Sunday, November 09, 2008

Say goodbye to your name tag

Once again something I've been thinking about is something that Donald Clarke commits to type. This time he's calling for a change to conferences. I was musing on the same thing earlier in the month, but like the point made in my last post, I'd let it slide and not gone back. Incidently, in the time that elapsed since starting this second attempt at addressing the issue I notice that Viv Cole from Academy Internet has also added to the debate - an important voice on the matter given his involvement in organising the eLearning Network events.

The source of Donald's ire this time is the rather bland structure of the usual business conference (you know the kind of thing - seating in neat rows, predictable sandwich fillings and snacks on sticks, coffee in insulated jugs, venue stamped pens and stationary). The structure of all this, Donald notes, is nothing more than our school days writ large. As such we should not (if we're behaviourists I suppose) be surprised if this inspires the same sorts of reactions as the classroom does - like wanting to sit at the back, only listening with one ear, shuffling away as soon as time is called.

Really, with all the other changes that have taken place in society over the last few years, surely we should expect to see changes in business conferences? Well, yes we do - sign up for WoLCE now and get a free DS Lite...*

But that's not really fair. These kinds of events are under pressure to be conservative - the various bodies that have a vested interest have certain expectations: sponsors want their name treated with respect; companies paying for the attendees to be there will only want to pay for something that seems legit; the venues running the things know "what people want" and so on.

So the traditional conference structure is unlikely to be able to change, even if the participants, like me and Donald, would prefer to see something a bit different.

But, there are alternatives.

Jay Cross et al are putting together the second (I think) Corporate Learning Trends and Innovations unconference. An unconference is a self-consciously labelled attempt to draw attention to the fact that it is NOT like a conference. And by reputation last year's event, despite a title that is sooo straight it could walk in to a room full of reggae dancehall singers without fear of violence, was a great success - the participants reported a genuine sense of getting something new out of the experience and I will be there myself this year round (if I can manage it).

However, I have to say that there is nothing like actually getting together and MEETING people in the flesh to make new connections and try new ideas.

So what are the offline alternatives? Here are a couple of ideas that I rounded up recently:
  • BarCamp is a West Coast inspired get-together for codies that has expanded to take in all sorts of messages. It takes the format of a free weekend camp out (typically in the offices of a friendly sponsor) organised collaboratively via a wiki. There areBarCamps planned in Senegal, Tajikstan and more than a dozen in the pipeline in the UK alone. BarCamps also feature elements of...
  • Open Space Techology. Frankly the web evidence for OST has more than a little of "cult" about it, but the basic approach is very informal and democratic. One of its key features, and one that Donald explicitly calls forin his blog, is the two feet rule. The event should encourage people who aren't getting, or adding, anything from/to the debate to use their two feet and move on**.
  • Lightning talks, Ignite, 20/20 presentations, Pecha Kucha. These are all variations on a theme, and could really be part of any of the above. The common thread that binds these together is the idea that brevity helps when you are trying to get your message across (a point clearly forgotten by the author of this post). Pecha Kucha is phenomenon started in Japan by a couple of foreign architects who wanted to get others from their profession together to share their knowledge. Aware that given half a chance there is nothing an architect likes to do more than stand around and talk about themselves, they imposed a limit of 20 slides to accompany them, and only 20 seconds per slide; meaning that presentations can fair whistle along. If 20 seconds is too long, the Ignite format shortens it to 15...

* Seriously, the headline sponsor for WoLCE is the Daily Mail. Now, while I can understand the benefit that tawdry hate-rag gets out of associating itself with the Ski Show and such like (I'd swear they used to be behind the Ideal Home exhibition though it's EDF now), I'm stumped as to why they are involved in WoLCE. Do they run a spread on the show? I doubt it (though I'll never know unless someone else tells me).

** though in the spirit of true freedom I suspect that should you wish to hop, roll, crawl or slither away you are just as welcome.
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