"Nancy pulled off a great feat at the US Army KM conference. She got the whole room talking, all 400 of them! It broke the mold of presentation after
presentation. The conference feedback was overwhelmingly, "Let's do more of this at the next conference."
COL Charles Burnett,
Deputy Director, Center for Army Lessons Learned, Fort Leavenworth, KS 913-684-9584, DSN 552-9584
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 format is also typical, with three or four speakers in a row. 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 being asked to speak at each of the Army KM conferences since they began in 2005. For at least the last three of those conferences, I have worked with the conference organizers and have done a “warm-up” activity that helped attendees build relationships with each other. But over the years, I became increasingly concerned that the format of having a large number of speakers, one immediately after the other, was wasting the enormous amount of knowledge present in the room, meaning the experienced practitioners that were sitting and just listening.
As we begin to work on the 6th annual conference I offered a design that would make better use of that knowledge. The design included six occasions during the two and a half day conference, when the audience would meet together in small groups to process what they had just heard – time to connect what the speaker said to their own knowledge and experience. The conference organizers agreed to try the more interactive approach.
At the 6th annual conference on each the discussion periods I asked the audience to arrange themselves into a different configuration, (e.g. trios, pairs, etc.). And each time 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 I had great difficulty in getting the participants to end their group conversations – they had a lot to say to each other! Each time when I did finally manage to get their attention back, I would ask a few volunteers to offer comments so that everyone could get a quick sense of what had been talked about in their small groups.
I preceded each discussion period with a brief four-sentence explanation of what they were going to be doing and the principle behind that activity. This is a critical part of my practice, 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 discussion period, I took to few minutes to I asked the audience to reflect on how having these short reflections periods had worked 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. We heard, “The small groups were the best part of the conference.” and “I liked how the discussion format changed each time.”
The change in format I was able to achieve for the 6th Annual KM Conference was far from what I would consider a “good conference design.” Nevertheless, I considered this change in format for the Sixth US Army KM conference as one of my proudest achievements!