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An Inside Look at ASTD's 2012 International Conference and Exposition

By David Kelly / May 2012

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There are a number of events that practitioners in the learning and development field can choose from for professional development. In fact, there are so many events, that it's sometimes difficult for individuals with limited funds to decide which conference to attend.

This past week I attended the American Society for Training and Development's 2012 International Conference and Exposition (ICE) in Denver, Colorado. What follows is a summary of the conference, as well as some of the unique aspects of the event that may influence your decision to attend the event in the future.

ICE is by far the largest of the conferences geared toward learning and performance professionals. This year, more than 9,000 people attended the conference, so those looking for a small, intimate, affair might be a little overwhelmed by the scale of ICE. Of the attendees, more than 2,000 were from outside the United States, so there is also a strong international presence at the event.

The scale of ICE is also represented in its programming. There were more than 250 educational sessions available, providing plenty of content variety, with 20 or so session options available at any given time. This can be a double-edged sword, as it can be difficult to decide which sessions to attend.

ASTD does provide options to assist attendees with planning their schedule. They break down the programming into tracks for specific areas and industries, including:

Content Areas

  • Career Development
  • Designing and Facilitating Learning
  • Global Human Resource Development
  • Human Capital
  • Leadership Development
  • Learning Technologies
  • Measurement, Evaluation, ROI
  • Trends
  • Industries

  • Higher Education
  • Government
  • Sales Enablement
  • ICE also features the largest exposition of any conference, with hundreds of vendors available offering any and all products and services that can assist your learning and performance program needs. Make no mistake though—this EXPO is enormous and can be overwhelming. In fact, it took me almost an hour to walk through it when I first visited the EXPO floor.

    That brings me to another point about ICE: Be prepared to do a lot of walking. You walk a lot at just about any conference, but the scale of ICE magnifies that. It's not uncommon to have a 20-minute walk from one end of the conference center to the other from session to session.

    The keynote speakers for ICE included author Jim Collins, innovator John Kao, and motivation expert Heidi Grant Halvorson.

    Jim Collins is the author of best-selling books Built to Last, Good to Great, How the Mighty Fall, and his most recent book is Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, coauthored with Morten Hansen. Collins spoke about the x-factor of great company leadership. He shared a common hierarchy of four levels of leadership all good companies have: highly capable individuals, contributing team members, competent managers, and effective leaders. He added great companies also have another layer, a Level 5 Executive. It's at this level that great companies have an x-factor: Humility combined with an utterly ferocious will. Collins also pointed out the most important leadership skill is picking the right person and putting them in the right place.

    John Kao is a leading authority on innovation, organizational transformation, and emerging technologies. He is known especially for his practical and pragmatic approach to "getting innovation done," hence his favorite nickname, "the innovation Sherpa." Kao used his talent as an accomplished jazz pianist to paint a comparison between jazz music and innovation. According to Kao, traditional music gives traditional results; you play the notes as they appear on the page, and you get the same result. Jazz changes things. It takes the basics of the notes and uses it as the foundation to create something new. He added jazz is not simply creativity, and neither is innovation. Innovation is creativity applied to a specific purpose in order to add value. Innovation without a purpose is just variety. Kao also spoke about how jazz musicians learn, via regular interactions and jam sessions in which musicians learn and teach together; the very definition of a community of practice.

    Heidi Grant Halvorson is a social psychologist, educational consultant, and, most recently, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Lehigh University. Her research interests lie in understanding how people respond to setbacks and challenges, and how these responses are shaped by the types of goals individuals pursue. Halvorson spoke about motivation, and what it takes for an individual to have success. She shared research that showed people with a "be good" mindset (focusing on a specific result) did not perform as well as people who operated with a "get better" mindset (focusing on bettering one's individual performance). She also shared a simple but effective method for getting past the knowing/doing gap (knowing how to do something as compared to actually doing it). The method, called if/then, focuses on assigning triggers to specific actions, such as "If it 4pm, I will write my report."

    In addition to the keynotes, there were more than 40 different pre-conference workshops (available for an additional fee) and more than 200 concurrent sessions. ICE also features additional special programming including programming specific to members of the ASTD Forum, as well as a Career Center with special programming—attendees could meet one-on-one with a career counselor, participate in speed mentoring sessions, and more. There's no shortage of content at ICE.

    Networking is also a big part of the conference experience, and ICE features many formal and informal opportunities to connect with peers. The conference always includes an evening networking event, this year it was held at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, home of the National Football League's Denver Broncos. The networking event, features food, dancing, and lots of other fun diversions, and tends to sell out each year. In addition to that event, there are numerous other opportunities to connect and network with peers, including dedicated spaces for government, education, students, and sales professionals.

    If there's one adjective that keeps coming up as I describe ICE, it's big. For a first time attendee—especially one for which ICE is their first conference experience—the event can be overwhelming. ASTD does offer orientation sessions as well as mentor relationships, first-time attendees can get advice and assistance from more experienced attendees.

    As you can see, the scope of ICE content is fairly wide, and that is actually something that potential attendees should consider. One of the challenges with running an event the scale of ICE is that it's difficult to provide extremely deep content in a specific area when your event covers the full spectrum of learning and performance. This is not an event dedicated exclusively to any other subset of learning and performance. This conference covers all aspects of the field with a broad stroke. For example, you won't be getting the deep-dive on eLearning that you might get at a conference more dedicated to that specialty like TechKnowledge or DevLearn.

    I spoke with a large number of peers at the conference. Knowing I was writing this piece, I asked all of them for their impressions of the conference. In the response, I noticed some trends that may help determine if a visit to ICE may be appropriate for you.

    While attending one of the larger concurrent sessions, a speaker asked about the experience level of the people in the room. About 50 percent of the attendees of that session were in the field for five years or less, and an additional 30 percent were in the field for 5 to 10 years. Most of my close colleagues, who are more experienced both in their profession and in attending industry conferences, said the sessions either verified or provided new ideas for what they are already doing. I would agree with that assessment.

    I think that dynamic is a critical component of "Is ICE right for you?" The majority of the conference sessions are excellent for someone fairly new to the field, who is still in the onboarding stage of their career. The conference provides a great snapshot for where our industry is today and skills you can use to possibly enhance what you're already doing—and there's tremendous value in that.

    The flip side is that our industry is rapidly changing. During Tony Bingham's opening remarks to the first general session, he spoke candidly about the impact mobile technology will have on the learning and development field, and how it will enhance social learning. Mobile technology and social learning are two of the hottest topics in our industry, so it makes sense that they would be mentioned by the President of ASTD.

    If you reviewed the conference programming though, you would find only a small percentage of sessions that discussed these industry trends. Sessions focused on tomorrow were far outnumbered by sessions that focused on what we're doing today or worse, what we should have stopped doing yesterday. There were a number of sessions that discussed ROI, learning styles, ADDIE and other topics that have been shown to have little value when put against actual research. While I did not attend any of those sessions, I can tell you from experience they rarely address the contrarian position to their focus. That's unfortunate, as that leaves attendees, most of whom are fairly new to the field, often leaving the session accepting what they heard as gospel.

    So here's a brief summary of my recommendations if you're considering attending ICE in the future.

  • If you're new to the field of learning and development, this event can help you tremendously and expose to you new ideas you can use in you work.
  • If you are looking for sessions that address where the industry is going tomorrow and what is happening today to get us there, your options may be limited.
  • That said, ICE is a conference that opens session proposals to everyone. I encourage those forward-thinking individuals in the industry to submit proposals for sessions in 2013, and I encourage the committee members who select the programming sessions to add emphasis on the shifting landscape of the learning and performance field for future conferences. ICE has by far the largest conference audience, and in that is an opportunity to help move the field forward.

    If you're looking for a deeper dive into the sessions and learning that took place at ICE, please feel free to visit my blog, where I regularly curate and share the learning and resources that are shared via the conference backchannel.

    About the Author

    David Kelly is the director of training at Carver Federal Savings Bank and member of the ASTD National Advisors for Chapters. He is also the author of the blog Misadventures in Learning, where he discusses the future of the learning field and curates the backchannel of learning conferences. He is a frequent contributor to industry publications and often can be seen speaking and conferences and events.

    © 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/05 $10.00

    DOI: 10.1145/2207270.2218536


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