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A new approach to conference learning

Haven't had time to read the latest book on leveraging knowledge to achieve breakthrough performance? Looking to select a new product or tool to support your knowledge and learning work? Been a while since you networked with colleagues working in your area? Need to find a convenient way to get up to speed with current thinking?

Chances are that if you answered "yes" to any of those questions, you might have searched the Web to find a conference to attend. After all, conferences are organized to do just that--introduce the latest thinking of industry luminaries and practitioners, bring together a wide range of new products and service offerings, and provide an opportunity to meet people with similar challenges and experiences.

But with advancements in technology (webinars, virtual communities of practice and blogs), pressures on travel budgets, and the demand to find implementable solutions for real business needs, people can no longer afford to attend a conference merely to "soak it up" like a SpongeBob SquarePants. Conference participants want more for their investment of time and money than to return home with a binder (or CD) of presentation slides, tote bag and conference giveaways. Conference presenters are no longer interested in being talking heads with 300 PowerPoint slides to whip through in 30 minutes. Conference organizers are looking for new approaches to meet their customers' needs and sustain their business.

The experiment

When we were asked to do a preconference workshop for KMWorld & Intranets 2004 Conferences & Exposition in the fall, we agreed, but proposed a slightly different approach. We suggested a new workshop design as an experiment to find a more meaningful experience for both participants and presenters. Based on a series of executive development seminars created by the Faculty of Information Studies at the University of Toronto in the late 1990s to introduce knowledge management concepts, we proposed a workshop that would use the entire conference as a backdrop for finding solutions to real-life business challenges.

We combined industry thought leaders, practitioners and product developers/distributors as resources; participants with real-life work challenges to be solved; and a team of facilitators and expert panel members to guide the problem resolution process within the conference setting.

Take the KM challenge

Central to the workshop design were the participants--specifically the KM and intranet challenges that were driving them to increase their capabilities for developing solutions. We started by teasing out the participants' underlying reason for attending the conference, to narrow their focus for learning to a specific, actionable objective. Rather than wander from topic to topic outlined in the conference program, they would have a strategic learning purpose.

Instead of using third-person case studies as the context for a problem-solving exercise, we drew from our participants' actual needs. A template was e-mailed to early registrants, asking them to identify key points of their business challenges--the challenges that would form the basis of the team's case problem.

Walk the talk

Adult learning and KM principles guided the workshop design. Through the "team" structure, participants connected on a professional level, found a common ground, then selected a topic to work through. We provided all of the components to simulate developing a business case in real time--unreasonable deadlines, long hours, lots of questions and no clear answers.

Some of the cases included: identifying the most effective way to bring together disparate intranet projects from across various organizational departments, driving adoption of an intranet in a previously failed implementation, and scoping a portal project to improve business in a highly successful company. At the end of the workshop, a collaboration space gave the participants the opportunity to continue the discussion with participants, expert panel members and the facilitators.

This workshop was not for the fainthearted. It required a real commitment to a collaborative effort of producing an outcome within a tight timeframe--not unlike our day-to-day challenges in the workplace. Based on the premise that you get out of a relationship what you put into it, team members counted on the respect, dedication, expertise and ideas of each other as much as they counted on the facilitators and experts. All the dynamics of teams with a range of mindsets, attitudes and capabilities were exposed as people were challenged to communicate effectively and deal with the normal conflicts found in finding resolutions to problems.

The outcome

At the end of three days of work, the teams presented their "solutions" to a panel of experts. The multidisciplinary panel had deep expertise in the fields of information and knowledge management. Their insights were critical. They provided a forum for the teams to share their thinking; get real-time, constructive feedback; and receive coaching on potential ways to enhance their approaches. Because the experts covered a variety of disciplines, they were able to offer the participants different perspectives--especially from the business viewpoint. In the end, we found that the biggest challenge was simply communicating something in the organization's language. The ensuing discussions highlighted the need for more time than what was originally allocated.

With solutions presentations in hand, the participants were positioned to take their ideas back to the office. They had learned about teamwork, making the business case, communication styles and understanding their problem space from a variety of perspectives.

Referring to the workshop, Barbara Saidel, CIO of Russell Reynolds, said, "It was great fun for me to try to help these people with real issues and also to watch them actively helping each other, sharing their expertise with one another--a true collaboration. Usually at conferences, the communication is mostly one way. This workshop was a mutual event, a great example of learning from your peers."

Looking ahead

No doubt there will always be a need to "soak up" information at some level. But chances are the balance will continue to shift away from passive information transfer to active experiential learning—the conference as a collaborative problem-solving environment where people can still hear the latest thinking, see new products and network with their colleagues, but also leave with actionable solutions to their current business challenges.

As we move to more virtual learning and knowledge exchange events, the question is whether the conference as it exists today will survive. Our best guess is that people will still crave face-to-face conversations, the opportunity to meet thought leaders for inspiration, practitioners to learn from their firsthand experience, and colleagues to discuss application approaches. However, look for a shift to conferences with targeted learning--where a more active, meaningful engagement on the part of both the presenters and the participants is the norm.

To learn more about the workshop design, visit KMWorld Workshop

Mary Lee Kennedy is principal, The Kennedy Group, e-mail marylee@maryleekennedy.com. Debra Wallace is a consultant in knowledge and learning systems and strategy design, e-mail debra.wallace@konvergeandknow.com.

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