How to Create Impactful Learning Experiences at Your Events

Author: Christine Renaud       

Today’s workers must constantly reinvent themselves in order to stay relevant professionally, according to Christine Renaud, CEO of e180. (Andrii Zastrozhnov/Adobe Stock)

Real learning doesn’t start with the answers. It starts with embracing questions. In the fourth in our continuing series on the role of collaborative learning at events by Christine Renaud, CEO and co-founder of the Montréal-based company e180, and creator of the peer-to-peer learning platform Braindate, she reveals why so many educational sessions fail, and how to create educational experiences that result in real change.

Christine Renaud

Christine Renaud

Organizations spent $359 billion globally on training in 2016, but according to research published in the Harvard Business Review, only 12 percent of employees applied new skills they acquired during the training to their jobs. Meanwhile, 70 percent of employees reported that they lacked mastery of the skills that they needed to do their work properly.

Something is obviously very wrong here. There’s a serious disconnect between what adults need to learn to remain relevant in our fast-evolving work environment and the educational opportunities provided to them. Today’s workers must constantly reinvent themselves in order to stay relevant professionally — which at times can feel both exciting and threatening. Yet the education and training provided to employees is still one-size-fits-all, theoretical, and not attuned to the nuances of particular work situations. What worked 30 years ago hasn’t yet adapted to what works today.

Most of us were educated in the same way: One person designs a learning experience for hundreds of people, based mostly on existing structures and social norms. And when we ourselves go to craft new educational experiences, we naturally fall back on how we ourselves have been taught. The result is that we keep recreating the same old broadcast model of education at our events, where one person is put in the impossible position of teaching thousands of others — and where participants are never asked about what they actually want to learn.

Conferences — where the world’s adults go to learn continuously and acquire new skills — offer a unique opportunity to change all that, to offer the kinds of learning experiences that people most need and want. And that, dear event professionals, makes you educators. But if we want to truly produce events that have a lasting impact on our participants, we need to go back to the basics, reviewing our assumptions and asking ourselves: What is learning? Where, when, and how does it take place?

Learning isn’t just about acquiring new knowledge. It’s more than a cerebral process — it’s a transformation that affects our identity, our habits, our emotions, and ultimately, the way we relate to others and the world around us. “Real learning gets to the heart of what it is to be human,” Peter Senge, a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has said. “Through learning we recreate ourselves. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life.”


Another Braindate Story: Unlocking Collaborative Learning at Events


Learning requires us to stretch ourselves, to bridge the gap between who we are and who we need to become in order to successfully tackle a new challenge. Learning enables us to make the transition from feeling unfit to comfortable doing something we’ve never done before. In fact, at e180, we call the challenges that require us to transform ourselves “stretch projects.”

A great example of this happened a few weeks ago. To help our team members learn from each other, we asked each of them to share their stretch project and learning goals on Slack. Brian, one of our top senior account executives, created this stretch project: “Program the first iteration of a system that will provide statistical insights into the data we accumulated over the years.” To my surprise, Brian wanted to learn about Python, the programming language. Not leadership, not negotiation, not public speaking — computer science. There is no way I would have guessed that without asking him.

Learning — and living, for that matter — is all about going from one stretch project to the next. Because learning is a personal transformation, it can only be something you do yourself. It starts with a pressing need to acquire new knowledge, requires a willingness to grow, and a valid personal or professional reason to invest the time and energy required to go through the transformation. If going through an educational experience isn’t always self-directed and on our own terms, learning always is.

Where to Start

Providing self-directed learning opportunities is a hell of a challenge. How can you create a learning experience that will suit the needs of 4,000 event participants? There’s only one way to start: Transform your own perception of what learning looks like and what your role as an educator should be. Once you’ve done that, you have four core responsibilities as an educator:

1 Help your participants to identify a stretch project and learning goals.

Most go through events without having clear goals, so it’s no wonder they feel they haven’t accomplished something specific by the time they leave. Ask your participants what they want to learn and why they want to learn it — through their profile on the event app, or at registration, or on a big board with Post-its, or other ways.

2 Unleash the power of crowdsourced learning.

The biggest waste I’ve seen at events is the failure to tap into the unbelievable wealth of talent and knowledge available when people travel thousands of miles to be together. Coaching circles, unconferences, and, of course, e180’s braindates are great ways to make sure that you switch over from a one-to-all to an all-to-all educational model.

3 Inspire them to discover what they don’t know they don’t know.

Provide the thought-provoking opportunities and the out-there ideas that enable your guests to discover the possibilities they are not even aware exist.

4 Make it relevant now.

We forget half of what we learn if we don’t reactivate it by talking about it or implementing it within an hour, according to the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. Why not create moments where participants are encouraged to apply what they’ve learned to their stretch project? Prompt them to journal, set up their next steps, or to send a relevant email right away. The fantastic work of caveday.org, which designs focused work sessions, might inspire you.

You are part of a worldwide movement of change-makers who work relentlessly to make education more meaningful for everyone. It’s not simple work! But as Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen has said so brilliantly, “If there’s no question, the answer has nowhere to go.” You’re already providing people with fantastic answers — your role also is to help them to find their own “why.”

What kinds of challenges do you face with implementing learning initiatives at your event? We’d love to hear from you, and we’ll share our thoughts in a future column: christine@e180.co or @christinerenaud on Twitter.