One day, I attended a seminar which presented a new technology to an audience of early adopters. During the series of presentations, I was flooded with information, new paradigms, and innovative concepts. I found that my mind was overwhelmed with processing the details and by building the bridge between the world I knew and the new one being presented in the conference. The rich blend of intrigue, fear, and obsolescence hit me like a strong cup of espresso.

Several days later, a peer asked me about my impressions of the seminar. In the brief pause before my response, I realized that the only information that I could recall were my impressions of the hotel, its quality of coffee (or lack thereof), my general feelings of being overwhelmed, and maybe a morsel of learning or two. It was clear that I had not successfully processed the information presented. The team and I gained no benefit from the seminar, and it stunted any progress toward further learning. It was an opportunity wasted.

Processed data
It is generally expected that those who are engaged in a meeting, conference, or other information sharing events will take copious notes. Some take on the role of a court reporter, rapidly recording the details and dialogue of the session. Others, efficiently capture the points of interest that arise in bullet point format. Yet, others simply absorb the experience without writing a single note. The act of taking notes is essentially a data collection process. The movement of data from its dormant state toward actionable knowledge requires processing. Much like ice cream on a hot summer day, the longer one waits to process data, the more of it melts away into oblivion.

The discovery summary
A discovery summary is a process in which you capture your responses to a few essential questions to ensure you enjoy the full bounty of the learning opportunity. The following are these questions.

What did I expect to learn from this session?
This question is designed to reveal your goals and issues that you anticipate to address through the information presented in the session. It is also intended to reveal biases or assumptions that may be barriers to getting the most from the meeting. If these are discovered, you will want to make an effort to mitigate.

What did I learn from this session?
While your response to this question may be bits of data and interesting facts, it is not intended to be a re-hash of your notes. Your answer to this question should include some initial processing of the information presented into conclusions, commentary, or impact on previous understanding. Considering that you are responding to this question shortly after attending the session, the learning, conclusions, and commentary will be incomplete; However, documenting them as they stand at that time will allow you to process the learnings further at a later point.

What does this learning mean to me?
If I were to attend a session on the topic of shearing sheep to produce wool cloth, there is no doubt that I will learn quite a bit of information. Since I have no sheep nor intent to sell wool, it serves as nothing more than gratifying a novel curiosity. However, if I did have sheep and was intending to venture into the wool industry, the meeting will have a significant impact on my professional aspirations. As a result, I will process this data much differently in the second scenario than the first. Capturing the meaning of the learning acknowledges the context in which the data was received.

What do I plan to do in response to this learning?
Knowledge without action is simply trivia. Therefore, if the learning has meaning to you, there will be some actions that arise from the learning experience. These actions could include following up with a peer, dig deeper into an aspect of the data presented, schedule a lunch with the presenter, purchase a recommended book, or perform an experiment/pilot. When these actions are captured as a SMART goal (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound), you will hold yourself accountable for seeing these actions through to their end.

What questions and opportunities arose for further exploration?
Isaac Newton’s first law of motion states that an object that is in motion stays in motion. This is true for learning as well. In other words, learning begets learning. In a session that piques your curiosity, you will no doubt have more questions. A quality presentation will provide sources or recommendations for further exploration into the topic at hand. As a result, be sure to capture these avenues toward knowledge so that the motion of learning can perpetually progress.

Keep moving
Upon capturing your response to these critical questions, you will glean more out of any learning opportunity than you would otherwise. It is vital to keep the discovery summary simple to develop the practice as a healthy habit. Keep in mind that the answers are for your eyes only and you will not be graded on grammar or format. The discovery summary should not take more than a sheet of paper; otherwise, you may be going into too much detail for the purpose of the document (brain-dump capture). It is valuable to reflect on your notes and the discovery summary a day or two later so that you can continue to process your learning and transform the data into solid knowledge.

When your co-worker approaches you while pouring your fifth cup of coffee for the morning and inquires about the seminar you attended last week, your effective processing of the sessions will enable you to respond in a fashion that demonstrates a growth in knowledge. Additionally, you will be able to discuss how the opportunity will impact your business. As a result, you may spark curiosity in your co-workers which will lead to their own pursuit of knowledge, moving the whole team toward a culture of learning and innovation.