Friday, November 18, 2005

Frank's Conference Wish List as a Point of Departure

A couple of days ago I left a comment on Frank Paynter's blog wrapup of the Corante/Berkman Social Software Conference. I asked "What would be on your conference wish list?" Frank emailed me to let me know he replied in a whole new posting - a great gift to wake up to. First, thanks, Frank. Second, this is a great point of departure to think more about conference design and experience. Here is Frank's wishlist.

  • A powerful assemblage of participants: bright, knowledgeable, caring, unselfish people, with expertise in their fields.
  • Mingling opportunities: a chance to more than rub shoulders, but also to converse, to laugh, to play together, a chance to follow-up after the conference. More than that special exchange of business cards and self-conscious 'networking', I want these events to share their rosters among the participants and to provide time and space for people to get to know each other more deeply than by professional reputation.
  • I want a strong, coherent agenda. I'd like a University gathering to have an academic focus, to be challenging intellectually and not to cover too much old ground.
  • Small meetings within a conference are preferable to large presentation spaces. There isn't sufficient time or social bandwidth to explore things meaningfully in a room of 100 or more participants.
  • Professional facilitation is important. Whether the participants' power comes from their brilliance, their pocketbooks, their unique glandular output or some combination, I prefer a professional facilitator engaged to lead meetings rather than a designated expert.
Nancy, these are a few of the things on my conference wish list. And, I almost forgot... good schwag. Send me home with a coffee cup, a flash drive, a canvas bag, something that I can put my monkey paws on later and remember the day.
I realized as I read Frank's list that I am asking a question that needs more grounding in context. My question (and I assume, Frank's answer) assumed there is one type of conference -- which is false. We have all kinds of gatherings we call "conference." So maybe it would be helpful to think of some of the types of things we call conferences. We might even be able to express them along a continuum.

For example conferences for :

  • ...sharing out ideas and information - these take the form of someone "presenting" to others, be that one to many or many to many. Generally these are formalized with an individual or small group determining the agenda and process. Activites embodied in this might be evangelizing, teaching, promoting, rallying. Broadcast. Scripted. Political rallies and trade show presentations (and the accompanying artifacts of schwag!) come to mind. Shared group experience may one one of the (idealized?) outcomes. Flexible interaction happens outside of official "sessions."
  • ...legitimizing a profession/something. Academic gatherings come to mind, with their association with papers, posters, published proceedings and peer review. The controlled set of circumstances is deeply rooted in the profession, its legitimacy and the establishment of personal reputation, so the form is pretty rigid. Informal and flexible interactions happen in the margins, breaks and cracks.
  • ...creating or remixing ideas - give and take of ideas that results in reshaping and creating of a new output. Future Search and Appreciative Inquiry conferences come to mind. These are crafted by a small group, but control is shared with the participants during the event by designing participation consistently through the gathering.
  • ...sharing and cocreating an experience. While content has a place in every gathering, some "feel" to me like an experience. In the forms above, that experience is created and controlled mostly by others. But there are forms that are created by the participants. Open Space gatherings, "camps" and other highly participatory methdologies describe this sort of gathering. They imply a strong dependence on participation to make it work. These are not passive, while the above forms can be. (Don't HAVE to be!) They have both a cost and a benefit to participants, both of which have to be embraced for success.

Now in that list I talked as if these were all geographically co-located, but I think they apply to online and blended events as well. And blended is a key thing for me these days, and also something Frank picked up on in the before/after missed opportunities of Corante's recent social software conference.

Frank's wishlist seems to imply some of the traditional forms - strong presenters is a perfect example. Corante advertised its event as an "unconference." I am wondering out loud here if this one of those places where mixed intentions and expectations can mess us up. A key lesson for me when designing events is to be explict about intent and expectation. So if it is all about listening to a few really bright people, say so. When it is about broad participation, make that real. I detect some slippage at the Corante event as evidenced by reading blog posts of attendees. So know, I'm drawing conclusions where I have no freakin' business nor knowledge!

I should also make a disclaimer here. I was on the Corante/Berkman conference advisory board, but I don't think (I don't know) if I had any impact on the event. Certainly a lot of the form suggestions I and others made pushing it to more of an open event were not embodied. From what I can read, it was not an "unconference" in that it was still a top down structure.

For me unconference is not just a matter of having panels and audience discussions. It is about moving totally off the podium! But that's my personal bias! And our biases do inform our design. Let's not kid ourselves. We craft things we'd like. It is much harder to craft what others' want, particularly if it doesn't fit our mental model.

I should also note that there was some miscommunication on the Corante/Berkman event page that indicated early on I would be at the event. I was clear that I could not attend as I was already going to EPIC2005, but nonetheless, I continue to get emails from people telling me their surprise of not seeing me there. This raises a whole other fertile question about what is the role of advisory groups - beyond name and political corectness in service of marketing - legitimate needs, but not all there is. I'll leave that one for later! :-)

Lots of food for thought and clearly, F2F time is SO PRECIOUS we need to make sure we make the most of it. So event design is important. Heck, online connection time is precious, so design online and offline is important! And we can remix elements to create new forms. Key is being clear with participants so they can say yes or now with some insight.

What do you think?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I choose not to use any HTML tags! Don't people ever just talk? I am sick and tired of buzzwords, jargon, tekkie talk and trying to make myself more brilliant and educated than anyone else. Blog???? It's just amazing how some people get so involved with this nonsense!

Please feel free to critique my message.

I think you need something to make you laugh every once and awhile.

8:48 PM  
Blogger Nancy White said...

Hey, anonymous, I agree. We do need things to make us laugh. And to feel deeply, which doesn't have to have anything to do with technology, jargon or room layout. It might simply be a compelling storyteller with a tale to share.

7:21 AM  

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