How To Keep Learning In Our Field – Episode 39

In this solo episode, Beth Cougler Blom shares some of her approach to maintaining a learning organization at her learning design and facilitation services company. She also highlights sources for how we can all keep learning in our field, giving examples of communities of practice, podcasts, books, social media, and more.

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Podcast production services by Mary Chan of Organized Sound Productions.

Show Transcript

[Upbeat music playing]

[Show intro]
Beth Cougler Blom
Welcome, to Facilitating on Purpose, where we explore ideas together about designing and facilitating learning. Join me to get inspired on your journey to becoming and being a great facilitator wherever you work. I’m your host, Beth Cougler Blom.

Hey there, thank you so much for tuning into another episode of Facilitating on Purpose. And welcome if this is the first episode that you’ve listened to, I’m glad you’re here.

I want to share a little announcement before I get into the meat of the episode and that is sometimes when we get around Episode 39, which is what this one is, people start to wonder, ‘Oh, is this podcast going to continue? Is Beth enjoying this? [laughs] What is the future of Facilitating on Purpose?’ Well, I wanted to let you know that I am still so so jazzed about doing this podcast. It has been so wonderful to learn from all my past guests and even just have the “excuse” to be able to do these kind of solo episodes for you as well because it helps me craft and hone my own thinking about what’s going on in the field. So, yes, this is Episode 39, we will have Episode 40 dropping at the end of June. I’m going to take a break in July just like I did last year and then Season 3 will start up in early August, the second Wednesday of August. So I’m already planning great conversations and episodes to release to you in Season 3. And rest assured I have many, many ideas still [chuckles] about what to talk about and who to have come on the show to have great conversations with me about designing and facilitating learning. So there is no plan to stop at all. I still love doing this and I hope you love hearing and listening to the show as well. Always feel free to reach out and give me any feedback you want or to suggest guests that you think I should talk to in the upcoming episodes. I would love to hear from you. So let’s get on to the topic of this episode.

This episode is all about how to keep learning in our field. And I suppose as I start off, I should try to define what I think “our field” is because there are so many of you that would be listening to this episode. So I’m going to tell you a little bit about my field and if it resonates for you in what you are also experiencing in your line of work, then please keep listening and hopefully this episode is relevant for you.

I generally think of myself broadly as an education professional and I always say that my company does learning design and facilitation work. We mostly work on courses with adults for organizations such as nonprofits, associations, post-secondary institutions, government entities and so on. So we’re really generally in the business of helping people create great learning experiences and great meetings. So that’s what I think my field is.

If, when you think about your field, it has something to do with training or workshops or courses or teaching or learning, that is probably great to still continue listening to this episode because even if you might work with kids, for example, the things about you maintaining your own professional development in a learning related field would probably still be very similar to the things that I think about in my field, even though I might design mostly and work mostly with adults. So if you’re any type of education professional or have education as part of your role, I think this will be relevant for you.

One of the big things that prompted me to record this episode for you is that I was responding to a Request For Proposals this year and I was going through the document and filling in pieces about my company and how we do our work and answering general questions about how we design learning and what’s important in that and all sorts of things. And then I came across this question in the RFP that was about how we, as a company, maintain our own professional development. It was asking me to write down actual details about the policies, the practices, the training that we have in place to ensure that my personnel, the people in my company, keep current in our profession. And they gave examples of perhaps annual professional development training or regular attendance at PD opportunities or anything else.

So I had never seen a question like this on an RFP before. I don’t actually respond to a lot of RFPs, so I guess I’ll give that caveat. But this was the first time that I had been filling out such a document and had a direct question about how I was maintaining a learning organization for my own company and making sure that we kept learning in our field.

So my first thought was, wow, that is so neat that they’re asking this question because you don’t often see that. [chuckles] And that says a lot to me about that organization that put out the RFP. That they care to work with people who care about lifelong learning in the company and want to keep relevant and current in the field. So I was really happy to see that in the document.

My second thought was, ‘Oh, I wonder if we have been doing stuff this past year [laughs] in order to put it into the RFP?’ And then of course, my third thought was, ‘Of course, we have been doing that’, because we really care a lot about this and we pay a lot of attention to it. And I’m going to tell you the ways that we do.

I’m telling you this because I don’t want you to think about how to keep learning in our field just because you’re going to need to put it on an RFP one day. But I tell you that example because someday you might actually be asked and that will help you submit a better response. But of course, the real reason is we just all want to keep doing better in our fields and we have to keep learning in them because knowledge is just changing so fast and practice is changing so fast these days and we need to keep up.

So what were some of the things that I said in that document and what are some of the things that I think about and prompt my team to do as the leader of this learning design and facilitation company? I’m going to let you know.

I guess one of the first things that I want to talk about because it’s overarching is that, in the last four months, I have been working on and honing with my team, a document about the company culture that we have at BCB Learning. I was doing some work with a strategist about overarching company things; this became part of it in that I wanted to write down in just a several page document what I feel the company culture is at my company and what I want it to be as well. And being a learning organization has, of course, become part of that. We not only work on learning experiences, designing and developing them for other people, we need to keep doing this for ourselves and so I wanted to write this down in a company culture document to kind of hold our feet to the fire that we were going to do that and that would help us maintain that kind of promise to ourselves as well.

So that’s part of the thing around creating a learning organization where we care about always learning about new things every year, that I think we have to write it down in an overarching culture document and also other types of documents that prompt us to keep remembering to up our game and to write things down and embed learning into all the processes and the templates and the documents that we’re creating to help support our work. So that’s one way we can make space to continue to learn is that we just hold our feet to the fire by creating these kind of overarching documents for our company.

Part and parcel of the writing it down, of course, is to have discussions about it with my team. So one of us will write a draft of something and then the rest of us come and contribute to it and ask questions about it and then we talk about it and we make it better together. And we ask each other tough questions sometimes or try to highlight things that are written in ways that maybe the writer, the original drafter, doesn’t really realize is misaligned with our philosophies. So we are able to come collegially together to create these kind of documents and have conversations and keep making each other better. It’s one of the biggest things I like about having a team is that it’s not just me and my ideas anymore doing this work as a solopreneur. I really have to yes, bring my ideas but then listen to the team as well. So the thing about making space for learning and sharing learning together has been re-energizing and rejuvenating me in my work over the past couple of years really as I started to hire actual employees into my company that care about what we do and how we do it.

Another piece around that is the daily type of communication like that. We use Slack to communicate as a team and sometimes we’re just sharing learning related bits with each other via Slack because somebody might go to a workshop and then post in Slack to share a small bit of learning with someone else. And that kind of everyday communication is another thing that – it might seem like a small thing – but that is something thing that we can count in the category of how do we keep a learning organization alive? Just daily communication about learning our own business is really important to keep in mind. So how are you doing that with the people that you work with? Or maybe even the colleagues that you have in the field if you’re a solopreneur?

Now I mentioned documents and templates and so on. I think that’s another part of growing my team that I’ve really enjoyed is that the more people I have involved in the company, the more we have to write things down. And so we’ve been doing a lot of work on developing templates and process documents and tools and even just organizing in a way that people can find stuff. Getting better at what we do is just part and parcel of…it’s almost like reciprocal, I suppose, that the more we write things down and talk about it and discuss it, the more we can keep making it better and go look for other resources to inform it more effectively and it just helps us get more expert in what we do because we’re writing more things down and discussing it and collaborating it and then making the tools that we can rely on consistently to support us to create great courses and workshops, for example.

So we are really embedding our constant learning and constant improvement in our field into the documents that we have that support everything that we do – or a lot of what we do – [chuckles] in the organization. And that work is ongoing and I think it always will be because, as the world changes around us, we need to respond to that and reflect it in our processes and our templates and then ultimately, the products and services that we’re creating for our clients.

In this way, it makes me feel a little bit better about making space for professional development because we can so often think, well, it’s really hard to find three hours to go to a half day workshop online or something like that because, of course, we get busy in our work as well and it’s hard to eke out time for that more formalized learning experience.

But if we have the right approach to creating a learning organization, then it becomes an hourly and a daily and a weekly and a monthly thing and it becomes embedded in everything that we do. We’re always just looking to get better at what we do and share that learning back with our clients and the commitment is a daily commitment to that. It’s not every now and then we go to a webinar kind of commitment. [chuckles] So that helps me think about making space for it because it’s easy to make space here and there and it all adds up. It accumulates to something really, really big over the course of a year or over the duration of our entire careers, in fact.

That’s a little bit of the philosophy I bring to the overarching topic, I guess, of how do we make this company a learning organization and make time and space for it within? Now, I wanted to share how we do that learning and where we reach out to, to continue to learn as individuals and as a company and some of the most likely suspects, I suppose, [smiles] of where we do our learning.

One of the things that has really supported me over the time of my career is being part of communities of practice. I’ve both started communities of practice and have entered into communities of practice and it really helps me just gather people around myself that are interested in the same types of things that I am on a work level and share and grow and get real with each other as well. So I would always recommend communities of practice as a source of learning.

For me, you’ve heard me mention it before if you’ve listened to previous episodes, the Liberating Structures User Groups and community have been very impactful in my own career. I’m part of the Vancouver Island User Group that we started here in the Victoria area and beyond in British Columbia. There’s also a user group in Vancouver that I’ve been to as well and of course, if you’re somewhere else in the world, you can check the Liberating Structures website for user groups that may be operating near you.

I also started many years ago, I think it’s coming up to about 12-13 years now, a facilitators group here in Victoria, of a collection of about 300 people and growing. The same kind of thing, we’re just collecting people who are somehow involved in training and facilitation and we get together and support each other. It’s very ad hoc though. So I guess I should mention communities of practice don’t have to be things that you regularly attend. You can just dip into all sorts of communities of practice around the world and use them to continue to grow your learning.

I’ll just briefly mention a few of the other communities that I’ve taken advantage of in the last couple of years just alone. One is the NeverDoneBefore community that’s run by Myriam Hadnes. So check out NeverDoneBefore because it’s a great place to see some people doing some interesting things that you might not have seen before.

The International Association of Facilitators also has a great community worldwide and sub communities around the world. So check out IAF because you can get involved in attending webinars with them even when you’re not a member of IAF.

Locally, we have some people here in BC that are doing some interesting things, bringing people together. The Virtual Facilitation folks, Fernando and Carolina, they have free webinars that they offer to the community and they have great guests that come and facilitate different topics. For example, Jan Keck, who has been on this podcast before, just facilitated something this week through Virtual Facilitation and I was able to go as a participant and learn again through Jan, which I really appreciated.

Different sectors, of course, sometimes have their own communities of practice so, here in British Columbia, we have BCcampus which supports all post-secondary institutions across the province. I’ve been involved with BCcampus in various ways over the years and, even though I don’t work as much in post-secondary anymore – I used to work as an instructional designer in the post-secondary system – I still really benefit from watching BCcampus and what they’re doing and what they’re teaching and learning about because it just helps me stay in touch with what’s happening in the post-secondary system and, of course, bring that learning back to the types of clients in other sectors that I’m working with as well.

So for you, if you’re thinking about where to start with your learning, finding communities of practice where education-like people get together would be a great place to start or expand your learning within.

Of course, you won’t be surprised to hear that I learn from podcasts a lot, so that’s another way that we can take care of and feed our own learning in the field. Of course, I hope you’re listening to this one, Facilitating on Purpose. If you haven’t and if you’ve just joined us please go back and listen to any of the previous episodes because there are 38 other episodes that you can dig into that we’ve released until this point.

A couple of the ones that I tend to listen to quite a bit are the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast that host Bonni Stachowiak runs and the Women Talking About Learning podcast that Andrew Jacobs runs as well. These are different types of podcasts, but they’re both related to teaching and learning. And they just seem to be the ones that I tend to go back to time and time again because I always get great information and great resources that are from them as well.

Now, if you looked in my Apple Podcasts app, which is where I listen to podcasts, you might just see a whole slew of all sorts of other podcasts in there. I’ll just mention a few that I sometimes listen to that are also related to the broader field of education. One of them is the Dr. Luke Hobson podcast. Luke Hobson is an instructional designer at MIT. The Fabulous Learning Nerds is another one that I sometimes dip into. I’ve recently discovered UDL in 15 Minutes. I sometimes listen to Work Life with Adam Grant. Love Adam Grant’s work and the books that he’s written as well. Of course, Myriam Hadnes’s podcast. We’ve mentioned that one on this podcast before. The Facilitation Lab podcast with Douglas Ferguson as well is on my list and the First Time Facilitator podcast with Leanne Hughes as well is sometimes one I listen to. A new one that I’m just starting to listen to because it is a newer podcast that’s A Facilitator’s Journey with Kirsty Lewis who has been on this podcast before as well. So check out A Facilitator’s Journey with Kirsty and I will be doing the same.

Next on my list of where I get my learning is books. Now, if you were sitting here in my office with me you would look over to the left and you would see I have a built in bookshelf and it is filled with tons and tons of books. I do have an iPad, but I hardly ever use it to download books on it because I spend so much time in front of my computer. I don’t know if you feel the same. I really just love buying physical books still, especially if I know they’re going to be a resource for my work.

The last three books that I read that I thought were really interesting that I wanted to share with you were, first one, The 2-Hour Workshop Blueprint. That’s by Leanne Hughes. She’s, as I just mentioned, host of the First Time Facilitator podcast. I really liked reading this book of Leanne’s. It was short, it was sweet, it was useful. There were things that I hadn’t thought about yet even though I’ve also written an extensive book in the field. [laughs] So it just goes to show there’s always something that we can learn as to how to do this work that we do better.

The other couple of books that I’ve read recently, one is called ADHD 2.0. This is something that I’m trying to do to learn more about neurodiversity and specifically around how to support learners with ADHD. I really appreciated the learning within this book and I know that the authors have written several other books between them as well. This is the one that I happened to read, ADHD 2.0. So it’s just one of those subtopics within our work, isn’t it, that we all need to be figuring out how to support and design for neurodiversity in learning experiences. Of course, we go back to Universal Design for Learning, I mentioned that in the UDL in 15 Minutes podcast. This is just one aspect of how learners can be different from each other but honestly, when we learn more about how to support ADHD learners, we are really learning about how to support all learners. So that was really interesting read.

The last one that I’ll mention is a book more about communication skills. It’s called Smart Brevity. It’s written by a couple of journalists and their whole point is how we often talk too long and write too much [chuckles] in written spaces such as newspaper articles. But I of course read it from a learning design point of view, particularly thinking about how we can be more brief, impactful, and clear when we’re working on online courses with our clients. So Smart Brevity is a great book to read and a pretty quick one, even I think it could have been a little bit shorter considering the name of it as well. [chuckles] But it was helping me with thinking about not only learning design work but also just social media presence as well and how I can rewrite and do a better job at communicating on LinkedIn even, for example, in the kinds of stuff that I want to share so that other people can learn.

Now speaking of social media, of course, that is a big place where I get learning all of the time. I’ve been honing my own social media presence and activity down to particularly LinkedIn these days. I’ve pretty much dropped Facebook. I put notes on Facebook saying we’re not there anymore. We still have profiles but I’m not checking them at all. It was pretty much deadsville on Facebook for work-related things. So we’re not there. I decided to keep Instagram as sort of a ‘me at work’ place and not a place for our entire company to show up. So when you follow me on Instagram, you really do get me and a little bit of a window in what it means to do the kind of work I do and where I’m heading out these days in terms of work and what I’m up to. So, it really is LinkedIn that I’m trying to show up more as a person and more as a company and engage in and contribute back to the learning that we’re all doing in the field.

I’ll give a shout out to a lot of the past guests that have been on the podcast because those folks are really active, a lot of them, on social media. I hesitate to name exactly who I look at a lot because I don’t want to miss anybody that I’ve interviewed on the show, but just scroll through the past episodes and look for names and then go on to LinkedIn and follow those people because they are smart, smart folks and they’re usually posting great stuff for us all to think about in our field.

Some of the other ways, of course, that I learn are just by receiving email newsletters. I don’t get a lot of them anymore and I kind of breeze through a little bit or sometimes I delete it if I don’t have time to look at it, but I still do receive a few email newsletters and pay attention when I can to those as well.

I look at regular media as well, particularly looking at some of the areas where my clients tend to hang out. We get a lot of health care clients so I do look in the health and science news, try to breeze through, see what’s going on if there’s anything that I can keep up with, to just be aware of that would help our clients. So I learn a lot that way as well.

And of course, webinars from service providers comes into the category of how I learn as well. Because we use Articulate Storyline for our e-learning side, as well as Articulate Rise, I watch the Articulate company and the E-Learning Heroes site and some of the webinars that they put out to their clients for things like how to keep up in the field in terms of accessibility changes and other things like that.

I also follow SessionLab a little bit. Deborah was just recently on the podcast when we talked about the State of Facilitation Report, but SessionLab has events that they put out for the community. So sometimes I watch what they’re doing as well and follow them on social media. So sometimes these service providers are doing a lot of good contributing back to knowledge in the field and those are just two of the service providers that I use that come to mind when I think about how we’re all contributing to learning with each other.

Of course, we do a lot of looking out for webinars that are in tangential topics related to our field. One of my team members was just attending a plain language course and bringing that learning back to our group so that we can enhance our learning design work, particularly for our online or e-learning courses. And of course, the whole field of accessibility and inclusion is just rife with learning for us all these days so we try to pay attention as much as we can because we can learn so much in those particular areas to enhance our work as well.

Another way that I often have done learning in my field in the past, but maybe it hasn’t shown up as much lately, but I still want to keep it in mind and still do it when I can is attending conferences in my field. To be honest, sometimes I avoid conferences because as a person who designs and facilitates engaging learning, I often can get quite frustrated with the poor quality [chuckles] of facilitation that we often see in the conference environment but if I can push past sometimes what is a lackluster delivery of a long presentation [chuckles] in the conference format, then I often do find great ideas being shared and new ways of doing things and examples to draw from and so on. So conferences can be a little bit of everything, not always effective but if we look for the best facilitators there and the people who are doing really interesting things of course, there’s something that we can take away from those absolutely as well.

I’m sure I’m forgetting various minor ways that I learn every year in the field and I encourage my team to learn. Hopefully that has given you a little window into our world as to the types of activities that we are engaging in on a fairly regular basis. And again, maybe it’ll help you think about the things that you’ve done in the last three, six months, maybe in the last year.

If I were an organization that asked you to fill out an RFP, a Request For Proposals, and I asked you in one of the questions, what you had done to engage in your own professional development in the field this year, what would you have to say? Think back over your calendar in the past year and if you don’t have a lot of things in there, if you can’t think of some of the things that you’ve done, maybe this will be something that will spur you on to add in some learning opportunities for yourself in the near future. You might page back in that calendar mentally and think yeah, we’re rocking it! I’m doing a lot of stuff in this field. I hope you feel that way. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t, but just know that there’s always something else that all of us can do and the world is just rife with possibilities as to where to go to find the learning that we need to keep enhancing ourselves in our field.

So good luck with that and if you have something that you want to tell me about that I haven’t mentioned in the podcast and you want me to consider or maybe even engage in myself or with my team, I would love to hear about it. Please share back with me any resources or courses or workshops that you know about that you think I should know about, I’d love to hear.

Remember, engaging in our own learning is not just about attending a course or a workshop. It’s about infusing learning in every aspect of our organization and even writing documents down about how learning looks in our organization – whether you work for someone else or you’re driving your own company and leading your own team. Talk about it and write it down. Hold yourselves accountable to coming up with a dream and a vision of how you want learning to go in your own career or in your own organization and make it happen for yourselves. I wish you the very best of luck in that endeavour.

[Episode outro]
On the next episode of the podcast, I talk with Margie Meacham. While many folks have been more recently jumping onto the AI bandwagon, Margie has been doing it since 2013 when she started building educational chatbots for her clients. Margie has spoken at professional events around the world about AI and talent development and she’s written books about the same. She’s just about to release a course for LinkedIn Learning called Adaptive Learning with AI. And of course that means, as you probably can guess our topic next time is about how we all can use AI inside and outside the learning experiences that we create. So catch Margie Meacham and I next time on the show, we’ll see you then.

[Show outro]
Thank you for listening to Facilitating on Purpose. If you were inspired by something in this episode, please share it with a friend or a colleague to help them expand their facilitation practice too. To find the show notes, give me feedback, or submit ideas for future episodes visit Special thanks to Mary Chan at Organized Sound Productions for producing this episode. Happy facilitating!

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