Brown Bag Lunches/Training - Do They Work?


I'll define a brown bag lunch as a training event held at lunch time where someone on the team does a technical presentation designed to enlighten/educate others on the team that decide to attend. The original idea was that everyone would bring their lunch in a 'brown bag', but I think it's more common that lunch is provided. They have that whole grass roots/open source/good karma feel to them. No better way to learn a topic a little more deeply than by preparing a presentation on it, and for most people it's more approachable because they know all the people in the room.

That's the intro, now to the question - do they work? I've tried it when I was managing, and sadly, it didn't work.

The first hurdle was that I needed to give them paid time to prepare the presentation. Not really fair to ask someone to give up time with family for something that is directly work related, but you have to look hard to see if you can afford to lose them for 4 hours (or more in some cases). In most cases if you want the training, you find a way to give them the time.

The bigger hurdle was that for most of them it was the first time teaching/presenting, and it was painful. I sat through one that attempted to explain every concept of UML and I think all of us were lost 10 minutes into it. That means to make the presentations work you have to devote additional time and resources (you!) to reviewing their outline, checking the slides (UML had 180 for a one hour presentation), and doing a practice run with them. For most managers this is time well spent, but time that is very hard to come by.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle was convincing the rest of the team that some good might come from the effort. Funny how the prospect of 'giving up' a lunch hour to listen to a presentation was taken as an intrusion or worse. Providing the food will offset this to a good degree, as few things motivate IT professionals like free food!

I'm always looking for input from people that have made this work, and so far I haven't found many (please do contact me if you have). If you decide to give it a try, here are some suggestions:

  • Plan on paying for four hours of their time to build the presentation, plus another 1-2 hours for practice
  • Provide someone with experience on presenting to review/coach them
  • Provide lunch
  • Schedule them rarely, perhaps once a quarter or once every two months
  • Don't let them pick topics without your input/approval
  • Make sure you have support materials available - a couple books, links to webcasts, etc, in case someone really does take an interest
  • Limit the presentation to 30-40 minutes so you can also have some time for fun, team building, general clowning
  • Don't expect too much!

You could easily do worse than playing one of the many MSDN webcasts, or a series of interesting videos from JumpstartTV!