What’s better than people augmented by technology at meetings?

What's better than people augmented by technology at meetings?
There’s a better way to improve meetings than augmenting them with technology. As Finnish management consultant and polymath Esko Kilpi says:

“Human beings augmented by other human beings is more important than human beings augmented by technology” —Esko Kilpi, quoted by Harold Jarche

At face-to-face meetings, we can facilitate relevant connections and learning around participants’ shared just-in-time wants and needs. This is more effective than augmenting an individual’s learning via technology. We maximize learning when:

  • Participants first become aware, collectively and individually, of the room’s wants, needs, and available expertise and experience (i.e. “the smartest person in the room is the room” — David Weinberger, Too Big To Know);
  • We use meeting process that successfully matches participants’ needs and wants with the expertise and experience available; and
  • Time and space is available for the desired learning to take place.

And of course, this approach significantly improves the quantity and quality of relevant connections made by participants during an event.

So the smart choice is to invest in maximizing peer connection and learning. Do this via simple human process rather than elaborate event technology.

I’ve wasted time at many events trying to use apps to connect attendees in some useful way. Even when high-tech approaches use a simple web-browser interface, getting 100% participation is difficult due to technical barriers: all attendees must have a digital device readily available with no low batteries or spotty/slow internet access.

Well-facilitated human process has none of these problems. The value of having a facilitator who knows how to do this work far exceeds the cost (which may be zero once you have invested in training staff to fulfill this function).

When push comes to shove, modern events thrive in supportive, participatory environments. Attendees appreciate the ease of making connections they want and getting the learning they need from the expertise and experience of their peers. Once they’ve experienced what’s possible they rarely enjoy going back to the passive meetings that are still so common.

Yes, we can use technology to augment learning. But the majority of the high-tech event solutions marketed today are inferior and invariably more costly to implement than increasing learning and connection through radically improving what happens between people at our meetings.

The parallel missions of journalism and participant-driven and participation-rich events

The parallel missions of journalism and participant-driven and participation-rich eventsWhile musing about Facebook’s recent changes to “prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people” over content from media and brands, Jeff Jarvis coins a new definition of journalism:

“…convening communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation, reducing polarization and building trust through helping citizens find common ground in facts and understanding.”
Jeff Jarvis, Facebook’s changes

That sounds a lot like the mission of the participant-driven and participation-rich events I’ve been championing for so long. Journalism can’t provide the connective power of face-to-face meetings. But its potential for helping individuals and communities build trust and find common ground is worthy and welcome.

Image attribution: Nectar Media

Facilitation, rapt attention, and love

facilitation rapt attention and lovePerhaps you’re wondering: what’s the connection between facilitation, rapt attention, and love?

Why am I drawn to facilitation? I’ve often heard an uneasy inner voice that wonders if it’s about a desire or need for control and/or power. And yet I know through experience that when I am facilitating well, I have influence but no real control or power.

Then I read this:

“Freud said that psychoanalysis is a ‘cure through love,’ and I think that is essentially correct. The love is conveyed not so much in the content as in the form: the rapt attention of someone who cares enough to interrogate you. The love stows away in the conversation.”
—Psychotherapist and writer Gary Greenberg, interviewed in “Who Are You Calling Crazy?”, The Sun, July 2016

Facilitation is not psychotherapy (though sometimes it may have similar results.) But they both have something in common when performed with skill: the gift of listening closely. And that gift of rapt attention is given out of love—not of the content but through the form.

Though I sometimes want to be in (illusory) control, I am drawn to facilitation out of love.

Why are you drawn (if, indeed, you are) to facilitation?

Photo attribution: Flickr user alphachimpstudio

Facilitate connection

Last Saturday, the ashes of my wife’s beloved Tai Chi teacher were interred in our tiny town cemetery. People came from all over the world to celebrate her life, but some could not make the journey. Could I help distant friends and students in the United States, New Zealand, and Germany to connect in some way with the ceremony? To facilitate connection between those present and those far away?

facilitate connection

Well, my mission is to facilitate connection between people, so I said “yes”.

A quick trip to the cemetery established that a weak cellular data signal was available on site. After obtaining permission from the family I set up a Zoom streaming meeting for the group, and arrived on the day with a simple iPhone setup.

2016-07-23 17.02.14

For some reason (perhaps the weak cellular data strength?) Zoom was not able to stream much of my audio. But the iPhone video was quite good, and I could easily hear the viewers’ comments. During the ceremony, I loved the group’s delight at various points; they were so happy they could experience something of what was going on.

The service moved me. It included raucous opening and closing parades with noisemakers around the cemetery, poetry, and a beautiful Double Fan Form performed by the Tai Chi group. Although I am a fan of low-tech and no-tech solutions at events, sometimes hi-tech is the only way to facilitate important connections under circumstances like these. I am grateful to be able to bring people who are far away into the heart of what is happening.

facilitate connection

Thank you for your feedback

Thank you for your feedbackThank you for your feedback! Although some say that comments on blog posts are passé, I still think they provide valuable feedback and connection for communities that develop around posts and the topics covered on a blog.

So I’m happy that,as of today, readers of this niche blog (albeit one that will surpass 6M pageviews this year) have shared 1,000 comments on the 343 Conferences That Work posts I’ve written over the last five years. Many commenters are now friends, and some of you I met first through a comment on a post.

Thank you for your feedback!

[January 2021 Update: Although the pace of commenting has slowed, we’re up to ~1,700 comments. I continue to appreciate and welcome your feedback on my posts, and thank everyone who has taken the time and trouble to write back.

Sadly, I had to remove the Disqus comment system a year ago. It was slowing down the site and occasionally conflicted with other plug-ins. This removed some of the nice display and threading features we used to enjoy.]

Bringing people together

Bringing people together
In early 2010, at the first EventCamp, I discovered the wonder and power of meeting people face-to-face whom I had previously only met online. Perhaps the wonder is stronger for me than most, living in rural Vermont, 100+ miles from any city. Nevertheless, when I travel to a major metropolitan area these days and have a few hours free I try bringing people together.

This month I spent time in Chicago and a couple of trips to Washington, DC. Before the first DC jaunt, I sent an email out to #eventprofs and #assnchat acquaintances who lived in the area. KiKi L’Italien, Lindsey Rosenthal, Angelique Agutter, Alex Plaxen, Melanie Padgett Powers, and more met up for delicious hors d’oeuvres and drinks at a private home (thank you Libby O’Malley & Nancy Pasternack!) and dinner in Alexandria Old Town.

In Chicago I met with Heidi Thorne & Anne Carey for a tasty lunch.

And last week, Maddie Grant, Jamie Notter, Alex Plaxen, Brian Davis, Gina Leigh, Monica Bussolati, Moira Edwards, Brian Volmuth, Lori Woehrle, Pamela Strother (and probably a few others whom I didn’t get to talk to) met up at The Rooftop at The Embassy Row Hotel (big thanks to Sarah Vining who sponsored our meetup!)

Bring people together

I love bringing people together in ways that work for them—in fact that’s my mission. So it was a pleasure to host these three casual meetups for event and association management professionals. What was amusing, however, was how often people thanked me for bringing them together. I had to laugh—here was a guy from Vermont facilitating connection between people who all lived near each other, people who could easily arrange to meet frequently. And yet…they didn’t.

Sometimes people need permission to connect. In this case, a small outside impetus was all that was required. An hour of my time to send emails out to my local connections, find somewhere to meet, and track/answer questions from those who were coming. No big deal. And I doubt it hurt my professional life to be a connector, an initiator for the enjoyable and interesting connections that subsequently occurred.

Yes, we’re all busy. But let’s not forget that our work in the event and association spheres is fundamentally about facilitating connection between others. And that should, once in a while, include ourselves—our peers—both known and new. So, pass it forward, my friends. Once or twice a year, send out some invites for a casual get together with your peers. It needn’t be elaborate or have a specific marketing focus; just meet somewhere for drinks or a meal. Publicize the event to your local network and welcome anyone who hears about it and wants to come.

You’ll be bringing people together. Who knows what the pleasant consequences will be?

Connection: A morning walk in Anguilla

searocks walkIt’s time for my morning walk in Anguilla. I’ve written about it before. Out of bed, a little sleepy, I throw on swim-trunks, shirt, socks and shoes, perch my white Tilly on my head, and I’m off before the sun gets too hot.

A feast of the senses

Warm air on my skin. The sweet smell of almond croissants—alarming numbers of calories beckoning, reluctantly resisted—waft from the French bakery. Bass notes thud from several houses, random patterns until I am close enough to hear the melody. I pass trailers craddling gleaming powerboats: Pure Pleasure, Wet Dreamz, Drippin’ Wet, and Royal Seaduction (notice a theme here?) The gentle return uphill gradient calls for a quick dip in our pool. As I cool down I hear the clamor of bananaquits on the veranda railing gobbling up the raw sugar we’ve set out for them.

The warmth I feel during my walk doesn’t just come from the slanting rays of the morning sun. Every day, another kind of warmth envelopes me; the warmth of the people I meet.

Almost everyone I see on my walk responds in some way. On foot, the standard greeting is mornin’. The people who drive past me raise a hand in greeting, and sometimes hoot the horn. These are not, usually, people I know or have ever met before, and I may never meet them again. And yet, there’s invariably a moment of connection.

Every day, unexpected responses

The speedy truck driver who takes both hands off the wheel, palms facing me to say hi as I walk towards him, the hedge on my right leaving me no place to go if his steering is not true. The beautiful woman who shoots me a dazzling smile as she leaves her driveway for work. Two locals walking in the same direction who, as I pass with a mornin’, say fast walkin’ admiringly to my back. Nuanced respectful nods from respectable Anguillan lady drivers. The grandmother who pivots from conversation to pipe a melodious good morning. Her granddaughter in cream blouse and green skirt uniform, waiting for her ride to school, murmurs hello as I pass. A businesswoman gripping the top of her steering wheel, fingers flying up like rabbit ears when I wave. The minister, waiting for a ride to preach to his church who lifts his hand and our eyes connect. Then I’m past, turning the corner, moving towards the next meeting.

My morning walk in Anguilla. Such simple moments of connection. So little to give, so much received. Growing warmth. A wonderful way to start any morning.

What it means to belong

John ChenTwo words that no one would ever use to describe me would be sports fan. Yet I’ve been moved by my friend John Chen‘s epic adventure into high-end Super Bowl madness this week. Which brings me to what Seth Godin writes today on the eve of the game itself:

“…every year, the [Super Bowl] commercials disappoint, while the game includes eleven minutes of action over the course of four hours of not so much.And yet we do it again and again. Because the corporate hoopla is beside the real point, which is a chance for all of us to talk about the same thing at the same time. This is part of what it means to belong.

…these occurrences happen often in much smaller tribes as well. The buzz about Fashion Week or CES or the latest from Sundance are micro varieties of the same desire to be in sync. Your customers and your employees want to feel what it feels to do what other people are doing. Not everyone, just the people they identify with.

It’s easy to be persuaded that this event is somehow about the game, or the coverage or the hype, but it’s not. Like Groundhog day, it’s a pointless thing we do over and over again, because hanging out with people you care about…is almost always worth doing.”
—Seth Godin, Groundhog day and the Super Bowl

This is the opportunity and the promise of participant-driven and participation-rich conferences. And there’s an additional benefit. Coming together around not just a “pointless thing” but a topic, an industry, a cause that we all care about.

Photo attribution: John Chen’s current profile picture on Facebook

Conferences as communities of practice

Conferences as communities of practice how-work-gets-done-in-network-era-520x369

COP on the beat

One of the reasons I love facilitating peer conferences that use the Conferences That Work format is my enjoyment in experiencing the wonderful support and development they provide for communities of practice (COPs). What are COPs? Why are they important? How do peer conferences support them? Read on!

Communities of practice

Communities of practice—a term coined by educational theorist Etienne Wenger—are a group of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and actively engage around what they have in common. COPs include three key elements: a shared domain of interest; a group whose members interact and learn together; and the development of a shared body of practice, knowledge, and resources.

While the term is relatively new, communities of practice have existed in human societies for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Systems of apprenticeship and professional guilds, developed in the Late Middle Ages, all incorporate the three COP elements. In fact, COPs have been the predominant modality for professional learning for most of human history!

Why are COPs important?

The Middle Ages are long gone and today we can learn in many new ways. Does this mean that COPs have outlived their usefulness? By no means. Here’s what Harold Jarche thinks about the role of communities of practice in creating effective working environments:

My recommendation has been to support workplace activities that are both cooperative and collaborative and also to provide the necessary support structures. However, my observations to date show that a third piece is required, and that is the fostering of communities of practice to connect the two. These communities, internal and external, are a safe place between highly focused work and potentially chaotic social networking. I also see the support of communities of practice, through skill development and structural support, as a primary role for learning & development staff.
First structure the work system, Harold Jarche

In other words, as shown in Jarche’s diagram above, COPs provide an essential link between the work performed by individuals and teams in organizations (where the rubber meets the road) and the rich possibilities for interaction and learning now available from our social networks, both face-to-face and online.

How do peer conferences support communities of practice?

So where do communities of practice reside today? In Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love I argue that participation-rich and participant-led peer conference formats like Conferences That Work provide a wonderfully rich environment for communities of practice. At a (well-planned) traditional conference, conference planners invest significant time and effort before the event attempting to determine who can potentially provide an “above average” contribution on the conference subject, but peer conferences make no such a priori assumptions about who is a teacher and who is a learner. Rather, they promote an environment in which teaching and learning are ever-fluid activities; the teacher at one moment is a learner the next. Sometimes, everyone in an interaction is learning simultaneously as social knowledge is discovered, constructed, and shared.

Peer conferences don’t assume that every attendee will significantly contribute to the event. Rather, peer conference process provides the opportunity for anyone to contribute, perhaps unexpectedly, but ultimately, usefully.

In my experience, peer conferences are high-quality incubators for communities of practice. They provide a wonderful way for a group of people to explore the potential for creating an ongoing community. The majority of peer conferences that I have facilitated have turned into regular events, but, even when this does not happen, a peer conference inevitably leads to new long-term relationships and communal projects of one kind or another. Conversely, communities of practice can use regular peer conferences to effectively explore and deepen their collective learning and intragroup relationships.

Essential tools

In conclusion, I think of peer conferences as being essential tools—like the radios and scanners used by the other kinds of cops—that support the construction of social knowledge and appropriate learning for communities of practice. Add them to your workplace and conference toolkit and your COPs will reap the benefits!