Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Conferences as personal development

Mingle at FITC by Dan Zen, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by Dan Zen

I go to quite a lot of conferences, project meetings and other academic gatherings and feel privileged to be able to do so. I meet so many talented people and get lots of ideas for my own work. Very often the seeds of new projects and cooperation are sown at these gatherings. I often put a lot of time and effort into writing reports and blog posts about the events I attend and hope others will be suitably inspired (my last post on this blog is a perfect example). However I have also realised that colleagues at home are seldom as interested in my discoveries as I used to expect  - they have other things on their minds quite simply.

An article by Karen Dillon in the Harvard Business Review, It’s OK If Going to a Conference Doesn’t Feel Like Real Work, had me nodding in recognition all the way through. She used to feel obliged to make copious notes at conferences and write lengthy reports full of useful links for her colleagues in order to prove that she had been working hard while away from the office. There's a certain feeling of guilt involved in not being at your desk or in the classroom that requires you to over-compensate. However, noting that her colleagues were not exactly captivated by all her reports and tips, she realised that she had to change her perspective.

Once I gave up being the “super attender,” I started to engage with fellow attendees completely differently. I remember them, personally, and their areas of enthusiasm. For years now, I’ve been able to connect people—helping colleagues or peers find just the right person to talk to because I remembered meeting someone at a conference, absorbed their perspective in the moment, and kept it in mind (rather than recording their credentials in a report).

Basically the benefits of participating in events are mostly personal, widening your network, making connections, gaining understanding and getting new ideas. As a manager Dillon has adopted a policy of letting her staff go to conferences and enjoy the experience rather than feel they have to pay for it through reporting back. The pay-off for the organisation may come later when you are able to put a colleague in touch with someone you met at a conference or are able to use your network to solve a local problem. The benefit to your institution is that you get a chance to grow. You shouldn't need to prove that it was worth the time.

This seems to be part of a bigger issue. We are still rather constrained by feelings that we only really work when we're in our workplace and that any time away from there is an easy option. It seems we are in a rather long period of transition between traditional models of working/teaching/learning and new models. From office hours and desk time to flexible working, from teaching content to facilitating learning, from testing memory to solving problems. Many organisations and people are caught between these models and both can confusingly apply in the same organisation, often in the tension between the organisation's vision and reality. In theory we support flexibility but there's still the deep-seated belief in traditional values. Teachers can try innovation but risk getting bad evaluations from students who expect the teacher to "teach" i.e. lecture. So when we go to a conference or anything that's away from the office we still feel we need to compensate for not "being at work". Old habits die hard and this transition period is likely to continue for some time.

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