Shearing sheep and facilitating experiential learning are similar. Why?

I spent a couple of days working in a shearing shed recently, as a helper not a shearer I hasten to add. At first sight, the contrast between shearing sheep and my day-job of facilitating learning could hardly be greater.

I watched fascinated as the shearers entered the pen, grabbed a sheep, flipped it onto its back and dragged it to their workstation. They held it down whilst whipping off the fleece in 2 minutes before shoving it out of the exit hatch where it began grazing before the shearer had grabbed his next customer!

But I wasn’t there to watch, I was there to work. As soon as the fleece began to fall from the sheep I had to whisk it out of the shearers’ way, separate the dagged wool from the clean, the leg and head wool from the main fleece, before putting it all into the appropriate piles for baling.

Meanwhile, the farmer kept up the supply of sheep to be shorn, helped me keep the shearers’ workstations clear of wool and operated the baling machine. Whilst his wife provided us all with tea, sandwiches and cakes every hour and lunch at mid-day (sorry about the traditional gender roles, but that’s how it was.) During the breaks, the farmer and shearer discussed progress; numbers; quality of the shearing; state of the sheep and their fleeces etc.

So what about the similarities between shearing and facilitating?

If we assume that the sheep and the participants are both the customers then the approaches taken between the shearer and facilitator are almost diametrically opposed.

However, if we compare the customer-supplier relationship between the farmer and the shearer, and the facilitator and the line/HR manager, then the answer is quite different.

Before the shearing:

The farmer provided an overview of his needs. He decided which sheep he wanted to be shorn and when and how closely he wanted them to be shorn. He agreed his needs with the shearer and the shearer subsequently explained what he needed from the farmer to do the job; the workstations, the support on the day, the state of the sheep (dry fleeces, unfed for 24 hours etc.).

During the shearing:
The farmer gave no further direction. He delegated the job totally to the shearer, doing everything he could to meet the shearers needs, although he did check between sessions to make sure everything was okay and express concerns about the shearing (too many sheep receiving nicks in the skin).

At the end of the day:
The shearer checked with the farmer that he was happy with the job that had been done, agreed how many sheep had been shorn (for payment purposes) and when the remaining sheep were to be shorn.

In other words the basic elements and changing roles that occur in the relationship between the facilitator and the line / HR manager were mirrored in the shearing shed, i.e.

+ Establish and agree the customers’ needs.
+ Ensure that the customer (manager) knows what part they will have to play in the process to enable you to provide the service they require.
+ Review progress and agree future actions.