Put a bit of 'un' in your conference

This is the story of a successful traditional conference having a shot at 'unconferencing'. You may know that I have a hobby horse about conferences (see We must get more from conferences). For the click weary here is a snippet...

Nowadays I hear much of the need for organisations to become collaborative, innovative, agile and suchlike; and I hear that achieving these things will depend much on transformation of culture and behaviour; but I can't see how this will happen if, at significant gatherings, we do the same old things and behave in the same old ways. That so many undoubtedly smart folks spend entire days at events sitting and listening but contributing so little feels, well... a bit daft. We should, as much as is feasible, get away from the model of conferences that is about transferring knowledge from those who know to those who don't and, instead, use the valuable time at these events to generate new knowledge and grow genuine community. We must make conferences, events, meetings, workshops, gatherings of all kinds much more participative; and accept, if we really want to change how our organisations and institutions work, that this new approach is no optional extra.

See also my rant Sitting people on chairs in rows at meetings is a criminal waste.

I am keen on more open, participative styles of meeting that some call Unconferences: conferences driven by their participants. Typically, at the beginning, attendees will discuss what they want to talk about and, often with the help of a facilitator, develop an agenda for themselves and then follow it. The benefits are that everyone gets involved such that many more ideas, solutions to problems, richer connections and sometimes even new projects can emerge.

We will see much more of this type of conference in the future - for all sorts of reasons (that I may have a go at writing about another day) but here's one for now... As the use of social media becomes mainstream in organisations (over say the next 20 years) more people will be blogging, tweeting, creating audio recordings and making videos and to get their point across. We will not need to go to conferences to hear people speak or even to ask them questions. In the context of the technology that exists now, the idea of travelling miles to spend hours listening to people and not (in the end) get to ask them a question, feels well on the way to pointless. At the moment, most people that most people want to hear from just don't use these tools. But this will change.

To the story...

Last year I met Ian Bailey of Model Futures who asked me to speak at his Integrated EA conference. Integrated EA happens over two days and is a traditional conference aimed at defence/MOD folk with an interest in Enterprise Architecture. Ian has run the event very successfully for six years; it has developed a very good reputation and has a substantial group of loyal attendees.

While discussing potential subjects for my talk, I gently prodded Ian with my conference schtick (above) and suggested trying an unconference format. I wouldn't have blamed Ian for taking an ain't broke line but he was really keen to try something new. Fantastic.

A switch to an all-out unconference format (like the excellent UK Gov Camp running this weekend) would stretch things too far. We decided to start small and hatched the idea of an experimental session to run alongside a few hours of the main conference. After the initial meeting with Ian - to create a picture of how things might play out - I wrote this story. It tells of 25 people coming together to set an agenda, enthusiastically discussing things they were jointly interested in and then sharing stories of what happened. More or less, this came to pass.

I should say huge thanks to Penny Creed (who does a fantastic job of organising the event for Ian) for helping me out; not least to un-tidy a very neatly set out conference room; Penny Tweeted...

Just 'unsetting up' the room for the #IEA13 'unconference'. As an 'uberplanner' event manager it does feel like an alien concept.

— Penny Creed (@SynthesisEvents) March 6, 2013

Feedback after the session was almost entirely positive: Ian is considering taking the idea further next year.

All conferences should be having a go at this kind of thing.