Like many organizations, the US Army holds a Knowledge Management Conference each year. And like most conferences there are three kinds of activities, 1) keynote speakers, 2) practitioners telling about their KM successes, and 3) long breaks for people to network. The speaker format is also typical - three or four speakers in a row with a few minutes of Q & A at the end of each speaker’s time and then on to the next speaker.
I’ve had the honor of speaking at all of the Army KM conferences since they began in 2005, including the one just recently held. For at least the last three of those conferences, I have patiently explained to the conference organizers that having speaker after speaker is no way to run a KM conference because it violates everything we know about how people learn from one another.
This year, the 6th annual conference, was run by a very savvy group of folks at Strategic Knowledge Solutions (SKS). They heard what I had been saying year after year and asked me to help them design the conference so it would be more in keeping with the principles of KM.
The 6th annual US Army KM Conference was indeed different! On six occasions during the two and a half day conference, there was time for the audience to process what they had just heard – time to connect what the speaker said to their own knowledge and experience.
The way it worked was that after a major speech I or my colleague, Kent Greenes, would pose a provocative question based on the content. Then we would ask the members of the audience to talk to each other about that question. As I have written (see We learn when we talk) putting what we have just learned into our own words helps us build new connections in our minds and not surprisingly results in a huge jump in retention.
Each time that we took the stage we asked the audience to arrange themselves into a different configuration, (e.g. trios, pairs, etc.). And each time we gave them a different way to process what they had just learned from the speaker. Each time the room of 400 people was abuzz with noise. And each time we had great difficulty in getting them to end their group conversations – they had a lot to say to each other! When we did finally manage to get their attention back, we used the popcorn (see A Rant on Report Outs) approach to get a quick sense of what had been talked about in their small groups.
I preceded each discussion period with a brief four sentence lecture on what we were going to be doing and the principle behind the activity. This is a critical part of my practice, that is, explaining not only what I am asking audience members to do, but also the learning principle it is based upon. That practice enables audience members to use the activity in their own settings.
After the final period of time that had been set aside for processing, I asked the audience to reflect on how the experience had been for them, explaining that it had been an experiment and we wanted to know how to improve it. What I got back was an overwhelmingly positive response, surprising even the folks at SKS. We heard, “The small groups were the best part of the conference.” and “I liked how the discussion format changed each time.” The audience also had ideas for taking it even further, for example, “Some of the time put us in cross functional groups and at other times group us by similar job functions.” and simply, “Give us more time in the small groups.”
The audience’s positive response means that next year we can make the 7th Army KM conference based even more on KM principles. I can’t wait!