Reflections from the Sydney Learning Café UnConference

The format of every UnConference that I’ve been to has been different. The design of the event that was a great balance between structured and unstructured discussions that the audience of 50 learning and development professionals engaged with quickly. Each of the streams had a corner of the large room where fast paced quality conversations happen.  Maybe some of the discussions were a bit too fastpaced and more time would always be great to explore the ideas in more depth. Some stages of the day were spent as a whole group in more classic UnConference open space sessions.  For me it was the small discussion groups that were productive and in complete contrast to most conferences.

As I wrote this blog post, I realised that I experienced the Learning Café UnConference through a certain conceptual lens. I spent most of the day in the technology stream as most of Sprout Labs’ current projects can be thought of as performance improvement projects.  By performance improvement projects, I mean projects like designing and building a mobile checklist system focused on improving safety for electrical contractors, or helping a group of health trainers rethink their courses around workplace performance and client outcomes.

I tried to summarise the day in the comparison grid below:

From To
Watching PowerPoints Exciting small group discussions  
Hundreds of people 50 great people
Learning and Development Performance Improvement
With performance improvement, the focus is on measuring and supporting performance instead of learning. At the moment there is a lot of discussion about performance improvement and the Learning Café unconference seems to be a reflection of this current thinking.
Focusing on formal learning Focus on supporting and fostering informal learning
Tracking hours and activity To measuring competencyFor example, consider an employee’s development plan where instead of focusing on what activities the employee is going to do, the focus could be on how new skills will be measured and observed.Tracking competency also means we don’t need to attempt to measure informal learning.  Instead, organisations measure the outcomes of learning no matter how that learning happened.
Content and then assessment Assessment first, with learning experiences only if they are needed  This is something Sprout Labs does with our approach to course design, where we focus on what the learners do, not on want they need to know.
Learning Management Systems and courses Performance Support SystemsSometimes, I wonder how much of what organisations do are driven by their real needs or driven by what vendors and providers, who sell learning management systems, sell to them.Organisations and vendors need to shift to being performance focused. Perhaps, Learning Management Systems are not what is needed. Instead, course material could be located on a company’s intranet, with the assessment being in a separate trackable system.
Pages of text, some video and quizzes Serious games and simulations
IT as the enemy IT as a key partner for Learning and Development
eLearning is the future Paper based solutions can still work Learning is not about the technology it’s about the experience.

Some of this language reminds me of the language of vocational education and training but what is being talked about is different to the classic VET learner experience.

My Sketchnotes are on Flickr at

 Reflections from the Sydney Learning Café UnConference


  1. It is difficult to comment not having been there, as much as I wanted to, but here goes:

    I am pleased to say we pitch ourselves as performance improvement specialists
    ELearning (as we know it) is now = mature and heading for a decline over time.
    ELearning is only suitable to some types of training/ learning

    Putting all of the above together = non training approach to workplace learning / social learning…

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