Innovative participatory conference session: a case study using online tools

by Adrian Segar

Participants working on the edACCESS 2010 Web 2.0 case study

Interested in a highly participatory alternative to talk-at-the-audience conference sessions? Then you’ll want to learn about a brilliant session format we used at the edACCESS 2010 Web 2.0 Collaborative Tools Workshop.

I’ve been running peer conferences for edACCESS, an association of information technology staff at small independent schools, since 1992, and just wrapped up our 19th annual conference, held this year at Williston Northampton School in Easthampton, Massachusetts. The four-day conference did not include a single traditional didactic session. Only two sessions were scheduled in advance: a Demo Session in which attendees, scattered around the exhibit area, gave short presentations on cool technology and applications used at their school, and the case study described below. All other topics and formats (33 in all!) were crowd sourced, using the Conferences That Work methodology, during the first few hours of the conference.

Before the conference
Joel Backon of Choate Rosemary School designed and facilitated the Web 2.0 Collaborative Tools Workshop session, with input from Bill Campbell and a dose of “inspiration from reading Adrian’s book“. Before the conference, Joel described some of his thoughts in an email to me:

“I will provide structure, but I don’t want to be too prescriptive or we won’t learn anything. For example, if there is disagreement about which tools will be best to use for the project, that is a message everybody should know about Web 2.0 tools. There are so many, it is difficult to obtain agreement regarding which to use, and that impacts the productivity of organizations. At this point, I’m looking for feedback because I am clearly taking a risk.”

I told Joel that I loved the idea of using a case study format for the session, and suggested he add a little more detail (about the IT operations at the school) to his case study. Here are the final case study materials that attendees received. They were posted on the conference wiki several days before the session took place. You may want to check out the link before reading further.

Setting the stage
As we listened in the school theater, Joel spent ten minutes introducing the case study materials. He gave us a list of tools, including a blog already set up on Cover It Live—projected on a large screen in front of us—and told us we had to collaboratively create a one page report of recommendations on how to cut a (fictitious) $1,000,000 school information technology annual budget by 50%.

Oh, and we couldn’t talk to each other face to face! All communication had to be done online.

Normally, a project of this type would take an experienced IT staff days to complete, requiring extensive discussion of every facet of the organization’s infrastructure, personnel, services, and budget.

Oh, and we had ninety minutes! In that time, we had to choose appropriate collaborative online tools, divide up the work, discuss options, make decisions and recommendations, and write the report.

Finally, Joel explained, after the exercise was complete, we’d have half an hour to debrief using good old-fashioned talking to one another, face to face.

My experience
Some participants had traveled thousands of miles to edACCESS 2010, and now here we were, sitting in a theater auditorium, silently working at our computers.

During the first twenty minutes of the session, I was highly skeptical that we would be able to accomplish anything meaningful. (In the debrief, it turned out that most people had had the same expectation.) To see what transpired you may want to check out the complete blog conversation transcript, which provides moment-by-moment documentation of our online conversation. Notice that tweets that included the conference hashtag, #edaccess10, were merged in real time into the transcript.

At around 8:50 a.m., the group started to get organized. Communicating through the blog, people started to suggest online tools to work on specific projects. The tools mentioned were Google products: Wave, and Docs. Our sophisticated attendees were aware that Docs had been upgraded in April to support simultaneous editing by multiple (up to 50) users and they even knew that you had to choose the “new version” on the Editing Settings tab.

Up to this point I had not been working on the project, but was monitoring the blog conversation as a process observer. I asked to receive an invitation to the Google Wave, but a link never came. Eventually I found out that the Wave had only been adopted by a few attendees.

But when I clicked on the link for a Google Docs spreadsheet that had been set up I was astounded. (Check it out!) Attendees had created a multitab spreadsheet with a summary page that showed the current savings in different budget areas that people were working on linked to separate detailed tabs for each area. I was amazed at the work that had been done, and immediately added a small contribution of my own—a column showing the percentage budget savings so we could tell when we’d reached our 50% goal. People used free cells to annotate their suggestions and decisions.

Bill Campbell, who was moderating the blog, used Cover It Live’s instant poll so we could discover the tools we were using. The poll showed that most of us were working on the spreadsheet.

Thirty minutes before the end of the exercise, I suggested someone set up a Google Doc for the report (I didn’t know how to do this myself.) Within a few minutes the report was created and people started writing. I added a starting introductory paragraph and corrected a few typos. It was truly remarkable to see the report evolve keystroke by keystroke in real time, being written by a ghostly crew of 30-40 people.

With fifteen minutes to go, it became clear we could reach the 50% reduction goal, and that the report would be ready on time. The release of tension led to an outbreak of silliness (starting around 10:00 a.m. in the blog transcript) to which I must confess I contributed.

Here is the Final Report.

Lessons learned
So what did we learn? Here are some of my thoughts, feel free to add your own as a comment at the end of this post.

  • First of all, everyone was surprised by how successful our effort had been. I think all of us underestimated the advantages of working together online, where multiple channels of communication and collaboration can coexist simultaneously. This is so different from meeting face to face, where, in general, at any moment one person is monopolizing the conversation. I am pretty sure that if we had done the same exercise face to face, we would not have come up with such a high-quality solution!
  • I think the case study worked well because we trusted each other. The group members knew each other to varying degrees, and we were prepared to accept individual judgments about self-selected areas where each of us chose to work. The exercise would not have gone well if we had been concerned about the abilities of some of the participants.
  • One interesting observation is that we were working collaboratively on publicly accessible documents. As a result, we don’t actually know how many people contributed to our work, or even if they were all at edACCESS 2010! This made it very easy to add new workers; anyone who was given the link to a document could start editing it right away. A private workspace would have required some kind of registration process, which would have encumbered our ad hoc efforts.
  • One weakness in our approach is the lack of any formal checking mechanism for the report we generated. A few people went over the report during the last ten minutes and commented that it “looked good” but if one of us had made a serious mistake there’s a good chance it would have been missed. This exercise was akin to what happens when a group of people responds to an emergency—everyone does the best they can and is grateful for the contributions of others.
  • It surprised me that no obvious leaders emerged, although several people (including me) made group-directed suggestions that seem to have been accepted and acted on.
  • A number of people commented early on that they couldn’t use their iPads effectively for the exercise. We needed multiple windows open to be able to work efficiently, and the Cover It Live transcript wouldn’t scroll in Safari on the iPad (though there appears to be a work-around).

It’s hard for me to think of a more participant-driven format for a successful conference session. For two hours we were spellbound, working and playing hard on our laptops, and then excitedly discussing and debriefing. I wager that all the participants at the edACCESS 2010 Web 2.0 Collaborative Tools Workshop will remember this experience and their associated learning for a long time.

What other lessons can we learn from this experiment? Are there ways this collaborative process might be improved?

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  • Sharon

    Did anyone analyze how many of the total number of people attending the conference actually participated in the collaborative exercise?

    • Sharon, to the best of my recollection, there were ~50 attendees at this conference, and about 40 of them contributed to the work done in the session.

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Thank you Adrian! I was skeptical at first of the conference format. But now I’m really glad that it was organized that way!

— Maria Nikolova, Fuchs Lab Manager, Rockefeller University
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