An inexpensive path to professional staff development . . .

Establishing a Monthly Colloquium

by Conrad Weisert
May 14, 2005
© 2005 Information Disciplines, Inc.


Upgrading professionalism and expanding horizons

A question

I'm sometimes asked if there isn't some way of upgrading (or at least sustaining) the professionalism of an organization's staff without incurring either the disruptive impact of replacing current staff members or the cost of putting them through expensive courses. While there's no magic path1, I often recommend and have myself implemented the monthly colloquium as an inexpensive and risk-free approach to continuous professional staff development.

What's a colloquium?

A colloquium is a series of scholarly lectures or conferences. Usually each one in the series is conducted by a different discussion leader. A colloquium is somewhat less participative than a seminar, but the audience gets to ask questions and offer comments either during or following the presentation.

The Information Technology colloquiums I propose are very much like the programs of a professional society chapter, except that the venue and most of the audience belong to the sponsoring organization. Participation in professional societies and user groups has been dropping, due to a combination of factors2. Bringing the sessions to the audience makes attendance less burdensome and non-participation less excusable.

Objectives

Although some colloquia may be tutorials, their main benefit is just to broaden the the participants' horizons. Under day-to-day work pressures organizations tend to become insular. Computing professionals need to be aware of trends in their field in order to exercise sound judgment in doing their jobs. For example:

By "know about" I don't mean mastery. For a given concept, technique, or tool people just need to know:

If a situation later arises that might be a candidate for that concept or tool, the staff won't overlook the opportunity to investigate further. Such awareness can also help the organization avoid the costly mistake of prematurely embracing the latest oversold fad methodology.

A secondary benefit is the impact on staff morale. Experience shows that both senior and junior staff members react positively to being viewed by their managers as respected professionals. They often also feel welcome relief in being able to put aside their stressful assignments for 75 minutes. Employees of such organizations boast to their friends about the professional environment at work, and I'd be surprised if many of them seek to change jobs.

What size organization?

I've seen successful monthly colloquium programs for organizations with 200 professionals as well as for organizations with as few as 10. Sometimes two or three small neighboring3 organizations can jointly manage a shared colloquium program, but it can be hard to maintain the momentum when no one has full authority over scheduling and facilities.

Time demands

Duration and frequency

A monthly program of 75 to 90 minutes is appropriate. Few managers will accept a more frequent or longer commitment of time, and a less frequent program is unlikely to be viewed by the staff as a serious commitment.

It's important to stick to a fixed schedule. Staff members will then form the habit of reserving that time on their calendars. The last Friday of each month (skipping December) at 3:30 has worked well for several organizations. You should resist the temptation to cancel a session whenever some seemingly "important" (but not dire emergency) issue arises. We don't want to give the staff the impression that professional development is something we do in slack time when nothing important is happening. Several organizations have seen their colloquium program fizzle out after two or three cancellations.

If your organization is unwilling to spare 75 minutes a month from the work schedule it may schedule the colloquia after business hours, say 5:30 to 7:00. Management should then provide pizza or snacks for the participants. Whenever the topic isn't too specialized, managers should also attend most of the sessions themselves.

Voluntary participation

Whether the colloquium takes place during or after business hours, attendance should be voluntary. Of course, an individual's participation may be taken as one indicator of his or her professional interest, but we should trust our people to exercise judgment both in determining the relevancy of the announced topic and in assessing the priority of the session relative to urgent work or family responsibilities.

The programs

I like to alternate between outside speakers and staff members. In a large organization where staff members don't all know one another, someone working on an interesting project can present an unusual solution or method. Such internal presentations yield benefit not only to the audience but also to the presenter, who is forced to organize his or her thoughts more systematically.

We have to admit that an outsider sometimes enjoys more respect and credibility than someone the staff sees every day. I've had the experience of exchanging presentations on the same topic with a colleague in another organization!

Although some outside speakers are willing to speak gratis, most should be paid an honorarium. A few hundred dollars a month is a trivial burden for an I.T. organization. Some speakers who are willing to forgo a fee may be trying to sell you something -- a software product or consulting services. That's all right as long as the content of their presentation is not an obvious sales pitch and the staff learns something worthwhile. If you're in a large city you can watch for a conference or trade show that attracts an out-of-town speaker you'd like to bring in without incurring travel expense.

Outsourcing the management

It takes little time to plan and manage the colloquium series. If the organization has a methodology administrator (or "process improvement coordinator") he or she can take on that job in less than an hour per month. Otherwise any responsible staff member, even a non-technical administrative assistant, can do it. But one unfortunate problem is the temptation to skip a month either when people are unusually busy or when the coordinator just didn't get around to finding a topic and a speaker.

If you're unsure that your people will maintain the discipline, you can avoid that problem by letting an outside consultant manage the colloquium programs. The cost should be modest. That same consultant might occasionally present one of the programs, but no more than once or twice a year.


1 -- In particular, the so-called boot camp courses are neither effective nor inexpensive.

2 -- individuals cite drastically increased commuting times and high-pressure demands on working hours.

3 -- In the same office building, or at least within easy walking distance. If they're farther apart, you have the same logistical obstacles as a professional society meeting.

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Last modified May, 2005