Three Better Practices for the Future of Professional Development

Far too many professional conference and seminar sessions still look exactly like the instruction we baby boomers experienced in high school or college. We might learn better and have more fun if they looked a little more like the playfulness in our elementary school experience.

Even when we moved learning online, we initially attempted to move these limitations into webinars, podcasts and other professional development resources. Despite the power of our new tools and technologies, too many people are still trapped in a life experience worldview and too few people are willing to risk creating a different learning culture. Here are three better practices in professional development I think would make most associations and nonprofits more effective in serving their members and stakeholders.

Collaborative Learning. Many people now have a strong preference for collaborative learning and this will continue to grow into the future. This preference is not just limited to online learning using group collaboration technologies. I also see more professions adopting problem-based learning, action learning, and other methods for co-creating the learning experience. If we pause to be historically honest, we have always created new knowledge this way, building on what others have learned, but we let the design of our learning experiences around the sage on the stage confuse us about how learning really happens. Learning has always been collaborative. We just have better tools now to make this a significant part of our learning culture.

Repurposing and Extending Knowledge. Chris Anderson explained this idea well from a marketplace perspective in his book The Long Tail. I look at the same potential from a learning perspective. Why waste anything when we have so many channels for delivering what we have learned and so many people have different learning style preferences anyway? An increasingly popular example of repurposing in associations is offering non-conference participants web access to all recorded sessions and supporting resources at an affordable price. I just heard an even better idea this week in an interview with an association member. She wanted 15 minute knowledge segments accessible on the web that she could use in the limited time she has for periodic staff training. Web 2.0 gives us many creative options for repurposing and extending knowledge.

Anticipatory Learning. I explore this process in-depth in my book, Anticipate the Future You Want: Learning for Alternative Futures. Anticipatory learning is a framework for acquiring the knowledge and skills to understand future possibilities and the ability to collaborate in creating a preferred future. When learning faces forward in this way, knowledge becomes a force field flowing into new possibilities. I feel strongly that associations and nonprofits have a particular responsibility to prepare their members and stakeholders for the future. They are responsible for helping their constituents learn and evolve to thrive in changing conditions. At a minimum, this means monitoring trends and issues and their implications to continually renew and keep relevant the knowledge in any field.

Valuing Collaborative Learning for Leading Change

You teach who you are and what you value. Who you are—your own unique spirit, personality traits, energy—shines through every word you say, everything you do, every decision you make. What you value about life and learning will also shine through and give a message, consciously or not, about what’s OK and what’s not OK.

This observation by Sharon Bowman, author of The Ten Minute Trainer, jumped out at me while skimming for some fresh ideas to make an upcoming workshop on creating a results-oriented culture more interactive. What I value most is collaborative learning.

Adults prefer to learn by building on their knowledge and experiences and want to move quickly from theory to practical application. With the advent of collaborative learning technologies, we can create and share knowledge with teams and communities of people inside and outside our organizations with increasing ease.

I see myself as a facilitator of collaborative learning. I am too intellectually honest to step into this role of learning facilitator without doing my own research and learning. To do less than this would dishonor the trust the group is extending to me. I only make one demand. I hold learners accountable to a vision that they should strive to learn to be the best they can be. My job is helping them discover the ideas, insights and actions that hold the greatest potential for them.

The learning processes I use in a workshop are the same processes any effective learning community has to cycle through whether they are in a meeting room together or meeting online. Any learning community has to discover the relevance and significance of the knowledge for their own situations while at the same time building a sense of camaraderie and trust. You do this best through designs that balance discovery with dialogue. Everyone has some knowledge or experience to offer to the group. Everyone has the ability through dialogue and reflection to transform new thinking into relevant changes for their world. Effective learning experiences connect these new ideas and practices to everyday actions. Learning is discovering how to lead change in your life, organization or situation.

What I value about life and learning is that they are inseparable and essential to each other. Our lives feed our learning and our learning feeds our lives. Our lives are lived most deeply in community with others. In collaborative learning, we prepare a feast of possibilities for each other.

Demographics as Destiny or Opportunity?

Many analysts look to demographics as defining our destiny to a larger degree than I’ve ever fully wanted to accept. Sure the implications are important and easy to track. You can count how many people in each generation will need schools, homes, health care and pensions. It would be foolish to ignore this.

An aging population does rearrange the priorities of our economy. If we have to count on baby boomers consuming to lead us out of this recession, we are in for a long recovery. Most of us have the stuff we need. So until we need the money to replace our incomes, more of us may be helping push the U.S. personal savings rate to an all-time high this decade (though still under 5 percent of disposable personal income). A nation’s savings are transformed into investments, possibly in the innovations and new technologies that will renew our economy for the long term.

People also fret a great deal about how to provide healthcare for so many older people. It’s the end-of-life interventions that contribute most to the $2.3 trillion Americans spend on healthcare. What we have been doing is completely unsustainable for those with health insurance and unjust for those without. We already know much of what will work: a greater emphasis on prevention, relying on evidence-based therapies, and wringing the inefficiencies and negligence out of the system. We just might finally get on with these solutions as part of healthcare reform in the Obama administration. These reforms plus unprecedented investments in the science of living longer, healthier lives challenge the assumption that we are doomed to see healthcare expenditures rise dramatically with an aging population.

Another conundrum is how to subsidize these longer years of life when Social Security is headed to insolvency and fewer people have defined benefit pension plans, or if they do, they are underfunded or at risk in economic shifts. We do have great challenges ahead to figure out how to redefine retirement and our elder years as meaningful and productive seasons of our lives. The innovations are starting to emerge: changing benefit policies to support phased retirement, recruiting seniors to more meaningful forms of volunteerism, and offering more services to support aging in place.

I even see long needed changes in attitudes toward younger generations. More organizations have decided they cannot leave future recruitment and development to chance. They are intervening with programs to attract and train younger people for the opportunities their elders will soon be vacating. Before the recession forced hiring freezes and downsizing on many organizations, many associations were quite interested in succession planning for volunteer and staff leaders.

Major demographic shifts do change our priorities but they will only define our destiny if we fail to act on the opportunities they bring. If we are seeing a global demographic earthquake as one economist wrote, let’s hope what shakes loose from the system are any beliefs and practices that restrict human possibility and dignity at any age.