Staying current in the ever-changing learning and development industry is a challenge for most of us. Because TTA is hosting a learning conference next week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the choices that we make for our own development. Why go to a local event over a national event? What type of networking is going to be most helpful or enjoyable to me as a professional? Of the many books that come out in our field, in which should I invest my time?
For me, a partial solution for staying current is in establishing certain habits. I try to be conscious of the cadence of my own learning and the ways that I incorporate learning into my everyday work. Some of us are so passionate about the learning field that we willingly pursue it as a hobby on our own time. Dare I admit that my personal time is consumed with other interests? Also, my goal is always to see how much leverage I can get out of the same effort. Can I do something that I want to do while also checking off something I must do from my list?
And so, for the busy professionals among us, I offer a few tips to staying current in the learning and development profession:
- Look for innovation opportunities on your own projects. This is the first and easiest to implement. You may not work in a culture amenable to design thinking. You may have no choice but rapid development. Regardless, you can define just one thing about that project that can be new or different, one thing around which you can shape a narrative that showcases your own value. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. It can be one small innovation each time that you take on a project.
- Use your work friends as a community of practice. You probably make friends at work. Many of them work in the same area of expertise. Most of them will make choices that take them to other organizations. You probably want to maintain these friendships, right? You can create your own community of practice by maintaining these relationships. Try scheduling a quarterly group lunch. Set the expectation that you want to compare notes on a different topic at each of these lunches. You can then maintain real-world friendships and learn stuff at the same time. (You can also eat lunch which you want to do anyway.)
- Follow several thought leaders on LinkedIn and Twitter (and refresh them up once a year). I’m saying to follow them, but I’m not saying to necessarily read every posting or comment that appears in your feed. You’ll only skim these as you look to see what your friends are doing (see above). In your peripheral vision, you might notice some recurring themes or patterns. (These may give you ideas for the first hack above.) Usually, if I see an interesting coinage or phrase a few times, it will nudge me to learn more, not a lot more, just enough to not embarrass myself. But the habit here is for routine perusal and occasional contribution on LinkedIn and Twitter. You can learn as you build your personal brand—two or more birds, one stone.
- Use local events to increase your readiness. It’s hard to anticipate future needs and your general readiness is strengthened by more context. Local events provide all kinds of valuable context—they can help to benchmark, network, find consultants, etc. You may also like to learn stuff, but the need for readiness alone should drive you to do the networking. If you’re a learning leader (or aspire to be one), it’s going to be more efficient for you to attend these events than it will be to skip them. It’s hard to be resourceful if you don’t have resources. Passing by these opportunities means more time working in the dark. And working in the dark is not a good idea. I think the cadence should be defined by the quality of the local event and the range of jobs you might accomplish there.
- Attend one national conference a year but make sure it does double duty (rotate through the biggies). I think attending the big conferences is a chore. It’s much easier if I have several jobs to do there. Are there specific individuals I need to meet? Are there technologies I need to review? Is there business to be done there? Going for the sake of learning, while admirable, may make it difficult in terms of getting budget approval and may prove disappointing depending the sessions you attend. I think setting up multiple objectives increases the likelihood of achieving one of them.
- Create a bigger “bookshelf” than you will read or use (reference and don’t read). For me, this includes books, articles, and blogs. In the physical realm, I have done this by creating a team library with as many books as we can buy or borrow. The goal is to have them within easy reach. In the virtual realm, I do this by bookmarking in my browser. The shortcut is to know as much about these resources as possible without reading them. Are people that I respect reading them? If so, then I can cheat and go to the index, borrow an awesome idea, and put it to use.
- Locate the industry curators and bookmark them on your browser. There are a few invaluable sites where industry analysts have aggregated and curated a bunch of information. Take the Training Industry site for example. Maybe I need to talk intelligently about the key players in some niche aspect of our industry? There is probably a top 20 list ready and waiting for me.
- Push yourself to share & volunteer when the opportunities arise. This one may be easier in my own context as an external provider than it would be internally. Regardless, there will be opportunities to share your work, showcase a project, and collaborate with others. We can pass these by because we think of it as extra work, or we can get creative and figure out how it can help with a report we have to do. We need to get in the habit of saying yes when these opportunities come along. If you’re a leader, set the cadence for your team with annual portfolio reviews, monthly/quarterly showcases, lunch-and-learns, etc. I think the secret is to keep it very simple and then repeat. I still remember my first ever (and only) annual innovation day. It was such an awesome and unsustainable idea.
What are your ideas for sharpening the saw without disrupting the flow of work? I’m looking for other shortcuts to stay relevant and informed amid considerable noise and an ever-growing backlog of important work.