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 unconference 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.
By hosting a conference, the unconference way, we’re flipping 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.
If you’re excited to take up the gauntlet of the unconference, and wielding it to build your own community, then Source Institute is ready to help. This facilitation guide will collect our trade secrets to community development and facilitation.
Follow our Facilitation Guide if you want to contribute as an unconference speaker, or if you are thinking of becoming and organiser yourself. We’d love to hear from you here on our forum, tackling any questions you might have, or learn from the insights you share. Welcome to Source!