Unconference Learning for HR Learning and Development Leaders
Unconference Learning for HR Learning and Development Leaders

With non-stop technological innovation, corporate learning is evolving rapidly. So, how can busy L&D directors learn better and stay up to date on new educational methods, tools, and best practices?

Innovators in a variety of fields, including learning, are experimenting with new types of knowledge exchange. Unconferences are increasingly popular, especially in sectors affected by digital transformation.


The benefits of an unconference

An unconference offers a quick, effective way to get new insights. It also helps bridge the gap between knowledge and implementation. Professionals who organise unconferences include software developers, UX designers, neuroscientists, astronomers, computational biologists, and digital librarians. Virtually all of them report positive experiences. Many scientists even find these informal exchanges more valuable than traditional conference talks.  

What are the reasons behind this phenomenon? How does a live peer exchange format benefit these diverse professional groups? In peer-to-peer exchanges, professionals get the information most relevant to them. Peer conversations go beyond information sharing and approach individual consulting. Participants can understand, for example, how a new strategy or software would apply to their particular situation. Brainstorming and instant feedback bring new ideas closer to implementation.

Catalysing innovation and enabling participants to leave a learning event with a clear action plan is more likely after an unconference. More than 91% of over 100 educators who participated in an unconference in 2018 in the US reported that the experience “caused changes in their practices and in student learning”. This is a noteworthy outcome when compared to more passive forms of learning and professional development.


How does an unconference work?

The format looks remarkably simple, but success depends on gathering the right group of people. Ideally, participants should have diverse experiences within a specialised field, such as in our case Learning and Development (L&D).

An unconference is democratic. Everyone can participate, and everyone has the right to lead a discussion. At the same time, this is not a freeform event: clear rules should be put in place. The time limit, the maximum number of discussions, and the maximum number of people per discussion should be set in advance.

Here is an example from the MERIT experience. Before the unconference, all participants can propose discussion topics. If there are more discussion topics than slots available, attendees cast a vote – for example through an app, or by placing ticks on a whiteboard. The top discussion proposals are then selected.

Each discussion topic is assigned a table. The person who proposed the topic acts as a facilitator. All other participants can move freely between tables. At the end of the set time, participants at each table write down the takeaways from their discussion.

The beauty of an unconference is that it is so versatile. You can adapt these rules, or add your own. With good organisation, a great group of people, and some tolerance for unpredictability, the ROI is significant.


Case study: unconference of HR and learning & development directors

The unconference at the 2020 MERIT Annual Summit, a global L&D and executive education conference, created quite a buzz onsite and in participants’ social media postings.

The two unconference sessions were fully self-organised. Only the venue, the maximum number of discussion groups, and the time limit were established in advance. Delegates proposed discussion questions and voted on them through an app.

The topics were diverse and provocative, including “Dealing with toxic leadership behaviour”, “Are your employees afraid to fail?”, and “How to engage the whole organisation on the strategy”. The relaxed and supportive environment stimulated the sharing of experiences, challenges, and tips.

Great session. Learned a lot about concrete preoccupations hitting large and not so large organisations,” said Mathieu Nicodeme, Director, Tangible Growth. And Natasha Bonnevalle, Partner, THNK School of Creative Leadership, commented, “Great topics at the unconference – and learning so much from the experts and all the experience in the room.

Not many HR and L&D unconferences exist yet. This experience demonstrated that the format is highly engaging and brings out high-stakes, sensitive topics that can be difficult to discuss otherwise. Participants acquired concrete ideas to try out at their organisations.


Your unconference experience

Learning and development leaders can best judge for themselves the value of engaging innovative learning formats at interactive, collaborative events. Experience across a variety of fields shows that unconferences are effective for benchmarking and catalysing innovation. It is a worthwhile investment with an immediate ROI.


Unconference on “Rethinking Learning in a Connected World” with learning leaders from top companies and academics at the 2020 MERIT European Summit co-hosted by LinkedIn in Paris on 18 September. Claim your complimentary pass here.


By Ani Kodjabasheva