Four reasons why traditional conferences are obsolete

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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.

While some work is clearly destined to be taken over by software and machines, never to be performed by large numbers of humans again, 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.

So 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.” 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

Apple 1984

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

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

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?

Read the rest of this entry »

Want to use Twitter effectively? Discard its biggest myth!

BieberIn 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 10 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.

If you’re not a celebrity, 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—as well as 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 check up on 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, pumping 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: 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, and there can come a point when you decide that the effort to filter is just not worth it any more.

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 at any time on Twitter, it’s possible for a community to coalesce around a useful hashtag. Hashtags are flexible Twitter tools that can be used freely by anyone or any group that finds them useful.

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 by discarding the biggest myth of Twitter, 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