Leading Learning exists to help organizations in the businesses of lifelong learning—and we’re in that business too. This post is the first in a three-part series that unpacks a few of the ways we’ve rethought typical learning formats at our Leading Learning Symposium and Learning • Technology • Design events.
In each part of the series, I’ll share why we used the approach and explain the how of each, to facilitate you experimenting with them (nothing like a little hands-on learning!).
While we used all three formats at two-day, place-based learning conferences with 100 or fewer attendees, they could be modified to work in the context of other learning events—ones that happen online, last longer or shorter, or are bigger or smaller. So if your organization offers learning events, and you want to refresh and, more importantly, improve how you connect with learners, read on for the first of three ideas to try: Curated Connections™.
Curated Connections: The Why-To
Networking is great. It’s often cited as a top reason attendees make the investment of time and money to attend an event, especially one that requires travel. Networking builds on social learning and allows us, as participants, to focus the conversation on the challenges and opportunities that interest us.
But networking can be hard on introverts, those new to the field, those who don’t know many people in the room. Even for seasoned professionals, precious time can be wasted trying to find those with similar interests, challenges, and opportunities, so that when—and if—we connect with the “right” others, we’re left with little time to share ideas, ask questions, and refine our thinking.
We developed Curated Connections as a way to structure some of the networking time at our Leading Learning Symposium (we preserved unstructured networking time during lunches and at receptions). Here’s how we described the format in the program:
Attendees with shared interests will come together for informal but focused discussion. We will actively work to connect people based on what we know about them. We will also provide structure and facilitation to make these discussions effective and meaningful while still allowing them to develop organically. We anticipate there being the opportunity for attendees to participate in two discussions on different topics.
While topics for discussion will be refined and added to based on attendees’ input and interests, we anticipate the Curated Connections covering strategic and tactical topics like these:
- Forging meaningful partnerships (with academia, corporations, and others)
- Challenges and successes in implementing learning technologies
- Getting strategic about social and informal learning
- Building a better education team
- Effective pricing practices—what’s working, what’s not
- Habits and practices for personal excellence
These Curated Connections will provide a valuable in-the-moment peer learning as well as a meaningful way for learners to stay in touch with a subset of other attendees and continue informal social learning together.
The Curated Connections were well received both years, largely (I believe) because of the inherent value of connecting thoughtful people with other thoughtful people with an expressed interest in a particular topic or question.
That said, we, as organizers, did better with logistics the second time around. The first year we enlisted facilitators close to the time of the session—some only a day or two before. The second year we identified facilitators much earlier, so we were able to better prepare them (more about how we prepared them in the how-to section below). The second time around we also made the session longer—we went from 60 minutes to 75 minutes, which allowed adequate time for two rounds of Curated Connections, allowing each participant to delve into their top two areas of interest.
Curated Connections: The How-To
Here are the major aspects of how we created the Curated Connections before, at, and after the learning event.
Before the Event
- We conducted an online survey of registrants to home in on final topics for the Curated Connections.
The survey was three substantive questions (and an additional open-ended “anything else we should know?” question). The first question said, “From the following list, please check the topic or topics which you would most benefit from discussing with peers. Select no more than three topics. We recognize that limiting yourself to only three may be difficult, but try your best. Your response does not commit you to attending particular discussions.” Those instructions were followed by eight potential topics.
We arrived at that list of eight potential topics by listening to and asking our market. (For more on the difference between listening and asking and how to create a rigorous and practical market assessment practice, check out the Market Insight MatrixTM.) We surveyed the earliest registrants for the Leading Learning Symposium almost four months before the event and asked about the biggest opportunity their education business has capitalized on (or has begun to capitalize on) in the past three years and the biggest challenge their education business has faced. We used input from that survey to shape all the sessions for the symposium, including the Curated Connections.
The two other substantive questions in the Curated Connections survey were as follows:
- “Aside from the topics listed in the previous question, what other topic or topics would you find it most valuable to discuss with peers?” (This was an open-ended question.)
- “Would you be willing to help facilitate one of the Curated Connection sessions? This would involve a small amount of preparation. We would schedule a brief pre-symposium call with you and provide you with a simple framework for discussion (including potential seed questions). You would help make sure group members participate and that no one dominates the discussion. No specific expertise or experience in any of the topics is required—you just need a general desire to learn and help others learn.” (This was a yes/no question.)
We first sent the Curated Connections survey out approximately six weeks before the event. We sent a reminder to those who hadn’t responded a week later, and then we sent a third reminder (final call) roughly 10 days after the first communication. In the end, our response rate was 57.8 percent.
- We finalized the topics and identified facilitators.
Using the survey input, we identified the most popular topics and finalized a list of six topics. We planned to offer two rounds of Curated Connections, so attendees could participate in two discussions, which meant we needed twelve facilitators.
We wanted facilitators to only facilitate during one of the two rounds, allowing them to experience one round purely as participants.
We assigned the twelve facilitators using the survey data—we matched each to one of the topics they indicated as being of chief interested.
- We prepped the facilitators.
We held a 30-minute conference call with facilitators approximately two weeks before the symposium. Of course, all twelve facilitators didn’t make the call, but we recorded it and provided access to the recording to all facilitators (those who made the call and those who didn’t). We e-mailed the facilitators written guidelines just before the call, and the agenda for the call was two simple items: review the guidelines and answer their questions.
We’ve created a redacted version of the guidelines we provided to Curated Connections facilitators for the 2016 Leading Learning Symposium. (Feel free to review and use.) In the guidelines, we included seed questions related to each topic (we hadn’t provided these in 2015), in case they were useful for initiating or focusing discussion.
At the Event
- We thought about how best to use the meeting space.
We used round tables to make it easier for all participants to hear one another and to reinforce the idea that, while there was a facilitator, all were equal at the table. We used signs in table-top stanchions to indicate which topic would be discussed at which table.
We also had a few staff available to help attendees find tables and move chairs, if needed.
- We covered the ground rules and helped with logistics.
At the beginning of the session we went over how the Curated Connections would work. People at the table would briefly (in 60 seconds or so) introduce themselves (name, organization, and job role) and state succinctly the specific challenge or opportunity related to the topic they were most hoping to discuss with the group.
We had 75 minutes scheduled, and we allotted 5 for laying out the ground rules and for, later, switching tables and tables, which left 35 minutes for each round of discussions. We used a microphone to announce a 5-minute warning for each round, and we floated so we were available for questions.
After the Event
- We compiled notes from each round of Curated Connections.
The note-takers from each round of discussion physically gave us their notes or e-mailed their notes to us, and we produced six documents—one for each topic, so notes from both rounds of discussion on a particular topic were in a single file.
- We made the notes available to all attendees.
We posted the six notes documents (as PDFs) in the private online community that all symposium attendees had access to. This gave folks the opportunity to review notes for a topic they didn’t get to discuss in person and to review notes on a topic they did discuss in person (including notes from the round they weren’t present for) and to discuss the notes in the forums.
Honestly, this is an area where we could have done more (and may still do more!). We could have, for instance, mined the notes to create additional content on the topics (blog posts, Webinars, etc.). If you pursue Curated Connections, I suggest you give thought to leveraging the content that’s generated by the discussions—and the resources needed to do so.
Concluding Thoughts on Curated Connections
It’s nearly impossible to come up with a truly new learning format. But it can still be helpful to rethink the default ways we engage learners. Even nuances and tweaks are powerful if they help learners participate more actively and see more vividly the connections to their work and life beyond the event.
As part of the evaluation for the Leading Learning Symposium, we asked participants, “What would you like to see us raise at the next Leading Learning Symposium? That is, what element or elements of the event would you like to see more of in the future?” (If you’re familiar with Blue Ocean Strategy, you might note that the “raise” in our question is a nod to the Eliminate-Reduce-Raise-Create (ERRC) Grid developed by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. And if you’re not familiar with Blue Ocean Strategy, we recommend it—in fact, it was an Emphatically Recommended ReadingTM for symposium participants.)
Responses to the “raise” question let us know that the Curated Connections were doing what we’d hoped in terms of enabling learners to participate actively and share real opportunities and challenges from life and work. In the words of one symposium participant: “More Curated Connections! These were great opportunities to hear other’s ideas and experiences. I personally gained a couple of ideas to ‘admire and acquire’ and hope I was able to offer a few to others as well.”
If you think Curated Connections might be something you’d like to try out, remember to check out the facilitator guidelines—a good resource to save you a little time. Happy experimenting!