I’ve never been that fond of conferences. I remember right back at the beginning of my corporate career the familiar cycle of excitement and anticipation in advance of getting a day out of the office, feeling socially awkward on arriving at said conference, getting rather bored with the content and then leaving with a sense of relief that the whole thing was over. Not much has changed nowadays except that I have short-circuited this cycle and generally don’t go to conferences in the first place. Putting the subject matter and quality of the content to one side, I’ve always assumed that my dislike of conferences was due to being rather introverted and reflective, preferring to spend my time with one or two people I know or finding time and space to make my own sense of things away from the usual ‘fire hose’ of conference content.  However, whilst this is true, I have started to realise that the reason I find these events so unfulfilling is because, whilst there are lots of people in attendance, one rarely gets to fully meet anyone.

In his wonderful book “Dumbing Us Down – The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling”, John Taylor Gatto talks of the rather worrying side-effects that the American school system has on its pupils and on the society they graduate into. He suggests that “our school crisis is a reflection of a greater social crisis” where we have lost connection with each other and live our lives in networks as opposed to communities.  “Networks, even good ones, drain vitality from communities and families.  They provide mechanical solutions to human problems, when a slow organic process of self awareness, self discovery and cooperation is what is required if any solution is to stick.  Aristotle saw, a long time ago, that fully participating in a complex range of human affairs was the only way to become fully human. Networks, however, don’t require the whole person, but only a narrow piece. If you function in a network, it asks you to suppress all the parts of yourself except the network-interest part – a highly unnatural act although one you can get used to.”  This thin slicing of ourselves that begins in education continues and is amplified in adult life, in particular in the corporate world and it strikes me that our tradition of business conferences are a major manifestation of this pattern.

My dislike of narrow, network based conferences means that I am delighted when I experience exceptions to the norm.  For example, for the last three years I have attended the 3 day alternative Learnfest conference run by Impact International on the banks of Lake Windermere in the beautiful English Lake District. Whilst each year has been a pleasant experience, I found this year’s festival to be one of the most enjoyable and personally fulfilling conferences I have ever attended. There was no real theme to the conference other than an invitation for people who are interested in development to come together to discover and stretch themselves in a multitude of ways. Whilst there were subject matter workshops or talks on specific topics, the lightly held structure allowed a lot of time and space to fully meet and get to know each other. Nobody wore traditional corporate costumes (i.e. suits, trousers, shirts, formal skirts etc.) which helped participants see each other primarily in relationship and not role.  We ate together, drank together and walked and talked outside  and around the fire together. There was temporal and physical space that allowed personal stories to emerge – we learnt about each other’s families, friends, backgrounds, dreams, hopes, fears (etc.) As in any such event, the impact of the talks and workshops varied depending on one’s personal interest in the subject matter and the way in which the content was delivered, but the thing that I appreciated most was the opportunity that the fringe events gave us to be vulnerable and face our fears of failure with each other, which built a very strong and supportive sense of community. (My experience of failure at the Street Dancing class still sits with me now – that’s a story for another blog!) John Taylor Gatto suggests “A community is a place in which people face each other over time in all their human variety, good parts, bad parts and all the rest. Such places promote the highest quality of life possible, lives of engagement and participation.”

It seems we need a revolution in how we meet each other in the workplace. How do we create the time, space and permission to perpetually value the whole person that is standing in front of us instead of the thin slice that our habitual corporate networks legitimise? How do we become more aware and empathic with the personal stories surrounding the human being who is currently talking about strategy or metrics in a business meeting? And who decides what is relevant/not relevant, appropriate/not appropriate to bring into the world of work and how can we blur the lines here to build stronger, more powerful communities that are a force for change and creativity?   I’m not suggesting that businesses should force people to disclose personal stories in a scripted, awkward and rigid way that would essentially be just another mechanistic form of a network – I simply wonder how we can bring more of ourselves into the workplace in amongst the legitimate work that needs to be done. I’ve long toyed with the idea of encouraging an international Bring yourself to work day – maybe the time has come to take that idea seriously.

John Taylor Gatto suggests that “If the loss of true community is not noticed in time, a condition arises in the victim’s spirit very much like the ‘trout starvation’ that used to strike wilderness explorers whose diet was made up exclusively of stream fish. While trout quell the pangs of hunger and even taste good, the eater gradually suffers from want of sufficient nutrients.”  When it comes to creativity, networks seem to lack the very nutrients required to fully support our imaginative, creative selves. Networks seem to value application over awareness, performance over process and judgement over curiosity. It is only by waking up and challenging these norms that we can ever generate communities that value the whole person and therefore give the creative permission required to fully grow as individuals and as organisations. As Jamie Catto asked in his closing speech at Learnfest 2015 “Why have we agreed these silent contracts to show so little of ourselves?” It seems that asking ourselves and those we work with this question is a wonderful start point to re-humanising the workplace.

Note:  The beautiful trout pattern in the heading is from “ALYSSA”‘ ON FLICKR.