We have a full week of meetings come up. Here is what Wikipedia says about meetings and learning:

Meetings are sometimes held around conference tables. In a meeting, two or more people come together for the purpose of discussing a (usually) predetermined topic, often in a formalized setting. In organizations, meetings are an important vehicle for human communication. They are so common and pervasive in organizations, however, that many take them for granted and forget that, unless properly planned and executed, meetings can be a terrible waste of precious resources.

Learning, as the verb, it is the process of gaining understanding that leads to the modification of attitudes and behaviours through the acquisition of knowledge, skills and values, through study and experience. Learning induces a persistent, measurable, and specified behavioural change in the learner to formulate a new mental construct or revise a prior mental construct. The learning process leads to long-term changes in behaviour potential.

It strikes me that most of our meetings have learning goals, yet they are structured as though the main goal is information sharing. How can the structure of our meetings change so that they can both inform and help people learn?

The participant’s journey at a large-scale conference can be an interesting one. 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. The room size might change, the speakers might change, and still, most of the conference goer’s experience can easily be sitting in seats listening. Research shows that retention rates from listening to presentations are low and generally decline over time. Not to mention the fact that when you sit shoulder to shoulder in a room you rarely get to know whom you are sitting beside. In a plenary keynote presentation last September, I asked a group of 300 people to raise their hand if they knew both of the people they were sitting between. Only a few people raised their hands. This was on Day 3 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? After all, that is where most people spend their Congress-going time. Believe me, I know, I am sitting in a Conference planning workshop myself today…

Most people who care for you would rather have your undivided attention for a while than anything that you could buy for them.

It seems to take a long time to learn this.

Enough said…

Today I went ice skating with my 5 year old son. He skated confidently around the hockey rink about 15 times; he ran on his skates and took enormous jumps and landed back on his skates; he skated like mad and then would do a quick turn…and this was only the second time he has ever been on ice skates in his life.

The first time we went ice skating was about 3 weeks ago. It was early and the rink was empty. I put on my son’s skates and took him carefully to the edge of the rink – he simply walked onto the ice and skated without hesitation around the entire rink by himself (I had not even put my skates on yet.) In fact, he had no idea whatsoever that he could not ice skate. He imagined that he could skate and he did. Why not? There were no other people on the rink struggling to stand and falling down, no one telling him to be careful and to go slowly, no one saying that it would take him some time to learn (and even if I had he would not have listened to me). He had complete confidence in himself, and his perception was that he held mastery of that activity.

I am sure that the absolute faith that you can do something does not stop after 5 years old. Maybe we just have to tap back into that 5-year old within… back to frame of mind where absolutely everything is possible. Even if you have never done it before.

It is a little slow in the office around the holiday season, so I thought I would write in this post about another kind of learning that I have embarked upon recently.

I joined a local choir a few months ago with my neighbour because I like to sing and am a fairly competent; I have sung off and on in choirs and in small groups for many years. I didn’t really expect to learn anything new except some French songs and perhaps more about some other people in my village. However, this current excursion is providing a completely new learning experience, which is immediately noticeable in the quality of my singing. Astounded, I asked myself, what is different about the process this time and is there anything transferable there?

In past choirs, the director would hand out the music, people would struggle with it for a while, we would break it down into parts, practice individually, put it together, have it sound horrible for a while and gradually it would come together and sound pretty good. The focus was on the notes, the words and the voice. Sing, sing, sing – hours of singing. The director’s motto was “do it again!” and gradually, from pure repetition, it would be note perfect, and he would have nearly beaten the life out of it.

In this new choir, the director calls it the “Tao of Voice”, and uses as her inspiration the book of that name by Stephen Cheng. During a 90 minute session, we stand side-by-side and sing from sheets of music for about 30 minutes. The rest of the time we are doing breathing and body movement exercises, singing songs without words, standing with our hands pressed against another singer’s hands to feel different notes, walking around in the semi-darkness singing tones from different parts of our body (have you ever tried to sing out the back of your head, or from your feet – try it, it is not as hard as it sounds). What this means when we do sing, is much more of a sensitivity to your body, and what has to happen in your whole body to sing properly. You sing with every part of you, and you are completely connected to the music, the words, and what you are doing to them while singing.

When you sing like this, you are completely there, in that moment, in that word and in that song – and that complete authenticity of experience and connection of everything we have produces music that is very different than those songs we sang 1,000 times in school choir. Our daily lives can be so scattered – we sit in one meeting, our mind is on our next trip, our heart is at home with the family – and how convincing is anything we say in that meeting? When we can bring all these things together, that is when the real music starts.

Why do people sometimes find learning so frightening?

Even me – last weekend I was offered the opportunity to organize a 4-day meeting of senior scientists, systems thinkers and sustainability practitioners on the topic of climate change and behaviour change. My response – no way! I have worked in the sustainable development field for over 20 years now, but I have never worked directly on the climate issue and am certainly not a SME (subject matter expert) in that complex field – I work in capacity development and learning.

Then I thought more about this – what was it about the meeting that caused me to react like that? In retrospect, it was probably being acutely aware of the enormous body of knowledge that already exists, the proliferation of different opinions about what to do about it, and a bit of fear about providing a quality event to a very high calibre audience. Overall it represented to me a very steep learning curve and a great sense of responsibility. How many other people react like this to a) big learning generally and b) the climate issue in particular?

I fortunately got to sleep on it, and the next morning I reframed this for myself. I need to learn more about this issue (as do some other 6 billion people on the planet), so I needed to embrace this opportunity to work on the climate issue. I needed to put myself in the way of learning – to jump in front of the bus, so to speak – not sit there on the sidewalk and watch it go by because it is going too fast, is too big, and seems unstoppable.

I found this analogy useful to give me the energy to take on this challenge. However, my friend Valdis, who works in climate change policy for one of the Baltic governments, usefully pointed out that by “jumping in front of a bus” you could get squashed. He observed that thinking about learning like that can take people from their comfort zone, through their eustress (or good stress zone) into distress. I think that was my case when I was first confronted with organizing a meeting about climate change. He suggested that instead of telling people to embrace new learning by “jumping in front of the bus”, to encourage them to push themselves or take risks in a safer way.

So I took the challenge to organize that meeting, I am going to learn alot more about climate change in the next year, and, with the help of my very knowledgeable friends, will not get squashed in front of the bus, but will do a little learning bungee jumping instead.

When you learned your science, physics and chemistry at high school, could you imagine that the information you were getting was over 30-50 years old already? How old are you now? You do the math – you might possibly be a little bit out of date.

Professor Natalia Tarasova, Director of the Institute of Chemistry and Problems of Sustainable Development at Mendeleev University of Chemical Technology of Russia, spoke at our network meeting today about the need to update curricula in the sciences and keep it current so that our next generation of scientists don’t leave school already out of date.

What about the rest of us? How do we update our learning? We can’t all go back to school – this takes time (which we don’t have), it takes money (which we might also not have available), and it might take displacement (which we don’t want necessarily.) And it is possible that the information you will get is also 30-50 years old. That updates you a bit, now you are just 30 years out of date again instead of 70. But what if you want to be right up to date – how do you do this?

Where do you get your information? Do you have time to read books? Do you have time to surf the web? How deliberately do you try to find the information you need to do your work and make your decisions, or do you rely mostly on what you have? Jay Cross, author of Informal Learning, says that workplace learning is 20% formal and 80% informal. Formal learning might be those introductory Spanish classes that they offer at your work. Informal learning however, 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?

On Monday our organization hosted the most fantastic workshop at which 12 staff members from a major multinational bank came to our office for the day to help us think about how to best message, market, and position one of our most important institutional knowledge products. They came from completely different departments in that company, from HR to legal, and they learned with us, talked with us and thought with us over a whole day about how to increase the reach and impact of this key sustainability knowledge product.

These days we know that private sector companies have much more to offer the sustainability movement than only financial resources. They have expert knowledge and experience in identifying client interests, matching users needs with quality products, testing ideas, delivering messages, marketing services, and so on. They also have corporate social responsibility programmes and HR programmes that can help make these highly developed skills accessible to non-governmental partners.

In working with them over the day, we were delighted that their staff members engaged with us creatively and enthusiastically, and with great commitment to follow-up sharing and exchange. Calling them the private sector might be a bit of a misnomer…

Can it be, Ischomachus, that asking questions is teaching? I am just beginning to see what is behind all your questions. You lead me on by means of things I know, point to things that resemble them, and persuade me that I know things that I thought I had no knowledge of.

— Socrates (Quoted in Xenophon’s “Economics”)

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. There are a number of international speakers sharing their knowledge about issues such as: Capacities for local development, Capacity development at work, etc. When the speakers are finished with their interventions, they stop, and the chair asks for questions from the audience. A couple of questions are asked and answered. They come from different people and are unconnected. The Rapporteur works to identify threads and lessons from the session. The purpose of the meeting is to draw some new insights from the speakers and the group about these critical issues, and to exchange knowledge so we can all learn.

If learning is the goal, and this formal room layout is a given, how might we best work with this format for optimal exchange?

One possibility might be to structure the Q&A session differently. How different might the post-speaker discussion be, if the speaker asked the audience the questions instead? Would it be more focused? Would it help people in the audience connect what the speaker said with their own experience and help them share their opinion? Would it focus the discussions and shed some new light on the subject for everyone with more contributions from the floor?

We use the Socratic method in workshops to lead people into discussions on issues that help them explore what they already know and build on it with the experience of their peers. Could this method work in this ballroom as well? And if we were using this ballroom for what it was built for (dancing, celebration, conversation) would we be interacting and sharing more?

Anyone who organizes learning events and meetings knows that often intermingling in the same room are some people who know each other well, and some first-time guests, who are there to contribute new insights, generate some inspired discussion, and generally help enrich the group’s learning about a specific issue.

The meeting we are holding at the end of this week which will focus on change processes has this composition, as did the meeting I went to last week (see blog entry on Thursday, 2 November “A Courtroom or a Concert?”) The difference is that at this week’s meeting I will be one of the existing group members, whereas last week I was the guest.

So 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?

When I have made useful contributions into other people’s meetings here are a few things that have helped:
* I joined the group several hours before my intervention, so that I could get to know the group and how they interact;
* I had a very clear idea of the goals of my session and the organizers helped me get specific on the desired outcomes;
* The session was introduced by an “insider” and they linked my contribution directly to the rationale of their meeting, and linked it again with a summary at the end;
* The session was well placed in the agenda for its purpose, i.e. if it was a brainstorming session, it happened when people were fresh and creative (first thing in the morning). A reflective discussion was after a sequence of inputs, etc. (later in the day);
* I had numerous exchanges with the organizers prior to my intervention to craft the key messages.

I see from the above, that none of these actions are things that I could do alone. In every case, there was a partner or counterpart in the insider group that provided necessary guidance that helped me do great work.

Now I am the insider in our meeting starting on Friday, how many of these things have I done so far? 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?

I think I need to pick up the phone…

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?

Last week I ran a short workshop on facilitation for 8 people within our organization. Four days after the workshop, to follow up with them and tap in on their learning, I sent an email with three questions:

1. Have you noticed anything in your work that we talked about in the workshop (that you might not have noticed before)?

2. Have you done anything different or differently based on something you heard or learned at the workshop?

3. If you were going to conduct the workshop, or if we were going to do it again, what is one thing you would change?

I was very surprised that one person wrote back saying that she had not noticed anything new after our workshop. As a facilitator, what an opportunity this response provided me for reflection!

How could this response give me some new insights about learning? How could I redesign the workshop so that I get a different response to this question in the future? What could I do differently? I thought of three things:

1) I could find out more about people’s experience with facilitation prior to the workshop (I asked them this in the first 15 minutes of our session). Then I could make sure that there is something new in there for everyone. This still might not help them see something new in the few days after our session if they do not find themself in a “facilitated” context.
2) Perhaps I could wait longer to ask this question, or ask it several times. So that people have more time to link what we talked about over to real situations.
3) Or I could ask a different question: I could embed the notion that participants will notice something by asking, “What is one new thing you have noticed in your work that we talked about during the workshop?” Then they can actively look for an example, and by looking they will probably find one, perhaps more, and create a longer learning process for themselves and potentially more value from their participation.

Maybe with all the “noise” going on around us, we just don’t notice these small learning moments sometimes? Noticing them definitely takes practice…