Unconference at Integrated EA

When Ian Bailey invited me to speak at Integrated EA (2013) we talked about ways of developing the community around the conference. I suggested an 'Unconference' track running alongside some of the other events. To explain what I meant, I sent Ian a story about how things might work. Since several folks have been in touch about it, I thought I would post that story here:

An Unconference is a meeting driven by its participants. Typically, at the beginning, the attendees will say what they want to talk about and, often with the help of a facilitator, will develop an agenda for themselves and then follow it. The benefits are richer connections, new ideas, sometimes projects. To illustrate what might happen here is a story about how an experiment in Unconferencing during Integrated EA might unfold...

“Having been intrigued by a page on the Integrated EA website 15 people sign up for the Unconference Experiment before the conference and, as a result of a sparky trailer during the introduction to the first day, encouragement from organisers during refreshment breaks and an advertising poster, a further 10 people decide to join in.

At 1130 on Day 2 the participants arrive in the room allocated to the session and are slightly nonplussed. The only chairs in the room are stacked at the back. There are a few tables along one side of the room with paper, Post-its, pens etc; there two large white boards and some flip chart stands.

The facilitator welcomes the participants, quickly explains the idea behind the experiment. He suggests that they gather in a rough horseshoe and introduce themselves: who they are, where they do and which of the conference biscuits they prefer (or similar). Each person speaks and, with occasional help from the facilitator, there are some quick exchanges and there are a few chuckles about biscuit choice. The participants are starting to become a group.

The facilitator asks the group what they would like to do? After a little awkwardness and some suggestions from the facilitator, the participants decide that they will each write on a Post-it a topic related to EA that they would like some help on. Each person reads out their Post-it, sticks it to their chest and the group dissolves into a series of high-speed cocktail party discussions exploring the challenges being faced by the members. The group reconvenes and decides to put the Post-its to one of the whiteboards. A few members of the group organise the Post-its and some themes begin to emerge. By about 1215 after some discussion and a vote, the participants divide themselves into roughly equal groups to tackle five of the topics.

At a suggestion from the facilitator the groups agree that, to provide a focus to their work, they will each aim to prepare a 5 minute presentation on the outcome of their discussions. Four groups decide to stay in the room and arrange some chairs in circles; one group sits at a table just outside the room. Discussion begins. Some groups are animated - some are quieter; all seem engaged.

The groups decide to write their topics on a flip chart and post them outside the room for other conference members to see during the lunch break (one the posters is quite artistic and includes a picture).

Most of the groups take a short break for lunch: some bring back their lunch and carry on with their discussions. Over lunch one or two people not participating in the unconference experiment are interested in the topics being discussed ask if they can join in. One person decides that they would prefer to join the discussion in another group and moves across; two others decide that Unconferencing is not for them and don’t return after lunch.

The work continues. One group has taken over one of the whiteboards and has drawn a large multi-coloured diagram on it. Another group has prepared a series of flip charts that it has Blu-tacked to a wall. By about 1330 the groups have finished. Some more people from the other conference track appear in the room because they are interested in the topics being talked about; one or two had been drawn by the Tweets appearing on the conference hashtag .

Over the next 45 minutes each group gives a short presentation about what they discussed. There is a range of presentation styles and content. Some talks are inconclusive, others expose differences of view between the group members, one causes a significant discussion across the room and another comes up with a really good idea that hooks the interest of everyone.

When the presentations are done, the facilitator invites discussion on the experiment. Several people speak. One says that they have made some valuable connections with others in the group that they would not otherwise have made. Another says that she will be organising a session at her offices to carry on discussion of one of the topics with colleagues who were unable to attend. Many agree it would be a good thing to run the Unconference track the following year.

One or two of the participants subsequently write up their experiences on their personal blogs. Others get in touch with those they met to continue discussions. The conference organisers decide to feature some of the topics that were discussed on its website and over the following months these emerge as substantive topics for the following year. Interest in the conference grows.

In fact, things go so well that the Conference has to be held at the NEC in 2014”

...is one way it could turn out.

But there's no guarantee that anything like this will happen: come along and see what happens. Further information: Unconference - Wikipedia entry UKGovCamp - A well established unconference We must get more from conferences - FG blog post