Pictures from an Exhibition - 1In November last year, I wrote about my contrasting reactions to the CIPD Annual Conference in Manchester and the HR Unconference in London. One conclusion that it was hard not to draw was to question quite what the CIPD Annual Conference was attempting to achieve, and whose benefit it was attempting to achieve it for. As I remarked at the time, footfall and attendance both seemed to the reasonably eagle-eyed attendee to be surprisingly low: it was difficult to avoid the suspicion that those paying handsomely for exhibition space might be questioning the wisdom of their investment.

While it was evident even before I arrived that the Learning Technologies 2011 & Learning and Skills 2011 event, held at London’s Olympia on 26-7 January 2011, was not going to be a small, informal, grassroots/bottom up even in the style of the Unconference, I’ll admit that I was interested to see just how busy the event would be. As it turned out, and as some of the photos illustrating this post demonstrate, it turned out to be very busy indeed.

Taking in the event, there were two immediately obvious explanations for what amounted to what was at times a near crush of people. Firstly – and significantly, given the cost of attending the CIPD Conference – the event was free. And not just the event, but also the entire programme of just under 200 45-minute seminars at the co-located conferences/exhibitions. (A happy contrast with the CIPD event, where the attendee was unintentionally left to ponder the comparative benefits of a) paying to hear the HR guru speak for 50 minutes or b) spent the same amount of monay on quite a few copies of the whole of their latest book and then handing them out to those who’d benefit most from reading them.)

Many of these seminars were effectively, of course, sales pitches by service or product providers: given that one conference focus was Learning Technologies, this should come as little surprise. Nor should it come as a criticism: a live presentation is, for what are often ironically screen-based solutions, more informative than a provider’s website can authentically provide. (There is a perverse reluctance for IT solutions in any field to demonstrate themselves on the very screens that they would used on if only we could see a proper demo before we were persuded to sign up!). But many were also presentations by HR or L&D practitioners from major organisations – including NHS South Central, Royal Bank of Scotland, the Mortgage Advice Bureau. And the Conference sessions included contributions from organisations that included Manchester Business School, North Carolina State Government, Bupa, Eversheds LLP and L’Oréal.

Pictures from an Exhibition - 3There was something else that I also couldn’t help but notice, given our recent blog post about the emergence of new communication channels. If someone had told me five years ago that one of the organisations delivering a seminar at an event like this would be the commercial arm of RADA, one of our oldest and most prestigious drama schools, I might just have been doubtful. But as the advent of video for internal communications is making clear, many of us who are required to communicate as part of our posts are now having to face the challenge of doing so to camera. (Our blog editor’s choice of Drama as a subsidiary component of his degree course suddenly looks far-sighted – not an adjective that would have been used about him in 1979.) RADA will also, of course, be facing a near total withdrawal of teaching funding in the near future (the teaching funding element of the tuition fees proposals was the bit that didn’t grab the headlines, but may yet have the more serious repercussions). Any of you who had put a fiver of a drama school being behind the curve when it comes to grasping economic opportunities from existing human talents might want to stick to the odd flutter on the horses in the future.

The second factor in the event’s obvious success and appeal is probably attributable to the learning technology focus: learning technology is a big theme in L&D – if not necessarily to quite the same extent in HR. E-learning has been with us for a long time – our blog editor remembers writing the programming specification for a multi-hurdled assessment component with supporting tutor mointoring as part of an ASK project as far back as 1996. (If that sounds like bragging, let’s counter that by saying that the quality of the results matters rather more than the newness of the technology: all the bells and whistles in cyberspace don’t help if they’re singing the wrong tune.)

Mobile learning – capitalising on the spread of cloud computing, iPads, smart phones and the like – is the next great opportunity in the wings. Personally, I can’t help but think there are as many pitfalls as pots of gold at the end of this particular rainbow (as our earlier blog posting – Everything starts with an ‘e’. Except learning or outcome – pointed out), but a comination of factors is giong to keep it prominent as a topic for a while yet.

Firstly, technology is new, bright and shiny: human beings share tendencies with many other creatures, but magpies are definitely among them. (Our earlier posts reference to the Monty Python hospital administrator still stands, by the way.) Secondly, screen or social media based learning approaches can be – although aren’t necessarily – cheaper to construct and deploy; costs of printing, distribution and travel can be slashed or removed completely. The cost saving argument can be extremely powerful – certainly strong enough to overcome pedagogic objections. And the desire of organisations to be seen to be cutting edge combines with consumer love of the latest gadget to produce a powerful coalition of the willing that should not be ignored. Mobile learning isn’t going away (ironic given its wireless connectivity – it could go wherever it wanted), so the onus is on all of us to use it intelligently and productively. Events such as the Learning Technologies 2011 event are an opportunity not just for vendors to promote their wares, but also for users to tell their stories – and potential users to ask sharp questions.

(Nowcomms online exit poll results are informative too: among the evident interest in all the wizzardy on show, there are other lessons. Don’t give out chocolate: people remember the calories but not the giver. And they may have come to ogle the hitech geegaws, but they’ll be reading HR Magazine and Personnel Today on the way home.)

Pictures from an Exhibition - 2But we can’t help see other applications of technology that might help the profession, and which build on some of the points we made when we reflected on the CIPD Annual Conference. The Olympia event was certainly popular, and making the seminar events free was certainly welcome. But holding them in open sided spaces among the exhibitors was less successful: it was crowded, noisy and sometimes hard to follow the presentations or demonstrations. Buzzy can be good, but buzz is still noise and signal-to-noise still matters.

But if learning can be remote and mobile (let’s stick with the technical arguments for a moment …), then events, exhibitions and conferences certainly can too. We appreciate some keynote speakers are expensive to hire, but hosting an exclusive online video presentation (and possibly an associated time-limited web chat) can make their wisdom availability to many times the number that can fit into a conference room. A professional body (no names, no pack drill) can still charge: a members area on a website containing this type of material can be accessible for an annual or pay-per-view fee. There are other benefits here too: increased traffic to the website, higher organisational profile, and possibly higher levels of membership as benefits of membership can be realised from any location at any time. Technically speaking, there’s nothing to stop this: the box is already wide open, even if most people are still standing inside it talking in existing groups.

It’s often said that HR needs to get closer to the CEO. But if e- and m-learning drive HR nearer to their colleagues in IT –  and both parties keep their thinking caps on – there could be greater benefits to reap. As the PurpleLearning blog commented in reviewing the exhibition and conference:

{..} what I found from this year’s exhibition was the recognition by some of the vendors of the value of enabling conversations as well as the need for bite-sized, on-demand and mobile solutions. All seemed to support the need for change in how we deliver learning. Of course, the sellers are always going to peddle their wares to the best of their ability and of course they will wow us with the latest gizmos and gadgets. But what I found refreshing was at least the acknowledgement that it’s not only about the content but collaboration too.”

That thinking could just as easily be applied beyond the literal (ie the development of new learning delivery channels). The box is open everyone: step outside and chat.

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