We live in a “workshop culture”. On the one hand, it is costly and exclusionary. Few can afford to travel, and the organization finds it more difficult to afford and justify the expense of moving bodies and materials to meet. Its outcomes are difficult to clearly identify, much less measure. They often contribute to communication overhead. Their format and content may be superficial or stiffen participants through overly formal approaches, thereby stifling creativity.
On the other hand, occasions to physically meet with colleagues in the network are increasingly rare. “I meet everybody not even once a year,” bemoans a senior manager.
In between, we have learned to blend online and face-to-face communication. Yet, we strongly feel that there is high value to those face-to-face exchanges, even if some of that value may not be immediately tangible. The formal work of a conference may itself be productive because of its process (including reflective practice) and outputs but also because of the informal learning (shared experience) and opportunity to connect and socialize with others.
Workshops, conferences, and other types of formal meetings provide an occasion for “closer chatting”, especially during social activities outside the formal event.
When we organize meetings, we pay attention to the coffee breaks, lunches, social outings, and other “in-between spaces”, recognizing their value to build trust in relationships, pursue individual negotiations, and even agree on what decisions will be made when we return to a formal setting. We may even feel that “when you want to solve something, it’s probably outside the meetings” or that “the most important things are decided outside meetings”.
Yet what we recognize as important in such processes is usually not related to the knowledge acquisition or transmission of formal presentations or training, which are often the explicit purpose of the events and correspond to formal learning. Therefore, we need to rethink now only how we organize workshops and meetings to support and foster the informal and incidental learning that matters, but also why we organize them.