Four reasons why traditional conferences are obsolete

traditional conferences are obsoleteSorry folks, but traditional conferences are obsolete.

Previously, I’ve described three major trends that make traditional conference formats obsolete:

Here’s a fourth.

Job obsolescence caused by increasing computer automation

Every adoption of new technology has led to a shift in the world of work. Books and the industrial age fundamentally remade human society. Now the exponentially increasing power of computing is making rapid inroads into professions that have been the safe purview of well-paid workers for centuries.

It’s likely, for example, that in my children’s lifetime (and perhaps mine) we’ll transition to a world where most vehicles drive themselves. In the United States alone, there are currently 3.5 million professional truck drivers who stand to lose their livelihood. Other threatened professions, according to Martin Ford in his book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, include warehouse workers, cooks, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and programmers.

Software and machines will clearly take over some work, which large numbers of humans will never perform again. But recent history also suggests that adding technology to the workplace is likely to transform, rather than eliminate, many jobs. In addition, new jobs will appear that offer alternative work opportunities.

How do we prepare workers for these changes?

“The evidence suggests that while computers are not causing net job losses now, low wage occupations are losing jobs, likely contributing to economic inequality. These workers need new skills in order to transition to new, well-paying jobs. Developing a workforce with the skills to use new technologies is the real challenge posed by computer automation.
James Bessen, Why automation doesn’t mean a robot is going to take your job

During the last two or three decades, learning from our peers—on the job, via our social networks, and at conferences— has become far more important than classroom learning. Non-interactive, broadcast-style learning modalities are restricted to standardized knowledge; knowledge that one person believes is valuable for many to know. Peer process allows us to explore and share precisely the kinds of group-resourced knowledge and understanding that is not standardized; knowledge that is uniquely responsive to the just-in-time wants and needs of the group.

Peer conferences, therefore, are what we need to prepare workers for the continuing and accelerating transformation of the work marketplace. As Niels Pflaeging recently put it (paraphrased by Harold Marche):

´Machines can solve complicated problems. They cannot solve complex, surprising problems’. Valued work is no longer standardized. Therefore a standardized approach for education and training to support creative work is obsolete.

I’ll repeat that: “…a standardized approach for education and training to support creative work is obsolete.” That means traditional conferences are obsolete. Say goodbye to traditional conferences — and say hello to peer learning!

Photo attribution: Flickr user astrid

Meetings are a mess—and how they got that way

meetings are a mess
Meetings are a mess. Let’s explore that.

Broadcast is the hundreds-of-years-dominant paradigm for sessions, conferences, and meetings. Most of the time, one person presents and everyone else listens and watches. Why?

“Things are the way they are because they got that way.”
—Quip attributed to Kenneth Boulding

I think there are two principal historic reasons: one shaped by technology, the other by culture.

How technology shapes our system of education

Perhaps you’re thinking: Technology? Isn’t technology a relatively recent development? How could technology have influenced how we learnt hundreds of years ago?

To answer these questions, let’s take a journey back in time. It’ll take a while, but stay with me! I’ll shine some light on some rarely-examined foundations of our current educational paradigm.

Understandably, we tend to think of technology these days as material devices like cars, printers, and smartphones or, increasingly, as computer programs: software and apps. But this is an incredibly restrictive viewpoint. Such a definition of what is and isn’t “technology” is far too narrow.

What is “technology”?

“Technology is anything that was invented after you were born.”
—Alan Kay, at a Hong Kong press conference in the late 1980s

An older reader will immediately recognize a typewriter, but a child might stare in puzzlement at a 1945 Smith-Corona Sterling. A device found on a table at a yard-sale appears to be a piece of rusty sculpture until a Google search reveals it’s a ninety year-old cherry stoner. By Alan Kay’s definition, anything made after you became aware is technology. Anything that’s really old, we don’t even recognize as technology!

This worldview exists because human beings are incredibly good at adapting to new circumstances. Such an ability greatly increases our chances of surviving a hostile and treacherous world. But there’s a downside. When we start making changes to our environment by making useful things, what was once new becomes a part of our everyday existence. In the process, what was formerly new becomes largely invisible to our senses, focused as they are on the new and unexpected. As David Weinberger remarks: “Technology sinks below our consciousness like the eye blinks our brain filters out.

A wider definition of technology

So let’s adopt a wider definition of technology and see where it takes us. I’ve been influenced here by Kevin Kelly, in his thought-provoking book What Technology Wants.

Technology is anything made to solve a problem.
—Adrian’s definition, a paraphrase of Wikipedia’s definition of technology

This definition is useful because it opens our eyes to technology that we have been using for a very long time.

Science, writing, and language

For example, by this definition, science is technology! Science is just a way that we’ve invented to understand the patterns we notice in the world we live in.

Science is old. Writing is older; it allows us to communicate asynchronously with each other.

Writing is technology!

And oldest of all—we don’t really know how old—language is technology. Every culture, tribe has its own language it has invented to solve the problem of real-time communication between its members.

These technologies are so old that they are invisible to us. They are part of our culture, the human air we breathe. Language, writing, and science are tools outside our conventional, narrow-scope view of technology. We instantiate these tools using invented conventions: sounds, gestures, and symbols. These sounds, gestures, and symbols, however, are secondary features of these ancient technologies. Ultimately, language, writing, and science are primarily about human process.

Human process technology

Human process has become the most invisible technology. It is inexorably and continually built into every one of us by our culture, starting the moment we are born, before we can speak, write, or reason. Our culture teaches us throughout our life the signs, sounds, and movements that signify. We are superbly equipped to learn to speak, write, and think before we have any self-awareness of what we are being taught.

“We seldom realize, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.”
—Alan Watts, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

Our awareness of the processes we constantly use to learn and make sense of the world and to connect with others is minimal. It’s like breathing, largely automatic and unconscious. As a result, the old process technology that we adopted for practical purposes long before recorded history continues to shape our lives today.

Think for a moment about the impact of language on our species. Before language arose, we had no way to transfer what we learned during our all-too-brief lives to our tribe and following generations. “These plants are safe to eat.” “You can make a sharp spearhead from this rock.” “Snakes live in that cave.” Every individual had to painfully acquire such learning from scratch. Language allowed parents and tribe elders to pass on valuable knowledge orally, improving survival and quality of life

Similarly, the later development of writing made it possible to share, physically transfer, and expand a permanent repository of human knowledge. And the evolution of the process methodology of science enabled us to design experiments about our world, codify the patterns we discovered, and turn them into inventions that transform our lives.

The effect of technology on education

Now we’re ready to consider the effect of the historical development of language, writing, and science on education. For almost all of human history, language was our dominant mode of communication and our single most important educational tool. If you wanted to learn something you had to travel physically to where someone knew what you needed to learn and they would then tell it to you. Eventually schools developed: establishments for improving the efficiency of oral communication of information by bringing many students together so they could learn simultaneously from one teacher.

Language reigned supreme for millennia, thus becoming an invisible technology. Only when writing became established it was finally possible to asynchronously transmit information. By that time, the model of the single teacher and multiple students was buried deep in our collective psyche and, to a large extent, the book paradigm mirrored the language process since most books were written by a single expert and absorbed by a much larger number of readers.

(The very word lecture beautifully illustrates the adoption of old models that took place during the development of writing. The word is derived from the latin lectūra which means—to read! The first books were so rare that a group who wished to study a book’s content would have someone read the book out loud while the others copied down what they heard.)

Even science started as an individual enterprise. The early study of “natural philosophy” by Socrates, Aristotle, and others used an oral teacher-students model. Although science today is largely an intensely cooperative enterprise, we still see considerable leftovers of the older invisible technologies in its societal organization: prescribed progressions towards mastery of fields, formal paths to tenure, the format of academic meetings, etc.

The effects of invisible technologies

What are the effects of these powerful invisible technologies on our educational archetypes? Technologies like language, writing, and science are thousands of years old. So it becomes very difficult for people to consider learning models other than broadcast. Even though other models may be far more appropriate these days.

The earliest organized religious schools are a few thousand years old. The oldest non-religious universities began nearly a thousand years ago. For centuries, oral learning was the predominant modality in what we would recognize as schools. It wasn’t until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century that a significant number of people were able to learn independently from books and newspapers, which are, of course, still a form of broadcast media.

Even though the invention of inexpensive mass-printing revolutionized society, the old broadcast teaching models were sunk so deeply and invisibly into our culture that they have persisted to this day. When you are taught by broadcast by teachers who were taught by broadcast it is not surprising that when you are asked to teach in turn, you employ the same methods. And this ancient cultural conditioning, which we are largely unaware of, is very difficult to break.

As adults, when we create a meeting we are thus naturally primed to choose a broadcast paradigm for the “learning” portions. As a society we are mostly unaware of our conditioning by past centuries of broadcast learning. And when it is brought to our attention, it is still very difficult for an individual to break away from the years of broadcast process to which he has been subjected as a child.

The process we’ve been using for so long inhibits our ability to consider alternatives. But the quantity of “knowledge” that we currently expect adults to possess also plays a role. And this leads us to the second reason why broadcast methodology infuses meetings.

How culture shapes our system of education

For most of human history, learning was predominantly experiential. Life expectancy was low by modern standards and formal education nonexistent. Even after schools began to become important institutions, curricula were modest. In the Middle Ages, formal education of children was rare; in the fifteenth century only a small percentage of European children learned to read and write, usually as a prerequisite for acceptance as a guild apprentice.

Up until around a hundred years ago, advanced education was only available for a tiny number of students. The expectations for those entering university were laughable by today’s standards. Isaac Newton, for example, received no formal mathematics teaching until he entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1661. Students didn’t routinely learn algebra, even at university, until the eightieth century. In the Victorian era, secondary school students mastered the “three R’s”—reading, writing and ‘rithmetic—plus perhaps a few other topics like needlework (girls only), geography and history.

The drivers of education

The need for jobs has driven education since the birth of apprenticeship programs in the Middle East four millennia ago. Apprenticeship remained the dominant model of education until the advent of the industrial revolution, when apprenticeship no longer matched growing needs for workers just-enough capable to handle repetitive work plus some with specialized new trainable skills like bookkeeping and shopwork. A period of emphasis on career and technical education ensued. Once formal education became a social and legislative requirement for a majority of children, curricula wars erupted between the conflicting goals of content and pedagogy. These wars have been with us in some form ever since.

Whatever you think about the relative merits of “traditionalist” and “progressive” approaches to education (see Tom Loveless’s The Curriculum Wars for a good overview), the key cultural reason why broadcast methods remain firmly embedded in our children’s education is the sheer quantity of knowledge that society—for whatever reasons—is determined to cram into young heads during formal education. As the brief history above illustrates, we now require young adults to absorb a staggering diversity and quantity of topics compared to our expectations of the past.

As a result, there is no way to teach this added knowledge experientially in the time available. It took centuries for some of our brightest minds to formulate the algebra that today we routinely teach to eleven-year-olds! While we have probably developed better paths and techniques for sharing this educational content, any increased efficiency in delivery has not kept pace with the massive increase in expected knowledge mastery.

Why meetings perpetuate broadcast education

It is this significant cultural imposition that requires us to use primarily broadcast methods to educate our young in school. The mistake we make is to assume that the broadcast learning we received as kids should continue into adulthood. This is why meetings continue to concentrate on broadcast learning modes. Every one of us is conditioned by an overwhelming exposure to broadcast teaching in our youth.

Receiving specialized adult learning from an expert made sense for human history up until the industrial age. Now that information is moving into systems outside our brains, we have an urgent need to use adult learning modalities that do not concentrate on packing information into our heads. Instead, we’ll find that most of what we need to learn to do our jobs today is based on working informally and creatively with novel problems with solutions that need just-in-time information from our peers.

We find it hard to stop conference lecturing because it’s the dominant learning modality during our formal education before adulthood. Being taught in school, however inefficiently, via lecture about the amazing things humans have created, discovered, and invented indoctrinates us to believe that lecturing is the normal way to learn. That’s why we continue to inflict lecturing on conference audiences. It’s what we’re used to. Sadly, we’re mostly unfamiliar with alternative and more effective learning modalities that are more and more important in today’s world.

Yes, meetings are a mess!

If you’d like to read more about the ideas shared here, and also learn about how to make meetings powerful places for learning, connection, engagement, community-building, and action, check out my book The Power of Participation.

Want to use Twitter effectively? Discard its biggest myth!

use Twitter effectively BieberWant to use Twitter effectively? Discard its biggest myth!

In this weekend’s New York Times article Valley of the Blahs: How Justin Bieber’s Troubles Exposed Twitter’s Achilles’ Heel, technology reporter Jenna Wortham perpetuates the biggest myth about Twitter: that it’s solely a broadcast tool used by people clamoring for attention.

“What does matter, however, is how many people notice you, either through retweets, favorites or the holy grail, a retweet by someone extremely well known, like a celebrity.
—Jenna Wortham

She then laments: “Twitter is starting to feel calcified, slowed down by the weight of its own users, cumbersome, less exciting than exhausting“.

Most of the comments on her post go even further than Jenna, smugly dismissing Twitter as a waste of time—unless you’re a narcissist.

“I can handle Twitter because it is irrelevant.”
“…this writer sums up exactly how I feel about social media in general, not just Twitter. This whole idea of likes and followers — it’s like setting up one’s business based on some vacuous high school popularity contest. Are we grown ups or not?”
“Brevity may be the soul of wit, but I find little soul in twit. (er)”
—The three most popular comments on Jenna’s article

I disagree

When you see Twitter solely as a broadcast tool, you are overlooking its most important use: as a tool for discovery, conversation and connection.

On this site I write about a niche topic: participant-driven and participation-rich events. For me, Twitter has turned out to be the most important way for people to discover my work and for me to discover and connect with thousands of kindred souls from all over the world who share my specialized interests. When I began this website 12 years ago, I discovered that traditional search engine optimization was useless because no one was searching for the new ideas I was writing about. Today, with ten million annual page views, I’ve found that the core value of Twitter comes from its ability to discover and connect with geographically dispersed individuals with whom I have something important in common.

How to use Twitter effectively

If you’re not a celebrity, you need to use Twitter effectively. Twitter becomes powerful when you use it for appropriate two-way communication and connection, not broadcast.

You can’t have a conversation with a million people on Bieber’s antics. But you can have a valuable conversation with smaller numbers of people who are interested in a more specialized topic, and who find each other through appropriate use of hashtags.

For example, there is a community of event professionals on Twitter who tag their tweets with #eventprofs. This community also uses a host of other hashtags related to their interests, professional affiliations, upcoming events, etc. This soup of appropriately tagged tweets provides a great way for those interested to discover what is happening and talk about it. One beauty of Twitter is that all these tweets are public and searchable. So it’s easy for newcomers to the profession to discover interesting information and peers on their own schedule.

Yes, over the years the #eventprofs hashtag has been used increasingly by people who view Twitter as a broadcast medium. They pump out “listen-to-me” tweets while rarely or never responding to anyone else or retweeting interesting material. So Jenna is right that the amount of noise on Twitter has increased. That’s the inevitable tragedy of a social media commons where posting costs nothing but the poster’s time. I don’t dismiss this noise lightly. It makes finding interesting tweets harder. There can come a point when you decide that the effort to filter is just not worth it any more.

The power of the hashtag

What has happened in the event community as a result of increasing noise is the creation of more specialized hashtags for smaller niche groups. Because anyone can create and use a new hashtag, it’s possible for a community to coalesce around a useful hashtag. Hashtags are flexible Twitter tools that anyone or any group can use.

I like that I get to decide how Twitter works for me. Unlike Facebook there are no secret, ever-changing algorithms deciding what I should see. Yes, it’s work to filter the fire hose of information that Twitter serves up; the daunting collective output of currently over 200 million monthly active Twitter users sending 500 million tweets per day. But when you use Twitter effectively, you can reap the benefits of meeting and connecting successfully with people who are of value—value that you get to choose.

Are you serving up canned or live content at your Olympics?

While talking to Judy Kucharuk on the weekly #eventprofs happy hour hangout this week, she mentioned that she was watching the Olympic opening ceremonies live in her home in British Columbia. Our U.S. chatters were having no such luck. NBC made it hard to watch the Olympics online in the U.S.—you have to subscribe to cable-huh?-and have MSNBC and CNBC—and refused to show the opening ceremonies live, deciding to delay broadcast until “prime time” (whatever that means these days).

Doing stuff like this annoys lots of people. Indeed, many technologically savvy US citizens simply found live Olympic web streams in other countries. Or they watched other country’s live coverage on their Roku boxes. Net result – loss of eyeballs on NBC.

Of course, we know why NBC is doing this. The company’s business model is to wrap what it decides are highlights of the Olympic Games in lucrative advertisements. The same old TV model we’ve had for years: serve up canned content, carefully packaged to maximize revenue. (Though, come to think of it, cutting out the tribute to the London terrorism victims during the opening ceremonies isn’t my idea of careful packaging.)

NBC isn’t doing what its viewers want. It’s doing what it wants, to satisfy its legacy business model. A model that is becoming more and more out of touch with what consumers—who supply the eyeballs for advertisers—want.

When NBC broadcast the 2000 Olympic games, online internet streaming didn’t exist. The company had a U.S. monopoly on placing its expensive cameras around the Olympic venues. Today, every spectator can bring an inexpensive decent quality videocam, stream what they can see, and tweet commentary. (A special law was passed to make this a criminal offense; yeah, with hundreds of thousands of spectators, that’s gonna work really well.) Twelve years ago, NBC could decide how to package its coverage and get away with it because there was no alternative. Today, using the same model leads to widespread complaints and increasing defection from their content.

When spectators at an Olympic event can provide better live coverage than a $30 billion company, that company had better watch out.

What’s happening at your Olympics?
Today, the old model of providing canned content at a conference has become archaic. People no longer want to be passive spectators; they want live opportunities to connect with and be part of what’s going on. There are plenty of alternatives for broadcast content now; they don’t need to attend a face-to-face event any more to access this style of content whenever and wherever they want it.

When your conference competition can provide a real time, interactive, and relevant conference experience to attendees, a large majority will choose them over a traditional, broadcast-heavy event, no matter how slick the production values. If you’re still serving up the latter, you’d better watch out.

Fifteen hundred years of broadcast learning

Physics lecture at OxfordForty years ago, I was one of the students in this picture (the physics lecture theatre at Oxford University). They’ve repainted the walls and replaced the seating, but the room layout has remained unchanged.

When Oxford University was founded, nine hundred years ago, this is how you were taught. And the early universities grew out of the monastic schools, established in the 5th century, where abbots and abbesses inculcated the young men and women novices.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that we have a hard time taking seriously other modes of learning. After all, we’ve been told for fifteen hundred years that sitting and listening to someone who supposedly knows more than you do is how you learn.

Image attribution: Martin Wood