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Getting the most out of social learning at conferences

When my daughter was in secondary school, I received a call to come in and discuss a comment she made to her teacher in the classroom. The ‘problem’, as it was explained to me, was that Justine was disruptive in class. How so? When asked why she was talking, Justine told her teacher she was explaining the math solutions to another student. The teacher asked - why do you need to do that when I’ve already explained it? Her comment was priceless. My daughter replied that explaining it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s understood, and learning also occurs among students.

And she is absolutely right! If we look to history, it’s no surprise that learning from our peers is effective. For example, let’s imagine we’re in post-Revolution France during a period of great social reform. A Ministry of Education is created to oversee secular and free education. However, there is one major challenge; there’s a teacher shortage. Until they can train sufficient teachers, an interim measure is introduced called ‘ecole mutuelle’. Translated into English, it means mutual school, which is peer-to-peer learning. In this environment, the students were taught by slightly older peers and generally completed a six-year curriculum in a two-to-three year period.

If we consider our human history, the formal teacher-centric classroom, as a learning channel, is a relatively recent invention. A place where there is often one-way communication, with little tolerance for debate and noise, is not a fertile ground for productive discussion and self-discovery. We’ve spent most of our time on this planet learning through observation, oral history, and storytelling with our tribes, and further shared our skills, wisdom and knowledge beyond our close flock at larger clan gatherings. Along with the example of the mutual schools, it’s evident that we learn faster and more effectively from our own peers.

Hardwired for social learning Just as we are hardwired to connect with others, the same goes for how we learn best. We are innately social beings who are rewarded when we discover new things on our own. The ‘aha’ moment when we connect key learnings to our own experiences, to ‘join our own dots’ activates a reward centre in the brain. The concept of social learning, defined as ‘participation with others to make sense of new ideas’* is just how our brains are designed to learn.

A conference as the quintessential learning village As organisations are slashing their formal training budgets and social media is easily accessible, the time is right for social learning to flourish. To stay ahead of the curve is to head on the path of self-directed learning, where we connect and learn through the plethora of online channels from TED talks to social networks such as Twitter and LinkedIn. Staying abreast of industry trends requires dedicated effort and when it comes to a face-to-face human connection for learning, attending a conference ticks all the boxes - making it the quintessential learning village.

Conferences provide an ideal social learning environment. You get the latest thinking in your field, most of which isn’t even published in books yet, in the one forum. The agenda is carefully planned to bring you the latest and best. It’s the modern version of a clan gathering where the intersection of networking and learning takes place in an environment of focus and commitment. People have suspended their day-to-day activity in pursuit of social connection and information in non-hierarchical forum.

Getting the most out of your social learning at conferences To enhance your social learning experience at a conference, here are my three hot tips:

Think global Look beyond your own city and country. There are conferences in all fields all over the globe, and it’s worth considering the option of combining a holiday with a conference. For example, the one I have on my watch list right now is the ACMP (Association of Change Management Professionals) Regional Conference over in Canada. My Australian change management colleagues who have made the trek across the Pacific to attend an ACMP event have not been disappointed! They have come back with ideas, insight and rave reviews. It will have an amazing multiplier effect on your network!

The thought leaders are everywhere: On AND off the stage Network with everyone. You will meet as many interesting people off the stage as the ones who are presenting. If you are active on social media, you’ll meet people you’re already connected with and add so many more! It’s a meeting of the minds and you can bet that the delegates who’ve made the effort to attend such an event are as committed as you and will have an interesting spin on how they can apply the information.

Get onto social media in real time Enhance your post-conference connections by ‘back-channeling’ during the conference. Back channeling means you share your key learnings on social media (usually Twitter), ideally with photos, while you are at the event. By sharing learning, participants extend your own experience as you pick up on what others have taken away as key points. Most conferences have a dedicated hashtag to use in posts, so you can easily search online afterwards.

Enjoy your social learning journey!

*definition from Marcia Conner

If there are ways to improve collaboration with your network during change and uncertainty, what’s stopping you? This is one of the many areas we explore in greater detail in my #changehacks sessions.

To find out more about what I do, visit my website on or follow me on Twitter @LenaEmelyRoss.

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