One of the most stunningly impressive and inspiring displays of positive action coming out of the current sheltering in place efforts to fight the spread of the 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic is the display of flexibility and adaptability I’ve seen in a variety of sectors—not the least of which is the training-teaching-learning environment that is so much a part of my life.
I’ve seen firsthand, written about, and talked extensively and been involved in discussions about the way in which the mostly-onsite ShapingEDU 2020 Unconference moved, overnight, into being a completely online gathering of dreamer-doer-drivers committed to help shape the future of learning in the digital age. I’ve been observing (through news articles, blog posts, participation in webinars, and personal conversations) how rapidly and radically administrators, teachers, and students are moving from onsite to online environments—sometimes successfully, sometimes painfully much less so—in attempts to avoid a complete shutdown of our formal education systems globally. And I continue to be impressed, fascinated, and supported by associations—those wonderful groups that even in the least challenging of times, bring us together—through a shared interest—to commiserate, learn, play, survive, and thrive together.
My colleagues in local ATD (Association for Talent Development) chapters as well as in the parent organization, for example, have turned the very bitter lemon of having to cancel onsite gatherings into an incredible pitcher of lemonade in the form of highly interactive, engaging, and productive online gatherings—what I have consistently referred to as “face-to-face sessions online.” It’s a fairly straightforward—and hardly new—approach that is becoming more and more easy to implement through the use of an increasingly varied array of teleconferencing tools designed to pull us as near as possible to a sense of telepresence—the perception that we are sharing a physical space, side-by-side, regardless of the actual physical distance between us.
It’s as if we had formally decided to counteract the frustrations of social distancing by engaging in an updated version of virtual proximity—and we are, increasingly, seeing this virtual proximity become widespread through necessity. The ATD South Florida Chapter, for example, reacted magnificently to shelter-in-place by proposing and implementing, in less than a month, a series of online weekly gatherings that have all the spirit and camaraderie of the long-standing onsite chapter meetings that are a staple of ATD chapters throughout the United States. When chapter leaders decided to experiment with this face-to-face online approach through the use of Zoom, they immediately put out a request for proposals from chapter members interested in being part of this initiative. I saw the first request, via email, on Friday, March 27, 2020. A week later, I was in the virtual audience for the first session, led by longtime colleague and chapter member Jennifer Dow, on the topic of “Engaging Your Audience While Facilitating Virtually.” Two weeks after receiving that email message, I was in the audience for the second session, led by chapter member George Romagosa, on the topic of “Quick and Easy MicroLearning.” And this morning—three weeks after seeing the initial request for proposals, I was leading a session centered on a few case studies of organizations that were making the switch from onsite to online operations almost—if not virtually—overnight.
As we look at how my colleagues in that first-rate, highly innovative, and very playful chapter managed to create this new series so quickly, we would do well to begin with a glance at the cordial, transparent, collegial manner in which they invited participation while also creating awareness of what was in the works. Under a banner containing a simple message—“Let’s support one another at this time”—they quickly drew us in: “ATDSFL remains focused on supporting your professional needs. During this time, we are seeking talent development professionals who would like to share best practices, tips and strategies in virtual training delivery. Small and large organizations alike may be struggling with how to transition quickly to online or virtual training and we would like to equip our members with the skills to tackle this challenge! Please contact the Director of TD Talks Selen Turner at email@example.com if you are interested in being a virtual speaker.”
It’s all there, and completely reflective of the tenor of all interactions with ATD South Florida Chapter members: the statement of need, the proposed action to be taken, a clear statement of what is being sought, and guidance on how to respond.”
As a rare chapter member whose interactions are all virtual except for those rare times when I’m actually in Florida (rather than San Francisco or other parts of the country) for a project, I was intrigued. And as a prospective session facilitator, I was as impressed as I always am by the quick response I received to my initial proposal. This is what makes an association thrive. This is what makes an association be seen as the place to be. And this is an association that, through its collaborative approach to implementing its mission, vision, and value statements, is there for us—and we for it—in the best and the worst of times.
The parent organization, at its best, is every bit as creative and responsive as its chapters are; no surprise there. Faced, for example, with the difficult decision so many associations are currently having to make—to go ahead with planning for large conferences that are routinely held on an annual basis or cancel them in acknowledgment that gathering large numbers of people together during a time of pandemic—ATD recently announced that its annual gathering (as usual, scheduled for May) is being cancelled, and that the Association would look forward to gathering onsite next year for its five-day conference and exposition—presumably when health and safety issues had been overcome. But it didn’t stop there. Several days later, a follow-up note went out to the thousands of us around the world who belong to ATD: an invitation to attend an ATD 2020 Virtual Conference to be held a couple of weeks later than the onsite conference would have been held. It’s still very early in the process of disseminating information about what specific sessions will be held, but signs are already promising that our Association colleagues are doing everything possible to recreate, virtually, what is being lost through that onsite cancellation: dozens of formal learning opportunities; networking opportunities in group and one-on-one situations; and an opportunity to “be a part of ATD’s history as we come together for a new learning experience.”
I have often reflected on and written about the value of associations—and association! I’ve documented the high regard in which I hold colleagues in the American Library Association, ATD (initially in those years when it was still ASTD, the American Society for Training & Development), ShapingEDU, the New Media Consortium before financial difficulties led its board members to make the decision to dissolve the organization, T is for Training, and others. And I was inspired to do so again today after coming across a prompt from ATD on its Facebook page: “What does being a member of ATD mean to you?”
The answer flowed effortlessly, without requiring much thought: It means the world to me. ATD is a magnificent community of learning. A large laboratory/sandbox for exploring and engaging in lifelong learning. A source of support in the best of times and the most challenging of times. A meeting place. A testing ground for new ideas and a place to improve what we have already developed. A professional family. A state of mind. A place we can call home. And because it is so good at what it does, it helps define the word “association” in numerous, varied, nuanced ways.
So, there we are: association in all its glory, even in times requiring us to shelter in place…while still offering us opportunities to nurture proximity in all the important ways.
–N.B.: This is the fourth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences and our continuing interactions online.