Informal Learning Insight of the Month: Realizing the Informal Learning Opportunities in Everyday Meetings

In an April 2012 posting on the Psychology Today blog, Ray B. Williams suggests that “meetings kill productivity” and that by “cancel[ing] 50 percent of your meetings. . .you’ll get more work done.”

That contrasts with a finding from entrepreneur Paul Downs, who wrote in a June 2012 posting to his blog at the New York Times that meetings in his company have proven to be valuable learning experiences:

“That was when I instituted weekly meetings and started concentrating on making sure that all problems and solutions were discussed with the whole crew. Instead of concentrating on training individual workers, I have tried to turn us into a learning organization.”

So why the difference in experience?  My guess—the quality of meeting facilitation.  Just as lousy planning and facilitation ruin a formal training event, it can also ruin an informal learning event.

Consider these questions to make sure that you are receiving the most value for your investment in meetings—and to make sure that you and your colleagues can learn the most from them.

Why are you meeting?  Some organizations meet because they have a “meeting culture,” where people meet on a regular basis, because…well, just because.  It’s the third Tuesday of the month so we have to meet.

Other groups are afraid to make a move without announcing it in a meeting, even though (a) the approval of the group is not needed and (b) the announcement is either of little interest to people or only confirms what people have sensed for a long-time.  Announcements, too provide little reason to hold a meeting.  An e-mail message or LinkedIn posting usually achieves the same result, in far less time and more comfortable surroundings.

What must be accomplished by the end of the meeting?  It’s OK if the the purpose is “receiving an update on everyone’s work” or “networking with people I rarely have a chance to see,” as long as the purpose is clear from the outset—and it’s not taking you away from a more effective use of your time.

What is the agenda?  At the least, the agenda should have a list of topics to cover.  But better—an agenda should be action-oriented, with a list of actions to complete in the meeting.  This keeps the group focused on task.

Did the leader send a meeting announcement and agenda in advance (3 working days at the least, 5 at the most)?  If not, chances are, the leader has not sufficiently planned the meeting.

Did the leader and other meeting participants send background reports in advance (3 working days at the least, 7 at the most)?  Having background reports in advance provides participants with an opportunity to hit the ground running at the meeting, rather than covering basics.  This, in turn, ensures that time is used most effectively?

How effectively does the leader facilitate the meeting?  More specifically, does the leader (a) start meetings on time? (b) keep the meeting on-topic, (c) make sure that everyone who wants to has a chance to speak—and in turn (no interruptions; no one dominates the conversation), (d) interject when the meeting goes off-topic or a participant has clearly not prepared, and (e) end meetings on time?  Poor facilitation is one of the reasons most people detest meetings.  Furthermore, as long as you do so respectfully, you have every right to inform leaders who poorly facilitate meetings and suggest that they receive some training or assistance. If you can provide suggestions of areas that need improvement, that would even be more helpful.

How long is the meeting?  Williams links the research of University of Minnesota psychologist Kathleen Vohs and other neuroscientists, on “cognitive or ‘executive’ resources” of the mind and meetings, noting that people only have a limited amount of these mental resources and “once they get depleted, we make bad decisions or choices.”  Williams adds that many meetings—especially ones that go exceptionally long—sap people of this vital mental resource.  So, unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise, keep meetings brief to conserve executive resources for other purposes.

Another reason to keep meetings brief:  Meetings tend to expand to the time allotted.  The shorter the time allotted to a meeting, the more likely people will stay on topic.  If you currently regularly schedule a meeting for 60 minutes—and think the meeting is a waste of time, but others are reluctant to cancel it, suggest shortening it to 45.  Or suggest cutting weekly meetings back to bi-weekly ones.

The more effectively and efficiently meetings operate, and the more focused their attention, the more likely people can learn from them.

Some additional suggestions:

  • To promote steady improvement in meeting quality, towards the close of each meeting, debrief the meeting process.  Just ask two questions:  What worked about today’s meeting? (Try to repeat those things at future meetings.)  What could be improved?  (When people identify things, ask them how to improve them—then make the change at the next meeting.)
  • To reinforce the valuable learning opportunities in meetings, close each meeting by asking participants what they learned. The choice to answer should be voluntary, but depending on what people say, you can assess whether people are gaining any value from the meeting and, if so, what that value is.

And if the lessons are valuable, they can be captured and shared in the minutes, so others can benefit from the insights in the future. That seems to be what Pual Downs is attempting and finds that it serves as the basis of turning his company into a “learning organization.”

To see:

Tip: For more information on the role of meetings in informal learning, see Chapters 5 and 6 of Informal Learning Basics. 


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