Even those new to the industry have heard it so many times, it’s a cliché: The most important elements of a meeting are the quality level of the education and networking. For as long as there have been meetings, there has been discussion of how to improve upon one or both of these things.
In more recent years there has been some effort to capture the networking time as informal learning time, but mostly, education and networking have been treated as two separate experiences. The volume of attendees who meet one another is too often viewed as the measurement of success vs. the quality of things attendees might learn from one another, and too often educational presenters don’t facilitate networking within their sessions. The proof that these things are true is the intrusive entertainment and lack of comfortable seating that are typical of networking events, plus the classroom and theater sets commonly seen in educational sessions.
Industries, trends and issues change rapidly. Formal learning once or twice a year doesn’t provide the knowledge that your attendees require, and it doesn’t foster the relationships where much experiential learning takes place.
So how do you blend education and networking into one process to maximize the benefit of the time spent in one place? Meeting attendees are fundamentally a “community of practice” — a group of people from various places who share a common purpose, interest or problem. And by viewing them as such, meeting professionals can leverage their resources of time, money and opportunity.
Communities of practice deliver unique benefits:
· Peer-to-peer environments foster natural trust in shared advice. Attendees are more likely to learn from an expert practitioner than they are a professional instructor or speaker.
· Context-specific sharing of information is available, rather than broadly applicable messages. Attendees can seek information to solve an immediate problem.
· Fluid, multi-threaded conversations replace the one-way flow of information. Attendees can self-identify their area of interest, and information builds from multiple contributors.
Creating a successful learning community at your meetings sounds simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It requires the meeting professional to approach educational design in ways that haven’t necessarily been modeled yet by our own industry associations, which limits our learning examples. But these are some guidelines that can be adapted to your own objectives:
· Allow time and space for the community to evolve. Groups are dynamic and organic, so it’s not your role to establish limits. Radical conversations are sometimes the ones that change the industry, or even the world. Trust your audience to both offer and receive what they need from each other.
· Welcome different levels of engagement. There are typically three types of community members: the core leaders, the active nonleader participants, and the peripheral observers. One is no less valuable to the process than another. The key is to meet the attendee at their comfort zone, so that the only concern left for their attention is the information.
· Provide both public and private spaces. Most groups engage publicly by their nature, but learning styles and subject matter sometimes require privacy. Don’t lose out on offering those learning moments due to logistics.
· Build expectations that these community-oriented learning opportunities will continue to be provided. Because so few models exist to date, it might take a few cycles for your attendees to become accustomed to it and use it to full advantage.
Ultimately, your goal is to harness the collective breadth of intelligence available in your audience. Your educational design can’t think of everything your audience wants to learn, but your audience can. And the network that develops in the process will be the most important one your attendees have, compelling them to return again and again to the product you are offering.
This is a huge topic, and I would love to discuss it more with any readers who have done it, or are considering doing it. Please feel free to comment below, or email me at LizontheBiz@gmail.com.