Create memorable learning experiences and connections at simple workshops

Create memorable learning experiences and connections at simple workshopsI often design and facilitate workshops for association members who mostly haven’t met before. The desired outcomes are for each participant to gain useful and relevant professional insights, and to make significant new connections.

During the workshops each participant shares and receives consulting from a small peer group on a current personal professional challenge. The only technologies used are printed cards, paper-covered round tables, and colored pens.

Here’s what you might see on a stroll through a typical workshop:

An example
At one workshop, association staffers noted that no one touched a cell phone, and intense conversations with frequent bursts of laughter filled the entire two-hour event.

A participant started crying and his group members rushed to console and support him. (We learned later that he had been unfairly fired earlier in the day.) Afterwards, we saw many people swapping business cards and making arrangements to meet up again. Before leaving, the fired man told me that, despite his dire circumstances, he had had a very positive experience and made several good new friends in his group. Other participants shared during post-workshop conversations that the experience would be memorable because of their personal learning and the new connections made.

Follow up evaluations confirmed that participants obtained meaningful peer support and advice, and began new friendships with other workshop participants.

Such workshops routinely meet the outcomes they’re designed to achieve: creating useful and memorable learning experiences and connections.

Why are these workshops successful?
These workshops are not successful because of the:

  • excellence of a speaker;
  • beauty/novelty of the venue/F&B/entertainment; or
  • extraordinary facilitation.

(Full disclosure: the facilitation needs to be competent!)

They are successful because of the process design that supports participants learning from each other while simultaneously enjoying a positive emotional connection together.

Adult professional peers can learn much from each other, and when they meet they are hungry to find solutions to current problems, explore issues, and make connections with others who work in the same sphere.

The successful workshops I’ve described above do not have a single expert sharing content. (Rather, it’s fair to say, they tap the expertise and experience of everyone present.) All they need for success is good process, competent facilitation, and a few low-tech items.

They are also simple. Every process element is a strategic ingredient of the workshop design. Running these workshops helps me continually refine the design, stripping away components that distract focus from the desired outcomes.

Many organizations focus on getting the “best” experts to speak at their meetings. Ironically, in my experience it’s almost always easier to create memorable learning and valuable connection for attendees by employing participatory workshop formats. Why? Because they take full advantage of the group’s combined expertise, hone in on what people actually want and need to learn, and build lasting relationships in the process.

Four reasons why traditional conferences are obsolete

traditional conferences are obsoleteSorry folks, but traditional conferences are obsolete.

Previously, I’ve described three major trends that make traditional conference formats obsolete:

Here’s a fourth.

Job obsolescence caused by increasing computer automation

Every adoption of new technology has led to a shift in the world of work. Books and the industrial age fundamentally remade human society. Now the exponentially increasing power of computing is making rapid inroads into professions that have been the safe purview of well-paid workers for centuries.

It’s likely, for example, that in my children’s lifetime (and perhaps mine) we’ll transition to a world where most vehicles drive themselves. In the United States alone, there are currently 3.5 million professional truck drivers who stand to lose their livelihood. Other threatened professions, according to Martin Ford in his book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, include warehouse workers, cooks, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and programmers.

Software and machines will clearly take over some work, which large numbers of humans will never perform again. But recent history also suggests that adding technology to the workplace is likely to transform, rather than eliminate, many jobs. In addition, new jobs will appear that offer alternative work opportunities.

How do we prepare workers for these changes?

“The evidence suggests that while computers are not causing net job losses now, low wage occupations are losing jobs, likely contributing to economic inequality. These workers need new skills in order to transition to new, well-paying jobs. Developing a workforce with the skills to use new technologies is the real challenge posed by computer automation.
James Bessen, Why automation doesn’t mean a robot is going to take your job

During the last two or three decades, learning from our peers—on the job, via our social networks, and at conferences— has become far more important than classroom learning. Non-interactive, broadcast-style learning modalities are restricted to standardized knowledge; knowledge that one person believes is valuable for many to know. Peer process allows us to explore and share precisely the kinds of group-resourced knowledge and understanding that is not standardized; knowledge that is uniquely responsive to the just-in-time wants and needs of the group.

Peer conferences, therefore, are what we need to prepare workers for the continuing and accelerating transformation of the work marketplace. As Niels Pflaeging recently put it (paraphrased by Harold Marche):

´Machines can solve complicated problems. They cannot solve complex, surprising problems’. Valued work is no longer standardized. Therefore a standardized approach for education and training to support creative work is obsolete.

I’ll repeat that: “…a standardized approach for education and training to support creative work is obsolete.” That means traditional conferences are obsolete. Say goodbye to traditional conferences — and say hello to peer learning!

Photo attribution: Flickr user astrid

The surprising way adults learn 90% of what they need to know

adults learn learners 5736589920_f91e2cf352_b

It’s a common belief that classroom trainings and meeting presentations are the most important ways for adults to learn what they need to know to do their jobs.

This is an understandable belief. Why? Because it was largely true for hundreds of years until around the end of the twentieth century. Until about twenty years ago, adults learned most of what they needed to know to do their jobs in the classroom.

1960's classroom

But the whole nature of “work” has changed dramatically since the last century. Today, it turns out, adults learn the majority of what they need to know in order to do their jobs informally: through on-the-job experience and practice, connections with our peers, and self-directed learning.

How adults learn: on-the-job experience and practice

Research that began in the 1980’s at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) found that about 70% of managerial learning came from the job itself. Additional research, published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1998, suggested that people learn about 70% of their jobs informally and the 70% figure appeared again in a two-year study of workers at large companies published by the Education Development Center.

Peer and self-directed learning

Well, perhaps classroom learning makes up the majority of the rest of the ways we need to learn? Nope. The CCL study referenced above also concluded that about 20% of individual professional development comes from peer learning: informal coaching, personal networks, and other collaborative and co-operative actions. The EDC study concludes that approximately 20% of what we need to know is provided by self-directed learning. This is learning we control ourselves, such as:

  • asking colleagues for help;
  • reading a relevant book or article; searching for answers on the internet; and
  • watching online instructional or lecture videos.

Learning from your peers is also called social learning. Increasingly, these days, we don’t have the luxury of being able to wait for scheduled training opportunities in order to respond to new job challenges. Instead, when we need to learn something professionally we tend to consult our peers and professional networks first. This is an example of just-in-time learning: we learn what we need to learn when we need it.

The 70:20:10 model

Put together, this research indicates that informal learning—experiential, social, and self-directed—makes up about 90% of the learning modalities that professionals use today. Only 10% of adult learning uses formal classroom or meeting presentation learning formats. This ratio of experiential:peer/self-directed:formal learning is known as the 70:20:10 rule. Here’s a quick overview by Charles Jennings:

What are the implications for event design?

90% of the learning modalities adult workers need and use these days are informal. So, why do we persist in making the bulk of “education” at most meetings formal presentations by experts?

Instead, we need to mirror the learning approaches that professionals need and use in their work environments. Our conferences provide a unique opportunity to tap the peer expertise and experience of assembled participants. Rather than listen to experts using broadcast models that today can be largely replaced by books, recordings, articles, and online resources, we should be using session formats that supply and support the experiential and peer-to-peer learning that attendees actually need and use.

schoolboys 5950922406_33c894f13b_b

“You send your child to the schoolmaster, but ’tis the schoolboys who educate him.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Culture,” The Conduct of Life (1860).

Ralph Waldo Emerson knew 150 years ago that adults learn mostly from their peers and by themselves. It’s time that our meeting designs reflected this reality.

Photo attributions: Flickr users petrol alt gone and herrberta