What did you do when you weren’t at the office today?

How to get the most out of roundtables, conferences and other knowledge transfer events.

In the last few months I’ve been involved in a number of roundtable discussions, World Café events, advisory boards, awards and publication launches, all within the in-house world. I’ve enjoyed the interactions, the company, the humour and the conversation. Some of you may even have met me at one or two of these occassions.

I’m often at Cranfield School of Management during the day (based 40 miles north of London) so getting to these events isn’t always easy, but I try hard to attend them when I’m invited. And while I value and enjoy the social and networking aspects, I also attend to listen and learn; I am definitely in ‘receive’ mode more than I am in ‘transmit’. This is because at heart I’m a researcher, and good science relies heavily on observation.

In all these events I’ve observed very interesting – and recurrent – phenomena. I’ve witnessed these before, and they have influenced our development programmes, but I thought I’d devote my next two columns to sharing some thoughts with you.

Hungry to learn

A key phenomenon I’ve observed is the strong desire to learn from others. Events are often formally structured, and some with expertise share their experiences or insights, typically with an audience or group, preceded and followed by drinks or food. During the sessions, a great deal of knowledge is shared between attendees and everyone learns a lot.

I think a great deal of value can be gained from sharing our experiences with others, while learning from theirs. How do other GCs develop influence? How have GCs dealt with demands for innovation? Who is the strongest at driving innovation? What are the qualities we should look for in the legal firms supplying us? How do some GCs cope so well in dealing with the shifting demands from regulators? I’ve heard these and many more topics being raised and considered in formal discussions and in the informal conversations that follow. I listen intently to the debates and comments, occasionally nodding when I agree with something and giving a delighted ‘hmmmm!’ when I hear something profound. I enjoy these debates and feel that afterwards I know so much more.

photo of team meeting at cafe

There is a ‘but’ coming. There is a problem with this model. Is it really plausible that just from hearing about someone else’s experience I will be able to accommodate it into what I do? How many of us return from an event like those I’ve described and do something radically different the next day, or make a serious, significant change? I doubt there are many. And that isn’t to denigrate the quality of the speakers or the audience. It is more to do with the fact that this is not how we really work.

Learning to learn

It is rare in the extreme that mechanical ‘knowledge transfer’ alone should lead to such a fundamental shift. In fact, it has been calculated by the Center for Creative Leadership that less than 10% of what shapes what we do in our roles in organisations comes from formal or informal learning such as courses or reading. 20% comes from interaction with others – which appears to suggest that such events are a good use of time. However, sadly, that 20% tends to be (in order): your immediate superior, your work colleagues and then professional colleagues from outside your organisation. Where does the 70% come from? Doing the job. And to develop new skills, competencies or approaches, that means learning over time what it is like to ‘do’ that new thing within your own context.

It is now accepted wisdom that when it comes to developing adults in a work context, the approaches that work the best (whereby people actually do something differently – and hopefully better) are those centred on application. Think about it. How many of the significant changes you have made – the ones that were met with obstacles and barriers, that required you to really work hard, influence many and do whatever it took to succeed – came from hearing the ‘sage on stage’? It may have triggered an idea, sure. It may have inspired you, absolutely. But it would be unlikely for you to be able to take their experience and apply it directly to yours.

I would argue that ‘social learning events’ (and I include conferences and seminars in this vein) can be useful and even valuable, but they need to be seen in relation to what they do and don’t add to the development process. They can only ever be a part of it because putting that learning into practice will take time and application, and because organisations and their people, processes and culture are all unique. Yet for many – and in the UK, perhaps this is due to the nature of the CPD [Continuing Professional Development] system – they occupy greater significance in ‘planned’ development than I would argue they ought to.

Perhaps there could be a shift if the question asked was not ‘what have you learned?’ from attending, but ‘what have you done?’ But for the moment, the reliance on knowledge transfer alone (from any source) as a way of helping progress individuals, the team or the function, is highly likely to fail.

The other 90%

So what can you do? Firstly: keep going to the events! They are still a rich source of ideas and experience. Attending them is not the problem. But start taking a more involved approach to what you have learned or gleaned from the event. For example, you could meet and discuss the content with your L&D team, your immediate superior, a trusted peer – in fact, anyone who can take a new perspective and help you formulate a plan so that you, or others, can apply it. If you’re a GC, you could use what you’ve learned to run brainstorming sessions with your teams on how this idea or approach could be applied in your organisation. Learning from others is the start of a learning process, not the end. That 10% will erode to 0% very quickly if you don’t work out how to create a plan to generate the other 90%.

‘Start taking a more involved approach to what you have learned or gleaned from the event.’

The other thing you can do is consult people in your organisation before you go to an event. You can do this informally over a coffee, or in a more formal way in a meeting room with handouts – you be the judge of that. But I would include those outside the in-house team. This will add different viewpoints and insight. Share with them the outline aims of the session you’re attending, the types of things it will cover, the type of learning you hope to gain, and so on. Then let them explain to you what types of impact they might like to see it have. How could it benefit the organisation as a whole? How could it benefit individual teams? Where might it need to have an impact that you aren’t aware of? Then, on your return, you can explore the new insights through the lens of these aims and agree what needs to happen next.

A number of things will happen if you do this. Principally, the way you listen to the messages at the session will differ since you’ll be primed to hear things you may not otherwise have paid attention to. It may prompt a different series of questions from you, a different form of note-taking. It will also create a basis for the follow-up conversation afterwards. Here you can explore how these ideas or approaches may or may not have utility.

It’s the last part, the ‘is this applicable here?’ that I want to talk about in the next issue. It may be something interesting, it may be something deeply significant, but is it generalisable to where you are? Maybe, maybe not. This is why I want to explore the difference between ‘best practice’ and ‘best fit’ – and why I think there is too much emphasis on the former.

But that’s for next time. Between now and then I hope to meet you, perhaps over a canapé or glass of wine, at some future event. Slàinte.

Do you have a story to share regarding your own or your team’s development, or your experiences of adding value as an in-house lawyer? Would you like myself and my colleagues from Cranfield to work with you to develop your team and how they add value? Or would you just like to get in touch and compare notes? If so, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line at paul.hughes@cranfield.ac.uk.