helps people and organizations learn and apply new skills and processes. … If you are charged with creating change or improvement in your organization without the direct authority to carry it out, you are a consultant."

That, admittedly, is a broad definition of a consultant. So, let's parse it a little. The key word is change. If training is part of a strategic change process (and it almost always should be), then, by definition, those who facilitate learning that supports the change have a consulting role.

Some trainers or facilitators may simply provide information and opportunities for skill practice in their areas of expertise. Much of that kind of training is moving to nonclassroom platforms. They respond to a predetermined set of learning objectives, and participants are clear on what they will learn from the experience.

Trainers or facilitators who are active participants in strategic change are engaged in a more dynamic process. They need to develop an independent understanding of the strategic intent, question assumptions (their own and that of the participants), uncover hidden needs, identify areas of resistance, and provide alternative means to achieve strategic results.

An important, and too often overlooked, question for those who are leading system change is: What do people need to know or be able to do for this change to succeed? Those who are charged with facilitating this kind of learning should be included in the planning process and armed with the necessary knowledge to carry out the change leaders' intent.

So, prepared, and with a solid set of consulting skills, they can add value in at least two ways. First, they can help trainees to accept, deal with, and become ready for what the change will require of them. Second, they can communicate to the leadership key issues that arise during any training event or process that may affect the success of the change.

Trainers who focus on specific work skills or product information may not need to wear a consulting hat, but those focused on complex and strategic competencies that help prepare participants for work that can't be done (at least not yet) through artificial intelligence will benefit from being well-grounded in consulting skills.

As Elaine Biech writes in The Business of Consulting, "Consulting is the process by which an individual or firm assists a client to achieve a stated outcome." Not all training requires consulting skills, but all serious and strategic change efforts require people to learn and grow—and those who help them do so are, by definition, consultants.


Kimberly Seeger

Employee Skills Improvement Leader

In the second edition of Creative Training Techniques, Bob Pike, states, "The purpose of any training program is to deliver results. People must be more effective after training than they were before."


Do you agree with him?

I do. And many of my talent development colleagues would also. After more than three decades working in the profession, I've found that the most important conversation with stakeholders revolves around "What results do you need?" As the conversation progresses, we explore alternatives and define resources needed to accomplish our goal. Each contributor serves an important role in advancement of individual knowledge and skills that will generate desired results. We may have subject matter experts, leaders, instructional designers, coaches, technology specialists, and trainers.

This brings us to the debate question: Should trainers be required to have consulting skills?

Consider your experiences and the following data to form your own point of view:

The ATD Competency Model defines six foundational competencies that are important to everyone in our field. Two that are relevant to this topic are business and interpersonal skills (such as analysis, communication, influencing stakeholders, emotional intelligence, strategic thinking, innovation, and driving results). The 10 areas of expertise describe specialized knowledge for individual roles such as instructional design, training delivery, learning technologies, and performance improvement. As talent development professionals, we use this road map to develop our skills for long-term success. Did you discover consulting within the competency model research?

Further, online job searches for the title "trainer" reveal required skills across multiple types of organizations. Within dozens of trainer job postings, I dug deeper for "consulting skills." Guess what I found. Nothing.

At 16 years old, I was a restaurant server. Margie trained me and, within a few months, I trained dozens of new servers. Every server contributed to the business's success. Years later, I was a software trainer and trained hundreds of people on how to use WordPerfect, Lotus 123, and Microsoft Office. As participants demonstrated new skills, I was able to validate that their training created new capabilities. Through the years, my knowledge and skills grew beyond foundational competencies to the areas of expertise that launched my consulting business.

Why do I believe trainers should not be required to have consulting skills?

  • (Some) trainers provide skill-based coaching in areas such as sports, fitness/athletics, military, comedy, and animals.
  • (Some) trainers with strong subject matter expertise achieve results by sharing their knowledge, often without consulting skills.
  • (Some) trainers share their knowledge and skills in a formal or informal environment to develop others' capabilities to improve performance.
  • (Some) trainers are continuous learners who could develop additional skills, such as consulting, if needed to generate results.
About the Author

B. Kim Barnes, CEO of Barnes & Conti Associates in Berkeley, California, is a consultant, author, and entrepreneur. She holds a master’s degree in human development and has more than 40 years of experience in leadership and organization development, working globally with organizations in a broad range of industries. A frequent speaker at conferences, Barnes has published many articles in professional journals and has written several books.

Barnes’ books include Exercising Influence: A Guide for Making Things Happen at Work, at Home, and in Your Community, Third Edition; Consulting on the Inside: A Practical Guide for Internal Consultants (ATD Press) with Beverly Scott; Self-Navigation: A Compass for Guiding your Life and Career with Aviad Goz; and Building Better Ideas: How Constructive Debate Inspires Courage, Collaboration, and Breakthrough Solutions.

About the Author

Kimberly Seeger is an Employee Skills Improvement Leader.

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