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Organising successful learning events book Organising successful learning events

Sample from this book:

Establishing aims

Training and education opportunities exist for a variety of purposes. The range is enormous. Personal and professional development are at the heart of most of them. In social welfare type of work that is most likely to mean providing opportunities for staff to gain skills to do their jobs more effectively or to provide improved services.

Some events and training offer some form of ‘accreditation’; others are primarily opportunities for staff (and possibly their clients or customers) to get together and debate practice and policy. NVQs are an example of staged accreditation. They utilise the credit accumulation system and offer opportunities for unqualified or relatively poorly qualified staff in social welfare jobs, to work up the ladder of credits, moving from one level of award to the next as a natural progression. Each ‘award’ is a stage in the process of becoming ‘trained’ or ‘qualified’.

The idea of a beginning, a middle, and an end, is a familiar and commonsense one to all who have ever been cajoled into writing an essay, a book or thesis. Planning for training or conference events is essentially a matter of establishing stages for the process. Within a single event, even a relatively simple one, such as a half-day induction training session for new staff joining a local authority or voluntary organisation, a number of people may have been involved in the:

  • planning
  • administration
  • co-ordination
  • presentation
  • evaluation and follow-up

The event itself may be a ‘stand-alone’ affair, or part of a series of workshops, a structured course or an accreditation mechanism leading specifically to assessment and qualification. In the organisation of conferences, workshops and training events, the ‘getting started’ phase is of vital importance. If the planner or planning group haven’t thought things through, some of the ‘organisational variables’ may get overlooked. This inevitably leads to recriminations, conflict and potentially both lost opportunities and loss of money and effectiveness. Any training event is an opportunity. The opportunity will have boundaries and constraints. There will also be potential areas where things can go a little or a lot wrong. It is the job of the event organisers to take on board the task of overseeing all the stages; that is the beginning, the middle, and the end!

And in the beginning...

At the outset, the planning for any potential event may be assessed using a checklist of questions which will help to focus attention on what the group or trainer wants to achieve, how best to meet identified aims, what resources will be required, and an appropriate programme and timetable.

Why is an event going to be organised?

Any organiser, or organising group needs to discuss how best to tackle this question. Often it is not as straightforward as it may at first appear. ‘Training’ is usually seen as a ‘good thing’ in most organisations, but in the social care and education arenas, as much as anywhere else, it can be easy to provide events on the basis of a ‘wing and a prayer’. To organise events and training effectively and efficiently, Hugh Koch has said in Total Quality Management in Health Care that training in quality must satisfy the following requirements:

  • Unit level managers must be committed and involved in planning and setting training priorities.
  • Objectives must be adequately and realistically resourced and timetabled.
  • Training should be considered for all parts and levels of the provider unit.

This is a whole organisation, or ‘holistic’ approach to training, and holds equally true, in a modified form, for conferences and events which are not seen specifically as training, but have essentially the same structure. There is also an element of the ‘chicken and egg’ problem involved; is it better to try and define a programme for an event first and then ‘sell’ it to the intended audience? Or, should the audience be consulted as part of the process? In Hugh’s example, taken from the world of health management, it is seen as fundamental that management would support and ‘own’ a commitment to planned training. This is equally important in any other ‘people-services’ training or conference, though it may be policy-makers, planners or the members of a housing estate, who need to be seen as involved and committed to the particular event being planned.

It is worth looking in a bit more detail, at how asking a series of questions about the intention and aims of an event can help to define the priorities for the planners. Perhaps too often in the past, some organisers for events have sat around in a classic social work or education circle of chairs and made some very rash assumptions at the very beginning of the planning stage for a conference or training event. For instance, it is relatively common for national steering groups and specialist professional groups to have a conference sub­group. Their accountability is to the main organisation, which may, in turn, be elected under some sort of process - often in a show of hands or ballot at the annual conference, which the sub-group is selected from, or co-opted to. In its worst excess, this group can become a self-perpetuating example of too much power being delegated to a non-representative, marginal grouping.

Why is an event going to be organised?

Any group should, at the outset, ask itself questions such as those in Checklist 1 .1. If you are planning to organise an event, Checklist 1 .1, at the end of this section, may be worth considering for modification, as a starting point for planning a conference, workshop or training event.

If a planning group or organiser works out the answers to the Checklist 1 .1 questions, these will provide the essential brief for the event and the beginning of a programme. An organiser(s) must have decided on the objectives before trying to work out the content. Discussing the aim of an event and the objectives can be stimulated by taking some buzz words and seeing if they can be used to stimulate the most appropriate set of objectives. One set I generated with a conference planning group included the words (in relation to objectives for participants):

  • interest
  • involve
  • inform
  • educate
  • stimulate
  • entertain
  • engage
  • professionalise
  • challenge
  • practical
  • theory
  • participate
  • make controversial
  • generate new ideas
  • innovation

A different planning group might create a very different list of objectives. It is worth considering the creation of such a list to form the basis for a short planning exercise for the organising group. The questions in Checklist 1 .2 offer a second stage of detail.

In people-work services, training events and conferences increasingly use fewer information giving sessions, and rather more exchanges of information. Participants are encouraged to participate, exchange views and to use their experiential knowledge, based on their own personal life experiences. This makes them much more active rather than passive in the conduct, and indeed in the planning of training type events. To enable this style of event, the organisers must:

  • Brief all session organisers and workshop leaders on preferred ‘styles’ of presentation.
  • Indicate in any briefing notes that sessions should be participative and experiential.
  • Make training inputs as relevant to participants as possible and provide experiences and exercises which are challenging, but also supportive and non-judgemental.
  • Provide opportunities to build up the confidence and skills of participants.

Consultation and planning

At the planning stage, the scale and format of the event may determine some of the practical requirements for the planning group or event organiser.

The complexity of the tasks facing the planning group will be one of the variables for consideration based on a number of factors, such as those set out in Checklist 1 .3.

Aims and goals

Because the range of aims and goals for conferences and training events is so varied, it is not possible for me to emphasise too strongly the need to determine these at an early stage. Checklist 1 offered some of the aims for training events. The list below is based on the work of Leonard Nadler: The Conference Book and Burke and Beckhard: Conference Planning.

Training events and related conferences assume that in the process of training, or reflecting on work ‘away from base’, participants should be given opportunities to leave their normal work and domestic worlds and enter the world of the event. Depending upon the nature of the event, for instance, whether it is the conference of a professional association in probation, or a one-day in-service course for housing staff on the implications of community care in a local area, the participants should be encouraged to assist in:

  • The rule setting for the event (either before or during the event).
  • Setting objectives for the event.
  • Determining how follow-up can be organised.
  • The planning and co-ordination of the event.
  • Choosing the programme, venue and contributors.

There is also a growing need to assess whether training is best achieved away from base’ or in the workplace. Increasingly, especially in training for qualifications, training takes place in a mixture of locations. Training events should reinforce workplace on-the-job training, and should be clearly relevant to the needs of both individuals and organisations back in the workplace. Like many people, who have been involved in putting training events together, we all remember personal ‘horror stories’. Many could be avoided if more active collaboration was encouraged between planners, trainers and participants.

Figure 1.1 - collaboration between planners, trainers and participants

A salutory experience I well remember involved a planning group consisting of senior, well-intentioned staff from a major national voluntary child care organisation. They were planning a series of youth participation conferences, which were due to be launched at a national event. The trouble was that the members of the group were fearful that the young people would ‘take over’ and, in so doing, bring bad publicity to the sponsoring agency. In the event, a number of younger facilitators were invited to help run the sessions at the conference, and the organisers then quickly gave the power for the programme, and the running of the event, over to the young people. The initial distrust took a bit of overcoming, but the farther the original planning group moved into the background, the more successful the event became and, at the end of three days, all the participants were ‘members’ and ‘citizens’ of the event, and a lot of lively and challenging debate had taken place about power; relationships between young people and adults; sexism and racism, and how to avoid the original problems of organising the national conference. After the conference, many of the participants became the co-organisers of local events back in their own areas of the United Kingdom, and they put into practice the lessons learned about participation and collaboration. It does serve as a prime example of an event that lacked adequate consultation at the planning stages.

In more complex events, where many different types of ‘interested parties’ could be consulted, there may be conflicts of interest. These may not always be resolvable, but the process of consultation will usually do a lot to allay fears and encourage the sense of involvement and ‘ownership’ over the particular event. Burke and Beckhard take the view that the most fruitful model of participant is one who is:

a learner (an active participant)

They contrast this model of participation with two other, less productive, forms of involvement, which they have called:

a tourist (a non-participant)

an expatriate (uncritical consumer)

In most of our people-work training events, the aims will reflect a mixture of intended benefits. You may wish to organise a short planning exercise based on Checklist 1 .4 to look at the benefits of any event you are planning.

Looking at an event or piece of training in this way may help to determine the ‘optimal’ balance within a programme to meet the varying needs of organisation and individuals; the personal and professional development needs of staff, and the needs of consumers who are participating.

It may also be used to help in the process of consultation with other interested parties, by focusing the attention of those advising the planning group in areas which are likely to be constructive and positive for all concerned.

To wind up the consideration of how best to improve the planning stage, the next model may give an idea of all the people who might be consulted about the organisation and functioning of any particular event. This is not the same as saying that they must be contacted, but the more they can be involved at some stage, the greater the likelihood of your getting more learners and less tourists amongst the participants. It is also likely to offer something of a protection strategy for the planning group against those other famous groups:

the snipers (those who are wise after the event and say ‘I told you so...)

the whingers (those who do little but peevishly complain)

Figure 1.2: A model of all those who are likely to be involved and might be consulted regarding a training event

No model of this kind can totally reflect the world of someone else’s training event or conference - use it to build up a model which does describe your event.

Ground rules for training events

In commerce and industry, there has been a tendency for training to be closely linked with appraisal and assessment. In people-work, the last decades of the twentieth century saw a move towards a sharpening of focus, whereby staff and agencies were held increasingly accountable for expenditure and provision of services, not just to funders, administrators and politicians, but also to the consumers. Patients in the health service are now aware of the national charter standards and some of these seem appropriate as aims for ‘empowerment’, and could also be curiously appropriate for all participants in training events as a set of ground rules. In a slightly modified form, these could read as in Checklist 1 .5.

In practice, a set of ground rules or safeguards should be developed by any planning group in training or training and conference organisers. These need to protect the participants from training being used as an instrument of oppression, and to positively challenge behaviour in training which may be seen as discriminatory.

Evaluation and assessment

A greater accent on quality, and the increase in monitoring of training means that evaluation techniques should be built into the planning process of any training event, rather than being ‘tacked on’, as a kind of ill-fitting afterthought.

Evaluation and monitoring are a continuous process. They are at their most effective when aims and learning objectives are easily quantifiable - not always so easy in people­ work. However, if the aims and objectives are considered more clearly at the outset, the level of success can be more clearly monitored. Indeed, it seems reasonable to establish a model for evaluation which also looks at the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning and preparation stages of training events. In this way, Checklist 1 .6 shows what the model might look like.

Once again, it is a pretty obvious case of ‘horses for courses. What is suitable as a means of assessment for a staff training scheme for a very specific form of training such ‘best practice in child protection’, will need modifying drastically for a group planning a trade union, or delegate conference, where an agenda will determine the proposers, seconders, and voting structure for the event in a much more rigid fashion than with a relatively open-ended, participative workshop.

Training, learning and qualifications

This book is meant to help anyone who may face the sometimes frightening, but often exciting and challenging task of organising some form of training event. At the wider, more macro-level, involvement may be largely an administrative job — making sure that all the stages of planning, preparation and implementation are carried through efficiently. Or, you may as an individual, be dealing with only one aspect of the event, the micro-level of the event organisation, possibly designing the programme, liaising with speakers and workshop leaders, or registration at the venue. On the other hand, you may be charged with the task of seeing where a particular training event ‘fits’ into the larger scheme of personal and professional staff development. This may require you to have to seek recognition and accreditation for the event and provide certificates for those who attend.

Lifelong learning has moved beyond being a slogan. More people are choosing to get involved in learning and training at different times in their lives. This is also associated with the move towards agencies re-inventing themselves as learning organisations, meaning that they see empowerment of staff through learning, as a major element of their mission statement or aims.

It is way beyond the scope of this book to offer guidance on the enormous and growing range of in-service, vocational, distance-learning, NVQ, degree and post-graduate training, and other options for staff in the people-services. What is known is that in the quest for quality’ of service, longer training for professionals has been decreed to be necessary. Two year courses are being replaced by three-year degree-level courses, top-up specialist courses are increasingly being run, and nearly every aspect of working with people in welfare-type services is now associated with some sort of accreditation. In fact, the situation sometimes reaches almost farcical proportions, when, for instance, a part-time youth worker needs a life saving certificate to take a group of kids down to the beach to build sand castles!

Trends in training

In the 2000s, new trends in training and patterns of staff development will inevitably have a knock-on effect in the way training events and conferences and workshops are planned and structured. Training to improve the competency of staff and achieve a more qualified workforce is one key element in this evolution. Distance learning, and training through the Internet and computer terminals and software programs, are one element of this.

The implementation of new policies and new social priorities often serve to direct the content of training. For instance, criminal and anti-social behaviour and the impact of drugs on society are ‘shared problems’ for almost everyone working in the wide range of welfare and educational services. New challenges arise. For example, many welfare agencies have to respond to the needs of refugees and asylum seekers. This gives rise to training on a bespoke-tailored or a needs-to-know basis. There are also fundamental aspects of ‘good practice’ that need to be embedded into all training. These include:

  • equal opportunities
  • health and safety
  • anti-sexist, harassment and racist strategies

As a last exercise, the planning group may wish to consider Checklist 1 .7. Add your own changes to it, and other trends in training that you can identify as specific to your own ‘profession’, ‘team’ or ‘agency’. Then think about the ways this needs to be reflected in your approach to the organisation of training events.

Checklist 1.1: Why is an event going to be organised?

  • Why are we organising an event?
  • Who is it aimed at?
  • What are we trying to achieve through the organisation of the event?
  • What type of event is it? For instance, is it about?:
    • communicating information
    • planning and policy-making
    • skills training
    • decision-making
    • assessment and testing
    • campaigning
    • raising consciousness
    • political agendas
    • team-building
    • resource allocation
    • dealing with change
    • legislation
    • improving service delivery
    • attitude or behaviour modification
    • assertiveness
    • confidence-building
  • Will the event need to be evaluated and how?

Checklist 1.2: The next stage

  • Does the event need to have a theme?
  • Is a title important? What should it be?
  • What sort of programme is required?
  • What implications are there for the style; format; length; cost and timing of the conference/event?
  • How can this event be marketed to the audience?
    What resource implications are there?

Think about the need for:

    • funding requests and subsidies
    • equipment
    • geographical location and type of venue and accommodation
    • personnel implications for: administration; speakers or workshop leaders
    • rapporteurs, convenors, spokespersons, chairpersons
    • are there any special needs requirements, for instance, for physically or mentally handicapped; parents with children; participants on income support or with transport restrictions?

Checklist 1.3: Consultation

  • How many participants will there be? What is the duration of the event?
  • Is the event part of any longer series of training?
  • How many tasks can be identified for delegation/allocation to the planning group members?
  • Do other organisations and individuals need to be consulted at the planning stage?
  • Will the style, programme and venue for the event have any implications for the amount of work required?

Consultation at this planning stage may have a number of benefits for the organisers. It can help the team charged with putting on an event to:

    • Focus on the key aspects of the event and thereby get the ‘shape’ of the event right, and appropriate, for the intended participants.
    • Utilise the goodwill and expertise of more people, and help ultimately in creating a constituency of support for the event.
    • Check out if there is any competition or opposition to the proposed event.
    • Generate new ideas for the programme.
    • Identify specific ‘problems’ and/or subjects for inclusion

Checklist 1.4: Identifying benefits

How are the aims of the event going to bring:

  • Benefits for the organisation and service?
  • Benefits for staff teams or working units?
  • Benefits for individual staff?
  • Benefits for consumers?

Checklist 1.5: Ground rules for training

Training should:

  • Encourage respect for privacy, dignity and religious and cultural beliefs.
  • Enable everyone, including people with special needs, to use the service.
  • Allow freedom of access to information and records.

To these, I would suggest adding:

    • Encourage all to participate, regardless of background, race, sexual orientation, job position, seniority or status.
    • Assist in the resolution of workplace conflicts and disagreements.
    • Encourage participants to ‘be all they can be’ and make the most of all training and staff development programmes.
    • Relate to the actual practice in the workplace and provide opportunities to examine, evaluate and improve that practice.
    • Be empowering and enabling, allowing, as far as possible, experiential approaches to be used.
    • Establish learning objectives which explicitly and simply state what a participant will learn from particular learning modules, and which may be capable of being assessed.

Checklist 1.6: Evaluation and monitoring

There are four stages of a training event or conference:

    1. The planning stage.
    2. Preparation for the event.
    3. During the event.
    4. After the event.

To some degree, in all of these four stages, there should be on-going evaluation as to how far:

    • Aims were established and met.
    • A transfer of knowledge and skills was accomplished.
    • Effective methods, styles and ‘trainer’ resources and inputs were utilised.
    • Needs were identified, met, and solutions implemented back in the workplace.
    • Potential areas for improving individual, team and organisational change and improvements have been recognised.

Checklist 1.7: Training trends

Other identifiable trends in training which have evolved over the last 15-20 years include:

  • More inter-disciplinary and multi-agency training.
  • More modular training, which builds up credits, which may be transferable to higher level courses and qualifications.
  • More training which includes a high level of on-the-job assessment of competencies and follows patterns established under City and Guilds and National Vocational Qualification awards.
  • Pressure from government for a greater proportion of staff to have at least basic qualifications in social care and other forms of care, education and welfare work.
  • More one-off courses offering specialist, rather than generic skills in areas such as counselling; financial and budgeting practice; information technology applications; resource management skills; specific legislation, etc.
  • Increased use of courses and events as part of larger packages which include consultancy; supervision and assessment at the workplace; open and distance learning materials; appraisal schemes; monitoring systems using computer-based ‘tracking’ and use of such ‘instruments’ for assessment, such as performance indicators and client/patient trails.
  • Involvement of more consumers in training events which ‘empower’ and encourage partnership working between staff in social welfare and education agencies and their different consumers, whether they are known as pupils and parents; patients; clients or customers.

Organising successful learning events book Organising successful learning events

Alan Dearling

A4 wiro for photocopying practical materials

ISBN 1-903855-33-0

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