NZIM Ringside at ASTD

It’s big and busy – but never boring. With 7000 delegates, nearly third from offshore, and 300 workshop/seminar sessions packed into five days, the ASTD International Conference delivers few choice dilemmas. As delegate I had 18 opportunities to attend sessions over the five days. If nothing else, it helps explain why some delegates simply walk out if their first choice of presentation doesn’t meet expectations.

This year the sessions were in 10 streams offering both professional and personal enhancement on careers, e-learning, leadership and management development, learning as business strategy, innovation measurement and education, organisational change, performance consulting, personal and professional effectiveness and training fundamentals.

As special feature of this year’s conference, four pioneers in the field of workplace learning and performance were invited to make presentations – Margaret Wheatley of Berkana Institute, Ken Blanchard of One Minute Manager fame, Peter Block of Designed Learning and Donald Kilpatrick creator of the Kilpatrick evaluation model.

Highlights for me were:
* New concepts of thinking.
* New concepts of leadership.
* Less of focus on e-learning and technology and picking up on the importance of social connectivity; which fulfils the John Naisbit prediction “high tech – high touch”.

Learning and reflection
Margaret Wheatley took as her theme “Who can we be for the world?”. In other words, what can those working in the area of training and development do to motivate, inspire and bring wisdom to people who are suffering withdrawal symptoms as result of generally increasing stress compounded by fear of SARS or war.

Wheatley posed number of questions; how might we need to change, how to be leaders in different context, how willing are people to come together?

She suggested that the easiest way to get cooperation was to ask people “to listen to what is different”. It prompts people to listen more carefully and move closer to each other.

Wheatley also questioned the level of thinking and reflection happening inside organisations. How much time is given to learning from what we are doing or to learning from experience? Wheatley challenges us all to champion learning, to be more reflective and to find time to think.

She also suggests leaders should not be heroes but “hosts” who make people feel they are welcome, respected and given the opportunity to contribute.

For these sorts of ideas to flourish Wheatley suggested you have to start where there is energy for change, where people want to contribute and participate. Don’t worry about the level of the group or lack of budget, she urged, but start with the passion and see where it takes you. And never underestimate the power of small group to effect change. It’s case of finding the issue, finding the moment and speaking up for what we are about.

Wheatley concluded that the future is going to get more difficult and it is time to get back to the fundamentals of healthy images. Increased stress can already be seen in health statistics, sleeplessness and lost time at work. She suggests that you may need to be the one peaceful person in your workplace – others can draw on you.

“We must take care of ourselves so we are not knocked off our course. We must start reflecting, thinking and giving birth to our images.”

The fourth wave
Wheatley’s presentation complemented that of Dr Karl Albrecht – author of Brain Power and human relations development expert who believes we may be poised in time of transition. Both social and work cultures, he says, are moving into rarely experienced “period of anxious self-examination” when basic beliefs are questioned and minds open to new ideas.

Albrecht suggested the aftermath of 9/11 events has forever impaired people’s sense of the comfortable, self-indulgent, produce-and-consume pattern of living. Priorities have shifted toward finding meaning rather than money. This is reflected both at individual and company level.

He believes the time of questioning could be characterised as the fourth great wave of change. The first three, identified by futurist Alvin Toffler, are agriculture, industrialisation and the one we’re currently riding – information. The fourth, says Albrecht, will be the wave of consciousness – the “brain wave”.

The last unexploited capital asset in business is human capacity to think productively. Jeff Taylor, CEO of the internet job exchange firm, talks about the fast approaching “smart gap” – shortage of competent knowledge workers.

One of the irresistible trends of Toffler’s ‘third wave’ is steady shift in the working population from ‘thing-workers’ to ‘think-workers’. This shift to think-work may force us to completely rethink human education.

In order for the energy of the ‘fourth wave’ to kick in Albrecht suggests we need to sweep away debris left by some deeply embedded myths.

Myth #1: Intelligence is basically fixed – gift, or genetic endowment that can’t be changed – ie, your IQ defines your potential in life.

Truth #1: The concept of IQ is one of the most destructive propositions that’s ever emerged from the education industry. An IQ test only assesses small portion of person’s mental competence, and certainly not the most important parts.

Myth #2: Brain power is basically matter of IQ. The higher your IQ, the more successful you’ll be in life and vice versa.

Truth #2: Brain power is only loosely connected with IQ. We all know people with super-high IQs who have made miserable failures of their lives; and there are many people with very “ordinary” IQs who have learned to use their gray matter effectively for their own success.

Myth #3: person who arrives at young adulthood is about as smart as he or she is ever going to be.

Truth #3: We are all “works in progress”, if we choose to be, and should be getting smarter from life experience.

Albrecht says this ‘fourth wave’ will be powered by combination of factors.

• The sheer hunger, on the part of most employees and many managers for return to the focus on people.
• The prevailing attitude of mistrust and cynicism on the part of so many workers, and need on the part of executives to lead people where they are already going – they want purpose and meaning in their lives.
• The ever-widening acceptance by corporate leaders of the impact and value of brain training as high-payoff investment, combined with the continued failure of the public education system to supply enough smart people to the workforce.
• The relentless dumbing down of most Western cultures by the dominance of TV, films, and entertainment disguised as news, leaves an educational gap that will not be filled by any other commercially motivated enterprise. This leaves the employer as the educator of last resort.

In his conclusion Albrecht questioned whether we can “take the opportunity to build smarter and saner businesses, and by extension smarter and saner society?”

The need is undeniable; the means are another matter. But we had better find the answers, and soon, said Albrecht.

These are important issues for managers and NZIM at time when I believe New Zealand managers are slowly but surely moving back to more rigid concepts of management and leadership compared with the rest of the world.

The second part of my ASTD report includes feedback on concepts of leadership from Ken Blanchard and Frances Hasselbein, chairperson of the board of governors of the Peter Drucker Foundation for Non-profit Management. It will explore the views of Dr Jim Loehr, recognised worldwide for his contribution to the field of performance psychology and of Peter Block who discussed the concept of Social Architecture – new role for leadership.

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