Scenes from a Participate! Workshop and Solution Room

40-seconds of highlights from the Participate! workshop and Solution Room I recently facilitated for the New York State Bar Association.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my work is training associations how to create powerful and effective participant-driven and participation-rich conferences. I love facilitating the learning that occurs. The training equips the organization with the tools needed to transform its events. Do you want to significantly improve your meetings? Then please don’t hesitate to get in touch!


Three key kinds of learning at events—Part 1

learn 16846023595_b22b670d4a_kWhen asked, just about everyone mentions learning as a key reason for conference attendance.

So, given the clear importance of learning at events, it’s surprising that we lump distinctly different activities into the single word “learning”. Perhaps this reflects the reality that learning acquisition is a largely unconscious process, in the same way our casual familiarity with snow leads us to possess far fewer words for it than the Inuit. Whatever the reasons, it’s useful to distinguish between three different categories of learning: factual information acquisition, problem solving, and building a process toolkit.

Factual knowledge acquisition involves what it sounds like: learning factual information: multiplication tables, names and typical dosages of medications, foreign language nouns, and the millions of facts that we don’t even know that we know until someone asks us. It also includes sensory knowledge: the ability to recognize whether a skin lesion is benign, the sound of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the feel of satin, the smell of a skunk, or the taste of rhubarb.

Problem solving calls for a different level of learning. In essence, it requires noticing or discovering relationships between pieces of information and using these associations to infer answers to relevant problems. Problem solving provides useful process that operates on our knowledge.

Building a process toolkit is an even higher form of learning. After all, in many situations—for example, multiplying two 4-digit numbers using paper and pen—problem solving can be done by rote. But developing novel process frequently challenges our best minds, sometimes over generations, as illustrated by the growth of scientific understanding over millennia. Whether we construct our own process or appropriate useful process developed by others, building a collection of processes that are relevant to our lives is perhaps the most powerful kind of learning we can perform.

I make these distinctions because any specific instance of learning incorporates a different mixture of each category, and, to complicate things further, the effectiveness of each kind of learning is influenced by disparate factors. As a result, books about learning tend to contain a bewildering variety and quantity of information about aspects of learning.

Let’s illustrate with some examples.

Consider training workers to determine whether an applicant is eligible for government benefit—something that could involve many days teaching a large number of complex requirements. Success might be defined as the workers being able to consistently understand, remember, and apply the correct requirements for each applicant. Such learning will concentrate on acquiring relevant factual knowledge plus the capacity to follow a defined process determined by senior administrators. Factors such as retention of key knowledge, maintaining the level of accuracy necessary to make correct decisions, and the ability to recall relevant material over time are clearly important.

Compare this with the mysterious multiyear process by which some graduate students develop from novice researchers into leading practitioners in their field, which includes attending numerous conferences. This involves all three categories of learning: (1) obtaining a wide range of relevant and not-obviously-relevant knowledge, (2) comfort and familiarity with the discipline’s existing body of process and problem solving, and (3) developing a toolkit of novel process that can, hopefully, extend the field further. While the government workers need to concentrate on retaining well-defined information, the researchers will likely acquire far more information than ultimately needed to make an advance or breakthrough. Consequently, the graduate students need to learn how to refine—both narrow and broaden—their focus on a wide range of information, constantly making decisions on what they will concentrate and what they will, possibly temporarily, put aside. The capacity to do this well, combined with ability to effectively problem-solve and develop novel process defines successful learning in this situation.

So when we talk about learning at meetings, it can be very helpful to be specific about the kind(s) of learning that are desired. Trainings focus on the first two categories I’ve described, while more powerful forms of learning—typically experiential process that introduces tools that can be applied in a variety of future situations—incorporates all three.

In Part 2 of this exploration of learning, I’ll share a final example of the complex ways that learning and learning approaches can be affected by multiple factors, specifically the differences between how children and adults typically learn.

Photo attribution: Flickr user jakerust

Don’t let the tech tail wag the event dog

wall-eI’m steamed up after reading an article by the prolific and thoughtful journalist Jason Hensel (don’t worry, this is not about you, Jason). Here’s the relevant excerpt:

I recently attended the second annual EventTech conference and expo in New York. It was a chance for me to learn more about “leveraging social media + technology to optimize live events,” as the event describes itself. There were several good sessions…however, there was one I think you’d find particularly interesting. It was called “FutureCast 2032: What Will Events Look Like in 20 Years?” Joe English, creative director-experiential marketing at Intel, led the discussion.

Joe started off by listing the value of live events, values that we’re all aware of: connecting people, serendipity, idea exchange and social exchange. What was most interesting, though, was his answers on how technology will be applied to live events in the future. There were six applications:

  1. We will know far more about the audience. Contextual tools and data management will be important. And we’ll move from a shotgun approach to more of a sniper rifle approach when marketing to potential delegates.
  2. We will gather much more about audience behavior. Once again, contextual tools will play a role in this, as well as relatedness engines and RFID/GPS.
  3. We will make more useful suggestions to our audience. Yep, you guessed it—contextual tools and relatedness engines will play a role in this.
  4. Our attendees’ roles as ambassadors will increase. This will be achieved via future social media technologies.
  5. Technology will be the delivery vehicle for information. Distance learning technologies will drive this.
  6. Technology will connect attendees with one another at events.

—6 Ways Technology Will Be Applied to Events in the Future, Jason Hensel

A couple of these predictions tick me off.

Been there, done that
“3. We will make more useful suggestions to our audience.”

While I hope this statement is true in the future, the notion that new technology is needed to make better suggestions to event audiences annoys me.

First, this formulation sides with the old worldview that treats event attendees not as adults but as children who need an external authority to determine what they need to learn. That’s training, and most successful organizations abandoned years ago the concept that the majority of learning comes from training.

Second, we know now how to allow people to control their own learning at an event; i.e. via well-designed participant-driven process that uncovers needs and matches them to the considerable resources available from the people formerly known as the audience. Unfortunately we rarely allow this to happen. I think we will find that future technology will not do as good a job at making better suggestions for our audiences when compared with what can be done now with well-tested, straightforward participative process.

Welcome to WALL•E
#3 started the pressure build-up, and #6 brings me closer to boiling point.

“6. Technology will connect attendees with one another at events.”

I guess this is what you might expect from a director of marketing at Intel—when you only have a hi-tech hammer, everything looks like a hi-tech nail. Joe’s pronouncement evokes the world of WALL•E—Disney’s 2008 movie about a future where obese humans live in outer space, barely able to move about, interacting with each other via advanced technology. Is this the vision of the future we want?

I’m a fan of virtual and hybrid events, and see them as providing important ways that technology can create new opportunities for us to be present at an event that we would not or could not attend physically. But in my opinion, baldly saying that in the future technology will connect attendees with one another at events goes too far. The human race has spent hundreds of thousands of years developing ways of connecting face to face. Unless we have holodeck-quality technology that creates a reality essentially indistinguishable from our face-to-face experience, I don’t believe that technology will replace the quality of connection and engagement that routinely occur at well-designed face-to-face events.

What to do?
Sadly these days, I routinely see queries on LinkedIn groups asking about the latest “hot” technology for events. This is sheer laziness that benefits no one except lucky tech suppliers. Instead of looking for new technology to make an event novel, spend your time incorporating process and formats that will fundamentally improve the quality and value of learning and connection at your event. And if this leads you to incorporate appropriate technology to support these activities, then your event dog will be wagging its tech tail, the way that nature intended, rather than the other way round.

Photo attribution: Scientific American