Peer Learning

Flip your conference into an unconference

Bart Doorneweert

Conferences  these days are a hard sell. There are so many of them, and there’s so  little to distinguish yourself by. Usually the conference with the  bigger budgets win, because they bring in the bigger names.

But  do they actually win? “An often heard phrase at conferences is that  it’s not about the content of the conference, nor the weight of the  speakers; Those are nice-to-have’s. The real action happens during the  break, and in the corridors.”

So  oddly the wins of getting the community together to exchange knowledge  appear not to happen where each conference designs them to happen.  People use the moments that are off the central podium to take control  of the outcomes they’re looking for, at the fringes of the conference.

“I want to learn how that guy from corporate finance solved his problem last time”
“I’d like to follow up on that lead”
“I really need to pick her brain on this issue that I’m facing”

When  thinking of a theme for conference, the ideas for organising it tend to  counter this behaviour that you see from participants. The organiser  tends to plan every session, and prepare them from the outset. Keynotes,  some break-out sessions, coffee, lunch, and drinks.

And,  at first glance, it makes sense to do it in this way. By ensuring that  there is some interesting content from each of the contributors, you  want to attract the communities that you hope to welcome.

But,  behind the scenes you’re in a perpetual hustle with the programming.  Scheduling speakers, dealing with their preferences in timing, designing  the panel discussions, demands for business class airplane tickets,  etc. Also, you have to ensure that the speakers have prepared and  tailored their content to the big idea that is behind their invitation,  and handed in their slide deck at least 3 days before. You know the  drill, right? And all for what?! Just to have people skip sessions to  talk more with each other, and witness the keynote jump in the same taxi  she arrived in with the meter still running?

The  upshot of our conventional way of organising conferences, is that any  increase we make in the investment upfront, has a decreasing marginal  effect to the value that the participants actually get from your event.  This is not an appealing thought.

Flip the conference: the unconference.
So,  what if you could change this dynamic? Using the power of the crowd to  take initiative and responsibility for their own learning, rather than  trying to cater to their learning needs? What if anyone who wanted to,  could be a speaker, and participants were able to chose from any of  those sessions that they considered relevant to contribute to? Well,  we’d lower the upfront investment to coordinate the conference, and at  the same time increase engagement, and productive learnings. We’d flip  the conference, into an unconference!

An  unconference would not happen within a big auditorium, where speakers  sit behind a table in panels, or stand before the audience with a  lectern in between. The unconference happens in parallel sessions. Each  session is planned in a plenary, with each speaker giving an  introduction, and short session pitch. This pitch is then posted up on a  scheduling grid. This grid will be populated with the session ideas  from the community. It is the centrepiece of the programming.  Participants can then choose to which session they want to contribute.

Why do unconferences work?
You  know those moments, when you had the opportunity to get dedicated time  from that experienced person to help you out? Having insights tailored  to your specific context is worth huge amounts. Essentially the  break-out sessions at the unconference can bring that type of intimate  learning to scale.

We  had such an experience with the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Leaders  in Innovation Fellowship program, which is an international training  program for engineers from emerging economies on technology  commercialisation. The program was designed to provide for the best  knowledge and insight to be at the front of the room, to teach the  engineers about entrepreneurship.

The  only feasible way this could be delivered was by turning each country  delegation into a separate class, as the expert in front of the room  couldn’t facilitate more than one group at a time. The alternative to  this would have been to pre-mix the groups from the different countries  according to common requirements in learning. But this was simply not  possible. The group was just too big, and there were too many variables  at play: stage of their ventures/inventions, personal  interests/motivations, level of proficiency of the English language,  entrepreneurship experience, etc.

This  centralised design did provide control over delivery giving everyone  access to the content. But it was coming at the cost of potential  cross-over between participants from different countries. We were  loosing the rare opportunity to bring together engineers from Colombia  and the Philippines, and starting new collaborations!

To  still enable the program to deliver on cross-overs, Source facilitated  an unconference within the training program. This was the setting where  60 engineers from 4 different countries from 3 continents could share  their learnings, and challenges, and through them connect with their  peers for further collaboration. The experts of the program even joined  in on various sessions, and were also able to share their knowledge in  that more targeted context. “I feel accelerated!” was the reaction of  one of the Colombian participants at that time: a response that we get  regularly.

Realization
By  hosting a conference, the unconference way, we’ve flipped the  conference model for distribution of resources to knowledge and  learnings. With an unconfernce you can focus your and your organising  team’s resources on motivating communities to come together, trusting  that the unconference format will provide the catalyst for all the  participant’s learnings. The unconference provides the most leverage for  your investments in building communities and its fabric of connections,  and learning.

Here  at Source Institute we support relevant entrepreneurship communities to  come into existence and prosper, whether it concerns networks of  startup entrepreneurs, employees from different divisions of a large  organisation, or university researchers. The unconference tool is always  a great first step to introduce the community, and kickstart next  steps.

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