ALA Annual Conference 2012: Ideas, Inspiration, and Meals of Food and Challenges

Gather small groups of training-teaching-learning colleagues over meals, as I have so many times over the past few years while attending conferences, and you’ll find yourself exploding with ideas. Inspiration. And the rewards of intellectual and collegial engagement.

Which is exactly what happened once again when that sort of group here in Anaheim for the 2012 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference broke bread this evening—actually, we broke Chinese food, but there’s no need to be overly precise about this—and eventually moved toward a very spirited discussion about some of the trends and challenges we face in libraries as well as in other industries.

We were a smaller than usual group this time—eight instead of the usual 10 to 15—and it worked out very well. Partially because most of us found common ground through our affiliations with libraries and/or library organizations. And partially because, as usual, the gathering included some healthy cross-pollination of ideas—this time through the inclusion of two non-library colleagues from the Orange County Chapter of the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD).

There was the usual time spent just becoming reacquainted and welcoming those new friends into the group. And then we not-too-surprisingly found ourselves acknowledging that the challenges we encounter in workplace learning and performance (staff training) programs transcend industry barriers.

But what was most engaging and inspiring was not the simple recitation of what’s wrong with what we and our learners are doing; it was the willingness to dream of potential solutions to the challenges we and our learners face. In discussing the challenge of not losing institutional/ organizational knowledge as colleagues move on to other positions or retire entirely—regardless of whether we’re talking about libraries, ASTD chapters, or any other organization or group—we proposed and considered a variety of potential solutions. Wikis (which received an almost universal thumbs-down because too few people are willing to dedicate the time and effort to make a wiki thrive). Short work sabbaticals during which colleagues would take time to document the knowledge and experience they have acquired. Top-down implementation of formal knowledge-retention efforts. Informal cross-training so departing colleagues leave those still in the workplace with the knowledge needed to continue and to thrive. And even making it a requirement of a job or a service position that employees/volunteers create documentation of what they do and how they do it.

When all was said and done, we found ourselves returning to what’s at the heart of all successful training-teaching-learning: concentrating on the people, not the tech tools. Our mantra, in fact, could easily be “peer to peer; no technology”—as one colleague suggested—if we want to create a sustainable pattern of retaining and learning from the wisdom of our workplace crowds.

As the conversation moved into another perennial topic—learners who are far from engaged in the learning process—we found a variety of suggestions covering a variety of extremes. One on side, there was the dream of making learning so engaging that learners actively pursue those learning opportunities. On the opposite end of the discussion, there was the practice of firing those who will not learn and support an organization’s efforts to survive in what is clearly a very competitive environment.

And no, please don’t assume that this was just a bunch of trainers kicking around ideas with no hope of implementing them. We know of trainer-teacher-learners who successfully and consistently draw learners to their workshops, seminars, and asynchronous offerings because they are so engaging. We also know of organizations where those unwilling to keep up with changing worksite needs are offered one of two choices: rise to the challenge or rise to the need to find new work before being removed from their current positions—the choice was the employees’ choice to make.

It’s clearly sobering as well as invaluable to create and take advantage of the opportunities a conference provides for this level of conversation and exchange. It’s what draws many of us to conferences and other learning opportunities. We have the opportunity to draw upon the thoughts and experiences of some of the brightest people we know or are about to meet. It provides us with a chance to float ideas that otherwise might not have been considered. And it reminds us that rethinking our beliefs and our assumptions can be a very healthy endeavor, both for the chance it gives us to reaffirm what we hold dear, and to recognize the need to change what we might unnecessarily—and to our collective detriment—be retaining.

N.B.: Sharon Morris and I, on Sunday, June 24, 2012, will be facilitating a 90-minute workshop on how to engage workplace learners. The session, under the auspices of the ALA Learning Round Table, begins at 10:30 am at the ALA Annual Conference here in Anaheim, in Convention Center Room 203B. Hope you’ll join us for what promises to be an engaging discussion.

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