ATD Blog

Advancing skill as a professional learner - Part I

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Current buzz in the talent development space highlights some blinding flashes of the obvious.

  • It is really about the performance
  • We learn at the moment of need
  • Learning is the work
  • Learning must be personal

Periodically when we see these “new” ideas we have significant “ah-ha” moments as we hit our wrist on our forehead and say: I could have had a V8!

One of those moments happened recently. A Forum member was attending the ATD Learn from the BEST conference and posted a slide from the keynote session on our discussion group. It says:

Self-Learning: Learning Professionals should be professional learners

Learning can happen in multiple ways -instruction in formal courses, on the job as we see how colleagues think and act, and independently as we pull new information to pursue hobbies, solve challenges, and experience various situations.

So as the world of work and working change, how might we continually get better at being professional learners?

This is where the ATD Forum Labs comes in to play. The overarching aim of the biannual labs is to create an engaging and interactive environment for Forum members to easily connect, collaborate, and share learning practices around a unique topic selected by a member that serves as the host company. The labs are designed for senior learning professionals to experiment, literally a safe and secure playing field for new ideas related to the profession.

One of the goals is introducing new concepts, tools, and approach processes, and testing them. The intent is not to leave the lab session as an expert on the topic, but to listen to others, to experiment with new tools, to ask questions about the practices of others, to use personal reflection to gain deeper insights on the topic, and to commit to using some of the nuggets in their respective organization. Through these new insights and the expanded network, participants are able to enhance their personal point of view on the topic and add practices to their personal portfolio. Six weeks after the lab, there is a virtual discussion for participants to tell how they shared the nuggets and the resources within their organization, thus enabling many others to benefit.


With this in mind, the stated lab objectives are:

  • Expanding one’s professional network in order to build functional and strategic capability
  • Collaboratively using problem-solving and decision-making tools, techniques, methods, and models to delve deeper into a topic
  • Sharing practices and lessons learned via working out loud

Connecting: For experimentation to be authentic it requires trusting relationships. Because the role of expanding one’s professional network and building relationships is the value proposition for the ATD Forum, intentional tools and activities are used for networking. These include the opening reception where the lab is launched, an activity for small group introductions, a bio book, a networking dinner, and changing groups during the session.

Collaborating with peers: There are a variety of ways participants can collaborate with others both formal and informal including:

  • Collaborative problem-solving - Forum Labs are co-designed with the hosts to investigate a topic of interest by exploring a variety of ideas, approaches, and techniques. One of the goals is introducing new concepts and tools, and testing them. For example, in a recent lab on change, the participants were able to experience change by moving from one physical location to another. Since 2010 the Forum has relied heavily on design thinking methods that are human-centric. Using new tools, methods, and techniques supports collaborative problem-solving and operationalizes a refrain we frequently us: “building capacity by getting better at getting better.”
  • Collaborative peer-to-peer facilitation - Individual activity sessions are led by peers, senior leaders and practitioners who are dedicated to improving their respective organizations and the talent development profession as a whole. While facilitating an exercise, they not only lead through instruction, but also add their personality and experiences to a method or tool. This peer-led environment supports our motto, “Everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner” but it also creates an opportunity to work together with someone with a different style and from a different industry.
  • Collaborating around common interests – With a variety of opportunities to connect informal conversations can lead to pooling ideas and resources. At a recent lab various members discovered others using the same technology for curation and literally created an impromptu user group.

“A motto for the Forum is everyone a teacher; everyone a learner. For me, it is an honor to serve as a presenter and facilitator at a Forum meeting.”

– Forum member Jen Harnish, Training Team Manager, Sandy Spring Bank

Sharing and benchmarking: The Forum was created as a third party to enable members to benchmark. The value and impact of being able to quickly leverage practices from others is often repeated among and between members. Some unique ways this happens at the lab includes:

  • Benchmarking the host site – A major distinction of an ATD Forum Lab that differentiates it from other learning events is the ability for members to benchmark another member company in an immersive way. Labs are hosted by members who select the topic, contribute to the design and delivery, share numerous resources including their leaders, and provide the physical space for the experience.
  • Zing Rounds – One of the most valued components of the ATD Forum is benchmarking practices. One way the Forum does this is with Zing Rounds, where individual member companies share their theme-related stories in a brief burst. Zing is a noun meaning energy, enthusiasm, or liveliness. This benchmarking of case studies creates excitement about new opportunities as participants gain insights from the experiences of others and then leverage these ideas in their own practice. Presenters use slides, videos, charts, handouts, and hands-on tools to engage participants. They also provide a written summary and references.

Several years ago I was considering starting a coaching program within my organization. Soon afterward I attended a Forum Lab and one of the Zing Rounds was on coaching. I connected personally with the presenter, who shared even more resources on their process. Through several discussions and exchanges I was able to leverage all of their work and lessons learned to start my own coaching program. The connections, collaborative opportunities using innovative tools and techniques, and the sharing of practices in the Forum are invaluable resources in my personal practice.”

– Forum member Marie Wehrung, (Office of) Organizational and Professional Development, Rice University

  • Pop-up sessions, Roadshows, and Host demonstrations – There are a variety of ways to mix up the how members share. Members with a deep expertise in a practice related to the topic can share it with the entire group using a Pop-Up. Recently a member demonstrated using hackathons and Rapid Improvement Workshops. Other members have demonstrated using various technologies or practices such as Case Studies.

Impact: While the expressed goals of a Forum Lab are related to experiencing the space, culture, and challenges of another member in a way that all participants gain new skills and understanding of the theme, the ultimate goal is not the learning per se, but taking the ideas, experiences, and activity deliverables back into one’s organization and doing something with them to advance capability. While the lab is designed for experimentation through connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, the ultimate purpose is leveraging the practice of others and through new networks and experiences building organizational capability.

“Participating in the Forum has allowed me to enrich my Point of View on so many professional topics. By engaging and hearing from talent professionals from across the globe and from different industries I have been encouraged to think outside of the box and continue to develop my skills., As a result I can more easily provide innovative and enriching experiences to my employees.”

– Forum member Jen Harnish, Training Team Manager, Sandy Spring Bank

John Seeley Brown says: “It’s never enough just to tell people about some new insight. Rather, you have to get them to experience it in a way that evokes its power and possibility. Instead of pouring knowledge into people’s heads, you need to help them grind a new set of eyeglasses so they can see the world in a new way.”

The Forum Lab is powered by its membership’s desire for fresh information from the front lines, edgy research, and exchanges enabling them to navigate ambiguity and plan for the future. The lab is literally an opportunity for senior learning-leaders to conduct research related to talent in general but also to advance their personal development as a professional learner. To assist with this participants write their own performance objectives and reflect on these as they have the different experiences. But the learning does not stop at the end of the two days. There is a private discussion page for showing photos and making comments. A weekly email is sent to participants with reminders and with the results of their work, e.g. the team deliverables. There is also a 5/6 week follow-up survey which asks about implementation and sharing. Finally, six weeks later there is a vSession for participants to share what they have “done” with the insights and their expanded network.

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About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

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