Impactful Cross-functional Learning Events

Sorrel Harriet
6 min readFeb 16, 2023

Fostering a culture of continuous learning is critical to the long-term success of any organisation. At Armakuni, an important mechanism for that came from the company’s monthly ‘AK Days’ — days when the whole company came together, usually online, for something like an inset day.

Whilst at Armakuni I coordinated 18 AK Days, and in that time they evolved alongside the company’s learning strategy. They’ve become something people will talk about outside of the company with genuine affection. They crop up in blogposts and Great Place to Work feedback.

In this case study article, I will share what that process of evolution looked like, highlighting key learnings you can use to create your own impactful cross-functional learning events.

Round 1: Increase Engagement

The first goal for AK Days was to increase engagement among participants across different functions.

In the early days, when I collected feedback about people’s experiences of AK Days, I’d hear that they served some people very well, while others found them chaotic and reported feeling intimidated and excluded by them. It was often those from non-technical roles and/or who were newest to the company that reported these experiences, which is understandable, since AK Days started at a time when the company was much smaller and had been based in a physical location.

To tackle this, I introduced a few changes in response to the feedback.

I introduced a bit more structure to the days, while being careful to maintain opportunities for spontaneity and choice. Having previously followed a totally freeform unconference format, it felt important to maintain the autonomy and relaxed atmosphere that is synonymous with unconference (and highly conducive to learning and community-forming), but we also needed enough structure that people did not feel lost or overwhelmed.

I split the unconference agenda into tracks, with a ring-fenced ‘non-technical’ track which could only include sessions that were accessible to non-developers.

Example of an unconference session-pitching frame in Miro

I increased pre-event comms, so people had a way of knowing what was coming up, and the opportunity to plan ahead. This is particularly important for those who want to contribute but feel overwhelmed by the prospect of improvising a session on the fly (also good for ensuring time is well used.)

I would make silly and crudely edited videos to promote AK Days over slack, leaning into the creative and playful side that is latent in all of us. (I’ve always felt that, in order to be primed for learning, we need to become a bit vulnerable first. Humour and play can help us get there.)

Embarrassingly bad Zoom-based recreation of kid’s TV show from the 1990’s. I’m so old.

I set lots of context, emphasising the shared ownership aspect of AK Days and setting expectations around how people ‘show up’ (e.g. that they attend as active participants; that they take some responsibility for ensuring they get what they need from their day; that they bring forward suggestions for sessions they want to attend ahead of time, etc.)

I experimented with different speakers and facilitators, most of whom were suggested by the community. We didn’t always go for the most obvious choice of speaker — sometimes we’d bring in academics or artists to stimulate creative and different ways of thinking about the work people do ( a great example being artist and UX designer Clemence Debaig.)

I attached a theme to each AK Day. These were somewhat arbitrary to begin with, their purpose being to tie things together, and stimulate thinking around a specific topic.

I experimented with different activities and formats. Being a remote company, one of the things people responded well to were opportunities to get away from the screen while maintaining a sense of connection. This Remote Scavenger Hunt proved highly successful on that front.

I collected feedback after every event, and invariably it would range from tremendous joy to bitter disappointment. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from that feedback about what made people tick, and I’d use it to inform the next event.

The feedback also reminded me that some of the most valuable learning we do feels intensely uncomfortable and challenging in the moment. Just because the room falls silent doesn’t necessarily mean people are disengaged— it might also mean lots of processing is taking place.

Cue Kolb’s experiential learning cycle…

* I’m not saying make them bad by design…just that you can’t control every aspect of human experience.

My tips for collecting feedback after learning events would be: 1) don’t always ask for it immediately, and 2) be careful what questions you ask! For example, the questions should be relevant to the event goals. If the goal was around learning, asking people how much fun they had isn’t going to tell you whether or not you met that goal.

Round 2: Shared Ownership

The next goal for AK Days was to bring them into community ownership, or rather, stop being a SPOF (single-point-of-failure).

I created loosely-defined roles and a rota so that, effectively, we’d have a different short-lived team taking ownership of the event each month. The roles were loosely-defined in the sense that people could always take on more responsibility if they wanted and were able to, but it also gave clarity to those who didn’t have enough spare cognitive capacity to self-organise.

I became a ‘light-touch’ project manager. After each event I’d setup a short retro with both the outgoing and incoming teams. Through this we’d set context for the incoming team, and share feedback and learnings from the event. I’d also schedule a short discovery-type session with the incoming team, through which we’d identify a goal or focus for the day, and sketch out an agenda.

Depending on the team, I might have little involvement beyond the initial discovery, though I’d continue to help with comms and other admin.

Round 3: Become Strategic

The third and final goal was to create closer connections between AK Day goals, company learning goals, and individual learning goals.

This is where the boundaries between event coordination and enterprise coaching become a bit blurred, because this goal isn’t really achievable without addressing the whole system. I’m not going to claim I smashed it, but here are two tactics I used to try to move us closer towards it.

Establish organisational learning goals. This was achieved at Armakuni through a detailed needs assessment and in consultation with leadership. Organisational learning goals can then be used to inform themes and collective learning goals at future AK Days.

Foster a culture of personal goal-setting. Using floorspace at company demos and Pastoral Manager community meetups, I shared advice, tools and resources around personal goal-setting. My advice in this space has been the topic of another article and a talk at LeadDev Berlin.

I encouraged everyone, at all levels, to make their personal learning goals visible through shared tooling.

The process of setting personal learning goals encourages people to think more strategically about how they make use of their learning time, which includes their time spent at AK Days.

Closing remarks

I will miss AK Days at Armakuni. They were always a thing I looked forward to at the end of each month, and not just because we got to expense our lunch, but because we got to experience something meaningful together, as a unit.

But now…something EVEN better — I get to look forward to hearing what Armakuni get up to on AK Days over social media. I am confident they will go from strength to strength because there is a deeply embedded culture of continuous learning to support them.

If you’d like to learn more about my work, or the great stuff Armakuni are doing, check us out online or follow us on LinkedIn:

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