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On the morning of the first day of the Linkage Inc. Chicago CLO Conference, my colleague and I were among the last to enter the meeting room—only to find the seating arrangement more conducive to a wedding than to a single speaker. After scanning the room full of round tables we managed to find a couple of seats at the rear, neatly 180 degrees from the screen and podium.

Despite our seats, the content started well with Dave Ulrich from the University of Michigan. Though he looks more like a football coach than a professor of business administration, he offered some interesting insights into the learning organization and intellectual capital. Key points included the equation “Intellectual capital = competence times commitment,” accompanied by models to create both in your organization. He offered the theory that knowledge is an asset you don’t have to own to access, prompting some among the audience to begin to rethink their IP policies. He also pointed out that every year there is 50% new knowledge, therefore there must be a process for renewal of knowledge within organizations. His remarks were sprinkled with an appropriate amount of self-deprecating humor, which didn’t really hide his well-developed ego, but all in all he presented some very practical models and ideas that would be easily implemented when the audience got back to the office.

Another highlight on the agenda was Marshall Goldsmithcited by the Wall Street Journal as one of America’s top ten executive development consultants last year. Describing himself as the “friendly bald guy,” Goldsmith led the audience through a highly interactive and entertaining hour. Fully experiential exercises were followed by a rapid fire Q&A session to make sure we “got it.” His remarks were centered on the application of coaching in the facilitation of learning. This session won the prize for best giveaway—all audience members received a copy of Goldsmith’s new book, Coaching for Leadership.

The high point in the conference was Peter Senge’s session on the morning of Day 2. With many apologies for the “messiness” and incompleteness of what he was about to offer since it was primarily new material, he launched into a series of thoughts and ideas centered on developing strategy for the creation and diffusion of knowledge in organizations. I took two major perspectives from Senge’s session:

1. Companies operate from one of two modes: “make and sell” or “sense and respond.” “Make and sell” is a strategy of hoarding knowledge, versus “sense and respond,” a strategy of sharing knowledge. “Make and sell” implies you are in a commodity business. “Sense and respond” describes businesses that are truly meeting their customers’ needs.

2. Knowledge generation (learning) is a social phenomenon that best occurs in the “spaces”unstructured time without commitment. Mr. Senge offered the following anecdote to describe the power of “slack time” and social networks in helping a company stay competitive:

“Over a period of time, HP started to notice that the greatest percentage of their new product ideas was coming from the same group of female engineers. After lengthy examination of the work processes and behaviors of these people turned up no insights, it was discovered that this group of women engineers were all members of a weekly quilting circle. Every week, for an evening, they got together and quilted, in the old-fashioned way. And while their hands were busy, they talked. From this informal, unstructured chat that was occurring during their recreational pursuits, incredibly creative ideas were emerging. Hence a newfound appreciation for the value of social networks has developed at HP. In addition the company does not trivialize the fact that all the participants of the quilting circle were women—they continue to examine the culture of creativity that women are able to establish amongst themselves versus that of men (definitive conclusions yet to be made).”

In addition, I liked his practical definition of knowledge: “Knowledge is the capacity for effective action, as evaluated by an adjudicating community.” The majority of the audience members concurred, many admitting to struggling to create something as practical for their own organizations.

Peter Senge’s session was the last session that really engaged the audience and held their attention. The content from that point onward was weak and repetitive—a disappointment given the richness of the subject area.

Overall, Linkage’s Chief Learning Officer conference seemed to hit too theoretical a note for the audience members struggling to define and ascribe value to learning in their respective organizations. Given the increasing interest in the subject area and the simultaneously increasing level of expertise resident in organizations, future conferences will have to offer more pragmatic “how-to’s” than this one did. And as with many conferences, the real benefit to the attendees seemed to be the opportunity to interact with people facing similar issues and situations and compare notes.

Karen Wright is the founder of Parachute Executive Coaching, and is one of Canada’s first Professional Certified Coaches serving corporate managers. A driving force in the emergence of coaching in Canada, Karen is the Canadian Regional Leader and Toronto Chapter Past Host for the International Coach Federation. Reach her at