We’ve got to start meeting like this

by Jay Cross on October 9, 2006

CLO Magazine, October 2006, Effectiveness

Admission and travel to conferences claim a significant amount of many corporations’ investment in learning. That’s why CLOs need to be aware of a fresh alternative that costs less and works better.

Professionals attend conferences to learn things, yet conference participants often say they learn more in the hallway than in formal sessions. Unconferences bring the hallway conversations back into the main tent by handing control to participants instead of experts on stage.

According to Wikipedia, “An unconference is a conference where the content of the sessions is driven and created by the participants, generally day-by-day during the course of the event, rather than by organizers.”

Software guru Dave Winer began promoting the unconference format after “sitting in the audience of a panel discussion at a conference, waiting for someone to say something intelligent, not self-serving or not mind-numbingly boring. The idea came while listening to someone drone endlessly through PowerPoint slides, nodding off or — in later years — checking e-mail or posting something to my blog.”

An unconference begins with participants suggesting topics they want to present or hear about. The hosts post an attendance list for all to see. All this generally is coordinated on a wiki.

Unconferences have a general theme but no set agenda and scant organization. Instead, the group collaboratively determines the direction of the gathering, creating an ad hoc agenda.

They don’t have attendees and presenters — everyone is a participant. The assumption is that the people in the room know more than the people on the stage.

In lieu of a speaker talking to an audience, a discussion leader or reporter weaves together a story that the participants tell. Helpers hold microphones to the mouths of participants who have something to say. The result is more Oprah than a lecture.

The discussion leader cuts short speakers who are repetitious, confusing or self-promotional. PowerPoint presentations are not allowed.

Everyone is encouraged to instant message, blog, and e-mail to assist the flow of ideas. Participants document what’s going on with blogs, podcasts, video streams and photos posted to Flickr.

A good unconference also is punctuated with multiple opportunities to schmooze and reflect.

Last fall several people were talking about the exclusivity of a private unconference in the Bay Area, so they decided to start their own. That evening a notice on the Web announced “an open, welcoming, once-a-year event for geeks to camp out for a couple days with WiFi and smash their brains together. It’s about … having a focal point for great ideas.”

Six days later several hundred of us rallied in Palo Alto, Calif., for a free, full-blown, two-day event complete with great content, pizza, beer, WiFi, sponsors, T-shirts, buttons and press coverage. Imagine setting up a conference in six days instead of six months!

The co-leader of the Palo Alto unconference said in a blog, “When we embarked on this strange and fantastic journey, we knew that we had a week. We had no money, no sponsors, no venue and no idea if just the five of us or 50 random folks would show. But we knew that we had to stage the event and that, among other things, it would serve as a demonstration of the decentralized organizing potential of the Web2.0 Generation.”

The concept caught fire, inspiring “camps” in Paris; Hyderabad, India; Toronto; Austin, Texas; Seattle; Vancouver, British Columbia; San Diego; Grand Rapids, Mich., and more. WineCamp, TagCamp, MashUp Camp and other hot-topic events began popping up.

Unconferences are ad-hoc gatherings born from people’s desire to share and learn in an open environment. They are intense events, full of discussions, demos and interaction. The wisdom of crowds supplants the wisdom of experts. They maximize value for participants, not for organizers. They are funded on shoe-string budgets. They replace slides with stories, information-sharing with collaborative learning and instruction with discovery. You should try it some time.

Jay Cross is CEO of Internet Time Group and a thought leader in informal learning and organizational performance.

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