The Role of Learning ‘Events’

20151104_145237Perhaps after reading the last number of posts you may think I have a real hate on for learning ‘events’. Not true however! Well maybe a bit of a hate, but that’s reserved for content focused learning events; I think learning events themselves can have real value.

Learning ‘events’ give participants an opportunity to interact in a context that is different than day to day interactions and as well events often have participants that are not part of the daily interactions participants have.

Interaction Model

This means there are valuable opportunities for participants to experience different left and right loops and also to be part of different patterns of interaction. These are all important in the learning process.

As you will recognize the key aspect that contributes to behavior change in a learning event are the interactions people have.  I have been part of numerous learning events over the years and without fail, when participants are asked what was the best part of the experience they will say, ‘the chance to talk to my colleagues/fellow participants’. This is the primary reason I do have a bit of a hate on for content focused learning events. Too much content quite simply decreases the opportunities for interaction. Not only is interaction what participants find of most value, it is also the key variable in affecting behavior change.

My estimation is that for many, many learning events you could cut at least 50% of the actual learning content and get better results. However because the left loop is so entrenched it seems very difficult to actually do this. If it is believed that power can deliver certainty and the in case of learning the power is in the content then it makes all kinds of sense to jam as much content into a learning event as possible.

We’ve all sat in rooms from early in the morning until late at night trying to digest what seems like endless learning content. And just outside that room is the wonderful location the event is being held at and we so want to get out of that room and enjoy (and interact in) that wonderful location.


As noted in earlier posts the above is an example of ‘content proliferation’ and if you are in this pattern you can be pretty sure you are in the Facilitator role without the roles of Designer, Educator and Consultant having been played effectively. It will also likely mean that the learning event is seen as the primary (often only) means by which behavior change will be affected. And even though learning events can be very valuable, if that is all you have it is never enough to alter a stable left loop; never enough to change behavior.

If the learning event is designed as part of an extended time frame; if it is not all you have it can be very valuable and enjoyable as well! One the main reasons it can be valuable and enjoyable is that the event is not burdened with expectations that it simply cannot deliver on. The hallmarks of really well designed learning events are:

  1. Significant space and time for participants to interact with each other and on their own (a process of reflection).
  2. Learning content that is more conceptual than specific (see this post as well).
  3. A very limited need to declare ‘takeaway’s’ or ‘action plans’ or ‘what have you learned?’.
  4. No immediate post event evaluations.
  5. The above elements of the event are talked about up front with participants. This is a version of the Consultant role which is needed since the left loop is just as stable with participants regarding learning events so the rationale for such a design is usually important.

If the above sounds like it could be an awesome learning event, it is! When you lift the burden of expectations of needing excessive learning content, listing of takeaways after each content delivery, the pressure to declare what has been learned, and evaluating the effectiveness of the event itself, the event can truly focus on the most important variable in behavior change, interaction.

Many years ago in that same organization where I began my career by making ice cream, I moved into the role of director of organizational development. Just like the work I did their in the area of performance management I had a significant role in the learning and development area. And much like performance management me, and the organization kind of made up our learning and development strategy as we went along.

I was very fortunate to come across The Center for Accelerated Learning and although I didn’t know much about the theoretical ‘why’ of their approach to learning it just made so much sense to me. As I look back the hallmarks noted above were built into their approach to learning, even technical learning! I subsequently ran learning events focusing on Leadership, Creativity and Innovation, Change, Trust and Compassion and even did events in the wilderness. The hallmarks above were in all of those events (usually 3 – 5 days) and they were in demand (we had waiting lists!). And although it was not formalized into the design, I now realize they were in fact extended time frame designs as I and a group of ‘learning associates’ supported the learning back in the workplace.

Now you may be wondering if those learning events added any value to the business. Yes they did. We’re going to look at evaluation and measurement of learning and development initiatives in a future post but for now I can say this. Burdening those learning events with more content, more requirements for takeaways, more evaluations certainly would not have added any more value to the organization. It would have simply made the event much less valuable and enjoyable!

I can also say having been part of learning events that are burdened with those types of expectations, they add no value to actually changing behavior, in fact they detract from it.

As I’ve traveled this journey to understanding the value of learning events in extended time frame and context focused learning designs there was a time when I thought it would be best to move away from the idea of a learning event altogether. And yet I loved those events and had seen value in them; seen people dramatically affected by them. I now think learning events are very important, the interactions can be very powerful. And when those events are part of a longer process and not burdened by impossible expectations they fit wonderfully into the learning design; they can be fun, have impact and not have much OUCH! at all.




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