Early May saw the Learning Technologies conference take place (in person!) in London. Typically held in February / March, it was postponed this year to May due to COVID. The event drew a crowd of learning leaders–mostly from North America and Europe—to discuss all things learning tech.
It was my first in-person conference since the pandemic started, and man was it fantastic. There really is something about connecting face-to-face (not through screens) that makes me, at least, feel more alive and connected.
Here are my 5 biggest takeaways from the experience.
DEIB & Learning was a running theme
It was clear that Donald Taylor and the event team intentionally wove diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) into the conference program. The speaker lineup, for example, was clearly crafted to include people with a range of different backgrounds and perspectives.
And in the opening keynote, author and speaker Matthew Syed talked extensively about the value of cognitive diversity. I appreciated his emphasis that the more complex the problem or situation, the more diverse perspectives might help reveal innovative solutions. He also illustrated how cognitive diversity and demographic diversity are not the same, but are often correlated.
That said, the panel on diversity, inclusion, and learning wasn't particularly well-attended. Perhaps 30 or 40 people showed up, whereas other sessions drew well over 200 attendees. To be fair, the panel was scheduled at the end of Day 2, when many people were already leaving to catch planes and trains. Perhaps some people wanted to attend but couldn't.
Speakers emphasized growth mindset and partnering outside the L&D function
In addition to DEIB, during the 2 days of the conference we heard a lot about growth mindset and the importance of partnering outside the L&D function.
Growth mindset, a term coined by child psychologist and Stanford professor Carol Dweck, has made its way into the L&D ethos in recent years. Fundamentally, it's the belief (mindset) that talents can be developed, rather than being innate gifts we're either born with or not. This year's Learning Technologies conference featured lots of talk about the importance of fostering a growth mindset in organizations. There's a growing understanding that growth mindset can help build learning cultures and foster things like collaboration and innovation.
Another theme that wove its way into many other presentations was partnering with teams outside the L&D function. Speakers talked mostly about working with other talent / HR teams, but some mentioned legal, IT, procurement, and other functions. Overall, I was thrilled to see an emphasis on reaching out and partnering. L&D functions are finally looking up and around, thinking about how to break down the silos that have existed for so long in so many organizations.
Participants were most interested in skills and learning analytics
The sessions that were most heavily attended had to do with 2 things:
- Learning analytics and learning impact. There were 2 sessions in particular that focused on learning analytics and measuring impact. Learning leaders seem to be moving away from the long-held conviction that, to be of any value, learning analytics must prove a direct, causal link between learning activities and business outcomes. That conviction has, I believe, held L&D functions back from trying to measure anything other than "bums in seats" and "smile sheets." So I was thrilled that the presenters at Learning Technologies focused on how to identify correlations (not causation) between learning activities and outcomes the organization as a whole cares about. They talked about relating learning activities to outcomes like employee engagement, diversity and inclusion, production efficiency, strategic priorities, or even sales. One of the speakers, Peter Manniche Riber, showed a slide titled, "Alternatives to the Happy Sheet" that might have been the most-photographed slide of the conference.
- Skills. Based on session content and the questions asked during Q&As, most organizations are still at the very beginning of their skills journeys; nobody has it figured out. L&D functions are grappling with the question: What skills do we have in our workforce, and what skills will we need in the future? They're interested in systems, processes, and tech that can help them map the current and needed skills in their organizations. One of the most interesting tidbits about skills came up during Day 2's opening keynote, when Marco Dondi of McKinsey & Company shared research that identified 56 distinct elements of talent (DELTAs): skills and abilities that will be key to work in the future.
People were happy to connect in person
I wasn't the only one thrilled to be in person with people again. Learning Technologies draws many loyal attendees—I talked to at least 10 people who've come every year for a decade—and participants were incredibly excited to see old friends and colleagues after a 2-year hiatus.
Talking to the conference organizers, I was struck at the thought that was put into enabling people to connect in meaningful ways. Breaks were 45 minutes long—longer than many other conferences I've attended—to allow people to have good conversations. There were lots and lots and lots of evening networking events and parties. And in true European fashion, wine was served at lunch. It was clear to me that the conference organizers know exactly how people derive value from the conference—and it often doesn't have to do with the speaker lineup.
Skills & mobility tech vendors were missing from the exhibition hall
Finally, it was interesting to note that a number of key skills and internal mobility vendors didn't have booths in the expo hall. Instead, I saw lots of LMSs, LXPs, microlearning platforms, coaching offerings, and content providers.
I should note that some of the vendors who did have booths are doing some really interesting things with skills. They're incorporating skills data into their products and using skills to, for example, make tailored content and learning recommendations. But in these cases, skills tended to be part of the offering rather than the offering.
The mix of vendors who were in the expo hall isn't surprising; it's pretty standard for most learning tech conferences. Still, given how important skills tech and talent marketplaces are within learning tech right now—and given the interest in skills expressed by conference attendees—I was surprised not to see at least a few of the bigger players.
The next Learning Technologies event is their Autumn Forum, a 1-day follow-up to the May conference that'll be held in October 2022. The Autumn Forum is included in the price of the May conference ticket, and attendees told me they like the opportunity to reconvene after less than a year. It helps keep ideas fresh.
Next year's conference has already been scheduled for 3-4 May, 2023. I have to say that, weather-wise, London in May is much more pleasant than London in February. Shifting the timing of the conference is perhaps one of the silver linings of COVID. I look forward to next year.
Heather Gilmartin Adams
Heather is a senior consultant at RedThread Research. Trained in conflict resolution and organizational development, Heather has spent the past ten years in various capacities at organizational culture and mindset change consultancies as well as the U.S. Department of the Treasury. She holds a masters degree in international affairs from Columbia University and a bachelors degree in history from Princeton University. She has lived in Germany, China, Japan, and India and was, for one summer, a wrangler on a dude ranch in Colorado.