Most of the event technology I’ve been using for the last quarter century is hundreds of years old. It works incredibly well. So, when you’re designing your next event, bear in mind this observation of Seth Godin’s:
You might not need more exposure to the new. Instead, it might pay to re-see what’s already around you. —Seth Godin, What do you see?
Re-seeing technology is hard because technology is anything that was invented after you were born. Technology that’s older than you is mostly invisible, taken for granted like the air you breathe. Only when the wind blows you might notice, for a moment, that something important is all around you — but your attention quickly returns to the smartphone in your hand.
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.
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.
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
Here’s a letter to every event technology company trying to sell me stuff.
Dear event technology vendor,
I’m sure I’m not the only event professional who is bombarded with email from event technology companies. I receive solicitations from multiple companies each week, asking me to check out/review their latest mobile app/conference management software/social-networking tool etc.
Guys, I don’t want to be crass here, but could you give me some idea upfront how much your products/services cost?
If cost was no object I would be a customer for much of the stuff you are pitching.
But cost is not no object. For me to evaluate the value proposition you’re offering I have to know the value of what you provide and what it costs me. The former is my job. The latter is yours.
I read your patter about your product or service, decide to find out more and click on your embedded link. So far so good. I jump to your elaborate website where it’s obvious you have spared no expense creating great material designed to turn me into a customer. Overviews, feature lists, videos—it’s all there.
Except for any kind of price information.
You don’t share your pricing model! Is this is a $299-for-unlimited-use, a $5/seat, or a $10,000/event deal? Are there packages of services available at clear price points? If customization is an option, what ballpark costs are we talking about?
About the only thing I’m sure of, once I’ve wasted my time searching for this information on your oh-so-pretty website, is that you don’t use a freemium model. You would have told me about that.
I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time to enter into your next sales step—the “contact us to discuss your requirements” dance—on the off chance that your actual pricing model represents real value for me.
So next time—if there is a next time—please consider giving me all the basic information I need so I’ll be compelled to check out your possibly awesome creation further. I can handle talking about money upfront. And so can you.