Bringing together a large global community of people for learning is a considerable investment in time and money. Planning can start 6-8 months or more in advance, and for large communities entail hundreds of flights and hotel rooms, vast conference facilities, a team of interpreters, an army of VIP handlers and rafts of protocol.

Meeting hosts can get easily bogged down in the mechanics, which are also important for learning. Comfortable, happy, secure, well-fed people can concentrate on learning in an environment foreign to their own everyday workplaces.  This should never be underestimated. But this blog post focuses on the programmatic part of community learning meetings.

It is very tempting, also, for the meeting managers to focus on what THEY want to learn. After all, they manage the overall programme and their reward system involves having good knowledge about the various country projects and activities and people that are under their purview. Perhaps communication between country projects and HQ is not always forthcoming, as people are busy doing the projects and reporting takes extra time and effort, plus how do you organize all that data dribbling in in various formats over the year?  The meeting manager wants to download everything that has happened in the last year in every project because they want to tell these stories, and also write the donors’ reports, and the proposal for the next project installment, etc. etc.  Information is king!

But information is not learning, and it also doesn’t make sense to fly everyone in for three days to a location far far away to give PPT speeches one after another to a plenary room full of bored participants in three languages.

Of course, if necessary, there are things you can do to help make a long list of speeches more palatable to people. See my past blog posts 18 Presentations in a row? What can you do?  and Preparing a Pecha Kucha: One pragmatic approach  for some tips. But it is better to try to expand your mental model of learning from what you, the organizer and programme manager wants to learn, to include what participants want to learn.

Do you know?

It can be as easy as asking – two different groups that we have been working with have recently hosted large global and regional community learning meetings, and their processes started with a survey to participants asking them what content areas they would like to learn more about, both from external content experts and from each other. These kinds of surveys produce a long list, but also indicate group priorities that can be woven into plenary sessions, for the topics with the most support, and themes for parallel breakout sessions for others. Considering the placement of learning themes in the programme is important – reserve plenary sessions for topics that the majority of people are interested in as people don’t have a choice for plenaries (except whether or not to go) and often no voice because Q&A in a plenary of 250 people is never going to be long enough to hear from more than 2-3 people waving their hands wildly in the air. So unless you build in table-level discussions, people cannot ask questions or customise their learning very much in plenaries. It is all supply side thinking that goes into designing these types of whole group sessions – what do we want people to hear and who do we want them to hear it from?

Learning from Case Studies?

Having lots of other opportunities for learning takes the pressure off of plenaries, and can satisfy the multiplicity of learning needs. Thematic parallel sessions can feature case studies from country projects and allow participants to choose where they go to learn. But even learning from case studies is not always obvious unless they are prepared with drawing out reusable learning in mind. There is a temptation in case studies to make them highly context specific. Often the case study presenter spends a lot of time on context, the more the learning appears context dependent the harder it is for listeners/learners to extrapolate the reusable learning elements. Of course it depends on your goal for learning again. The programme manager’s goal is to understand what is happening in Country X, what is working and what needs to be strengthened, etc. For other country project participants, they are not necessarily there to learn about Country X particularly, because they come from Country Y. They want ideas, innovations, things to try, things to avoid, useful processes and approaches they can adapt to their own context, based on evidence that they have worked in other places. They are not usually there to learn something point by point to replicate it exactly. This also means in your design, you need to have ample time before or after a case study is presented for people to ask questions and consider adaptation and application to their context. You can of course leave this up to them to pursue speakers at the coffee breaks, but you are missing an opportunity to foster immediate learning if your parallel session or breakout doesn’t feature some reflection and processing time.

Learning in Open Space Sessions

Another way to integrate learning opportunities into your programme is to introduce Open Space Technology (OST) sessions, which work even for very large groups.  In an OST session, anyone can propose a table discussion theme, and submit it in advance. These are scheduled by assigning a table number and a time slot for each proposed topic. During a series of rounds, those not hosting discussions at a designated table can attend other discussions of their choice. Putting something like “Community Open Space” on an agenda with no substantive pre-cooked themes might seem risky to programme organizers. But in all the times I have organized these, for groups from 25 to 250 people, they have come together beautifully, with a smorgasbord of offerings and been highly appreciated. When OST sessions are featured towards the end of a learning meeting, they allow people to fill gaps in their learning needs, test new ideas they gained from the meeting with other potential collaborators, and also give the programme organizers a chance to add in things that they missed, provide more time for discussion on a hot topic, or satisfy new learning needs that emerged during the event.  For his to work, you need to give people advance notice about this opportunity on your first day, but don’t be surprised if OST topics only come in the morning of your session.  The mechanics of Open Space and some tips can be found here Opening Space for Conversation (and Eating Croissants) and generally you only need your plenary room (with table seating, not theatre format), table numbers (so people know where to go at the designated time), cards for collecting host ideas, and then your schedule on PPT for table allocations per topic (see below). Again, programme managers can participate, both as hosts and participants, so your learning is also assured!

Community Marketplaces and More

If you really just need data from every country as the overall Programme Manager, poster sessions can be useful ways to encourage this sharing, as country project officers need to fill in your e-template with key information and get the files to you for printing (or bring them printed) in advance. However, poster sessions can be variable in terms of their attendance and utility for other participants.  If the posters are placed strategically (by the coffee table), you get browsers who might scan them. But you can get more attention if you create some buzz around the posters, perhaps adding tables for the display of documentation and 3D objects that attract passers-by.  Having a dedicated place for the posters is good, and even better is having a dedicated session that gets people into the space and programmes that time. Call it a “Community Marketplace”, give it 2 hours during your agenda at the end of one day, serve drinks in the space at the end of the time slot, and have microphones available to announce in-session events. What events? I recently worked at a large community meeting that had such a Marketplace and during the two hours there was an MOU signing between two Ministries in one country (so a few super short speeches, a handshake, applause and lots of camera equipment), and the announcement of winners of a Photo Competition (again microphones, photo opps, prizes and lots of clapping).

The Marketplace went one step further and scheduled times when regions were standing at their posters to answer questions. At the onset of each 30 minute regional “session” (in quotes as in the marketplace it is a bazaar environment with lots of talking and milling around, you can’t get too stressed about the chaordic nature of this kind of event), the microphone was given to a regional representative who said a few words about the relevant work in the region, what is most interesting, and announced the countries who would be standing at their posters for the next 30 minutes. Then people could go and find them if they wanted. This worked fairly well, and for the most part people went around to talk to some of the countries featured during their time slot. As there were multiple reps from each country this morphed into an open ongoing exchange, and still the calling to attention each 30 minutes of a voice from a new region provided some scaffolding to help structure and give some buzz to the Community Marketplace session.

Of course, learning also happens in coffee breaks and lunch, and extending these by 30 minutes can help conversations deepen and give time for reflection. Instead of 15 minute coffee breaks, can they be 30 minutes (for larger groups this is the only realistic option anyways), and can lunches be 90 minutes rather than one hour? This also gives the Programme Manager time to find the people she/he wants to talk to for more information on their activities before they fly home.

Ultimately, it’s not an either or – either the Programme Manager learns or the participants do.  In fact, with the participants also in mind, the learning from Community Meetings can be even richer. You just need to not worry too much about controlling every aspect of the agenda by having everything in plenary and all front-loaded. For your courage, you will be richly rewarded with enthusiastic feedback and the most important result – real community learning that makes the next stage of the process even better!


I have been working for the last few years as the Learning Expert on a very interesting partnership project called the Learning and Knowledge Development Facility (LKDF). This project focuses on “promoting green industrial skills among young people in developing countries”.  The focus is on developing Public Private Development Partnerships (PPDPs) in selected Vocational Training Centres (VTC) in a number of countries, and promoting multi-level learning within and among them in innovative ways, as well as capturing this  learning and reintroducing it back into the different projects and into new PPDPs.

In addition to developing the learning elements and designing and facilitating the peer-learning components, I have had the great pleasure this year to write a number of “How-To” Guides – four in all. They have taken two different approaches to development, described below. But there is something critically important that must come first…

The first question to answer when writing a How-To Guide is “Who will use this?” Who is the audience? If you are crystal clear about that, then it makes it much easier to write with those people firmly in mind. Our audience for these Guides was project managers who are developing and implementing PPDPs and those who might be interested to do so in the future.

Approach 1: Interview-based 

The first How-To Guide was based on a co-generated set of “Learning Opportunities”. This set of questions, combined into one document, was effectively what the different partners wanted to learn from their participation in the different PPDPs and the LKDF. In our Learning Opportunities document each partner has its own set of questions under each agreed heading – one for the UN partner, the donor, the private sector partner, and the VTC. This took a question format and formed the basis of ongoing query throughout the project. We use these questions in our face-to-face learning workshops (self-reflection and group reflection) as well as for the interviews that provided the input to this particular “How-To” document, which was titled, How-To Guide: Developing and Implementing a Vocational Training PPDP.

The Learning Opportunities – that is, what we wanted to learn – included 5 main headings, paraphrased here: How is the PPDP different than a more traditional project of a similar kind; What steps make up an effective PPDP project development process, and an effective implementation process; What is the value added of the learning platform; and how can policy-makers be most effectively engaged and policy change supported.

Each Learning Opportunity had a number of assumptions that we were making, and then related sub-questions identified per partner (exploring their experience, their role, their learning both internally in their organizations and as a part of a multi-stakeholder partnership, what was working and what could be different and better in the future).

This document was used to create a one-page interview questionnaire tailored to each of the Partners. The interview was timed to take 30-45 minutes (it tended to take 45-60 minutes) and was administered by telephone or Skype. After the interview the notes were recorded under each question to create a set of response forms that ranged from 4-6 pages in length. For our How-To Guide we undertook 13 interviews (some had 2 people on the call).

Then the exercise was to take the inputs from the interviews and write the How-To Guide. For this I used the following process:

  1. Divided the questionnaires by Partner (UN, Business, Donor, and VTC)
  2. I did a first read through of those in each sector to get a general overview of the key messages, and to see what themes were repeatedly arising among them members of the same sector.
  3. As I used the 5 Learning Opportunities roughly as the chapter titles for the How-To Guide,  I went a second time through all the interviews (still clustered by sector) in more detail, picking out key words that were repeated under each Learning Opportunity 1-5, and I wrote those key words in the margins of the questionnaires (so I could see them at a glance). I was especially looking for success areas/things working well and why, challenges being experience and actions that partners had taken to mitigate the challenges (or try to), and learning and advice for the future.
  4. I then put aside the Interview questionnaires and created the overall Table of Contents for the How-To Guide, and blocked out sections with titles and placeholders to write into. Creating a Table of Contents is a great way to see if there is overall flow to the Guide. The Chapter headings I chose (and changed a few times) became: What Makes the PPDP Approach to Vocational Training Successful; How to Develop the PPDP Concept and Project Document; How to Implement a Vocational Training PPDP Project; How to Form a Dialogue with Policy Makers During Vocational Training PPDPs; and How the LKD Facility Fosters Learning. The Chapter titles were based on the Learning Opportunities, the interview questions and what had emerged from the interviews (some questions produced rich responses, others not so much).  I found it very useful to have the framework set up before writing the main body of content.
  5. I then wrote the Introductory sections of the How-To Guide: About the project; About the Guide, Useful definitions (what is a PPDP?), Who is involved, etc.
  6. Next I went back to the Interview Questionnaires. I wrote bullet points into my Guide framework under the right headings, amalgamating and summarising the text from Questionnaires. I used the key word reminders that I had written in the margins that repeated, drafting them into more generic lessons. If it was a sector specific comment or a general comment, then I noted that.
  7. I organized these bullet points into sub-sections that were emerging based on content from the questionnaires such as: Reported benefits; General considerations; What to watch out for; Steps to take; 10 things that have worked so far. I also included some observations and tips by and for specific partners (e.g. The Business Perspective or The Donor Perspective).   Each chapter was organized differently depending on the kind of inputs Partners gave in their interviews, but always with the Guide user/reader, and the questions they might have, in mind.
  8. The rest of the exercise was writing the bullet points into narrative, making them parallel, reorganizing for flow and logic, and editing for readability.
  9. This was then sent out for feedback to the Partners who gave suggestions and questions and sent the document back through an editing cycle before finalisation (formatting and printing).

This produced a 27-page How-To Guide: Developing and Implementing a Vocational Training Public Private Development Partnership which had quite a lot of practical detail. To give the high points from this, I created a 7-page Executive Summary from this document (which was almost harder than the longer version!) This whole process as you can imagine, took weeks!

The next three How-To Guides followed a very different process.

Approach 2: Process and project documentation-based

Learning is everywhere in a project like this, and the astute project manager identified some good reusable learning content in the project and process documentation that had been written in the early set-up stages of project development. Experts on M&E and learning (like me) had written a number of longer documents proposing M&E systems, learning processes, management training programmes etc. for the project. These included interesting rationale, research, substantiation of what was proposed and support from good practice, expert opinion, etc. How could the re-usable learning be extracted from these early documents? (Processes which had now been tested for a couple of years!)

It was an interesting exercise for me to sit down with the proposal for the M&E system, the Management Training Programme, etc. and work with the text to identify what was generic and what could be used by other managers undertaking the same or similar processes. Again we needed to be clear on our target, and we enlarged it a little for these three How-To Guides to not only those who would be working in vocational training PPDPs, but would also be useful for those setting up and managing PPDPs in general.

Here are the steps I followed to turn specific project-related documentation into something that others could be interested to use:

  1. An initial read through of the document provided some obvious sections to cut out – details of our specific context (a little was left in the section About this Guide and the PPDP Approach to give people an idea of where we were starting), excerpts from our Project Document, references to specific partners and their roles, etc. All this could be neatly cut out immediately.
  2. A second read through provided the opportunity to take things out that we didn’t do, hadn’t done yet, or didn’t work in the way it was planned. In some cases, it was interesting to refer to this and talk about what happened (or didn’t) and why. This also provided a good learning back and forth with the project management team and some ideas of what to do in the future.
  3. At this point a number of things were also identified to add in, links to other knowledge products that had been produced along the way, videos, examples from different country experiences, and samples of agendas for events and questionnaires that had been developed since the original project documentation had been produced. This greatly enriched the learning shared.
  4. Then an overview was needed – so I wrote the table of contents and framework for the How-To Guide based on what was there now (and this also identified a gap or two, and in some cases where there was too much information – more to cut!)
  5. The final steps included writing transitional text so the sections were logical and would read smoothly, filling in explanations for an external audience, footnotes for other resources, revising charts and tables so that they were accurate (I needed to remake a number of images so they fit the new context and language of the How-To Guide).
  6. A final review by the project managers completed this exercise (this approach had more back and forth during the process than the interview approach). Then a final edit, and off for formatting and printing.

This approach took a few days of work per How-To Guide, as the existing content was mainly there and the main work for a learning practitioner was to identify what is most interesting and reusable from the original documentation (which took weeks to write and was an investment already made, additional value added through this How-To Guide development process). The resulting How-To documents were:

How-To Guide: How to Set up a Monitoring and Evaluation System for a Vocational Training PPDP
How-To Guide: How to Develop and Manage Knowledge in Vocational Training PPDPs
How to Guide: How to Set up a PPDP Management Training Programme

I think that both of these two approaches work well together. The first approach above is highly participatory and involves all partners in an iterative learning exercise. It can easily be repeated annually and additional updates to the How-To Guide can be written as learning continues and deepens. New questions could be added and new Guides produced.

The second approach maximises existing investments made in project and process documentation. Rather than keeping these proprietary internal documents and on shelves here and there, it aims to draw out the reusable learning from these to share internally and with outside learners. This exercise also provides a valuable moment for reflection about what was done based on the original plan, why or why not, and might also point out what is yet to be done.  With this reflection, the result is a more accurate How-To document produced based on real learning from experience. These How-To Guides also tend to be more specific as the project documentation is more focused on specific parts of the project (e.g. the M&E system, the learning platform, etc.).

And taking the last-mile steps to create the How-To Guide out of the project documentation, rather than just releasing the original project documents, which go out of date and are often long and rather dry, gives the material new life. It does the work of identifying that learning which is most useful to others, rather than letting this work of pulling out the lessons to be done by the reader (and who has time for that!)

Say you run a small social enterprise that is services-based  – like a small learning and process facilitation group that works on sustainable development issues for instance. Then you really need to work to manage the throughput of projects so that you can maintain high quality, uphold your social values and work within the capacity of the team. 

That might sound easy, and it is, if you have a good underlying policy for the kind and amount of work you accept. We sat down recently and made a checklist of things that we would like to be true in order to say “yes!” to projects. 

Because we are working mothers part of our social values include time for children and families, our sustainability values help us focus in on environment and development projects, and our learning edge means that stretching for partners and us is also a goal. Because we’re small, we need to watch the scope of work, and because we work in multi-faceted processes, we know that sometimes there are tradeoffs, 

Here’s the checklist we generated. When these things, or the majority of them, are favourable, we can say YES! 
  • The project deadlines and events don’t clash with important family birthdays, events, school holidays or another booked event;
  • There is sufficient time between facilitated event delivery dates to recuperate energy, change gears (and change clothes) i.e. not back-to-back events – we’ve done some of these and they are hard!
  • The project aims to contribute to sustainable development – this can be broadly defined (environment, natural resources, green economy, population, climate, conservation, etc.) and can be any sector (business, government, UN, international NGO etc);
  • The project has potential to be high impact – that is, there is scope to maximise the outcomes through our input (e.g. good learning or process design, good facilitation and delivery etc.) This is important because sometimes we get asked to “preside” over or only moderate at events and are brought into a tight process in the very final stages, then our contribution or ability to use our tools for learning is small and cosmetic. In this case, we should probably turn it over to someone who specialises in more formal moderation or stage work;
  • The project stretches us in some way, and also if possible the project partner.  We love to learn, both about sustainability subjects as well as using new tools, or learning about new partners and sectors. We also like to bring new things to our partners;
  • It is within our capacity and scope. Although we do regularly put together teams to deliver larger projects, we need to make sure that the scope of work fits within our current capacity to deliver, even if that is just taking on management for a larger team;
  • The reporting for the event-based project is conducted by the project team. We are happy to contribute ideas for a final report for an event, but we don’t take on event report writing for a number of reasons which are written up in more detail in these blog posts (effectively it externalises the team’s learning): Don’t Outsource It! Learning from ReportingMore Learning Through Reporting: Using Reporting for Teambuilding and more provocatively Why Your Facilitator Can’t (Always) Listen
  • If there is travel involved, it meets out travel policy. This includes cabin indications for long-haul flights and travel days coverage for long journeys so that we can work along the way. This is most important when there is a period of heavy travel, and because with small children we prefer to spend the least number of days away from home and so don’t tend to add on a couple of days before an event to relax and recover after a long trip; 
  • Our small size also means that at the moment, we happily provide costing estimates for projects on request, and that on larger bidding processes where substantial design inputs are needed to bid, we tend to send these on to others in our network of facilitators and trainers; 
  • The project fees comes within our standard rates. We have a sector-differentiated rate schedule that we use and maintaining this helps us to do a quantity of pro-bono work annually, whether it is adding a couple of pro-bono days onto a contract for an NGO of CBO (community-based organisation) partner or run a full workshop for a non-funded network or other event (like our TEDxGeneva Change event last year) or provide design inputs or advice, etc. 

    In addition, and this is not so much a criteria but an added bonus, we also love working repeatedly with the same partners, which lets us use our learning from past projects to make the onboarding process shorter and more economical for the partner, and lets us go further with more nuanced knowledge of the dynamics of the organisation.  

    When all or most of these are a “Yes” then that makes is easy for us to say “Yes!” 

      I recently had the opportunity to work with a team of sustainability leadership experts who have been delivering a learning programme for the past few years in different countries in Africa. For many years they delivered very different programmes, but a few years ago they decided to join forces and work towards harmonising their content and process, and share investments in curriculum development.

      How did that go?

      Well, that was our main question in a recent 3-day workshop to share learning and create a set of Practice Guidelines for the group. The aim was effectively to create a Manual, based on this learning and best practice, on how to run the programme.

      You might think it would be more efficient to sit in your office and write that manual, rather than try to jointly write a document in real time, face-to-face with 10 people. However, co-creation is the way to go if you actually want people to use the manual, and is a good way for it to be fortified with the interesting stories that people can tell (but won’t necessarily write down in an email or survey) on their experiences over a few years of implementation. You get more spark in the room, and it acually gets done. When you think of it like this then it makes much more sense to get together and collaboratively write such a document. But just the thought of such a discussion might leave people wondering “Where do we start?”

      Well, I have done similar learning workshops in the past and have found it very effective to start with the final product in mind as the main organizing principle (as opposed to creating that final document from the notes of less structured discussions), and we did that this time too. We started with the Table of Contents of the Manual we wanted to write.

      Imagine holding the Manual in your hands –  how you would want to read and use it? When you think of it like this it becomes easier to chunk it down into parts and discussions that can both fill in the sections, and be used structure your workshop. We had a two-flipchart page agenda that we worked from (see above for page 1). I then created our workshop programme such that every session we had corresponded to a specific section of the Table of Contents. I marked the session number on the Table of Contents flipchart so people could see that no time was wasted, every discussion had a purpose and a place in the Manual.

      Another helpful tip, if you use this Table of Contents technique, is to make those little checkboxes by each section and sub-section and then ceremoniously tick them off when the group has completed a section. It feels wonderful to see those checkmarks going up and the remaining areas counting down. I also mixed things up a little and didn’t always run the sessions in the order of the Table of Contents, but people didn’t worry, as they could see that in later sessions we would be getting back to the parts we jumped over.

      You can dive right into this exercise, but I think it’s better to start with context-setting discussions about why to do such a learning activity, what will make the guidelines immediately useful, and what will make them “stick”. It’s no good having guidelines that no one ever uses, and instead keep re-creating the wheel. So we started with a few facilitated discussions that helped us answer these questions. (And we also put that in the Manual in the Introduction).

      Getting started

      1.  We started with a check-in where everyone shared 1 set of guidelines that they currently use and why they like to use them (as an aside this also got us into a humerous discussion of what guidelines people don’t like – like their cell phone instructions – and what to avoid!). This exercise connected people with one of their own successful user experiences. It also gave us some initial good practice on which we could draw.

      2. We then talked more generically about “What makes good guidelines” and we created a list of features based on the examples we had in mind and others we liked. We then discussed what would make them “stick” for us, knowing what we know about our work rhythms and preferences. This gave us more good tips for our own guidelines,  which we now know needed to be super concise (no long narratives), user-friendly (bullet points and well signposted), practical (checklists, A5 ringbound format), etc. We flipped this into criteria and used this list again half way through our workshop to check that we were on track, and again at the end. At this point we also clarified who would be using the Guidelines and that was helpful again and again to narrow down what exactly we needed to cover (as in not everything under the sun).

      3. At that point we went into the Table of Contents discussion. Based on an initial draft I had made, we added and took away sections until we were all happy with it. By that time we could check off our first 3 or 4 boxes which was very satisfying!

      Mix it up

      As this is effectively a “write shop” in addition to a workshop, you need to think of ways to animate it so that the easy things get captured quickly and the areas where you need to share the diversity of approaches and potentially make some agreed decisions get the most time in the agenda. So I used lots of quick visual capture techniques based on clear questions (e.g. Who are our partners, what are their benefits, what are their responsabilities, etc.) that let people work individually, in pairs, trios and quads, with short plenaries at the end, to collect that information together. In the end, although it is often done in parallel, people still get to input on everything, so ownership at the end is high.

      We used crowdsourcing techniques with post-its (individually, in pairs), carousel discussions with wiki-like features so that we could easily find the groups that made the comments if they were not clear; we used metaplan cards, and for some things straight stand-up facilitation at a flipchart (but little of that). We varied the card colours, the markers, the templates we were using, and we plastered the room with the products of our work and discussion (always keeping our Table of Contents flipcharts right in the middle where it could guide us).

      At the end of each night the sections we had worked on during the day were recorded into a Word document in the final Manual format, and we used some time at the beginning of each day, on an LCD projector, to have a quick look at the text to make sure we agreed, and to appreciate how the document was building. This collective review helped make sure that everyone was engaged and agreed with the document’s text.

      This approach -working with different techniques and in diverse constellations of small groups with lots of real time capture- is very efficient and produces a wealth of content with which to work afterwards. It provides discussion time to share and exchange stories of how, in this case, each group has run different aspects of their training programme and what has worked for them.

      In the end we created together a 42-page manual capturing our understanding and practice of delivering this sustainability leadership learning programme – from mission and vision, to shared policies that had been agreed over the years around travel and participation (amazing how hard these are to recall when you need them), to the best recruitment process and forms,through to the optimal implementation schedule to follow through the year, reporting obligations, and many annexes with advertisement texts, Terms of Reference for the governing bodies, feedback form templates etc.

      It was wonderful to have had the chance to talk through, visualise and share all the many practices that go into delivery of a great learning programme. And too often we and our organizations don’t find the time to reflect and collect our learning and record it in a way that our teams, our partners, and others can share in that learning (now and potentially after we pass the baton).  Not to mention the fact that we, ourselves, can also forget our own best practice!

      Write it down (and do it in a way that inspires more learning)!

      In doing the research for a participants’ guide for the Facilitation learning programme we’re launching with a partner next week, I found a nice “greatest hits” collection that we made of some of our blogging reflections on the topic of making the most of internal meetings.  These posts were written from inside a large organization’s learning department and give some insight into the internal dialogues, learning and engagement processes (all kinds of meetings and gatherings) that institutions convene to help work through issues and generally get things done.

      I am delighted now that we captured our learning at the time in this format – a blog- and wrote it with the spirit of creating “reusable learning objects” (I was always banging on about RLOs in the organization, now that I am actually reusing them I am delighted!)

      This collection of 18 posts is organized below (with summaries and links) into the following categories that explore aspects of how to Make Meetings Meaningful:

      1. Purpose
      2. Positioning, and
      3. Process (e.g. design, implementation, reflection) 

      1) What’s the Purpose?

      Are we having conversations that matter?
      How are the conversations our organization is having changing the nature of relationships and the way people, groups and societies around the world are thinking and behaving? In other words, to what extent are our conversations bringing about the change we seek and helping achieve our objectives? And how can we continue to improve the quality of our conversations to better ensure that they matter?


      What Is the Purpose of ‘Free Coffee Mornings’?
      What value do weekly free coffee mornings have in fostering staff networking and informal learning in our organization? We decided to explore the opinions of others in our organization on this topic, through a short questionnaire. Many staff commented on the exercise itself, pointing out learning about how to make the most of free coffee mornings in the future to engage with staff, about how enthusiastic staff are to express their opinions, and the importance of ‘social spaces’ and time for team-building and collaboration across ‘silos’.

      You’ve Just Been to a Great Staff Meeting – What Happened?
      What are some of the different purposes of a Staff Meeting?

      -To update and inform staff members of activities in the institution
      -To profile people who have done good work and let them share their reflections
      -To maintain transparency and an open environment for sharing
      -To bring staff together for a shared experience once and a while
      Have you ever been to a great staff meeting? What was it about the meeting that made it useful, interesting, and made you excited to go to the next staff meeting?

      Post: You’ve Just Been to a Great Staff Meeting – What Happened?

      Networking – In or Out of Your Comfort Zone?
      Monday afternoon, a two hour session was held titled, ‘Learn Something New: People and Networking’. The objective was to not to provide a taught course on Networking, but do create an environment where people can share and exchange about networking, and do it at the same time. … Some suggestions were offered about how we can do more networking, and how we can help create work environments where networking and interaction is one of the key objectives. Longer coffee/lunch breaks? Open spaces in the agenda for interaction? Introductory sessions which serve to connect people and help them build relationships?

      2. Can Meetings be Used for Positioning?

      In our day to day conversations, how do we “talk the walk”?
      We’ve all heard of “walking the talk” – but what of “talking the walk”? In our day to day conversations, how do we “talk the walk” and reflect the core values employed in our work?… Our conversations can serve to enforce or discredit our messages and ourselves in powerful and lasting ways. Walking the talk is imperative. Talking the walk is so important too. People notice.

      No Such Thing as a Pointless Question: The Impact of Simply Asking
      The act of asking questions of an organization or group influences the group in some way. With our questions we get people to focus on something – what is that thing? What is our purpose of the question we are asking and what impact will it have on the way that person and the room think and feel? If people go in the direction you question them, where do you want them to go?

      Me and My Multiple Intelligences. We and Ours.
      In our organizations, what are we doing to make sure we interact in ways that address diversity of intelligences and learning styles? And how can we engage the multiple intelligences of our colleagues to best answer this question?

      3) How Effective is our Meeting Process?

      a) Design and preparation

      How Old is Your Knowledge?
      Workplace learning is 20% formal and 80% informal. Informal learning is an interesting combination of reading, internet surfing and search, audio-visual inputs, speeches and presentations, meetings, and conversations in the cafeteria, corridors, and on the bus. For the most part in these activities learning is quite accidental and not a deliberate objective. There are learning opportunities around every corner. What are you doing to structure your informal learning?

      What Kind of a Discussion do You Want?
      It is thought-provoking to hear people come away from discussions that they have lead and say, “Why do you think people reacted that way to my ideas?” Another question they could ask might be, “What could I have done differently to develop a generative discussion rather than a debate?” … If one sets up an academic situation, then people will be happy to react as though they are in one! Rarely do people throw a professor or a keynote speaker for that matter a soft ball…

      A Courtroom or a Concert?
      If I was going to run an important meeting, which environment would I want to create? How would I want my participants and speakers to feel when they left the room? What would I want people to get out of it? Would it be a zero sum gain, or would it be a step of a creative, hopeful process? When I sent out my next invitation for the group to meet again, what would be people’s reactions? Would they be excited that their favorite group was holding a concert again? Or would they dread the eyes of the jury?

      Bottoms on Seats – How Do You Make That Memorable?
      People travel to the venue, they walk into a bustling and colourful conference venue (exhibitions, restaurants, meeting spaces, and all), then they walk into their first of many small workshop rooms and basically sit there (different small rooms of course) for 75% of the conference… We spend a lot of energy thinking about communication to conference participants and the media around the event to make it colourful, interesting and engaging; how can we make sure that this does not stop at the workshop door?

      Leveraging the Wisdom of Crowds in our Organization
      Next week, our organization is hosting a week of meetings, bringing together in headquarters senior staff from our offices around the world. During these meetings, how smart will our crowd(s) be? How smart could it/they be? As session organizers, what can we do to make our crowds as smart as possible – better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future?

      Lights, Camera, Action: Working with Star Speakers
      Here is a lesson that I absolutely need to learn as a workshop facilitator: No matter how well you brief a plenary speaker who is a subject matter expert, they will go over the time. … Plan for it in as many ways as possible, especially by allocating substantial discussion times (even after they get cut down) so that this critical part of the learning process is always there to help people follow your star.


      b) Implementation

      Using Storytelling to Generate Ideas: We Just Went to a Great Staff Meeting – What

      Happened? (Reprise)

      We decided to use our own communications unit meeting to generate additional creative ideas, and then to share them with the team who is responsible for our staff meetings… Here was our question: You just went to a great staff meeting – you left excited, energised and hopeful. Tell us – what happened? We first worked in pairs to create our stories, then shared them with each other. Here are some of the ideas that emerged.

      Ballroom Learning and Large Groups: Using Socratic Questioning
      I am sitting in a hotel ballroom with 140 people at a conference titled, “Capacity Development Strategies: Let the evidence speak” and the level of some of the participants has dictated a certain room layout and format – we have a head table with four speakers and 140+ people sitting shoulder to shoulder behind tables in the room… If learning is the goal, and this formal room layout is a given, how might we best work with this format for optimal exchange?

      What Exactly Are You Facilitating?
      I have had a few people ask me about the value of facilitating other people’s workshops. What does that contribute to the grand scheme of things? The overall goal is not to just to move people around a room for a day. A good Facilitator is a process person with their eye on outcomes and learning – there is reason for every interaction, what is it and how can a process be designed that makes those conversations easier, smoother, and more productive? After all, facilitation comes from the Latin word “facil” which means to make something easy. Good facilitation means making group dialogue, decision-making, information sharing, and learning processes easier and more effective for everyone: your workshop hosts, your participants, and yourself.

      c) Reflection and follow-up

      Helping Other People Do Great Work
      How transferable was my experience last week and what can it prompt me to learn about how to help our guest speakers do great work for us at the upcoming workshop? What more could I do in the next few days that could make all the difference for a first-timer, to create an environment where people are proud of their contributions, others appreciate it, and generally helps everyone do great work?

      Dialoguing about dialogue
      “Listen to one another with your full attention. Think about what is said, how it is said and the intent behind this. How does it make you feel – physically, intellectually and emotionally – as a participant in this dialogue process? How does it make others feel?” There is still much to explore and emerge about the role of dialogue in change processes. Along the way, how can we replicate such experiential approaches in our own institutions for collective learning about the important role of dialogue in change?

      I found it interesting to look back, now that I am working from the outside and don’t always have seamless, day-to-day contact with such micro-learning processes, to remember how valuable it was to capture this nuanced process learning through a blog. Even after some time I find the learning very clearly reusable.  

      As Facilitators and Trainers working with new groups and organizations, we occasionally get strong reactions to descriptors like “interactive”, “games-based”, “experiential” when explaining our work. When you dig a bit deeper into those responses, you hear stories of team-building sessions gone awry, icebreakers that were too “silly”, or activity choices that were “pointless”, in someone’s estimation.

      The gap in meaning, I might guess, is due to the absence of metaphor.

      Metaphor is the concept of understanding one thing in terms of another – or constructing an analogy between two things, ideas or actions.

      Picking the right team building game for example, is not just a question of what the facilitator likes or feels competent delivering; it is selecting a game that provides a platform to explore some of the key issues that the team has, and creating a metaphor in a game that lets team members identify them, work through them, test options, discuss them based on the behaviour in the game, and then draw lessons or ideas that can be useful in their daily work. 

      Even a quick activity, like an icebreaker or introductions, can be linked to a useful metaphor too. For example, I recently used Thiagi’s Hello game to both have people collect information about their experience, expectations, etc., which was good insight in itself, and then in the debriefing asked the group to think about how the exercise might be a metaphor for their work. This game features a number of small groups concurrently collecting information from the whole group in very short segments for planning, collecting, analysing, and reporting of around 3 minutes each! This particular group had some issues that team members wanted to explore about dealing with time pressure, with cooperation and information sharing, and this game was perfect for both introductions and to begin to lightly focus and reflect on these things, even in the first 15 minutes of the day.

      Think about where you can find or create metaphor in  facilitation and training work. Any extra design element, no matter how small, that makes the link between the activity or game and the work that people are doing (or hoping to do better) can deepen the connection and the learning. And of course, it is important to bring attention to the metaphor, through debriefing, questioning, noticing. Your role as a facilitator is to help people see and make those connections. When done with skill, this helps makes both the meaning of the activity as well as your choice in introducing it much more obvious to participants. Finally, it optimises the time and refreshingly gives people permission to play again (“serious play” of course).

      Some groups might need some extra work to help regain credibility for experiential learning. By strengthening the metaphor and meaning of games and activities, you are both investing in a group’s future success learning together through interactive techniques, and also hopefully softening resistance, making your life easier on the day and afterwards.

      This video link was sent to all of us attending the upcoming meeting of IUCN’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Commission on Education and Communication. I’m proud to be the Specialty Group Leader for a Community of Practice focused on Learning and Leadership, a group which itself explores new learning approaches. I hadn’t seen this video on the Social Media Revolution yet, and enjoyed its concise and in-your-face delivery. It rings true from what I have been hearing at the various conferences, from Online Educa last year, to the Social Business Summit last month. It will be interesting to discuss it with this group as I have not seen very big pick up of Social Media in the large international environmental organizations in Europe. Looking forward to getting some good examples to share after this meeting later this week.

      The title of the next Chief Learning Officer Webinar I’ve signed up for is called, “Corporate Learning in 2010: Social, Mobile, Collaborative, Engaging and Fun.” I was interested to find an example of this – of how informal learning at the organizational level can be just that – here near Geneva last week.

      I had lunch at WWF International in Gland, Switzerland, last Friday where they were just completing a Learning Week that featured five packed days of learning exchange from “How to take a good photograph” to hot topics like the Water Footprint on which WWF is working. When I walked into their offices at lunchtime I could feel the buzz – sessions were going on all over the building, often five in parallel, all internally sourced. Internally is defined broadly here, as some external people were presenting and running sessions too; these external people however – from globally recognized Business Schools and multi-national corporations – were all WWF partners who had taken the opportunity to contribute some of their knowledge to this organizational learning extravaganza.

      Fun and learning are not mutually exclusive, as we all know, although having fun in the workplace is not what we have come to expect. It is refreshing to see how that synergy of informal learning and fun can open up space for real connections both at the content level and interpersonally, that can then lead to productivity results afterwards.

      As I left, prizes were being given away by senior management for the best presenters, to the person that attended the most events, and so on, in the wrap up of this Learning Week. It no doubt ended with the same energy with which it started – Day 1 of the agenda featured a Staff Quiz, all about the institution and its work. Eight teams turned out in Fancy Dress (I hear), to compete in rounds towards the champion position. Team scoring was done by Senior management. The Pub Quiz format was about institutional learning and exchange, and also ticked the fun box for team development and relationship building. As a Learning Week launch it no doubt served as a wonderful icebreaker for the open discussions and cross-silo-fertilization of ideas that would no doubt follow such an activity.

      Reducing “power distance” in organizational hierarchies can also be treated through fun – a staff party where Senior staff bartend, as WWF had, might demonstrate the service orientation of the highest level of management, not to mention model some of the acute listening skills that bartenders are well-known for (and not just for drink orders.) In addition, everyone was invited to submit a session idea, again taking decision-making out of the hands of a few and into those of many, now co-creators of the content.

      These are the kind of clever decisions that have important and subtle effects.

      Whether skills building or learning about one another’s programmatic work, event titles on the five-page agenda, featuring over 75 events, were innovative too (“Herding Cats 101” building facilitation skills, and “How to manage your energy, not your time”), promising fun and interaction and not just a barrage of PowerPoint. (In fact, guidelines sent out in advance requested reduced reliance on PPT). Even the physical spaces that were used made that in some cases impossible, I saw a hands-on session happening at a clutch of computers in an open space area, others were in the Visitor’s area – unusual spaces for this kind of exchange that signaled something different than business as usual.

      Why not host an in-house learning event/conference that is a provocative mix of formal and informal peer-learning which is interesting, useful and most importantly fun. It takes some courage to put on such an event, but the opt-in, staff-built programme with lots of choice no doubt helps people tailor their learning needs to their own interests, and allows them to learn much more about and from their peers through the shared format of fun.

      I have been spending the last weeks at my desk developing a shared “curriculum” for a trio of sustainability leadership development programmes in different parts of Africa. I find myself writing about activities that help people make impact in their contexts and communities, and about how to take ideas from rhetoric to behaviour change.

      That’s what I’m writing about, but what I’m doing is actually the opposite. I’m taking action and putting it into words. And I realise as I write this shared curriculum, ostensibly from existing materials, for a global programme that has already existed for some 15+ years, how useful and unusual it is for practitioners to take this extra step in their capacity development and facilitation work. That is, to actually write their “curriculum” down, or record it in some way – to capture more than just the content, but the learning process used (the learning objectives, the frames, the questions, the activities, the timing, etc.) Here are a few reasons why I think this is useful and important in this day and age.

      Finding efficiencies and economies of scale

      This curriculum development exercise was initiated because of a consolidation of three existing programmes who want to create efficiencies and economies of scale from sharing past and future learning investments and practice. These programmes are located in the same “region”, but that region is Africa, and we all know how big that is. So frequent face-to-face work and oral exchange becomes less viable, and flying the one person around who knows how to do X-by-heart is also more problematic. It needs to be documented some way so that everyone can use it.

      Democratising the learning process and creating on-demand resources

      Writing the process learning down, or recording it in some way, helps move the learning from the expert model, where the knowledge is kept in one or a few people, and makes it available to a wider community of other facilitators (or would-be facilitators). Although distance knowledge sharing is aided by conference calls and video skype, (although still somewhat limited by accessibility), it is still rather impossible to download days (or years) of process this way, and unless you record the exchange, it is not available later when you might need it as an on-demand resource. And even if it is recorded, it is probably not tagged so not searchable later (and who will wade through 40 hours of hand-held workshop video?) I know change is coming in this area because I participated in a demo webinar of Quindi, which is a software package that aims to capture all aspects of meetings including video recording, which then is organized through tagging and bookmarking, but I have only just heard of this recently and not seen it in practice yet.

      Promoting knowledge retention and exchange

      When each programme team started their own training work many years ago, they probably did not anticipate that they would be in the position one day where they needed to share everything. In this global programme there were initiatives to report on curriculum, outlines were shared, presentations made, but not a lot of learning content was shared across the network and used by other programmes. As a result, I am not finding as much of the curriculum and learning process documented as I would like for this exercise I’m undertaking. It exists in the heads of the facilitators and faculty, but without a great deal of investment, that is very hard to use. Putting action into words can help document the learning process into reusable learning objects which then can be shared and really used.

      I wouldn’t mind how this was done – practice and learning materials could be taped and YouTubed and well-titled, recorded into how-to podcasts, blogged, or simply written up (well-labelled -not pdfed please, what a pain to reuse!) and stored on a hard drive somewhere ready for emailing, even better on the cloud. Not only would it be useful for me, but it would be useful for anyone new (and in this time of high turnover, new colleagues are not unusual.) We would all benefit from this tacit knowledge of how things work, whether it is to build it into a new learning process, or share good practice with other parts of the larger leadership development network.

      Creating Social Learning Opportunities

      Writing things down or recording them in any way takes time, and it is certainly easier for a facilitator to simply have a learning framework in your head, to put together your materials and make it happen. And this immediacy can be very good for learners (but not so good for your peers – in fact, the better you are at facilitating learning activities, with your stock of tried-and-true games and activities, the less likely you are to record your process I find.) However, I think you can do both. If you want to contribute to social learning, and in turn benefit from the conversation that happens when someone can see and query your practice, then find some way to record it and make it useful to others who can then benefit from your work and grow the practice overall.

      People who work in leadership for sustainable development need to help leaders make transformational change, and put their words into action, but in order to help this leadership learning community to strengthen its own practice, we also need to put this action, somehow, into words.

      Last night I participated in an excellent webinar run by Chief Learning Officer Magazine called “Metrics of the Modern CLO: Measuring Formal and Informal Learning“.

      (CLO offers a great series of free learning webinars, by the way, see the archived version of this webinar here.)

      The speaker was Josh Bersin, and he spoke about three kinds of workplace informal learning and how to measure them:

      1) On-Demand Learning
      2) Social Learning, and
      3) Embedded Learning

      He said businesses report that informal learning gives the greatest business value, with 72% of learning coming from on-the-job experience (stretch assigments, etc); on-the-job mentoring/projects/rotations; and coaching and peer learning. Only some 28% comes from formal training. He noted that informal learning was not fad, it was an evolution in workplace learning. Yet only 1/3 of organizations have learning and development programmes that reflect future talent needs (and that is in the private sector, I wonder what the percentage is in the other sectors – higher? lower?)

      This morning I woke up thinking about the third kind of informal learning. I am not used to seeing or hearing the words “embedded learning” and I needed a way to remember this, and here is the learning anecdote I came up with.

      Embedded Learning is the invisible learning on the job, feedback from managers, performance support from mentors and peers, and so on. It helps you on the job to learn as you go, in the context of your working community, rather than noticing something you need to learn and then going out to search for it yourself (this is on-demand learning).

      From June I started working from home. So that is my workplace, and at the moment I work primarily alone. Of course I have many virtual partners, and occasionally meetings in my home office. However, one person I do see weekly during my working day is the nice lady who comes in to help for a few hours. She just started just over a month ago, and we already appreciate her as a masterful mentor in her approach to family order.

      The first week she was here, the house was a jumble, and when she left the house was perfect. Everything that had been out on any flat surface was gone. Some things are still not found (library book, football socks, telephone list). The second week, it happened again. The third week, again, although slightly less was exposed. After a few weeks I noticed that just a few days prior to her arrival, things started to get put away. Now, the day before she arrives, everyone reminds one another of her imminent arrival. And like magic, order gets restored even before she comes. She set us on this learning pathway and it is working through embedded learning.

      This woman is a household manager and she is clearly giving us feedback. When she doesn’t like where something is, she shows us what she wants by putting it where it belongs (in her estimation). She models the kind of (workplace in my case) environment she wants us to maintain. It’s happening over time, and she is helping us make the change ourselves. This is embedded learning. There is no job aid or checklist on how to maintain this productive learning/working environment (on-demand learning) or no wiki where we are writing down where we are putting things (social learning). Although both of these kinds of learning might also be useful in the future.

      Today when my husband left the house he reminded me very seriously that it was Friday (implicitly, anything you don’t want to disappear needs to be moved now) – and this from someone who has not traditionally noticed anything below 1 meter. The mere mention of her name and my 8-year old is scouring his bedroom floor for precious items. This order mentor and household coach has been like magic. She has embedded new practices at the smallest unit of organization, although not through formal training, or setting formal systems into place. If she stays long enough, dare I say, this might be permanent; and eventually she could leave quietly and move to another family, like Mary Poppins, her work done.

      Once you start to think about it, you might notice embedded learning in other places around you. Today’s high turnover in organizations might provide an opportunity for embedded-learning spotting. In a workplace where someone has moved on, you might notice habits and practices that have changed as a result of someone’s influence, coaching, modelling, mentoring. That is, if they happened to be in tune with embedding learning, overtly or not (I am not sure the nice lady in my house is actively thinking about her household learning programme, although I may be wrong about that.) Not everyone operates that way of course.

      How you get people to operate like that is one of the keys to a learning organization. Then people can move in and out, and the learning is embedded, it stays and just keeps building and growing.

      Even if it is not the original person, with successful embedded learning, someone keeps making the bed.

      Some top tips for managers from my first day:

      • Invite her to a ‘welcome back’ one-to-one meeting with you and brief her on key ‘must know’ information before she delves into the delighting deluge that is her inbox

      • Present her with prioritized objectives and actions to get stuck into… things that you just can’t wait to get her tackling with her unique and much missed talents! (No mother wants to leave her child to be at work twiddling her thumbs.)

      • And offer chocolates, biscuits, balloons and beaming smiles (helping her realize that there is still a heart beating in her chest even if it feels like she left it in the crèche)

      What tips do you have for the powers that be… and me?

      This morning our Director General invited the headquarters staff for a World Café on our institution’s Organizational Development and Change process. Fifty-four of us met in the cafeteria to participate in the process. Here are some of our “hot” reflections on the event.

      World Café is an innovative way to think collectively about an issue, with conversation as the core process. In our case, 12 conversations happened in parallel, and after each of the four rounds we took some highlights from these conversations. With interesting, rather iterative questions, you could feel the energy build as people made connections and meaning for themselves and others. Here are the questions we used:

      • What is your vision of a highly relevant, efficient, effective and impactful IUCN?
      • What underlying assumptions have you had about how we, in IUCN, work? How might these need to shift?
      • What can we do to help identify and embrace opportunities for IUCN’s organizational development?
      • What patterns are emerging from the three earlier conversations? What are the implications for you and for us?

      The results of the discussions will feed into our organizational development and change process, through the people in the room, their teams and our individual action. Additionally the process itself will help us move towards some of our articulated goals around creating a culture of dialogue, interaction, and an enabling environment for innovation and cross-pollination of ideas.

      Since we (the Learning and Leadership Unit) are the ‘process people’, we captured some of our learning about holding a World Café in our institution. Here is what we thought went well, and what we would do differently next time. We are also sharing our learning with the World Café online community at the request of David Isaacs, one of the authors of The World Café book. (More knowledge resources on The World Café can be found on the Society for Organizational Learning’s website here.)

      What worked well with our World Café:

      • The process brought lots of positive energy to a conversation about change;
      • People appreciated being listened to;
      • Mixed groups combined different teams and levels within the organization and gave opportunities to get to know new people (when we asked the group if this process had given them a chance to speak to someone they did not know, almost every hand went up);
      • It was hosted by the Director General and connected to a real internal process where people had questions and a desire to contribute;
      • It linked with an in-house tradition – Wednesday morning sponsored coffee – a weekly coffee morning for staff supported by our Learning and Leadership unit and the Human Resources Management Group to promote internal dialogue and informal learning;
      • We held the World Café in our cafeteria, so instead of trying to transform a formal space (like a meeting room) for informal conversation, we went right to the organization’s kitchen literally for these conversations, which changed the interpersonal dynamic. There was kitchen noise and the sound of coffee machines making it all the more real;
      • We did not use a flipchart to take down the “popcorn” ideas between each round. We wanted to avoid to externalising the ideas and actions too much and directing the focus away from the group. Instead the comments came from within the group, were given to the group (and not a flipchart), and stayed with the group. We did, however, record them all for future use, which we will share with participants, among other ways through the use of a wordle (take a look at this application that creates beautiful word clouds, if you have never seen one)
      • We distributed an “ideas form” to give everyone the opportunity to share some of their top ideas with us afterwards. We handed this out just before the end and also sent an email for people who wanted to send us some ideas electronically. People did a great personal prioritisation for us and themselves, and the act of writing it down also helped people to go through the synthesis process and create a set of potential next actions that might help them remember what was most useful for them.
      • We put flipchart-sized graph paper on all the tables as grafitti sheets. People used them for recording ideas. Added benefits: the gridded paper (instead of plain) made it seem more like a checkered table cloth, and the white paper reflected on people’s faces making the photos better!

      What we would do differently next time:

      • In a room not made for speeches (i.e. a cafeteria), accoustics can create challenges for facilitating and hearing ideas from the tables between rounds. To address this we used a soft whistle to get people’s attention and asked people to stand up when sharing their ideas. Next time we would get a louder whistle (!) and we would contract lightly with the group in advance to quickly conclude their conversations when they hear the whistle.
      • In our briefing, we would emphasize further that the host is responsable for ensuring interactive conversations, but not necessarily for recording or reporting back. At the beginning, making this clear would have helped our host volunteers come forward more quickly.
      • Whilst the vast majority of participants stayed throughout, a few people trickled in and out due to other commitments, which was fine. We might have created better messaging to ensure a crisp start. Only a few people had participated in a World Café before, out of our 54 participants; now that people know how it works the next time we might not notice this.

      We got some terrific ideas and comments out of our World Café, including many thanks for running such a process internally. People seemed to be happy to take this kitchen table approach to connect and make new meaning together around our organization’s future. And this open process provided plenty of opportunity for everyone’s ideas and concerns to be laid on the table – besides the kitchen sink – which was nearby anyway.

      The Pegasus Conference 2008 kicked off last night with a World Café session led by co/founder David Isaacs. Joining newcomers and regulars to the conference, we took seats at small, round, red gingham cloth–covered tables, each with red carnation, accompanied by a duo of Novascotian musicians and visual artists decorating our surroundings.

      Using the well-known World Café dynamic, in three rounds we inquired into three questions –

      1. What do we hope to learn during this conference?
      2. What we do hope to contribute, give, share?
      3. And what is the question we need to ask connecting what we hope to learn and what we hope to contribute?

      My answer to the concluding question came to this –

      What will we do to (en)courage ourselves to more fully and consistently apply the thinking and tools with which we coach others, to create the highest performance in our own work?

      Who coaches the coaches? Who is the psychotherapist’s psychotherapist? These were the questions my café table friends contributed, understanding my plight. Well, attending this conference is our first step and over the next few days we hope that, following engagement with this community, we will return to our work place (en)couraged for our highest performance!

      In our conservation organization we work in an environment which is opportunity rich and time poor. Therefore, one of our primary goals as the learning team is to help people to work and take decisions with powerful systems insights so that their interventions have the highest impact, and take the least amount of effort (including resources, time and money).

      So among other things we do systems thinking training. A neat one- and two-day workshop that gives participants a chance to learn some specialised vocabulary, to practice a couple of useful systems diagramming tools, and to look for archetypes (repeating patterns). Our in-house training is popular with mostly young professionals who are interested to learn this approach and to use it in their work. With this kind of training we get people to adopt systems thinking one person at a time. In our younger colleagues, turnover is relatively high and yet we are happy to contribute to building overall capacity in our larger sustainability community.

      Of course, this community is vast. Even our institution is enormous – both at Headquarters and in the field. With this approach it will take us years to get to everyone – IF we could even get everyone to attend. Higher level management staff do not sign up for this kind of training. Often they don’t feel they have time for professional development, and may not see from the description the direct applicability of this approach in their immediate work. However, if we could get these people involved, and when they incorporate this in their teams and programmes, the tools and thinking goes much further.

      So we decided to not focus our whole strategy for building capacity in systems thinking on training. We have begun instead to incorporate the use of systems thinking tools for discussion and analysis in strategic planning workshops, which is precisely where the high level people need to be. We get more and more invitations to help design and facilitate visioning or planning workshops, the perfect environments for the application of systems thinking tools. The side benefit is that the participant group is very different than that of a training course. In fact, when an invitation comes through to do planning, visioning, and recommendations for your own organization or a partner, everyone works to get the highest level people possible, who then, if they like the process and outputs, can take them further for you – with direct implications for their teams, organizations and projects.

      We realised this most strongly today at the end of a visioning workshop that we have been conducting in our organization’s Meso-America region with a staff team and partners. We spent 2.5 days with a set of iterative exercises that aim to identify the goals of water maangement in the region, to look at some existing trends in the past and possible future trends, to understand the inter-relationships in the existing system, to identify intervention points that help them to reach their goals of radical change, and finally to make concrete recommendations for the water management community in general, and our organization in particular, for strategic future work. In order to do this, we were obliged to help people first to understand and use the tools (Goals creation, Behaviour Over Time Graphs, and Causal Loop Diagrams), to practice them, to physically experience them with some interactive systems games, and to then use them to do their work together.

      At the end of our workshop today, numerous people – heads of projects and programmes – asked us for our slides, and more information on the methodology, which we will be delighted of course to provide. They wish to use it in their project teams, to use it to diagram their systems and for communication with partners on what they are doing. After this visioning workshop, these high level people take with them a set of systems tools that they used for real-life decision-making and as a result of their experience using them can see the utility and applicability for themselves (and not second hand from a junior staff member who brought them back from a training course – although they should!)

      We will never stop training our young colleauges; that is the future and they are well on their way to becoming the leaders of tomorrow. In parallel, however, we will continue to quietly embed these tools, with a tiny invisible training component and real life applications, into these strategic visioning discussions with high level people. The systems message will go much further and deeper through these proponents; the tools will travel faster (exponentially) out of our hands and through those of the particulants as they simultaneously share their learning; and overall be less financially resource intensive for us because we don’t need to finance the transfer ourselves. In the end, people will know and use the tools, they will share their learning in their own languages and contexts, and no one will ever need to refer to it as training. That is my systems insight for today!

      It strikes me as particularly fitting that the organizers chose Ile La Reunion (reunion is actually “meeting” in French) for a big conference that is being held this week on the topic of the European Overseas Territory islands and climate change adaptation. This beautiful volcanic island in the middle of the Indian Ocean is as far away from Brussels as you can get (at least contextually if not geographically-it is delightful to see the Brussels-based diplomatic crew in flipflops).

      With 586 people descending on the island from all parts of the world, this is turning into a very large gathering of incredibly passionate opionions and a diversity of perspectives. As a result, this week might serve as a not-so-dry run for our upcoming Congress in October and produce some good learning for the most process aware. This could however be a luxury that only I will have, as this meeting has many of the same hallmarks as our Congress – most notably a small organising team made of primarily of content experts who have also been given the task to make it happen (from stuffing the conference bags to delivering one of the keynote speeches). It can be an incredible team building exercise which lets people step out of daily roles and showcase their abilities to stretch into new situations; it can also create situations where the transferability of competencies to different and completely new tasks is not so easy or obvious. The reactions will be very individual and can provide an amazing laboratory for the conscient manager.

      Ostensibly I am here in La Reunion to work with the coordinators of a set of 11 workshops on the results-orientation of their workshop designs, and to help deliver a few of these with a second, Mauritian, facilitator. And I am not sure I can resist shining the spotlight from time to time on our overall process here, and what the delivery team is learning. We will see what the appetite is for this simultaneous task and team maintenance conversation. It may also help identify some strategic interventions for more individual and institutional capacity building around these critical convening skills and collaborative processes.

      With hundreds of people coming from all parts of the world, from the largest European bureaucracies, and the smallest island administrations, from local civil society to official representatives of the United Nations, La Reunion will no doubt be a creative collision space, both for the participants, and for us.

      I have just had a heartening experience in my office. As it is the holiday season I thought I would share it on this blog. We have an incredibly complex internal knowledge management system for recording our programme plans, budget etc. as many large international organizations do. Not being someone who is gifted in using IT programmes (thankfully blogging is so easy), on Monday a call to send in my 2008 workplan created a wave of psychic angst. It was complete already, but produced in a simple table format in Word (which worked for me), how now to get it into the bigger complex internal system full of spreadsheets and quadrenniel results? So I tried myself, found the guidelines, asked my immediate colleagues, with no success and a mounting feeling of frustration and powerlessness. So I sent out an email to my colleagues, a “plea” as one called it, for some peer learning on how this works (I am still new and my unit is new here).

      Wow, what a response! I was so happy to have my first email response back within minutes, and then during the day more and more people offered to help, to give me some advice, to show me their own workplans, to share their tips to make the process, which is admittedly complicated, easier to navigate. These are incredibly busy people anyways, and this is the last week before the long holiday period, everyone is madly rushing to finish off things; still I got so many offers for help that I want to acknowledge that indeed it takes a village, or at least a community of colleagues, to sort out a new staff member. At least this community is willing to do it. You just need to ask; we should ask more.

      I was interested to see what wikipedia said about that phrase, “It takes a village…” and here is what I got, I have adapted it here for my own purposes (e.g. replaced “children” with “staff members”, “adults” for “managers”, and “nation” for “organization”, etc. – interesting results…)

      Staff members are not rugged individualists. They depend on managers they know and on hundreds more who make decisions every day that affect their well-being. All of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, are responsible for deciding whether our colleagues are brought up in an organization that doesn’t just espouse team values but values teams and staff members.

      I am well on my way to completing my workplan now, thanks to my colleagues and their willingness to provide some informal, peer learning to someone in need. And I will be actively looking for an opportunity to reciprocate in the New Year…

      I heard a great idea yesterday from the founder/owner of an innovative Dutch technology firm. He wanted to create an experiential learning opportunity for himself, the head of the business for nearly 20 years, so he organized a “Boss swap” with a friend in another company. For three days, he swapped roles with another CEO from a similar-sized, but non-competing business, to see what he could learn.

      He said that he found the experience fascinating. Indeed, he got some new management ideas that he could effectively apply in his own workplace. And, by observing with a more dispassionate view on structures, roles and work flows, he found that when he returned he was able to look more objectively at his own business.

      One of the most valuable parts of this experience he said were the discussions with his swap partner afterwards. Both in similar roles, they were able to help each other explore internal decisions and options for change with much more background that they could ever shared over (many) dinner conversations, creating a peer-learning opportunity that bordered on coaching that was equally valuable to both of them. He also said that, following his experience, he organized similar swaps for other levels of management in different offices, and that the Dutch media had been so interested in the exercise that they had covered it in the news (no doubt an added benefit.)

      This strikes me as an excellent informal learning exchange for those at different management levels in our institution (even between our HQ and regional/national offices). It would give managers the opportunity to think differently about their own work, build relationships among senior staff (and with other workers), and develop a system of peer-support at the management level. It would also give people more information and experience with one another’s programmes and might help identify practical ways to collaborate that were not obvious before.

      For the next few days I am attending a meeting of GAN-Net outside of Boston. A GAN is a Global Action Network and the people attending the workshop come from organizational development, knowledge management, human development and related fields.

      These few days we are discussing the structure, strategy and governance systems of Global Action Networks including how these features could change to make them much more effective in reaching their global missions for social good. Sometimes it seems odd to be discussing fundamental changes in the governance structure or global strategy of a complex organization that has been around for 60 years or has developed a membership base of 10 million people. Surely that organization’s structure must be chiseled in stone? However, as one participant reminded the group on the first night, institutions are created in our imaginations, and they can be recreated there too.

      For those who are not reading Winnie the Pooh (like I am at my house), a Woozle is an imaginary creature that Pooh is afraid of meeting one dark night while trying to find his way home with Piglet. He eventually discovers that the Woozle footprints he finds are just his and his friend’s as they have been walking in circles. These Global Action Networks are a little like that; they might seem large, complex and scary, but in fact they are just us. So changing them should be completely within our realm of possiblity (though of course as we are seeing it is not always so easy).

      So off we go to explore how to create a new organizing paradigm for the world with this question: How does the world, how do we, and how do I, discuss and address strategy, structure and governance of complex, global multi-stakeholder issues with the precision and scale required to bring about deep societal change? We need to keep reminding ourselves that those huge footprints we are finding are merely our own.

      A few days ago I received a thought provoking and relevant article from one of my colleagues who is in a very different department than I am. She is in such a different part of our organization’s work, in fact, that I probably would not have been on her radar screen normally, except that we have spent a few hours together recently co-designing a road-mapping workshop for an important external partner.

      Last week she read this article, thought of my interests and sent it along to me. I had not seen it myself and probably would never have found it. Not only did it make my day, I also felt our institutional social capital at work. Among members of our own teams, we know many of the same people and read many of the same sources, newsletters, books etc. So our ability to bring radically different thinking into our team discussions is based mostly on our own efforts to connect with other audiences.

      However, we can also spend a lot of time seeking this novel input, and we could still miss many useful things. What we have noticed is that when people from radically different “communities” start to understand our interests and learning goals, then they can also help bring us into contact with these new ideas and practices, cross-fertilize our learning, and make it an ongoing, continual process and much more refined than our own google-like searches. What does it take to encourage other people to help you with your work?

      Many organizations talk about “silos” within them, to the extent that the lack of experience in collaboration, the lack of knowledge about what the other silos are doing and learning, and even the lack of relationships among people in those silos makes it ever harder to collaborate. When interconnections, collaboration and cross-fertisilation is the goal, even a little experience in successful collaboration, and a good relationship, can do a lot to help you share information and knowledge, and even find further opportunities to work together. This ultimately creates that flow of knowledge and information that is an important part of workplace learning and institutional knowledge management. Is this the body of work for a living, breathing learning organization?

      Recruiting senior staff for a global knowledge organization these days is very much like casting a movie. First you need a good idea of the movie you want to make, then you need to cast it with the right talent. If you have a choice of actor profiles, in order to have a good movie, you would look for a great actor, rather than someone that necessarily has experience doing what the character does. For example, Julie Andrews did not need to have experience being a nanny to be a fantastic Mary Poppins. She is talent and she can play a variety of different parts very well – she knows how to prepare herself (go talk to some career nannies), she can learn her lines and part, she can work with the director to improve the script, she can innovate and shape her role around her own assets for maximum effect, she has chemistry with others, and she can breathe energy and life into her role – here, her job.

      In a fast changing world, organizations need to be able to continually adapt to new conditions, new information and developments on the global stage. You need your senior staff to have widely applicable skills to be able to change as their roles change. Having a very specific experience base might be less important than having the skills to learn the job, the motivation to improve the context, the creativity to shape it to maximise their assets, the contacts with the subject matter experts, and the ability to work with others to get the job done well.

      Need a new senior staff member? Advertise for a Julie Andrews. (After all, wouldn’t you like to work with someone who believes that, “In ev’ry job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game…”)

      Well, it turns out that many institutions have figured this one out – using blogs for reflective practice. A quick google showed that many environments that are education and learning-based are using them.

      I found an interesting upcoming conference titled Online Educa Berlin 2006 with a parallel stream titled, “Social Technologies in Educational Practice”. Some of the presentations were:

      *Blogs as Reflective Practice (Dicole Oy, Finland)
      *Wikis and Blogs: Teaching English to the ‘Net Generation’ (University of Padua, Italy)
      *Everything 2.0: What Do New and Emerging Social Technlogies Offer Learning and Teaching? (King’s College London, UK)
      *Learning by Storytelling in Weblogs (Newlearning, University of Erlangen-Nurnberg, Germany)

      Apparently there are many organizations who are exploring how they can use blogs and other new technologies to help people learn.

      Another presentation in a different stream was titled, “Are we Sinking or Thinking? Language Learning at the Workplace Re-Invented Live Online” – I adapted it as the title of this blog entry (I think perhaps it could be more appreciative!)

      We are currently exploring even more ways to “Walk our Talk” within the organization. A meeting last Tuesday was devoted to looking at the assets (experience and expertise) that we already have within the institution in terms of sustainability practices, both individual and institution-wide, and what we would like to know more about.

      Starting any new initiative in a very busy, dynamic environment demands not only an eye on content, but also on process. At the end of our meeting to further develop some of the priority areas (identified as travel and transport policy/CO2 emissions, local interaction, and administration/workplace effectiveness), we asked ourselves the question and had a lively brainstorming session:

      When you have seen new initiatives be successful and have impact in this institution, what were some of the things that made them work? What were some of the features of this success?

      The people attending came up with many excellent examples of what has made various initiatives work, here are some of the things that were shared:

      – There was a “buzz” – people talked;
      – There was strong communication and teamwork;
      – There was clearly coordinated teamwork across the regions, programmes, strategies, and so on;
      – There were dedicated resources: a person responsible and financial resources;
      – Senior management championed the activity along with involved staff;
      – Targetted services were a part of the activity and they were client-oriented;
      – There was personal commitment and clearly defined responsibility;
      – There were clear goals and the activity reported on the progress it was making;
      – People saw a personal benefit (and it felt good!);
      – Everyone involved spoke the same language – there was consistency of message;
      – There was collective engagment and people were convinced about the activity;
      – All the main parties were involved in the design;
      – There was the power of volunteers with a common passion.

      Each of these items came with an example of an initiative and a good story, from someone who was involved. I personally find this a really helpful list of keys to success for activities within a complex institution. These work within our organization; they probably would also work in other institutions. It is a good learning exercise for anyone – when you have participated in an activity that really worked, what were some of the things that happened that made it a success?