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Learning from conferences and conversations

Learning from conferences and conversations

It was March 2020 – the Learning Technologies conference – thousands of people gathered in the ExCel Centre in London…that was the last time I had travelled to attend a conference in search of some new ideas, inspiration, learning and hopefully some new connections. Over the following years I wasn’t sure when we would ever get back to that world, but May 2022 brought with it two face-to-face conferences that I was excited to get back to.  

The first was Learning Technologies (LT) in London (again), and the second was the HrNetwork (HRN) Conference in Edinburgh. Two different conferences with different aims. LT is focused on innovative learning technologies and how tools of all sorts can support learning in the workplace. HrNetwork is all about connecting the HR community of Scotland to one another and sparking discussions around new ideas for making the world of work better.  

How did the conferences stack up to my expectations? Did I get any new ideas or inspiration? Did I learn something or build new connections with anyone? I’m glad to say the resounding answer was yes, and I was able to identify some interesting themes emerging across both spaces, that felt relevant to share and discuss. 

Key themes 

Aside from the free pens and notebooks (arguably the best conference swag) and booking a few demos for new tech tools, I also analysed the topics speakers were presenting on and had some fabulous conversations with different practitioners.  Some initial attendee feedback I heard about the LT conference, was that it didn’t feel like there were many brand-new products jumping in to blow our collective L&D/HR/OD minds. A few different people mentioned that the exhibitors were much the same as in previous years. While I tend to agree with the overall sentiment, I would argue that we’re all still deep into the process of trying to figure out an entirely new world (of work and life) – and maybe there was a focus on using our existing tools better while we transition, versus jumping into something that introduces more change. 

This idea of adjusting to a new world of work (which was the headline topic of the HRN conference I might add) was exactly the space where I saw key themes evolving:  

Managers struggling to connect with their people   

The first theme I heard, time and time again, was about how the backbone of our organisations, managers, were struggling to support their people. They felt disconnected and like they didn’t quite have the tools to communicate and build both personal and team relationships in the way they used to.  

One of the HRN fabulous keynote speakers, olympian Steve Williams, in a great talk about leadership, told a poignant anecdote about how his coach purposefully chose a broom cupboard of an office that overlooked the car park instead of his executive suite. The reason? He wanted to see how each of his athletes entered the training centre that day. Were they energised, looking tired or maybe concerned? This view gave him a steer of how he could support them as their leader that day – a great approach, but managers of remote teams can’t just look out the window to get a read on how their teams are doing. The common question was how could we support them to support their teams? 

Feeling less supported or connected  

A connected but separate topic was the individual feeling of isolation felt by many attendees and reported by their staff. For some, this was about the emotional isolation of working alone, but for others it was missing that feeling of working and growing together, learning from those around you and being connected to opportunities for development.  

I think the larger presence of wellbeing and coaching services at both conferences echoed this market need, and the expansion of apps or AI versions of these services addressed the shifting nature of how this need might be met. Traditional coaching, once the purview of executives and star performers, had some alternative competition this year in the form of AI apps and bots aiming to democratise coaching and its benefits. My initial reaction questions what quality of coaching chat bots can offer, but the demand for organisations to provide that type of personalised and empowering support for staff outside of traditional reporting structures or training certainly stood out. 

Tools to connect and collaborate    

With these first two themes, it is perhaps unsurprising then that tools focusing on connection and collaboration were everywhere at these conferences. Virtual reality spaces and online worlds that allow people to roam freely in a “physical space” and access tools like virtual whiteboards, shared documents, comms channels etc… all while video chatting to colleagues were rampant.  It will be interesting to see how organisations choose the “world” that is right for them and their people, but this is a space I expect to see expanding in the coming months and years. 

All about Teams

The last key theme I noticed was all about the new intensity of attention aimed at teams – their dynamics and how they operate. The new angle I saw emerge wasn’t about looking at team behaviours and if team members were “nice” or supportive of one other – it wasn’t emphasising “it’s how you get the job done that matters too”. Instead, it was a complete shift and zoom-out of the individual completely. Teams were being talked about as units and living bodies in their own right – not just a collection of people who needed to learn to work well together. And an organisation, in comparison, was being talked about as a team of disparate teams. 

This move showed itself in the number of new(ish) suppliers on the scene offering team analytics tools and diagnostics. These tools sought individual feedback, but most collated and presented the data purely at the team level. The message being that teams need their own systems and tactics for working, that stretch beyond their members if they’re going to stand a chance of adjusting to this new world of work. 

Let’s talk about it

Scanning these themes, a common thread of creating more opportunities to connect, work together and check-in, but also to make sure you’re focusing on the right things with the right people in a way that works for everyone. All of these require another core skill. One that, in retrospect, seemed a bit amusing or taken for granted considering how many people I spoke to said they needed to “remember how to talk to humans not on a screen” – no mute buttons in sight. 

This core skill is the ability to have and facilitate quality conversations with your team.  If you don’t get to talk to your team as often as you like – how do you make the most of the time you do have? If you have a brilliant new tool to make working together easier, how do capitalise on that and make sure the group is working as one? To get the best from your people, it’s important to know the type of conversation that needs to happen and to feel confident in the skills you need to facilitate it. 

There are several frameworks out there to help evaluate the type of conversation you want to have – from development conversations to difficult performance conversations, to get-to-know-you chats to quick check-ins on progress. One approach is outlined in the book 5 Conversations – How to transform trust, engagement and performance at work by Nick Cowley and Nigel Purse. 

The authors outline five key conversations managers need to have with their people regularly: 

  • Establishing a trusting relationship – a conversation that digs under the surface to learn what motivates and drives each of you at work and what’s important to you in life 
  • Agreeing mutual expectations – this is about agreeing on more than what each of you needs to do, but why you’re doing it and how you can help one another succeed 
  • Showing genuine appreciation – no cursory “thanks” at the end of an email here – genuine appreciation is about recognising and discussing success – why it happened, what it meant and how you can keep it going 
  • Challenging unhelpful behaviour – Establishing a new set of useful behaviours for a team or individual performance, when current behaviours or actions are getting in the way 
  • Building for the future – Discussing career aspirations and personal development goals and how you can set up work in a way that supports these 

How often are your managers having these conversations with their people? How prepared do you personally feel to have each of these conversations, if you were suddenly given the chance? How can you ensure that no matter what technologies, techniques, analytics or approaches you plan to use – that you can make the most of the conversations you’re having with people around you?  

Identifying the type of conversation is the first step – making sure you’re equipped to have them is the second – and having the means to converse is perhaps the third. Focussing on quality conversations first will go a long way in addressing the very real challenges our industry was debating at conferences this past month. 

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