Re-envisage event technology to significantly improve your events

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Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies—it happens when society adopts new behaviors.
—Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

I feel irritated when I see so many event professionals focusing on “new” event technology while ignoring existing technology that, in many cases, could greatly improve their events at a fraction of the cost.

There, I said it.

Every year there are plenty of conferences where you can go and see the latest and greatest mobile and gamification apps, attendee tracking systems, registrant analytics, mobile networking, video streaming platforms, etc. Vendors are happy to sponsor these events. They use them to showcase their wares and, hopefully, convince attendees that their new technology is worth buying.

Let me be clear—I have nothing against new technology per se. (If I was I’d be a hypocrite, given that I spent twenty-three profitable years as an information technology consultant.) What’s sad is that too much of event professionals’ limited continuing-education time is spent investigating shiny new toys and apps while overlooking inexpensive and proven ways to provide effective learning, connection, engagement, and community building at their events.

Why does this happen? Here are two reasons:

We fixate on the new

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

We are enveloped by so much rapidly changing technology that we fixate on what is new. What was new quickly becomes taken for granted and largely invisible. As David Weinberger remarks“Technology sinks below our consciousness like the eye blinks our brain filters out.” Although technology in the form of human tools has existed for over three million years and we’ve had books for over half a millennium, the first history of technology wasn’t written until 1954. Flip charts, 5×8 cards, comfortable seating, room sets, healthy food and beverage, and hand voting have been around for a long time. They are old-fashioned technology to event professionals, so we don’t pay them much attention (unless they can be reframed in a sexy way, e.g. “brain food”). But that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Far from it.

Technology isn’t just manufactured goods and software
Our definition of what is and isn’t “technology” is far too narrow. We tend to think of technology in terms of products and embedded implementations (e.g. software). But this is an incredibly restrictive viewpoint. Kevin Kelly, in his thought-provoking book What Technology Wants, lists three of the most important human technologies:

  • Language: A technology that “shifted the burden of evolution in humans away from genetic inheritance…[allowing] our language and culture to carry our species’ aggregate learning as well.”
  • Writing: A technology that “changed the speed of learning in humans by easing the transmission of ideas across territories and across time.”
  • Science: “The invention that enables greater invention.”

Once we start thinking about technology with a wider lens like this, all kinds of possibilities arise.

Re-examining process—the key to re-envisaging event technology
Language, writing, and science are outside our conventional, narrow-scope technology. The conventional technology we use to instantiate the sounds, symbols, etc. that they use is secondary. Language, writing, and science are primarily about human process.

When we expand our perspective on event technology to include process, many unexamined aspects of our events come into view. A few examples:

  • Why do we open conferences with a keynote?
  • Why do so few people speak during conference sessions?
  • How do we know if the sessions we’re providing are what attendees actually want?
  • Why do we provide entertainment during socials?
  • Are socials the best way to meet other attendees?
  • Why do we close conferences with a keynote or dinner?

When you start honestly investigating issues like these, instead of simply repeating things the same “safe” way you’ve previously experienced at conferences you’ll discover all kinds of human process technology that can fundamentally improve your event in ways that a new gizmo or app cannot.

So I urge every event professional to re-envisage event technology to include the process used during your events. Concentrate less on improving logistical processes: registration, decor, A/V, F&B, and so on. These are secondary processes, and we know how to do them well. Instead, focus on improving the human process you use throughout the event venue and duration—how you structure and script its flow, how you maximize useful connection between attendees, how the content and form of sessions are determined—this is the event technology that counts.

Photo attribution: Flickr user pierre-francois

Stop the Generation XYZ baloney!

Product/service developers and marketers—listen up!

Google “Generation X’ and you’ll get over 300 million results.

I think this way of thinking about people is nonsense. And so does Clay Shirky.

“One of the weakest notions in the entire pop culture canon is that of innate generational difference, the idea that today’s thirty-somethings are members of a class of people called Generation X, while twenty-somethings are part of Generation Y, and that both differ innately from each other and from the baby boomers. The conceptual appeal of these labels is enormous, but the idea’s explanatory value is almost worthless, a kind of astrology for decades instead of months.”
—Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Shirky goes on to say that those who like to dramatize these generational differences are making a fundamental attribution error; mistaking new behavior for some kind of change in human nature rather than a change in opportunity. Much of the “difference” between “generations” is in fact caused by a change in that generation’s environment or circumstances.


Rather than start with supposed generational differences, dig deeper into the causes for changes in behavior. Instead of marketing driven by statistical analyses of differences in behavior, concentrate on understanding why behaviors have changed. (Or haven’t.)

Then develop your products, services, and marketing around your understanding of relevant human behavior and the changing environment.

Remember, people don’t change that fast. But their environment and circumstances can.

That’s what you should focus on.

P.S. If you haven’t already, read Switch by the Heath brothers for a great practical approach to changing people’s behavior.

The third way to make something happen

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More value can be gotten out of voluntary participation than anyone previously imagined, thanks to improvements in our ability to connect with one another and improvements in our imagination of what is possible from such participation.
Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky

In his thought-provoking book, Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky reminds us that, until recently, most of the discussion about how to make things happen has focused on two seemingly competing mechanisms.

Private production
The first way to make things happen is private production, where something gets done when the cost of doing it is less than what the doers believe the result will be worth. This is how many consumer products and services are created.

Public production
The second way to make things happen is public production, where a society decides that something is worth doing for the common good. An example is the provision of universal health care by a government for its citizens.

There is a third way to make something happen.

Social production is the third way to make something happen
Social production, as Shirky describes it, is the creation of value by a group for its members, using neither price signals nor managerial oversight to coordinate participants’ efforts. Social production occurs because a group’s members derive benefit from the results of their shared work, and often through their enjoyment of community during the process.

Until recently, social production was limited in scale: Shirky gives picnics and bowling leagues as examples. What has changed is that internet technologies now give us inexpensive and effective means for group coordination and cooperation. This allows us to aggregate the free time of many people in ad hoc groups that come together for mutual benefit to work on “tasks we find interesting, important, or urgent”. Examples of social production include Wikipedia, Linux, and countless community-run online forums.

How social production will impact meeting design
The rise of social production is important for events such as meetings and conferences, because the collective knowledge and experience of peer groups normally rivals or surpasses, the knowledge and experience of any one “expert”. When an audience collectively knows more than the presenter at the front of the room (and I’d argue that today this is true more often than not), the question naturally arises: are standard presentations the best way to use attendees’ time?

Traditional conference culture restricts the provider of session content to presenters. Social production culture, on the other hand, supports appropriate openness, sharing, and participation as a norm. When events adopt a social production culture, attendees become participants, involved not only in their own learning but also in the learning of their peers. Everyone benefits from the increased pool of resources, and the opportunity to shape what happens during the event. This adds real value to each attendee’s experience and also to the event’s civic value, i.e. the effect of the event on the world outside it.

As social production becomes an increasingly common way to create value, we need to recognize and acknowledge its ramifications for events. Attendees are going to be less willing to put up with conferences that are designed to make money for the organizers or put on as a public service. Instead, they will be attracted to events where they can participate in and shape what happens.

What are you doing to facilitate social production at your events?

Photo attribution: Flickr user stuckincustoms

Clay Shirky & my mission

Clay Shirky
Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky, the author of one of the best books I’ve read on the transformation of our lives by social tools, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations says he writes about “Systems where having good participants produces better results than having good planners.

That helps me express what floats my boat.

I am driven to explore systems where having good process produces better results than having good participants or good planners.

Image attribution: / CC BY 2.0