Which is more important: content or process?

Today we’re going to explore the age old question of content versus process when you’re facilitating an event or a group of people. We’ve often heard debate around this as an enabler of change working in extension! Some people are adamant that you have to know the content, and others are equally adamant that it’s the process that helps enable change. But first of all, let’s make sure we know what we mean.

Content is the ‘what’: the topic or focus of change, the problem, the opportunity, the decision or the technical content. It’s what you’re going to be talking about! 

Process on the other hand, is the ‘how’ we facilitate the event, where we discuss the ‘what’. So process is the methods, tools or techniques being used; the design of a workshop and how you’d manage a group. It’s how you go about exploring the ‘what’! 

Over the years that we’ve worked in this field, we’ve started to recognise that people have an unconscious bias – to either end. Sometimes it has to do with your background. If you have a great deal of training in a technical area, then often content is seen as important! However, if you’ve been trained more in facilitation, then it doesn’t matter whether you know the topic, because it’s about the process of change.

And you may change over time! John did a horticultural science degree back in the dark ages, and he can remember thinking it was all about the science when he started working as an Industry Development Officer. He was happy to reel off facts, thinking that they persuaded the growers to change. He realises now how naive that sounds because relationships and processes are so important for achieving our outcomes! 

Research about group processes indicates that while a focus on process alone does not result in the best outcomes, process facilitation leads to more positive group dynamics. So a better quality journey perhaps!? 

We’ve certainly found that having a good process is a huge help with achieving good outcomes from our work. And we think everyone needs to use facilitation skills and have a process that works. You need to have a good enough process that means that people aren’t switched off by the content. However, content is often what people will say they are there for – this could be what they want to learn for example. 

Being an enabler of change means keeping this in mind, while remembering that processes like peer-to-peer learning are handy, and if you’re not familiar with that, we’ve done a post on this! You can also use the flipped classroom, another great post to read! We often default to information as being the key to change, but it’s the process that will help people work through attitude, skill development or aspirational change.

So perhaps we need a minimum level of both content and process. This is where we’ve seen some scientists very successfully engage with a farmer audience, because they know their subject area and they’ve taken the time to learn some basic facilitation skills. So in conclusion, both content and process are important and together they’ll help you to be an effective enabler of change.

Well, you’ve read our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below and tell us about your experiences with content versus process – maybe tell us which side you default to! We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversation – join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

References

Dick, R. (1991) Helping groups to be effective: Skills, processes and concepts for group facilitation. Brisbane: Interchange.

Khalifa, M. and Davison, R. (2002). The Effects of Process and Content Facilitation Restrictiveness on GSS-Mediated Collaborative Learning Group Decision and Negotiation 11: 345–361.

Miranda, S.M. and Bostrom, R.P. (1997). Meeting Facilitation: Process Versus Content Interventions. Proceedings of the Thirtieth Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. 

Schwarz, R.M. (2002) The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Roy Murray-Prior
6 months ago

Points very well made Denise & John. We need both process and content. Since most participants won’t do the process part it is our role to do that, although there are exceptions with some farmer groups. Content can come from participants (we need to provide opportunities for this), content ‘experts’ (who need to be managed because they may be condescending), ourselves (we also need to know when to shut-up), but mostly a combination is best. Process is particularly important when participants don’t acknowledge you as a content ‘expert’.

Graham HArris
Graham HArris
6 months ago

Couldn’t agree with you both more – I’ve seen some disastrous use of technical content alone by researchers in particular and similarly where someone has been about process only. You need the correct balance which may mean a recognition of what your role is working for change. Most important of all is the development of relationships with those you are working with.

David Jago
David Jago
6 months ago

Ahhh, gotta love a false dichotomy! It’s like asking which leg is more important for walking. Either one without the other is stuffed.

Both content and process have to be managed to achieve productive and meaningful outcome/s. Managing them to enable change provides a strong intent. In turn, this enables everyone to stay focused and on track.

Michael Thomson
Michael Thomson
6 months ago

Good column. I suggest a slight distinction needs to be made when referring to content as information. Context – the colour, life, emotions etc – is what turns information into great content. The delivery process is essential to adding this context to the content. As per David’s comment, content and process can’t live without each other.

Paris Ilami
Paris Ilami
6 months ago

I agree. Both are important as well. “Content” brings me motivation and curiosity, along side meeting the needs and “process” brings me to involve. I think involvement may have two important consequences which are the needs of people. Those are “being impressive” and “being understood”.