My evolving learning journey

When I first attended TechKnowledge six or seven years ago, the content was all stuff I’d heard before. I grumbled. Lance Dublin set me straight. This conference wasn’t for me; it was for newbies. They hadn’t heard the Bob Pikes and Bill Byhams (and the Lances) give their stump speeches before, and they were enthralled to hear them. The first time you heard these guys, they knocked your socks off. (The fifth time, you admired their stamina.)

This taught me to segment conferences by the audiences they appealed to. Some event are bleeding edge confabs for learning professionals at the top of their game; others are designed for newcomers. While it bored me to tears, my first TechKnowledge was a great experience for most of those in attendance.

Conferences aren’t good or bad; it’s whether they are designed for you or for a different group of people.

ASTD held TechKnowledge in San Jose this year. Committee chairperson Ellen Wagner demanded they pick a spot with wi-fi. (TechKnowledge’s habitual hangout was the Riviera Hotel in Vegas. Casinos don’t have decent wifi for the same reason they don’t have clocks on the wall; it might divert gamblers from throwing their money away.) Needless to say, the “capital of Silicon Valley” has a different take on providing wifi. The event has morphed. It’s not just for newbs any more, although the event is conflicted about ditching training for learning: for taking taking the game into the 21st century where pull replaces push.

Over the course of three days, I attended all of two sessions. One was precisely what I was looking for. It was, as the Michelin Guide would say, “worth the journey.” Dan Pontefract and David Mallon’s presentation on creating a culture of collaboration at TELUS was one of the most useful things I’ve ever heard at an ASTD event, and I was making presentations at ASTD events thirty years ago.

I also attended the keynote by a couple of Googlers. Google provides a lot of the infrastructure social learning rides on; they own Blogger, YouTube, GoogleDocs, GoogleAnalytics, and so forth. I mentioned to Tony Bingham, sitting next to me, that Google lacked the problem most corporations face: cultural drag. You want to do something with social learning in most corporations, you better have a switchblade in your pocket, for you’ll find enemies in every corner. Entrenched managers and staff will have nightmares about what might go wrong and give you a thumbs down. What if somebody spills company secrets? Or leaks private information? Or posts something that’s not accurate? How can we trust these people? (We’re paid to control them, aren’t we?)

Google doesn’t have those problems. It’s open. It’s transparent. They worship innovation above all. They like crazies. They trust their employees to do what’s best — with minimal oversight. So the presentation was very interesting but couldn’t describe the greatest challenge for most L&D professionals, bringing the corporate culture into the 21st century. Turns out one to the Googlers lives right down the hill for me; we’re going to continue the conversation at a tapas bar tomorrow night.

But only two sessions over the course of three days? Did I recoup my investment of time, not to mention the price of a fancy suite atop the Fairmont? Yes, yes, yes.

It fit where I’m at in the lifecycle of conference attendance.

When I was a newcomer, I attended conferences to build my foundation knowledge. I attended ASTD, eLearning, Online Learning, Elliott Masie’s TechLearn, Training, ISPI (then NSPI), and many others. I went to as many sessions as I could pack into the day, taking voluminous notes (even before computers went personal. Remember ballpoint pens?) This is where structured learning shines: give me your framework. I’ll use it until I develop my own.

As time passed, I became choosy. I sought out speakers who had new ideas to offer, perspectives I was not familiar with, or great delivery and entertainment value. Instead of trying to cover it all, I was a man with a mission. I became a “pull” learner, pursuing what I wanted aggressively and bypassing the rest. I checked the backgrounds of the speakers and decided in advance who I’d like to hob-not with. (Were I doing it again, I’d try to contact those I wanted to meet before the event.)

In the early 2000s, Elliott Masie’s TechLearn (he came up with the name; ASTD’s TechKnowledge shamelessly ripped it off) was a fertile field for networking and sampling new concepts. Everyone who has known Elliott for a while has mixed feelings. Elliott brought together exciting ideas, great people, and a prophetic vision. His annual get-togethers at DisneyWorld were great for networking and meeting up with others. Maybe they still are. Elliott’s ego may suck all of the air out of the room, but when people needed someone to lead them out of the woods, he has illuminated the path.

My relationship with Elliott is like my relationship with Tom Cruise. I never hear from him and don’t expect to. We live on different planets. But it was at TechLearn that I learned how to learn outside of the main tent, and I’m grateful.

Back to San Jose. I spent half the time working my tail off from my room at the Fairmont. First things first. Client priorities trump attending conferences.

While I attended only two sessions, meetings with friends old and new more than made up for it. These reunions and check-ins were fantastic. Quick reconnections refresh forgotten but important memories from times past. Sometimes our rapid-fire 140-character conversions conveyed what was important and conveyed the right links for making progress.

(Click the image for the photos)

Chats with Allison, Lance, David, Pat, Tony, Nancy, Ellen, Jos, Vivian, Alicia, Aaron, Martyn, Dan, Reuben, Chris, another David, Koreen, Karie, Charles, Michelle, Karl, a third David, Bob, Scott, Sam, Jennifer, Ryann, Michael, and oodles of other kindred spirits — that list is off the top — lit up my panels, flooded my consciousness with fresh ideas, and taught me more than anything I could have learned in a workshop. Thanks, gang.

If you know the analogy, I’m entirely off the bus, having more fun and learning more because of it. People have called me a “guru.” Right. Un-huh. As if. I only have few clues. Now I’m involuntarily becoming a wise elder instead of a smartalec. I’m wryly enjoying a growing appreciation of the flow of time. The deeper you go, the better it gets.