Learning from Learning Conferences

learningconfIf you’ve attended or presented at enough conferences, you start to get the hang of how these things work. Last week while presenting at the Training 2016 conference, and I finally figured out a few things out that I wish I would’ve known before. Here are my top five:

  1. Very few people started off in Learning & Development
    Most of us came to it through being natural problem-solvers and people-pleasers. We are the ones that others usually turn to for answers, who propose simpler ways of doing things, or who write down directions for new employees, or at some point say “maybe we should all have a standard way of doing stuff” and inevitably transfer from their old business unit into the Training Department as a result. Only after that do most of us learn much about learning itself. This is nothing to apologize for, it’s actually the default path for a great number of us.
  2. Academia means something in Corporate Training, but not much
    I used to have a big chip on my shoulder because I don’t have any important initials after my name. Nor did I study learning through any officially-sanctioned fancy institutions. Funny enough, because I didn’t get a post-graduate degree in education, I’ve never assumed that I knew anything about it and thus made a persistent habit of studying the science and best practices of knowledge acquisition and behavior change. Much to my surprise, it now turns out that I know quite a lot — but more importantly, I’ve done a lot. In this business (and most?), it matters less what you know, and more what you’ve actually done with your knowledge.
  3. Most people want to buy solutions, not build them
    In my conference presentations, I always speak about the importance ofiteration and scaling goals to resources (budget, time, etc.). While this is an extremely popular idea in theory, the real-world implementation of this message seems to be equally as unpopular. Those who offer turnkey packages that allow purchasers not to think seem to do much better for themselves. As a consultant, I’ve never seen this approach actually work in any organization — though in fairness if it did I guess they wouldn’t need a consultant to fix things, right?
  4. So what if learning conferences don’t follow best practices?
    Here’s what we know works best when gaining new skills: multiple short-duration & high-focus learning sessions, immersive hands-on experiences, real-world problem solving, the confrontation of assumed knowledge, emotional engagement, social reinforcement, etc. It’s interesting to note that this is not generally what we do at conferences. Between the fire-hose learning of full-day or multi-day pre-conference programs, the smorgasbord of presentations & panels, the lecture-based keynotes, and the fellow learners you’ll never see again, we’re actively doing the opposite of what works for optimum learning. Conferences are not places to focus and learn deeply, they’re places to connect and gain new perspectives. This they tend to do very well.
  5. The networking IS the value
    Though every organization is different, the same kinds of learning challenges appear across every industry. As an employee, I’ve learned a lot from talking to others who are at my level or above in other companies. As a consultant, I’ve learned a ton from listening carefully to the kind of language potential clients use to talk about their perceived problems (which are always different from what I perceive or would describe). As a presenter, I’ve learned the most from people who’ve been doing this for years and are a few steps ahead of me. All of these things shape my trajectory in subtle but important ways that would not happen in the isolation of heads-down focus work. I’m not a schmoozer by nature, but I see networking at conferences as a chance tomaximize curiosity about worlds beyond my own, and to share valuable connections and resources in return. It’s pretty awesome, really.

I wish I would have known all this ten years ago.

What are some of your lessons learned from conference experiences? Use the form below to let me know!