by Jeff Hurt, Velvet Chainsaw

This spin on cogito ergo sum (English: “I think, therefore I am”) could possibly be a good motto for all conferences and events.

Social Learning

We participate, therefore we are.

Our learning, understanding and knowledge are developed in participation with others. Social learning occurs through conversations about the content and through grounded interactions and engagement with others. Often when we discuss a concept or issue with someone, we are internalizing and integrating it into our own personal framework. It is though social learning that we seek practical knowledge to solve our professional problems.

Many conference organizers know that much of the true learning and understanding happens in the hallways. Inside the conference education sessions, attendees receive information. Outside the education rooms, attendees start to socially construct their own understanding. Most of what we know, we have learned with and from others.

We, as conference organizers, have to find ways to capture what happens in the hallways and move it into the education sessions.

Moving Hallway Discussions Into Conference Education Sessions

We participate, therefore we are.

That phrase is exactly where I think conference organizers should begin to focus their meeting planning efforts.

  • We should be designing conference experiences that encourage registrants to transition from attendees to participants.
  • We need to discover new ways to help individuals move from passive attendees to active participants.
  • We must shift from planning one-way lectures to more facilitated discussions.
  • We need to switch from sixty- to ninety-minute lectures to sessions that provide short spurts (ten- to twenty-minutes) of content that serve as catalysts for seventy- to eighty minutes of discussion.
  • We need to move from securing industry experts as speakers to contracting skilled facilitators that can capitalize on industry experienced participants in each session.
  • We need to see our conference participants as the industry experts and subject matter experienced (SMEs).
  • We must find a balance of the “what,” the content, and the “how,” the learning process.
  • We must stop seeing our meetings as containers for distributing information and start seeing them as a process to facilitate learning.
  • We must come to grips with the fact that “information” is a commodity and that “education” is something that has significant value.

Traditional Conference Education Strategies

So much of our conference education strategy relies on transmitting explicit information so attendees can amass sufficient amounts of content to their satisfaction. We spend little time on how to apply that information or practice it. We spend little time on helping others retain that content.

Most conference education sessions focus on how to pour knowledge into other people’s heads. We treat knowledge and information as a substance and the brain as a container. Without realizing it, we’ve bought into the concept that a lecturer or speaker is like a faucet. They can spout knowledge and pour it into each attendee’s brain. That’s assuming that there is nothing already in the attendee’s brain and that listening is the best way to distribute that information. Those assumptions are incorrect.

Engagement, through active participation, not passive listening, is critical to learning, retention and understanding. John Seely Brown says, “…We are constructing knowledge all the time, in conversation, through narrative.”

Brown says that through stories and narratives we construct a framework that our mind begins to understand. It is through conversation with others that we construct our own mental frameworks. It’s in conversations that we create knowledge.

Ratio Of Participants Talking Versus Attendees Listening

So how much time in your annual conference is dedicated to attendee conversations? What is the ratio of listening to speakers versus participating in discussions?

Let’s face it. Registrants come to conference with a list of problems they want solved. It doesn’t matter if our education sessions address those problems or not. Instead of trying to force-feed information and content, let’s create conferences where we see our registrants as a community of practice and learning a process. Then participants, regardless of experience, can use inquiry to ask others about their experiences.

It is up to conference organizers to transition from meetings as containers of commodotized information to conferences as conduits of learning.

Why are so many conference education sessions information data dumps? How can we move registrants from passive attendees to active participants?

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