Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

December 2012

CMP Series: Learners will Drive Their Own Learning’

By Susan Sarfati, CAE
community, and commerce. We are providing the commerce and the collaboration and some content. However, we need to offer content that is very specific to what individuals need. This requires new competencies on the part of meeting planners.

So much focus is still on ordering coffee rather than on designing optimal learning experiences. When [I’ve attended] the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas, I recall companies saying that they don’t want to sell at CES. Instead, they primarily want to be connecting and were interested in the learning side of the business.

Changing meetings requires risks. In fact, we often see that the very best developments come not because the association is overly brave, but because others come from behind and start to compete. In the medical field, a group started a conference for cardiologists that allowed them to watch live surgery. The cardiac associations went berserk, but then changed how their whole field delivers conferences.

I am a capitalist at heart, and I actually think that we need competition. My event is evolving with parts like the TED event. I am trying to offer learning opportunities that attendees can’t get at regional meetings and trying to upscale it. The hardest part is those breakout sessions. They are an important piece and we want to use them, but don’t think we are even 50 percent there in designing them appropriately.

The learning experiences your company, The Masie Center, offers are events that focus on imagining the future of learning and challenging attendees to think and be learning leaders. What can planners specifically learn from you regarding meeting design, scheduling, session formats, and lengths? What do you expect the Learning2012 conference to look like — and, projecting ahead, Learning2020?

We will continue to blend learning. You will see more learning from fields that aren’t related. We had the honor to have President Clinton talk about learning, and Tony, Emmy, and Golden Globe award winner John Lithgow talk about the power of storytelling in learning and actually present a one-man play.

Conferences are not only about instructional design but about engaging people. We want to expand attendees intellectually, artistically, and personally. The second thing is this: Associations mostly have it mastered, but we need to go out of our way to take some risk to our bottom-line budget.

We don’t sell our keynotes with huge sponsorships. Yet, we still find ways to extract dollars from sponsors, but what we find is that attendees want events to be focused on the learning and not take time for vendor comments—saying that your lunch is sponsored by Vendor A, who has representatives at each table.

We will move this concept of personalization to the next level. I have a team now working on a dramatic model. For our keynotes, here is where we are going to start—indicating who this session is for and who may not want to attend. Here’s a video to watch before you get there.

This will cost money, but it will make for greater outcomes. I know that many associations are offering experiential learning — to take an actual case study, and provide a half or full day to work through to a solution. Let me give you an example. Skype is becoming more important for job interviews. How do we help job candidates to create a Skype interview that may be 60 percent of the interview process? Imagine putting together a working lab where 50 people spend a day to build what that might look like.

This year, The Masie Center will send video teams out in the field to look at how specific training is done in different organizations. Let’s really take a look at what the first day for a manager of Wendy’s looks like. Or how do you take someone in China and put them in a Starbucks even though they never drank coffee before? What we plan to do with our events is to take people to places that they could never get to themselves.

For Learning2012, we’d like to provide an opportunity for folks who have tried some solutions that have failed to find a safe way to talk about it. Meetings have everyone flaunting the latest new thing. We rarely hear what isn’t working. We need to build safety nets to have that level of sharing.

When I get to 2020, more of our events will have an at home core. There still will be an event, but rather than serving 2,000 people, we’ll figure how to touch 50,000 people. It may not be 50,000 paid registrations, but we need to have a way for our learning activities to go significantly wider and more viral. I don’t mean posting summaries of activities, but real engagement. I don’t have a clue of how we will do it, but I do know that there are new technologies coming. We need to experiment, start, fail, and learn along the way.

In 2020, I will be 70 years old—hard to believe. It was great this year to have a group of “30 people under 30” at our conference advise us on learning strategies. They advised us that 1) people are changing as learners radically outside of work, and we need to allow them to change as learners at work and in their associations; 2) people are learning from multiple sources and in multiple ways at once; 3) it is the blend that counts—Facebook or LinkedIn may help start a connection, but it is critical that we can eat, talk, and think together to really build relationships.

Next year we will use the same concept with people over [the age of ] 60.

Speaking more about learning from fields that aren’t related, how can we move from our current approach of learning in silos to intersectoral learning?

What I really want is to be with people who share a passion about something, not just share a role. So if you want to train a CFO of a nonprofit, don’t just connect that person with other nonprofit CFOs. Connect them with somebody who works with the IRS. In other words, learning happens out of communities of diversity, not just out of communities of similarities. Online communities of practice have failed and so many SharePoint sites are empty. I want to be sure that at the end of the day, I know 30 people who do my job that I can call and that I have the kind of intersectoral connections that you just described.

We need to design for that to happen. That’s why we earn our dollars as meeting planners—because we are very capable of learning how to design those kinds of environments.

How is technology affecting the human brain and particularly how people process information and learn? How can meeting professionals capitalize on the opportunities presented by new technologies?(bold)

Two of our speakers this year were Sharon Begley, who wrote a Newsweek cover story on information overload, and Columbia University Professor Betsy Sparrow, who co-authored a Science magazine article on Google’s effect on our memory. Both of them said provocative things about how the brain is changing and information overload— and I haven’t figured out what we do about it.

We are getting better in reacting to changing phenomena. So if you are a nurse, you can’t rely on what you learned in nursing school, because every six weeks you need to learn new stuff. If you are a meeting planner in an association, the same is true. It is not about using more technology, but understanding that with technology you can learn more. Betsy was talking about memory—if we know that the knowledge lives on the association’s hard drive, on the website, it is not about such structured learning but means we don’t have to learn everything to the point of memorization.

In fact, we have to help people build a mental framework for the work they are doing rather than learn unimportant facts. We are enormously excited about learning about that process, which means we will do more pre-event strategies where people read or watch beforehand.

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