For the last 12 months I have been working on the dissertation for my Master's programme in systems thinking. That is a long time to be working on a relatively small area of knowledge, so it needs to be something about which you are interested!
As I was thinking around for a topic to examine, I reflected on how people attending training workshops always comment on how useful it is to meet other people who do the same work, and I often wondered if people chose to stay in touch with each other after the event, or if they were just 'ships that passed in the night'. So for my dissertation I started to do a lot of reading around the subject of social learning networks and communities of practice, to see if there were any lessons which could be learned which were of relevance to the process of workshop design.
Quite a few factors seem to be relevant. Official support is important, in terms of encouraging people to take time out to share knowledge and information and in providing practical, logistical support. Learning networks need to motivate their participants so that they continue to engage with the network, and this will often require injections of energy from some organising committee. People need to trust each other, to feel that it is okay to ask questions which might be seen as revealing ignorance.
So in my research I distributed on-line surveys to people in 22 different workshops, and asked them to assess various aspects of how the workshop had been run and to describe how they had stayed in contact with other participants after the workshop. The results showed that the key factor in making it more likely that people will stay in touch with each other after the workshop is trust: if the workshop is designed so that people get to know each other through discussions and other activities designed to promote social learning, the chances are much greater that they will stay in touch.
Staying in touch means enhancing informal learning, and this can be a powerful tool for enhancing the value of a workshop, but one which we rarely ever measure. Systemic approaches to evaluation is a subject I will return to on another day.