Making the most of conferences. #SHRMI16

The printed out boarding passes to Delhi flutter from the corner of the table. What is the point, they seem to ask. They seem to tease me to think. You see, I will be at SHRM India‘s Annual Conference ( #SHRMI16) on 29th and 30th September in Delhi.  While I will be tweeting, talking and crossing other T’s, the boarding passes seem to ask a deeper question :  “Another conference?”

Having attended innumerable conferences, I look at the Boarding Passes with a smile.

Of course, there will be good old friends and stories to catch up.  Of course, there will be interesting topics, the hashtag will trend and the content will be awesome.  If you aren’t going to be there in person, the mosaic above is the list of folks that will be curating stuff for you.  The hashtag is #SHRMI16, if you are into following the conversation online.

Even as I write this, I am reminded of a good read that classified conference participants in four different buckets. ( I wish I had known the authors to give them credit ).

Here they are.

1. The Vacationers : These are the folks that utilise the conference for a well-deserved break. They are lost in their thoughts and are least interested in whats happening in the conference. Except of course, the good food, the grand ambience. ‘A paid vacation’, as someone once told me.

2. The Prisoners : You know these people. They are the least interested in the conference. They are there because they haven’t had a choice. They are, to put in another way, ‘sentenced to attend the conference by the organisation’.  Sure they are there, taking notes and talking. But given a choice, they would much rather be someplace else.

3. The Experts : You cannot miss these folks. They pontificate on every topic. They have been there, done that & that too. ‘Even if you don’t have a problem, well, this is my solution for it’. They will drop names, spew jargon and sneak in an attempt to steal credit for the Sun showing up in the East. You get the drift, don’t you?

4.  The Explorers : These are the folks who are keen to figure things out. ‘ I know a few aspects about whats getting discussed here. There is a whole heap that I don’t know. From the whole lot that is getting said here, let me make sense of what will work for me and what I will let go of consciously‘. Thats the kind of disposition an ‘explorer’ brings to an event.

I have been a sundry vacationer, a dull prisoner, a bombastic expert and a curious explorer in different conferences. These perhaps are frequencies  that we tune into, depending on the content of the conference and what our context and disposition is at that point in time.

The truth remains that the opportunity to be a true explorer is ever present to each one of us, at every conference.  The choices are ours to make.

The SHRM India conference seems to pack a punch with an array of eclectic topics and speakers.  With an exploratory mindset, we ( you and me) can take our takeaways to a new height altogether.That brings me to another question. So what is exploration all about? How does one do that in a conference? Exploration is as personal as it can get. Here are a few things that I try and keep in mind. Stuff that I have learnt from many humble leaders and learners.


Explorers and pathways

Exploration is as personal as it can get. Here are a few things that I try and keep in mind. Stuff that I have learnt from many humble leaders and learners from conferences around the world. 

a. Listen. Listen. Listen : Listen to what comes from the stage and the responses it triggers. What is twitter abuzz with? What are the reactions to the content during the coffee break. For me, the responses that the content from the stage triggers, offers a far more compelling picture than the content by itself. ( Twitter, Facebook and other social streams will help you listen in). They give you a far more holistic picture that has rich context. So, dive into both conversations. They are precious. 

b. Explore the extremes : To suspend judgement, disbelief and staying alert to seek something of value, is important. Extreme views bring awareness of what lies at the far end. To seek these extremes and entertaining them without necessarily accepting them, lends power to exploration.

c. Ask your questions:  Share your thoughts : Finding a way to share your thoughts and asking your questions gives you clarity. Sometimes we may not be comfortable asking the question in public.  Find your nooks. Your friends groups. Your online community. Or even those WhatsApp groups. Whatever works for you. ( I would recommend twitter with the hashtag : #SHRMI2016, of course! ).

By doing that you are not only helping a larger understanding of the topic permeate, you are helping the community get stronger. That is a responsibility we carry.

What about success measure? How would you precisely know if attending a conference was worth your while? What goes on between our ears, for all the advancements in science doesn’t lend itself well for precision. Or so I think. So, precision is out.

I remember Lakshmi Pratury giving a formula in an INK Conference that has stayed with me ever since. She said something to the effect of “If you walk out of the conference with ‘one moment, one memory, one friend‘ the conference is a success”. Going by all the people that are going to be there and the interest that the conference is already generating, I am sure I will be many times more successful over the next couple of days. 

One more thing. For a true blue explorer, a conference does not end when it ends. In fact, it is when the event ends, that the explorer’s journey begins. 

Cards, badges and trinkets

Every conference, breakfast / lunch / dinner interaction, round table and other professional meeting usually left me with a few things. An array of thoughts, usually. If I was lucky, a bouquet of ideas. At other times the chance acquaintance of a someone who had a wavelength that matched and was generous with the sharing. These obviously happened on my lucky days. How I wished it happened in all conferences.

But there were two ubiquitous results from every single conference.  One was a guilt ridden memory of having indulged in the dessert a tad more than what I could afford. (sigh)!  Another was a clutch of business cards from fellow attendees.

A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of some spring cleaning, I unearthed many stacks of business cards, collected with a fervour matching a fanatic, from a slew of conferences over time. Were they another form of paper , like say currency, I could sit across the Sultan of Brunei and give him a complex. That much. Unfortunately, these were plain business cards.

At the moment of exchanging cards, each business card was pregnant with an opportunity for a conversation and an exchange of ideas. But now, in the midst of the spring cleaning, the silent sighs announced the still born scene sans melancholy. Passing around business cards suddenly seemed a meaningless ritual.

Of course, they carried a logo, a designation, a name. But obviously, these were dead cards. Devoid of a voice. People had moved companies. Or companies had moved addresses or moved company themselves : morphing into new conglomerates or disappearing without a mention. If that were the case with companies and their addresses, less said about titles and telephone numbers, the better.

The cards made people and their positions seem yawningly ancient. ( If you have been to enough conferences, I can safely bet that you would have had the experience of someone telling you, ‘this is an old card. Am transitioning into a new role’, even as he/she is presenting the card to you).

It didn’t take a long while for it to dawn on me that my business cards would have similar antiquated positions in several stacks in peoples homes and offices, bristling with the ignominy of having been ignored! The people that really desired to talk to me, found me nevertheless. So was the case with people I wanted to connect to. We spoke. We continued the conversation. On twitter. On the blog. On Linkedin On Facebook. On Pinterest. On Google Plus. Most found the good old mail box!

The ‘distribution’ of business cards, it became obvious, was a static activity incoherent with the order of the present day world. A ‘in-the-moment’ world, where I am almost always available for a conversation. I just had to make known where I am most available! (Unlike business cards, I could have different places that I would point people to, in different contexts and situations).


Upon a whim I decided to stop using business cards and thought of a badge and a baggage tag as an alternative. The #TechHR14 conference organised by People Matters was the ground for experiment.

The result has been more than merely ‘interesting’. Of course, a certain degree of novelty would have perked the eye. Twitter friends loved it! 🙂
Sunder put it out on twitter  later in his fabulous video of the conference as well, and the rest of history is still happening.

There were some interesting conversations on the sidelines though. Here they are. Three of them. Awesome reasons. Read on.

#1. A friend on seeing the badge spoke of ‘immersive connection’ that looking up the twitter handle and a conversation would lead to versus, a ‘passive connections’ that one more business card in the bag will have. It sounded so profound that I felt strangely proud!

#2. A complete stranger, a fellow conference attendee, complemented me on the badge. Proceeding to give me a low down on the history of business cards and them being more a preserve of aristocracy, and how with one action of mine I had helped reiterate the message that the internet doesn’t tolerate hierarchy. It sure sounded as though I had single handedly won a war or something.

#3. Yet another friend, spoke of how my wearing my twitter handle as ‘my identity’ was a massive thing and he couldn’t imagine doing it. I was convinced I had won the world championship in some sport!

Before these read as rotten fatuous self praise, I must confess that these didn’t occur to me at all before these people said it. Truth be told, I was just solving a problem of business cards piling up! Of course, I nodded in knowledgeable agreement and thanked each of them. They were all right and sounded so solemn.

But I was more than merely impressed that this had struck a chord. If you would put me behind a pulpit asking me to deliver a ‘victory speech’ it would go like this :  “People, this is 2014. There is global warming that is leaving a gaping hole somewhere up there. The internet is breaking down walls and ways of working. All the feedback that have come my way has only reinforced the belief that the era of the business card and what it stood for is clearly in the past…..”

Of course, I’d be silent on how some folks felt that it was plain wrong (‘bordering on arrogance’) to assume that most people would be on twitter and would want to connect with me on twitter. ( ‘Business cards provide options’, was also heard!). For now though, that argument isn’t going too far with me. Will keep you posted. Also, at the end of this conference, I still have a clutch of business cards to sort given to me by people. I only have the satisfaction of not having given out any.

That day, much after the conference, I was checking in at the airport. I didn’t realise that my shirt continued to sport the badge. An old lady with a quiver in her voice that didn’t energy and curiosity, was seated next to me at the airport She was visiting her grand kids in Mumbai she said. We spoke about the weather and such else. After a while, she asked, ‘what is that trinket pinned on your chest’?

Now, it had been a long day. I was tired. I took a moment to gather my energy and wondered where I should begin. She wasn’t in any mood of waiting though. With a smile and mischief filled half wink said, “Whatever it is, it looks good. I haven’t seen it before. Besides, its close to your heart”.

That settled it well!

Running the learning function – #PhilipsHRTalks

Philips HR Talks is turning out to be a powerful medium for conversation, sharing and exchange of ideas. Put together by the wonderful combination of Yashwant Mahadik and Gautam Ghosh, this has indeed taken shape as a platform for sharing ideas, thoughts, experiences in Human Resources.

This is an evolving niche. and Yash sets the context for the Philips HR Talks here. #PhilipsHRTalks has acquired a niche of its own generating great interest in the HR community, students and academia in this geography.
When Gautam invited me over to share thoughts on Learning in the modern day context, I was only more than happy to participate. I chose to title the talk “Running the Learning Function”, keeping my own experience of running a marathon to give a narrative coherence.
Here is the full video.

It had to be straight forward and simple. At the same time, I endeavoured to bring to fore the challenges and dilemmas that accost every learning leader and aspects that perhaps will help in building a ‘learning organisation’ of sorts.
The aspects that I thought pertinent, include
1. The importance of keeping ‘learning’ simple and helping people ‘see through’
2. The need for chunking and keeping learning in small chunks
3. Elements of collaboration and its impact on learning
4. Building commitment and the aspects that aid in that journey
5. The need for building choice inherently in the system
6.  The seeking for creating meaning
7. The critical role of community!
As much as these are aspects of learning this indeed are the components of my story of running! I had great fun putting it together. Do give it a look. The warm and generous feedback has been beyond my expectations. Thats given a very happy ring to it.
Long after I completed the talk, a good friend and fellow runner passed this video to me. I wish I had seen it before. For these perhaps are the stages in running the learning function as well!

As always, would love to hear your views.

Some questions for L&D

How many times have you gone to a learning / HR conference or conclave and listened to speakers wax eloquence on any / all of the following topics ?

  • Relevance of L&D
  • L&D needs a seat at the table
  • L&D’s Alignment to business
  • How do we measure L&D / Kirkpatrick /
  • L&D’s return on investment
  • How do we work with Learning Styles

These topics have stayed on the discussion table for many many years now.

No, I have nothing against the topics per se. ( Only perhaps with this “learning styles’ stuff which is  fundamentally very wobbly ) That they are debated with passion and commitment Ad nauseam leads us to ask many questions. As a profession, the question that begs a convincing answer is this : “Have we moved the needle or are just flooring the accelerator and while holding on to the brakes!”

If there is still ‘DEBATE’ about the ‘relevance of L&D’ or for that matter “L&D needs a seat at the table”, it is but obvious that we still have a long distance to go in getting to be relevant in an organisation’s scheme of things?

Now, here is a simple question that a manager asked me many years back. “If you are making a difference to me, would you need to even have to talk about your work to me?” Ofcourse not, I thought, back then. That question needs no answer, to date!

The pace of change in the world can be mildly described as frantic and fundamental concepts and new approaches to work have emerged. L&D as a function that ‘provide’s knowledge and skills to the organisation is as dated as the dinosaur.

The coming of the Internet has forever changed the way knowledge is accessed! Knowledge is literally in the hands of employees. Peering at them through mobile devices and monitors. And an array of the best of teachers and learners are ever present on the web, to teach their craft. On you tube. On twitter. Numerous blogs and a spectrum of other sources.

The quintessential L&D professional : the ‘point-solution-provider’ who seeks to deliver programs, counts mandays and measures how satisfied learners were with the program so delivered, is dead wood! Or maybe worse than dead wood.

It is time ( long overdue infact) for L&D to relook at our roles. And do something about it. If ‘enabling the organisation to perform better / become more ready for the future’ (and their variants) are what presumably are reasons for L&D’s existence, isnt it basic expectation that we are more aware of the various ways in which that can be done. Especially in the modern technology enabled context. ( Delivering vacuous programs certainly isn’t one of them).

It is a no-brainer that the right answers are always a product of the correct questions! There are a different set of questions, in my opinion that we must be debating in conferences now.  Here are the top 5.

1. With knowledge freely available, can L&D enable the organisation to leverage knowledge, at the place of work, by the employee, his peers and his immediate manager? How can we facilitate this access and leverage of knowledge better?

2. Can employee’s experience from such leverage become new learning for the organisation at large? In essence how does learning get embedded firmly in the context of work? What role can L&D play in enabling line managers to learn, coach, teach on the job?

3. How do we move from ‘point-solution-provider’ to enabler of continuous non-intrusive learning and create a choice palette for employees to seamlessly learn ( with the accent resting on ‘choice’ for the employee)? In essence how do we redefine the way work gets done? How do we help recast jobs and job content with ample avenues for learning?

4. Conversations within an organisation are the soul of an organisation. Can L&D enable such conversations? These can become the bedrock for collaborative approaches to work and learning. The consequent relationships that conversations  foster are but a corollary benefit!

5. How do we transfer the onus of learning and development back on to every single employee and his manager? How do help the organisation to place a premium on continuous renewal and growth? How do we hold the mirror constantly for the organisation and for ourselves?

How do we make ourselves redundant, in doing what we are doing now?

We would need to evolve granular answers to these.  And perhaps unearth more such questions and seek answers. I make no claim to have it all sorted out!  But are we even thinking about these ? Could we atleast, move on ? And atleast ask new questions like these in the conferences we attend ?