Good things come in threes. Though I usually overlook anniversaries, I noticed one this morning. The first peer conference I convened and designed was held June 3 – 5, 1992 at Marlboro College, Vermont. So, as of today, the community of practice that eventually became edACCESS has enjoyed 27 years of peer conferences. [That’s 3 x 3 x 3. I told you good things come in threes.]
Twenty-three people came to the inaugural conference. At the time, I had no idea that what I instinctively put together for a gathering of people who barely knew each other would lead to:
a global design and facilitation consulting practice;
over 500 posts on this blog, which has now become, to the best of my knowledge, the most-visited website on meeting design and facilitation;
three books (almost!) on participant-driven, participation-rich meeting design; and
plentiful ongoing opportunities to fulfill my mission to facilitate connection between people.
However, none of this happened overnight. For many years, designing and facilitating meetings was a vocation rather than a profession, usually unpaid. Furthermore, it was an infrequent adjunct to my “real” jobs at the time: information technology consulting, and teaching computer science.
27 years of peer conferences. From little acorns, mighty oaks. I would never have predicted the path I’ve traveled — and continue to look forward to the journey yet to come. Above all, thank you everyone who has made it possible. I can’t adequately express the gratitude you are due.
In June I’m stepping down as President and Executive Director of edACCESS, an association I co-founded 25 years ago. This is the third time I’ve left an association leadership position, and I’m going to share some valuable lessons learned from each transition.
“There was a frankness you’re not going to get anywhere else.”
“What a unique opportunity!”
“That was eye-opening.”
“We got a one-time look behind the curtain.”
“That was an incredible session.”
“I’m so grateful that session was available.”
Those were some of the comments I heard while waiting outside the door of Room 102 as attendees streamed out after the first peer session at the 21st edACCESS annual conference held at the Peddie School, Hightstown, New Jersey. Sadly, I’ll never know what I missed—and neither will you, unless you were there. Here’s why.
At the start of edACCESS conferences it’s customary for a representative of the hosting school to welcome attendees, and Peddie’s Head of School, John Green, did the honors this year. We learned that John was stepping down as head, had a lot of respect for the work information technology staff performed at schools:
“we school heads are somewhat helpless without you” John Green, head of Peddie School speaking to us techies at #edaccess12
and that he was interested in talking with attendees about what he had learned during his eleven-year tenure.
Because edACCESS uses the peer conference model, we were able to jump on this last-minute opportunity and schedule an hour for anyone who wanted to meet with John the following day. Because Conferences That Work use a confidentiality ground rule, John could be sure that what he shared would not leave the room. Thanks to the conference design, attendees had an impromptu, once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear candid reflections, ask questions, and get invaluable advice from a retiring school head—something that would never normally be available to an edACCESS attendee.
With the trend towards streaming, tweeting, and live-blogging everything that happens at conferences, it’s important to remember that there are many amazing opportunities that will be routinely missed or avoided whenever conference sessions are unthinkingly thrown open to all and sundry, be it via streaming the session on the internet or by the lack of an explicit agreement about confidentiality. John Green has probably never spoken so candidly about his work to a group of strangers as he did that day, and he will probably never do so again. Those who attended his session reaped the benefit of a conference design that supports safety in sharing with one’s peers while still allowing more disclosure when appropriate.
I’m sorry I missed John’s session. You had to be there. Sometimes that’s not such a bad thing.
What do you think about the tension between openness and intimacy at conference sessions? What solutions would you use?
“When I think of how meetings are marketed, I never see anything, at least for our industry, that tugs at heartstrings. That’s where many of us connect. Imagine if say there were words and visuals of founders of organizations who were still active in some way…it just seems we forget.” —Joan Eisenstodt, from a March 6, 2011 comment on Facebook
Eight years ago, at a conference I was facilitating, I noticed a couple of participants wandering round with a camcorder. (This was a somewhat novel occurrence at the time; inexpensive camcorders were just appearing.) They were shooting footage of conference events and seemed to be interviewing people. No one had asked them to do this, and I assumed they were videoing for their own purposes. This was fine by me, and, in the usual press of conference process I forgot about what they were doing.
Six months later, out of the blue, I received this:
Watching, I had one of those rare but so special conference choked up moments. Without asking anyone, Tom Flanagan and Whitney Donnelly decided to make a movie about our conference and offered it to us for promotional purposes. When conference attendees do something like this unsolicited, you know there’s something good going on.
Today, it’s easy to make such movies. But we haven’t made any more. The video is still available for viewing on the edACCESS home page. Nothing out of the ordinary by today’s standards, it remains as a reminder of something very special made by Whitney & Tom because their heartstrings were tugged back in 2003.
Do you create events that tug at heartstrings? If so, you should feel proud. I know I do.
In February I wrote about my skepticism of attempts to crowdsource session topics before a conference. After running edACCESS 2010 last month, I realized I could analyze the success of our pre-conference topic crowdsourcing.
Conference details edACCESS is a four-day conference for information technology staff at small independent schools that has been held every year since 1992. This year there were 47 attendees, 9 of whom had not attended before. The conference uses the Conferences That Work event design.
Before the conference, we solicited suggestions for session topics via messages to the edACCESS listserv and email to registrants. Ideas could be posted on the edACCESS wiki, which requires registration. Some of the new attendees did not register on the wiki before the conference, but all returning attendees were registered (since most of each year’s conference content and discussion is posted there.)
Seven attendees (15%) posted a total of fourteen topic suggestions to the wiki prior to the conference.
The schedule for edACCESS 2010 included a vendor exhibit, two predetermined sessions (an attendee-created Demo Showcase and a Web 2.0 Demo Tools Workshop), and nine one-hour time slots for peer sessions with topics crowdsourced through the Conferences That Workpeer session sign up process, for which 78 topics were suggested.
We had space to run four simultaneous sessions in each of the nine time slots, and ended up scheduling the 33 most popular (and feasible) of the 78 suggestions.
Findings Of the 14 topics suggested prior to the conference, only 5 ended up being chosen for sessions by attendees at the event. So only 15% of the 33 actual conference sessions were predicted by attendees in advance of the event.
Of the 147 topics suggested during the conference roundtable, 26 were subsequently chosen for sessions. That’s 80% of the final sessions. Interestingly, seven of the final session topics were not mentioned in the roundtable notes. It’s quite common for participants to think of new topics after the roundtable is over. Once seen by other attendees, some of these ideas turn into desirable sessions.
Conclusions It’s hard to know how to improve on our process of soliciting session ideas before the conference, short of forcing attendees to make suggestions during registration—something that would not go over well with the typical edACCESS attendee. In my experience, the above analysis is pretty typical for peer conferences I run. Having session topics and formats that fit particpants’ needs is vital for the success of any conference. Given the poor showing for pre-conference topic crowdsourcing, (and, by extension, efforts of a conference’s program committee) I feel that having attendees brainstorm and then propose topics at the start of the event, as is done at Conferences That Work, is well worth the work involved.
Do you think we should even be trying to crowdsource topics for a conference? Are you still skeptical of the utility of crowdsourcing topics at the beginning of a conference? What would you do to improve the success of crowdsourcing sessions before an event?
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.
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).
Conclusion 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?