I’m becoming increasingly dissatisfied with conferences, both as a speaker and as an attendee. Rather than rant about their present format (be that speaker-led, open-space, or what-have-you), I thought I’d make a constructive suggestion about a different format for conferences, a format that I myself would prefer.
Seems to me that the very idea of “Conference” has become detached from its roots:
[kuhn-fur] verb, -ferred, -fer·ring.
verb (used without object)
- to consult together; compare opinions; carry on a discussion or deliberation.
[C16: from Latin conferre to gather together, compare; from com- together + ferre to bring]
Let me start out by describing the problems I have with existing conference formats.
- Push – Most often, know-how is “pushed” at the participants by people with that know-how, albeit with the best of intentions. Many times these good intentions go awry and create waste:
- Wasted time for speakers sharing know-how that few if any folks find valuable
- Wasted time for participants hearing about stuff that lacks relevance for them personally
- Presentations / lectures being the classic form of “push”
- This all seems contrary to what we in the Agile and Lean communities have learned about the benefits of “pull”.
- Not purposeful – Folks generally drift in and out of sessions with little purpose and little idea in advance as to whether a particular session is going to serve their needs (“fit”). Further, few folks I have met at conferences come with any kind of specific “learning agenda”.
- Unconscious incompetence – how do folks get to find out what they don’t know, that might be valuable to them in their current situation, or their future? [My thanks to @papachrismatts for this suggestion.]
- Structure set at the outset – Particularly an issue with open space, where, even though the agenda is co-created at the outset, there is little or no flexibility in time slots, nor much evolution of the agenda or timing structure after the start.
- No adjustment to the process/structure during the event. Even within a one-day conference, participants are learning about the format and how it suits them. I would favour a means to encourage and incorporate that learning through ongoing evolution “in flight”.
As I see it, folks participate in conferences to the following ends:
- To learn (from acquiring a basic awareness of things unknown, through to detailed and specific know-how)
- To socialise
- To share (e.g. mutual learning)
- To proselytise (e.g. to promote ideas)
- To promote (the profile of oneself or one’s organisation for e.g.commercial purposes)
My solution to the above collection of problems and requirements would be to have conferences where:
- Attendees each have their own “ignorance backlog“, drawn-up in advance, and evolving throughout the conference. For those for whom this might prove a challenge, the conference could and should provide some guidance, in the form of e.g. coaching, in the construction and evolution of this backlog. I for one would be delighted to volunteer for this duty.
- Knowledge is pulled, on demand, by the attendees, from the pool of available “subject-matter experts”, and in accordance with their “ignorance backlogs”. Given the likely ratio of learners to subject-matter experts, this pulling may necessarily happen in groups, rather than on a one-to-one basis. Although, this format does afford the delicious possibility of allowing anyone (attendees included) to play the part of subject-matter expert in at least some subjects. As Ackoff and others have said, “in the classroom, the teachers is always the one that learns most”. So I posit it would be for the best to encourage non-subject-matter-experts to do as much of the “teaching” as possible.
- Sessions are organised on-the-fly, with duration, location and participants “pulled” according to availability and priority.
- The core of the conference organisation task would involve:
- Delineating the topic landscape (scope).
- Finding the venue, sponsors, etc
- Encouraging folks to participate
- Cataloguing the expertise present on the day,
- Providing the “ba” (spaces where mutual meaning can emerge)
- Facilitating the scheduling (times, durations, locations) of the “ba”.
- Consolidating the experience via follow-up activities (photos, slides, videos, blogs, etc).
Risks I can envisage include:
- Folks with knowledge may be reluctant to spend their own coin to particiapte, given that “speakers” often get their expenses reimbursed (and sometimes fees, as well) as part of the “deal” (i.e. in token exchange for sharing their know-how and experiences). I do have some tentative – i.e. not yet well-formed – ideas on how to address this.
- Folks looking to proselytise or promote their ideas, company or personal brand/celebrity may be unwilling to participate fearing a dilution of their profile. I am less concerned by this, as personally I dislike being sold to, favouring rather co-learning with like-minded others.
- Organisations sponsoring their employees to attend conferences in this kind of format may wonder if they’re getting value for money, and may baulk at the unconventional nature of the format. Given the likely much improved outcomes (in terms of participants’ learning, experiences) I suggest this might be an initial hurdle but less of a longer-term issue.
- Participants coming unprepared/unbriefed for such a format may not get as much out of the conference as they would if skilled in this particular approach.
Let’s not overlook the key role of sponsors and sponsorship in reducing the financial risks inherent in organising conferences, and in making conferences financially viable. I for one understand less than I’d like to about the motivations of sponsors and how – or even if – their needs can be met by this format.
I’m not going to name this new format. As Ohno said: “Don’t codify method”. Maybe you might consider the advantages of so refraining, also?
Given my proposal of this kind of format as a means for mutual learning (or co-exploration of a topic/topic-set) it might be more suitable to refer to everyone as “participants”, “co-learners” or even “conferrers”, rather than split people up to different categories such as attendees, speakers, etc.
We have trialled some aspects of the proposed format at the various Rightshifting conferences of the past two years. I’d love for folks who attended those events to share their experiences of the format, here.