The following is an article that I was asked to write for my friends at PSMW, a department of the Welsh Assembly Government that improves the skills of managers across the public service.

In April this year I co-organised the TEDxCardiff conference. We had speakers from all over the UK talking about everything from what can be learned from tribal cultures to the visible spectrums of light in the universe. And while they were speaking it wasn’t just the people in the audience who were learning. We had people watching live online from as far afield as the United Arab Emirates and New Zealand. And since the event, we’ve had tens of thousands of viewers from all over the world taking advantage of the archived online talks. And none of them paid a penny.

Every day there are brilliant, inspiring and informative events happening all over the world, and many of them are recorded with the sessions, talks and seminars being broadcast live on the web then archived for anyone to watch online at their convenience. And PSMW’s Summer School is a perfect example. Talks from such events are viewed by millions and millions of people in every country on the planet. They watch them at home, in their lunchbreaks, and amongst friends. The talks are shared via email, Twitter and Facebook. People hold viewing parties, make them required watching as part of university courses, and some organisations have regular sessions where staff all gather round to watch talks at the beginning of the week. I know of companies that have completely changed their business plan because of a talk they’ve watched online.

Of course, the real magic at conferences like these tends to happen as a result of a chance conversation over breakfast, or a fortuitous introduction in the bar. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn a huge amount from one of the thousands (and free) archived talks available online. They can provide inspiration, talking points, a new perspective or just some straight, old fashioned wisdom.

But, as with being at conferences in person, gravitating towards something or someone you already know everything about is not always the wisest idea. It’s not always the comfortable choice, but you learn the most when you’re with people different from yourself and immersing yourself in ideas that are new to you. I’m a big believer in putting people from different disciplines in the same room and just seeing what happens. It’s all too easy to rely on speaking to the same people about the same problems. I often organise events that bring together people from across the creative industries and you can usually see the designers gravitating towards each other, those in advertising standing together in the corner, and the film-makers making their own celluloid cluster. And in these circumstances it’s rare that new things are learned.

But, if you mix things up a bit remarkable things can happen. Study after study has shown that the more diverse a group, the better its ability to solve problems and learn new things. I once introduced a TV director to a high wire acrobat and they both learned so much from that conversation that they stayed in touch on a regular basis. The acrobat was able to give the director a huge insight into how best to rig cameras for aerial shots, while the director helped the acrobat understand from which angles his aerial work would best be appreciated. Things they may not have learned from their usual colleagues.

If you can’t get to a conference, but still need that mental stimulation provided by being around some differing opinions as well as some kindred spirits, then why not check out some of the sites listed below where you will find more inspiration and wisdom than you’ll ever need. Most talks are between 15 and 30 minutes, so are quick and easy to digest. For maximum effect why not grab a coffee, a handful of colleagues, and head to the boardroom with a laptop to take a 15 minute “brain spa”.

TED.com, BILconference.com, TheDoLectures.com, Poptech.org, FeastOnGood.com, BigPicture.tv, TheRSA.org, AllDayBuffet.org, Fora.tv, GelConference.com, AIfestival.org

To view keynote addresses from current and previous Summer Schools visit www.wales.gov.uk/psmw

You can download a PDF of the magazine, Catalyst, in which this article appeared here: (English version : Welsh version).

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