It’s been a week now since the L&D Connect unconference in London and as is my want, a good point to think about how the day went and why we do them.
Primarily, the unconference format allows for people to co-create an agenda and drive their own learning in a way which isn’t normally done. There’s something about asking people to come along to a day of open learning and just watching how it unfolds.
The normal conference structure means people are very used to attending a day of talks, meeting some people, if you’re lucky meeting some people you actually want to stay in touch with, and going home with a head full of content. What you’re normally left wanting, though, is a way to make sense of that content. We don’t normally build in reflective practice into a conference session – and a word of caution, reflective practice isn’t a proxy for action planning. For a helpful read on what reflective practice allows for, read this piece by Craig Kaye.
An unconference almost takes things to the other extreme – it’s main focus is the conversation that is encouraged. That can be a bit too open and uncomfortable for people and may not always feel as if the conversation is relevant to your needs. It can also feel like you can’t dictate or bring the conversation back to where you’d like it to be. So there are pros and cons to both the formats.
With L&D Connect, we persist with the unconference format, I believe, because it’s a useful barometer for L&D professionals. How do you know what success looks like if you’re only measure of success is amongst other like-minded professionals? One of the strengths of the unconference is that it’s inclusive by design – anyone can attend because everyone has a valid point of view. That’s a tough one to square for yourself if you have certain beliefs about internal vs external practitioners, or about seniority of people, or about diversity of groups. I personally thrive on that. Complacency sets in when we create such a comfort zone that we fool ourselves into believing we’re at the cutting edge. (I don’t even know what cutting edge L&D could look like – sometimes I think we just need to do the basics better).
The weekly #ldinsight chat (Friday’s 8am UK time) and it’s current sister chat #ldnights (Tuesday’s 8pm UK time) continues to provide a forum for practitioners to come together online and discuss topics of interest. Of course, Twitter chats have been around for an age, and other chats such as #lrnchat continue to be regular stalwarts too. These online chats are nearly always respectful, helpful and people take part from all walks of L&D life (and sometimes non too!). The format of the chat of exploring one question and allowing people to go where they need with it is a useful one too.
As with most communities, there can sometimes be unintended consequences. There’s a perception there’s a ‘cool’ group you ‘should’ be ‘in the know’ with or ‘talking to’. There’s a perception there are ‘cliques’ and ‘in-jokes’ which can inadvertently exclude some from joining in. There’s a perception there is a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way to take part in the chats. I personally wonder if we’re doing enough to encourage voices we don’t normally hear. How do we remain truly inclusive if we’re blind to how we might not be?
There aren’t easy answers to those questions, and we should take our time to reflect on them too. We’re a microcosm of how life is outside of our bubble, and if we want things to be in a certain direction / with a certain ethos / with certain values we have to show up and do those things ourselves.
I was really pleased to see and experience such a good stretch of diversity at the unconference too. We had two gents travel in from Milan specifically for the event, and that’s pretty impressive! That diversity was in terms of the people there and the different cultures / groups they were part of, as well as professional diversity too in terms of job roles and experience.
There is something also very safe about the unconference format. It’s an environment of exploration and of being comfortable with non-normal practices. People are invited to meet others and spend time getting to know each other. We connect more and beyond than just cursory introductions. We get to explore thoughts, processes, and beliefs. That can be done personally, with others, or not at all. The self-directed nature of the event means people take ownership of how they take part in the day and when they are ready to stop too.
And I was really glad how we gave an hour at the end of the day just for reflective practice. Just taking time to reflect. To think. To allow things to settle. To discuss with others. Experiencing a day like an unconference (be you seasoned or not) means there is often a lot going on in the day and it suits our natural learning processes to have dedicated time to reflect.
On a personal note, I struggled with the day. It was the day after the Manchester attack and I was shook. With the support of the team that helped make the day happen, the day went ahead and I’m really pleased with how it unfolded. We held a minute silence at the beginning of the day, and I appreciate that we did that. When I got home that night I was full of such a range of emotions. Sheer sadness with what happened the night before. Joy with how the unconference happened. Pride with the community and what we’ve created. Calm at seeing my family safe at the end of the day.
And we move on. There are already discussions about what else can happen in and for the community. There is already an unconference planned to happen in the Netherlands this year (I know!). It feels like we’ve become a community for L&D practitioners and professionals who have started with a small group in 2012 and now growing into something more and beyond in 2017. That’s quite something.