ALA Annual Conference 2013: Post-Conference Tips for Future Conference Attendees (Thinking Outside the Schedule)

July 5, 2013

Let’s be wonderfully perverse! While other colleagues continue writing thoughtful post-conference reflections about the 2013 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference that concluded in Chicago a few days ago, let’s draw upon what some of us saw and did in Chicago to provide tips for anyone planning to attend any conference with colleagues anytime soon.

ALA_2013_Chicago_Logo_FINAL_CLR_0 (1)Conference presenters, for example, can benefit from the myriad online reminders of how to most effectively reach and serve their audiences. Those interested in drawing their various and varied onsite and online communities of learning into seamless and tremendously rewarding interactions can participate in the Twitter backchannel at any level that appeals to them. First-time attendees will find numerous resources, including those posted online by attendees willing to share suggestions. And those arriving a day or two before the conference formally begins can indulge in a period of reflection and preparation that also provides the foundations for gaining more than even the best-planned conference can provide.

One pre-conference ritual that has been particularly rewarding for me over the past several years is an informal dinner I arrange with a handful of cherished colleagues the evening before a conference begins. As I have noted so many times over the past few years, those invitation-only dinners—without a formal agenda, and with all participants splitting the cost of the meal—provide an unparalleled opportunity to hear what our best colleagues are doing, planning to do, and recovering from doing. It is, in essence, a chance to attend a master class with the brightest and most collaborative colleagues we can attract.

Siera_logoThe 10 trainer-teacher-learners who gathered in a Thai restaurant in Chicago on the Thursday evening before the ALA Conference began were far from reticent about describing the ways they are approaching the use of social media in libraries—creatively, openly, and with a great deal of encouragement for the learners they serve, as David Lee King noted—or the learner-centric webinars they are designing and delivering, as is the case with Pat Wagner (through Siera) and Andrew Sanderbeck (through the People Connect Institute). Louise Whitaker, from the Pioneer Library System (Oklahoma), enticed me with stories about the innovations in leadership training and other training-teaching-learning initiatives she continues to spearhead to support employees in her workplace—and then continued those stories over coffee a few days later when we were able to meet again outside of the formal sessions provided by the conference organizers. And everyone else had stories to tell or resources to share, so everyone at the table ate abundantly—and we’re not just talking about the wonderful food, here.People_Connect_Institute_logo

This idea of thinking outside the formal conference schedule to enhance—and actually create—learning experiences takes us to the heart of making sure each of us gains as much as we possibly can from attending conferences. It’s the combination of judiciously planning a schedule that includes attendance at formal sessions both within and outside our own areas of expertise; making arrangements in advance to meet with those cherished colleagues we absolutely do not want to miss; and relying on the numerous unplanned encounters we will have with colleagues onsite as well as those facilitated by what I’ve come to refer to as “drive-by greetings”—introductions, from colleagues including Maurice Coleman (T is for Training) and Peter Bromberg (Princeton Public Library), to those people they just happen to be standing  next to when we unexpectedly encounter them, and who just happen to have done work we have admired from afar for years.

One of those unexpected encounters, for me, led on the spot to an unplanned one-on-one hour-long lunch with a writer whose work I’ve very much admired—the sort of opportunity to exchange ideas that most of us would kill to have when we’re sitting in a packed room with little chance to interact at a meaningful level with a first-rate presenter. Another put me face-to-face with a colleague I’d only previously interacted with online. Numerous other outside-the-formal-curriculum meals and coffee breaks helped keep me up to date on the vibrant and ever-expanding world of advocacy and partnerships that benefit all of us and those we serve.

It’s also worth noting that a bit of planning beyond what conference attendance normally facilitates can provide additional rewarding opportunities. Contacting Chicago-based colleagues from the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) before arriving onsite for the ALA Annual Conference meant that one particularly memorable evening included a dinner with non-library colleagues who are as immersed as anyone else I know in the world of workplace learning and performance (staff training). Our exchanges offered them a glimpse into the world of staff training in libraries and also helped bring me up to date on the ever-evolving language used within the ASTD community to refer to the training-teaching-learning that is at the heart of all we do.

The clear lesson for any conference attendee is that planning helps; looking for opportunities to draw upon all the resources available to us is an essential element of creating a successful conference experience; and “un-planning”—the act of setting a schedule aside when unanticipated opportunities via drive-by greetings present themselves—benefits all of us, and creates the learning experiences we find nowhere else.


Training, Leading, and Creativity

June 19, 2010

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert earlier this week wrote about how those who helped cause the worst financial crisis we’ve faced since the Great Depression remain “unfazed by reality” and are attempting to make it worse. They are, he suggested, creating reductions in the state and local services that are instrumental to building the economy.

He quotes a Northern California school district chief who, rather than seeking creative solutions to a terrible situation, is trying to balance a budget by laying off teachers and health aids, increasing the number of students within classrooms, decreasing the number of days students spend in school each year, and closing school libraries.

“Similar decisions, potentially devastating to the lives of individuals and families and poisonous to the effort to rebuild the economy, are being made by state and local officials from one coast to the other, “ Herbert writes. “For the federal government to stand by like a disinterested onlooker as this carnage plays out would be crazy.”

That’s all too familiar to those of us watching vacancies in businesses and nonprofit agencies go unfilled; watching first-rate trainer-teacher-learners losing their jobs or struggling to find work when the organizations for which they work lose their funding; and watching those who remain behind, employed and overwhelmed by increasing workloads and decreases in pay and benefits.

But we can’t afford to hunker down—we never could, and we certainly don’t have the luxury of pulling back now and waiting for things to improve before we seek creative responses to the challenges our communities are facing. The need for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance to step up to the plate and assume roles of leadership within the organizations we serve remains as strong as it has ever been. We need to position ourselves to be leaders seeking solutions rather than part of the crowd sitting so high in the bleachers that our voices cannot be heard and our actions cannot be seen.

If the companies, agencies, and groups we serve can no longer afford to hire outside instructors to meet our colleagues’ learning needs, we need to find innovative, inexpensive ways to draw from the expertise of those already within our organizations. If organizations continue to struggle to free up employees to attend training sessions with “release time”—an awful term when you think of it; it implies that learning is a perk, something less than essential to every employee’s efforts—then we need to find ways to provide learning opportunities which are stimulating, rewarding, productive, easy to deliver and attend, and offered in ways which keep our colleagues growing in ways that serve themselves as well as the organizations for which they are working.

There’s nothing magic about trying to incorporate learning opportunities into meetings which have already been scheduled for entire work groups, nor is there anything tremendously challenging about setting up optional learning opportunities during pre- and post-work hours as well as during (staggered) lunch breaks—something as simple as a series of “lessons at lunch” in which colleagues share valuable tricks and tips on how to better function in our ever-changing workplaces or view and discuss podcasts (webcasts) and other online offerings. Let’s set up LinkedIn discussion groups to allow for the sharing of learning opportunities when learners are ready to take advantage of those opportunities, not just when we are available to provide them face-to-face or in synchronous online learning sessions. Let’s use Skype and Google Chat and other innovative online resources to quickly reach those who are not geographically accessible. And let’s draw from the expertise available from organizations including the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and blogs such as ALA Learning.

Workplace learning and development remains as important as ever. We are in a position to make a difference even in the worst of times. For us to stand by as onlookers would, as Herbert said in the context of his recent column, be nothing short of crazy.

N.B.–Those attending the American Library Association’s annual conference in Washington DC are invited to join Paul and colleagues Maurice Coleman, Sandra Smith, and Louise Whitaker for a discussion of “Library Trainers as Leaders” on Sunday, June 27, 2010 from 10:30 am – noon in Washington Conference Center Room 201. Paul will also be participating in the ALA Learning Round Table Training Showcase that afternoon from 1:30 – 3:30 pm in the Washington Conference Center Ballroom.


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