Sunday, January 13, 2019

Conversations, community and who gets to contribute

Rachel Burnham writes: Last week I visited Manchester City Art Gallery with a friend.  We went to see two exhibitions: a collection of Martin Parr’s fascinating pictures of Manchester life from the 1970s onwards; and ‘Speech Acts: Reflection – Imagination – Repetition’ which was asking questions about what museums collect and show, whose work is shown and the narratives around them.  Martin Parr’s photographs are always worth seeing and it was great to see something of the diversity of Manchester and the changes that have taken place of this period. 

The other exhibition was less accessible and I found it harder to get my head around.  It included a gallery looking at representation and expectations, with predominantly works created by BAME artists, a gallery exploring repetition and one looking at the part played by networks and the creation of spaces in shaping artistic practices.  This focused on a gallery that had been run in Cumbria, between 1972-83 by the artist Li Yuan-chia, which was described both as a centre for the local artistic community and focus for a wider cosmopolitan network.   Whilst many of the individual works were interesting, I struggled with the overall exhibition – yet all week, the parallels between the messages I picked up from this exhibition and the work I do as a volunteer and community member in L&D and HR have been tugging at me. All week it has been teasing me and making me look again at what I do and why.

Here are some of my thoughts prompted by that reflection – they are a bit untidy and half-baked, but they set out some of the thinking that drives my volunteering.

Alongside my business, I am involved as a volunteer and community member for a number of bodies within HR and L&D.  I am part of CIPD Manchester’s Branch Committee where I have lead responsibility for both our Public Policy and our L&D work.  I contribute to L&D Connect, being one of a team of people involved in facilitating Twitter Chats and Unconferences and I co-host #LnDCoWork Manchester, alongside Julie Drybrough and Mike Shaw.   All of these things are collaborative and it is wonderful to be a part of such great teams.

Over the last couple of years, I have really moved away from wanting to put my energy into organising events that are the traditional speaker-lead events.  I have been hugely influenced by the experience of being part of the L&D Connect community.   Gradually, in my other volunteering, I have been trying out different approaches and seeing what works and what seems to most valuable to the people participating.   In part this is applying what I know about how people learn and in part this is trying to make sense of what each organisation can helpfully and distinctively contribute to our professional field – eg what part can a CIPD branch play in a major city like Manchester.   And it is also about me trying to use my time wisely and spend it doing things that I enjoy, that feel worthwhile to me.

So, as part of these teams I have hosted focus groups, tried out hackathons, commissioned Ignite talks and ‘warts & all case studies’, borrowed ideas and developed CakeCamps and BreakfastCamps as result (thank you Martin Couzins), collaborated with #HRHour (thanks to Mark Hendy) and tried out a campaign approach with ‘The Big Conversation around Parents, Families and the Workplace’, including a series blog articles by a range of contributors.  All based in the Manchester area.   All with an emphasis on interaction, where participants are active contributors.

What all of this activity has in common is creating opportunities for conversation and creating communities of practitioners.   This is what creates opportunities for real learning and change – I think.
I think smaller, local and regional events have the opportunity to be much more radical and experimental in design than many of the national events.   With a smaller event it is possible to try out an approach, to play a bit and see what works.   And if it doesn’t go according to plan – that is OK – what can we learn from that? The costs are less, there is less public exposure, less commercial pressure, less risk if we don’t quite pull it off.

I want to celebrate good stuff right around the UK and not have everything to be originated in London or driven by London or done in response to London.   There are local needs and local agendas all around the country – certainly there are in Manchester, in the North West and across the North.  We need to be addressing these issues and then sharing our lessons and expertise nationally.   
I think that face to face events can complement and run alongside on-line opportunities.  I love the way that my PLN (Personal Learning Network) has largely been developed online, but flourishes in face to face meetings too!  It doesn’t have to be an either/or.   It is great to have the international dimension and sheer diversity of an online community, plus there is the convenience factor of being able to connect with people wherever and in odd moments of the day.  But face to face has a neighbourliness to it and a depth, plus opportunities for shared meals and cake eating.

I have been working on designing events and activities that give a greater range of people the opportunity to have their say and share their experience.  I don’t subscribe to the view that we should all have the opportunity to be speakers  – but I do think that we all have stuff to contribute and relevant experience to share.  I want to create opportunities for us to be challenged by putting our own experience into a wider context and through discussion, debate, reflection, problem-solving together develop ideas to take back to our own workplaces.  You rarely get the opportunity to properly do this within a traditional style speaker led event. 

I am particularly interested in what happens when people really start listening to one another and the cascade you get when people start to open up and people respond by listening more deeply. What enables this, what sustains this and what can happen if it is set loose?

I find it interesting to see how word spreads between the different networks, communities and events that I am involved in.   I think that one of our challenges in L&D and in HR, is that people often don’t know about all the good stuff out there, the resources, networks and learning opportunities that are available to them.   So, that if someone comes into contact with the Twitter chat #LDInsight, or turns up at #LnDCoWork or finds themselves at a CIPD Manchester CakeCamp they are then amazed to discover all the different things that this then gives them access to – it is a ‘first contact’ situation that acts like a vortex into a series of other universes.  Or perhaps I watch too much sci-fi!

I am keen for CIPD Manchester to continue to develop all kinds of collaborative relationships and links with other networks and organisations operating locally.  It was great to work this year with Acas on behalf of CIPD Manchester on a joint Flexible Working Conference and it was great to support the eLearning Network with the unconference element of its Manchester event last summer.   It is easy for organisations and groups to work in isolation and be unaware or unwilling to work with other organisations operating in the same field.   We need open gates, lots of signposting and travellers to act as go-betweens.  

I wonder if by having a number of different kinds of networks in and around the Manchester area we can have a bigger impact.  I think it may depend on how open & welcoming the networks are and whether we can continue to reach out and invite in other people within our field who are less connected.   

I feel as though I have only just begun a very interesting journey and there are many possibilities ahead.  But I feel certain that conversations and building community are core to what lies ahead. 

Rachel Burnham

13 January 2019

Burnham L & D works with individuals and organisations to help them learn and work more effectively.  As part of this I help L&D professionals to be even more effective through updating their skills and know-how.  I have a particular interest in curation and the use of digital technologies in learning.  I frequently Sketchnote at events and offer workshops in Sketchnoting.