Sharing joy and knowledge from an ordinary life

#ldcu16 aka- my first ‘unconference’

My first ‘unconference’ (or at least one titled that way).

My first conference filled with NO educators. Not a single one. I would be surrounded by fellow L&D Professionals.

What follows are some thoughts and notes on the day- some are what other people said, some will be what they made me think about. I must remember to start marking out which is which for future conferences!

The Venue

Ziferblat– Everything is free inside, except for the time you spend.

The day began in a pretty good way with not even slightly getting lost on my way to the venue. The organisers may have to write a personal apology letter to my manager though- I now know exactly what I’d like to do with our learning rooms when we have them. There was an incredibly cool main space with various areas of seating and vintage-style decor. There was also a food and kitchen area where, upon arrival, we (and customers paying 6p per minute to use the space and the WiFi) could freely help ourselves to breakfast: croissants, crumpets (there was a toaster and other kitchen facilities), fruit, pastries, cake and multiple cereals.

In addition to the use of the main space, we had a more standard ‘training’ space booked (one of the smaller rooms was being used by the young cast of Mary Poppins for their schooling…obviously).

The start of the day


The next thing to make me happy was the chance to be creative: drawing a picture with a motto and decorating a name badge- it’s the little things that make me happy. Our masterpieces then got hung on a washing line, which was a great way for us to feel a part of our learning environment for the day.

After telling more than enough people I was in attendance because I’d started a new job and was low on confidence (note to self- not the best opening gambit if you’re looking to make valuable connections), I ‘looked forward’ to a structure-less day: or as much as I can when socialising and lack of structure are pretty high on my anxiety list! This initial speed-dating style activity also allowed us to think about our hopes for the day and I realised how broad my aims were because of my current context: soak up as much as I can about working with change and development. Difficult to measure how successfully that aim would be achieved…

The Laws

The theme of the day would be, ‘change in learning practice’

This is where the ‘laws’ of the ‘unconference’ were shared. I loved these and will definitely be making use of them as part the breakfast sessions phase of our trial of what is currently named ‘The Big Learning Project’ at The Sheffield College.

At a normal conference, it’s suggested that it’s the brilliant conversations that take place either side of the sessions where the learning happens. Today would be seen as your best coffee break ever! For the whole day! And for someone who doesn’t drink coffee, this was certainly intriguing to say the least…

  1. Whoever comes are the right people.

We can’t wish for other people or different people to be there. We are unique and special. We will never be in this space with all these people in this space again.

2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.

For this unique group, environment and day.

3. When it’s over, it’s over.

If a conversation finishes in 15 minutes or an hour then that’s it- it’s over- don’t drag it past the point of learning taking place.

The law of two feet: If we found ourselves in a discussion that we weren’t contributing to and/or learning from then we were told, in no uncertain terms, to get up on our two feet and make a move to another discussion. We were given permission to be butterflies and flit between discussions as we felt we needed to in order to maximise our learning.

The Itinerary

So how is the ‘itinerary’ for an unconference decided?

Participants were given the chance to discuss conversations they’d like to have. These were then shared with the group and added to the wall.

I would absolutely love to replace some meetings with this kind of agenda building:

  • An overall theme or driving question for the meeting
  • Participants sharing the discussions they’d like to have
  • Each person is invested in the meeting
  • No more sitting bored for a while until an agenda item you have a vested interested in appears…

I decided to begin the first discussion slot, not as a butterfly but with communities of practice- a topic I had new questions about. It began with the ‘convener’ (the person who had selected the topic) sharing why they’d selected the topic and then we had chance to discuss it together.

Communities of Practice

The driving focus for this session seemed to be around ensuring involvement in CoPs was of value.

The design around them is important and this should be lead by what you want to get out of it- what do you want the outcome, changed behaviours and attitudes to be?

Three integral aspects of a community of practice:
– Trust
– Confidentiality
– Comfort with technology

I quickly learned that online communities was definitely the focus of those in the discussion.

Be clear with participants from the start that space is being created- what the purpose is, how they should interact within the community and what they can hope to get out of it.

How do people experience you when you’re not in the room?
The answer to this is often only realised once people have engaged with others online. Perhaps this is too late and the learning should begin before it gets to this point?

It’s got to be useful: filtering content to find what’s useful is a big barrier to engage online.

Different people need different platforms. SLT for instance are not going to be as comfortable engaging with one another on Facebook for instance but for another group of staff, this could be exactly what they respond to.

Time saved? A measurement of L&D success. For instance, some people were saved the time spent exploring a new process because they accessed the community and identified another team who had worked on and achieved the same thing and that saved them a great deal of time. They could get straight to the solution and bypass much of the journey along the way.

How do I feel and what am I now doing differently as a result? These are great questions to ask to measure the impact of development activities.

What’s interacted with the most won’t necessarily have the greatest impact and vice versa.

Leeds City council- went from #catfriday to #oneday. People are entertained by pictures of cats and this got them involved in social media to begin with. Once they were used to checking for that hashtag, it wasn’t so difficult to transition to a new one: where a day in the life of a member of staff was shared. You need to start from where people are as the hook into learning then engage them with what you want to connect them to…

Our little community of practice, formed just for the day, true to form suggested useful links and people to explore further-

Introduction to communities of practice- A brief overview of the concept and its uses:

A guide to the social age- 2016:

Our convener, Shaun, summarised the conversation:


What are the conditions for it?
What is L&D’s role in it?

We need to be there for the ongoing development rather than just the input part.

Mentoring and coaching should be used to to engage people in learning over time.

Spend adequate time on the shop floor before you decide on the training and the journey- spend time before, during and after so the change/learning is well-embedded.

Best question to ask people- what are the challenges/problems that you’re facing?
Managing change: How does this affect you? How does this make you feel? What do you want or need to talk about?

L&D can bust their ass trying to do all of this but the climate needs to be there in the rest of the organisation too

Our leaders need to lead with self-compassion- this is necessary before learning can take place but they need to be helped towards it.

I left this conversation with one realisation and one question:

  • I’m aiming to do the right things and it is as I expected: there is no silver bullet to L&D
  • Why do people always put on a generic Yorkshire accent for ‘working class’ or ‘apprentice’ or ‘skilled workers’?


Fad or fab?

We’re talking about something real- this is what has worked for someone. Do we always have to evidence it with science?

Neuroscience is used as total truth when it’s not. It’s not reliable enough- yet!

Evidence-based is dangerous, evidence-informed is different…

Daniel Kahneman- ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ was a recommended Psychology read, which is a more trustworthy and more established science…

Neuroscience should be used to provoke the debate rather than it being the answer.

Daniel Pink has a larger bed of research than most and it makes his research more trustworthy.

If the neuroscience you want to use, resonates with the challenge someone’s facing, then can you use it to help them move from the place they’re at to their next place? Does it matter that it’s not completely trustworthy?

We look for a scientific explanation for things when it’s not needed. Science is often received well is because people are looking for an answer.

Much of this conversation resonated with me: education is exposed to so much pseudo-science and ‘research’ that it’s difficult to trust any of it any more.

We then re-convened after lunch and came back together as a group in our circle. After humming and ahhing and oohing all together- a polyphony- we headed to the final session(s) of the day of our choice:

No money, big impact

Make use of the people we have- why hire great people and then use externals for development?

Induction idea- What is it in this business that’s unique? A great question to ask people to promote the organisation to new staff.

Google does exist and means learning is more readily available that ever but we are the filter for Google- we can direct people towards the right kind of content for them and their needs.

Traditionally, free is not seen as good- this is no longer the case and technology has been a game-changer in that respect.

Training is seen as a treat- a nice day out of the office- begin to alter this perception by building in ‘sharing’ activities upon return to the organisation.

Socialise the onboarding experience from day 1- removing the need for any formal element at all.

Incorporate Q&A sessions in the early days so that staff have the opportunity to get to know people AND have their questions answered.

Use the wider connections that exist within the organisation to access further development opportunities- What relatives/friends do you have that might be able to visit/speak/mentor/coach?

MOOC-list- searchable online courses by topic (many of them, free)

Measuring Impact

Link to business needs and decide what change you want to see so that impact can be measured…Set outcomes you’re aiming towards that aren’t metric! Start with the end in mind. If you try to unpick impact once the learning has taken place then you’ve lost already.

Infiltrate the organisation to find out what the problems and needs are. Don’t send L&D out and then bring them back in to talk about the culture and the needs of the organisation- they should always be out and about.

An idea- can staff development get an invite to EVERY meeting that happens so that we can begin to better understand the needs of the business?

A thought- If we educate students and raise their awareness of what great teaching and learning looks and feels like, if we put more of an emphasis on it- then the learner voice data will be more reliable?

How do you know that your initiative made a difference?

How do you know that the behaviour change wouldn’t have happened anyway- due to a whole bunch of other factors?

We need to run more controlled trails to test our difference…

But even if we use a controlled trial, how will we know it can and should work in all contexts?

Perhaps the reason we don’t do controlled trails is because we’re terrified we’ll discover that what we do actually negatively impacts the organisation?

We need to be honest with ourselves if actually all we want is a better place to work that FEELS better- we don’t always have to focus on ROI.

Something to think about- work on what the person is interested in first and their needs before doing the stuff they’re not interested in and have no passion for.

Impact of learning may not be immediate- wait for it… It will go up and it will also go down… People may have thought they knew it beforehand and the training makes them realise they didn’t know it all and their learning has made them question things- it needs to be followed by reflection space, collaboration opportunities and coaching so that the practice embeds fully and they’re enabled to change rather than remain stuck in their old thinking.

Another idea- I noticed around the space that many people were playing board games. Jenga- having fun as a group and the challenge is, while they’re playing, to solve a question or challenge and discuss it. Make a comment, make a move…

How was it?

So, how was my first ‘unconference’? Initially, I wasn’t sure I would return:

  • The networking-heavy day meant that, at times, I was far more consumed by focusing on how I was getting on with that than anything else the day contained.
  • I wondered about the extent to which the people I was surrounded by were merely echoing the thoughts of one another. Were people avoiding discussions they had differing viewpoints for by leaping into a different one at will?
  • If we had been provided with other stimulus related to topic areas- links, videos, articles, could the discussions have contained even more learning and challenge for those who required it?

Upon reflection, I think I would attend another ‘unconference’:

  • The day provoked many new ideas, which will greatly inform my current and future work.
  • I made some new connections that will make future events less daunting.
  • I have a new Twitter chat to participate in on a Friday morning: #ldinsight and therefore access to a whole group of people to learn from.
  • True to form, I made copious notes throughout the day and that has meant I could step back and make sense of the day; realising that this ‘unconference’ held more learning that I had at first thought.
My writing commitment: I’m learning to honour my thoughts. I’m learning that my words can be shared before I’ve connected all the dots or learned everything there is to know. My writing can be a snapshot of a single moment in continually-evolving time.

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