This morning, sorting through notes from the American Organization of Nurse Executives (AONE) Conference I attended, I came across this doodle I scribbled in a margin: Have we sacrificed networking with people to technology addictions?

I remember jotting that down after I enjoyed a conversation with another attendee. As we parted ways she said, “Thank you for talking with me. It’s hard to network when everyone’s head is down interacting with their smart phones.” I looked around and saw what she saw. I smiled and said, “It’s sad. They’re not getting their money’s worth from being here, are they?”

On the flight home, I reflected on the AONE conference and pondered the money organizations spend every year to send staff to educational conferences. Also, how ineffective we are at applying that wonderful experience back to the organization. When value is not realized, education is often on the expense reduction chopping block. How can we bring more visible value to our investment in conference participation? While the answers are many, I was staring at one on my flight tray table – my highly organized notes and my 4-day meeting agenda plan.

I attended the conference with a nurse colleague. We developed a “divide and conquer” strategy to attend as many concurrent sessions as we could between us. We chose and registered in advance for the sessions most relevant to our work and interests. We were armed with a simple custom-made, spiral bound, pre-printed notebook that proved very useful as session speakers did not have handouts. Although we could follow along with their PowerPoints using the downloaded application on our smart phone, taking notes was a challenge. I heard over-and-over again, “Where did you get that notebook?” and when I shared the strategy the response was overwhelmingly, “I wish I’d thought of that! What a great idea!” I cannot stake claim for the idea nor the production. It came from our terrific marketing team at Catalyst.

Each page of my handy “Conference Session Notes” had a standard format to optimize note-taking and capture the learning we came for.  The top of each page included the title of the session, date, and time. That helped me navigate efficiently from one session to the next.

The one-page outline for each session was laid out with space for purposeful note- taking. Purposeful in that it supported the objectives we had decided in advance as a team. Why are we attending? What do we hope to come away with? My listening, and writing, quickly aligned with the standard questions for each session:

  • Audience Composition
  • What was the most surprising or interesting idea you heard?
  • What problem does the “interesting idea” solve? How does the solution save/make money, improve patient care, and/or reduce risks?
  • What are the ramifications of the “interesting idea?” How could it affect day-to-day reality?

  • What are the cons of the “interesting idea?” Or, why wouldn’t someone choose to implement it?

  • How would someone go about implementing the “interesting idea?” Would they need help?

  • I was inspired by my conversation with the other attendee: With whom did you meet that you plan to contact after the conference? What did you discuss? What is their email address?

A second page for each session was blank. I used it to summarize conversations I had with other attendees before, after and between sessions. A page left blank at mid-point in my day would be a startling reminder that I wasn’t networking. And, that I was missing opportunities for meaningful conversation and learning. It prompted me to be intentional and to “round with a purpose” through the conference.  Once home from the conference, we share our notes to stimulate and develop next steps in an action plan to apply what we learned.

Throughout my hospital career I attended many conferences as a staff nurse and in my leadership roles. I don’t recall anyone sitting with me in advance to discuss goals or strategies for getting the most value from the conference. That would have been incredibly inspiring and encouraging, especially as a staff nurse.

Instead, I threw myself into the herd and watched as teams from my organization (and others) attended together. They attended the same sessions, enjoyed social time at their session breaks and ate lunch together. While conferences serve a valuable teambuilding function, spending the entire time that way misses opportunities.

When I returned to work from a conference, if there was any conversation at all about my time away it was often limited to, “How was the conference? Did you have fun? Was it well attended? ” This was courtesy conversation. I wasn’t asked to share in a meaningful way that supported the goals of the department or organization. Looking back, I longed for that opportunity.

Instead, I sought ways to create the opportunity to share and to seek out others who embraced learning with the same eager enthusiasm I carried to the conference. Without that, my engagement faded quickly. I wondered if those hours spent at the conference were really no more valuable than sitting through yet another meeting of all talk and no action.

As leaders, when we invest planning and coaching time as a pre-conference strategy it brings real value to the organization. Accountability for “conference deliverables” adds value in measurable ways. Providing opportunities for conference participants to share what they learned provides staff recognition. It makes them feel valued for their contribution back to the organization.

And, finally, back to my original doodle: Have we sacrificed networking with people for technology addiction?

If people aren’t going to network at conferences, why not stay home or at work and just do webinars and read books and online articles and blogs? I believe we are at risk if we don’t work with our staff to develop networking skills. Providing tools to guide behavior is one step in the right direction. We have a new generation of staff and rising leaders who are “technology natives.” We need to balance technology and face-to-face interactions, especially in an industry that serves people – patients and families.

When all heads are down engaged in smart phones, we miss crucial interactions that can teach so much.

Contributor:  Diane Foster