Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

December 2012

CMP Series: Learners will Drive Their Own Learning’

By Susan Sarfati, CAE

Ever since he was a New York City high-school student, Elliott Masie said, he’s had an “enormous desire to better understand the world of learning and how learning would change as a result of technology.

”A singular and forward-thinking focus on workforce learning and emerging technologies has shaped his 40-year, multi-role career — futurist, analyst, editor of LearningTRENDS, an e-newsletter read by more than 52,000 business executives around the world, and creator and host of an acclaimed annual conference on learning, simply called Learning, which last year attracted more than 2,000 participants. “What drives my interest,” he told Convene, “is the understanding that learning is different than teaching. Learning is about the individual.”

His programs, courses, and speeches, which have reached more than 1.7 million individuals around the world, have been guided by the same imperatives as TED events: Be interested. Be generous. Be interesting. Connect. I connected with Masie recently - several months after I had participated in and presented at Learning2011, held Nov. 6–9 in Orlando—to see what experience has taught him about the role that meetings play in adult education.

What is new about the way people learn at conferences and meetings?

Our role as meeting planners, exhibit managers, and conference coordinators has been not to structure teaching, but to structure the environment, the meetings architecture and expectations that allow individuals to maximize their own learning. Nothing significant has changed over 40 years.

Learners are curious and have confidence that they can get learning and expertise efficiently and that they have places to go [to get that]. Learners will drive their own learning if we as designers make that happen. There is a role for us to become better designers of events that will facilitate learning.

We are increasingly seeing cognitive science kick in as a discipline to unlock the world of learning. We are also looking at how we layer knowledge and access to expertise in order to optimize learning. The dilemma is that most of what we do about learning is about event management in the association and conference world. In spite of all the technology that has come forth, we actually are presenting things like we did 10, 20 years ago.

I am not sure that we have a culture to radically evolve how we learn with the exception of what individuals are doing over the Internet, social media. But even in those areas, people say, let’s go to an online community or let’s go online and do a search, but there is really a design-capability need.

It’s the next rounds of expertise that hopefully will see us using different disciplines and becoming creative designers, leaders capable of viewing a very different set of meeting, social, content, or collaboration elements to create real change. For example, who would have ever thought that Twitter would help overthrow the president of Egypt? Yet, the young activists were “designers” in rearranging the tools for societal change.

How do the brightest minds in our global community go about learning?

Great question. I would like more data to validate my hunch, but my hunch is that effective leaders are highly effective learners. If you are president of the U.S. and have a cabinet and a million people working for you, then you may learn in one mode, and if you are a small businessperson with six employees, you learn in a different mode. But most of the people I meet who are presidents, heads of corporations or associations, or entrepreneurs, are enormously curious and motivated to learn themselves.

Here’s the best example. I had the honor of serving on the board of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics, founded by Dean Kamen, inventor, entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for science and technology. At their last conference, I [cohosted] a discussion called “The Mothers of Invention” with a panel of famous game-changer moms that included [Amazon.com founder] Jeff Bezos’ mom and other mothers of inventors, including Kamen and [online education pioneer] Sal Khan. Every mother reported that their kids, as they grew up, were nonstop learners. Jeff Bezos would go on a carousel ride and then spend time learning exactly how it worked.

What I found was that the leaders themselves were constant learners. President Clinton, with whom I worked when he was president, has an insatiable appetite for knowledge. I enjoyed watching how his brain worked, watching his expressions, how he was so curious. He mentioned books that he read, and would continuously ask for clarification on issues.

How do leaders, including presidents of countries, handle the mass of information that they need to first learn and then store in their brain?(bold)

I think it comes from people who read for them and prioritize what they need to know. I have a small staff comparably, and I have two people who just read stuff and synthesize it for me. One of most interesting challenges for leaders is when they first take office, they aren’t as good learners as they might be. They either try to master all the material or they try to get a quick fix and just go forward.

Some of the challenges that President Obama has faced as a first-term president are very similar to what we see first-term presidents of corporations face. And that is, how do you be an active learner by building learning, thinking, and listening into your schedule? Leaders need to create that sit-and-think time. I remember having ice cream with President Clinton late at night in the middle of a project and marveling about how curious he was. We have to do a better job of enabling, supporting, and allowing people to schedule time to be great learners.

What do you think of the typical learning experiences — general sessions, keynotes, breakouts, recognition awards, networking events — offered at meetings today?

Here is the challenge—and I find myself challenged by it at my own events: We inevitably need, have, and continue rituals, which are a good thing. You want to have a world-class speaker, excellent entertainment, and networking. But I believe what we have to start doing at events is to create a higher degree of personalization of the learning experience. And not to do something at events that can easily be done online back at home.

This probably means that we need to move [away] from the one-hour or 90-minute presentations with the speaker or panel in front of the classroom. This is not to say that we don’t want experts to tackle problems and show what succeeded or failed. However, when you attend these breakout sessions, the truth is that 95 percent of the content is not delivered interactively, and learners want that level of interaction.

The number three person of a national corporation attended Learning2011 and wanted to find out what other large corporations are spending on orientating new employees. It was fascinating and disappointing to him that he could not get close to the answer he needed. That information would have been lifesaving for him as his organization is hiring thousands of new employees. He simply couldn’t get other people to be that specific. He was in a building with 2,000 colleagues and couldn’t succeed in his mission.

 Sure, there are surveys with this information, but it’s presented in ranges. He came to me afterward, and although he loved the conference, he said that we have to redesign these events to allow people who want part of the ritual to be satisfied, but along with that, attendees are provided with answers to questions that are personal and very specific to their needs.

Why aren’t we changing how we deliver programs?

We don’t see it as very critical. It is said that at industry events, we want the three Cs: collaboration,

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