Should Linda go to TradConf or PartConf?

Two_paths_into_Kingsford_Forest_Park_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1185904Ask me about an environment for learning and I recall sitting in a classroom full of ancient wooden desks, hinged lids inscribed with the penknife carvings, initials, and crude drawings of generations of semi-bored schoolboys. A thin film of chalk dust covers everything, and distant trees and blue sky beckon faintly through the windows at the side of the room. The teacher is talking and I am paying attention in case I am called on to answer a question. If it’s a subject I like—science, math, or English—I am present, working to pick up the wisdom imparted, motivated by my curiosity about the world and the desire to not appear stupid in front of my classmates. If it’s a subject I am not passionate about—foreign languages, history, art, or geography—I do what I need to do to get by.

When asked to think about creating an environment for learning we tend to focus, as I just did, on the physical environment and our motivations for learning.

But there’s a third element of the learning environment that is largely overlooked. Did you spot it? If you’ve read my post Meetings are a mess—and how they got that way you probably did; we have not yet mentioned the learning processes we use as a key component of our learning environment. These processes are so deeply associated with our experience of learning in specific environments that we’re rarely conscious of how much they affect what and how we learn.

Let’s meet Linda, who’s about to discover why using good process can be so impactful.

About Linda
Linda’s waiting to get her badge and information packet at a conference registration table. She’s nervous because she’s new to the industry and has only previously briefly met a couple of people on the list of registered attendees. Linda likes her profession, but came principally in order to receive continuing education credits that she needs to maintain her professional certification. She wants to learn more about certain industry issues, get some specific questions answered, and is hoping to meet peers and begin to build a professional network.

At this point, let’s see what happens when Linda experiences two somewhat different conference designs.

Linda goes to TradConf
Linda is a first-time attendee at TradConf, a small annual association conference that has pretty much the same format since it was first held in 1982. She received a conference program six months ago and saw a few sessions listed that look relevant to her current needs. After picking up her preprinted name badge she enters the conference venue and sees a large number of people chatting with each other in small groups. There isn’t anyone there she knows. She drifts over to a refreshment table and picks up a glass of soda water, hoping to be able to finesse her way into one of the groups and join a conversation.

Linda meets a few people before the opening session, but no one who she really clicks with. Still, she’s grateful that she can at least associate a few names with faces.

Linda doesn’t find the opening keynote especially interesting. The speaker is entertaining but doesn’t really offer any useful take-aways. And sitting and listening for 80 minutes has taken a toll on her concentration. She follows the crowd to the refreshments in the hallway outside and tries to meet some more people. Linda’s not shy, but it’s still daunting to have to repeatedly approach strangers and introduce herself. By the end of the first day, Linda has met one person with whom she has a fair amount in common, and she bumped into one of the people she knew before the conference. The three of them spend the evening talking.

The next couple of days’ sessions are a mixed bag. Some of the sessions are a rehash of things Linda already knows, rather than covering new techniques, while another turns out to focus on something very different from the description in the conference program. Linda picks up a few useful nuggets from a couple of sessions, and gets one of her pressing questions answered. She connects with someone who asked an interesting question at the end of a presentation. She spends most of her time between sessions with her old connection and two new friends.

The conference closes with a keynote banquet. Linda sits next to an stimulating colleague, but doesn’t get much time to talk to him because the keynote monopolizes most of their time together. They swap business cards and promise to stay in touch.

Afterwards, Linda has mixed feelings about her TradConf experience. She met some interesting people and learned a few things, but it didn’t seem to be an especially productive use of her time, given that she has to get back to work and still grapple with the majority of her unanswered questions. She doesn’t feel like she’s built much of a professional network. Perhaps things will be better when she goes next year?

Linda goes to PartConf
Linda is a first-time attendee at PartConf, a small annual association conference first held in 1993. It has a good reputation, but it’s hard to understand what the conference will be like, because, apart from an interesting-sounding keynote from someone really well known in the industry and a few other sessions on hot-topics, the program doesn’t list any other session topics. Instead, the preconference materials claim that the participants themselves will create the conference sessions on the topics that they want to learn about. This sounds good in theory to Linda, but she is quite skeptical how well this will actually work in practice.

A few weeks before the event, Linda gets a call from Maria, who identifies herself as a returning conference participant. Maria explains that all first-time PartConf attendees get paired with a buddy before the conference. Maria offers to answer any questions about the conference, meet Linda at registration, and introduce her to other attendees if desired. Linda asks how the participant-driven conference format works, and Maria is happy to share her own positive experience. They swap contact information and agree to meet at registration.

Linda calls Maria as she waits on line to register. As she picks up her large name badge, she notices it has some questions on it: “Talk to me about…” and “I’d like to know about…” with blank space for answers. Maria appears and explains that the questions allow people with matching interests or expertise to find each other. Linda fills out her badge, and the two of them enter the conference venue and see a large number of people chatting with each other in small groups. There isn’t anyone there Linda knows, but Maria brings her over to one of the groups and introduces her to Yang and Tony. “Based on what you’ve told me about your interests,” Maria says, “I think you guys have a lot in common.” A glance at Yang’s and Tony’s badges confirms this, and Linda is soon deep in conversation with her two new colleagues who introduce her to other attendees.

By the time the opening session starts, Linda has met six people who are clearly going to be great resources for her. She’s also surprised to discover that a couple of other people are really interested in certain experiences and expertise she acquired at a previous job.

The opening session is a roundtable. Linda has been preassigned to one of five roundtables being held simultaneously. Two of her new friends join her in a large room with a circle of forty chairs. A roundtable facilitator explains how the roundtable works, and provides some ground rules for everyone to follow. Over the next 90 minutes, everyone gets a turn to share their answers to three questions. Linda learns much about the other participants and gets a comprehensive overview of group members’ questions, issues, topics, experience and expertise. Human spectrograms, held roughly every twenty minutes, get people on their feet to show experience levels, geographical distribution, and other useful information about the group. Linda notes the names of four more people she wants to talk to during the conference, and discovers that her former job experience is of interest to other people in the room.

At the first evening social, Linda enjoys getting to know her new friends. Everyone spends some time proposing and signing up for “peer sessions” to be held over the next few days, using a simple process involving colored pens and sheets of paper. Peer sessions can be presentations, discussions, panels, workshops, or any format that seems appropriate for the participants’ learning and sharing. Linda suggests several issues she is grappling with and a couple of the sessions she wants get scheduled. Although another topic doesn’t have sufficient interest to be formally scheduled, she notes the names of the people interested and decides to try to talk with them between sessions. She is surprised to find that quite a few people want to learn from her former job experience, and ends up facilitating a discussion on the topic the next day.

The next couple of days’ sessions are incredibly productive and useful for Linda. She gets all her questions answered, meets several people who can advise her on potential future issues, enjoys being an unexpected resource herself, and has begun to build a great professional network by the time the conference draws to a close.

The last couple of sessions provide Linda an opportunity to think about what she has learned and what she wants to do professionally as a result. She now feels confident about beginning a major initiative at work, sketches out the initial steps, and gets helpful feedback from her colleagues. She even has some time to reconnect with now-familiar peers and make arrangements to stay in touch. The last session starts with a public evaluation of the entire conference: what worked well and what might be improved. Linda makes several contributions, gets a clear idea of how the conference has been valuable to the many different constituencies present, and several great ideas emerge on how to make the event even better next year, together with next steps for their development.

Afterwards, Linda has very positive feelings about her conference experience. She got all her questions answered, learned much of value, and built the solid beginnings of a significant professional network. And she’s certain PartConf will be even better when she returns next year!

The impact of good process on the learning environment
Linda’s story illustrates the tremendous effect good process can have on the learning environment. The attendees at TradConf and PartConf are the same; only the processes used are different! PartConf’s participation-rich process gave Linda a learning experience that was much more tailored to her and the other attendees’ actual needs and wants than the predetermined program at TradConf. Linda also made useful connections with many more people at PartConf compared to TradConf.

The PartConf design also allows participants to make changes to the conference processes used, either at the event or future events. The learning environment at PartConf extends to the event design—the conference can “learn” itself through participant feedback and suggestions to become a more effective vehicle for participants’ needs and wants.

I have been running conferences like PartConf for over twenty years. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the vast majority of those who attend these events come to greatly prefer such designs over the TradConfs that have been the rule for hundreds of years.

Image attribution: Wikimedia

From broadcast to learning in 25 minutes

GMIC2014 collab session Last week’s Green Meetings Industry Council’s 2014 Sustainable Meetings Conference opened with a one-hour keynote panel: The Value of Sustainability Across Brands, Organizations and Sectors. Immediately after the presentation, my task was to help over two hundred participants, seated at tables of six, grapple with the ideas shared, surface the questions raised, and summarize the learning and themes for deeper discussion.

Oh, and I had twenty-five minutes!

For a large group to effectively review and reflect on presented material in such a short time, we have to quickly move from individual work to small group work to some form of concrete visual summary that’s accessible to everyone. So here’s what I did.

1) My audience hadn’t moved for over an hour, and their brains had, to varying degrees, gone to sleep. So, for a couple of minutes, I had people stand, stretch, twist and do shoulder rolls.

2) Next, I summarized what we were about to do. I

      • Outlined the three phases of the exercise: a) working individually; b) sharing amongst the small group at their table, and c) a final opportunity to review everyone’s work in a short gallery walk.
      • Pointed out the tools available. Each table had a sheet of flip-chart paper (divided into a 2 x 2 matrix), 4 pads of different colored sticky notes, and a fine-tip sharpie for each person.

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      • Explained the four categories they would use for their responses. After introducing each category I asked a couple of pre-primed volunteers to share an example of their response with the participants.
        • REMINDERS. “These are themes with which you’re already familiar that the keynote touched on. You might want to include ideas you think are important. And you might want to include themes that you have some expertise or experience with. More on that in a moment. Write each REMINDER on a separate blue sticky note, which will end up in the top left square of the flip chart.”
        • SPARKS. “Sparks are inspirations you’ve received from the keynote; new ideas, new solutions that you can adopt personally, or for your organization, or at your meetings. Write your SPARKS on yellow sticky notes; they’ll go in the top right square.
        • QUESTIONS. “These are ideas that you understand that you have questions about. Perhaps you are looking for help with a question. Perhaps you think a question brought up by the keynote is worth discussing more widely at this event. Write your questions on a green sticky note; they’ll go in the bottom left square.
        • PUZZLES. “Puzzles are things you feel that you or your organization or our industry don’t really understand and need help with. Write your puzzles on a violet sticky note; they’ll go in the bottom right.”
      • Gave these instructions. “In a minute I’m going to give you about five minutes to work alone and create your REMINDERS, SPARKS, QUESTIONS, and PUZZLES. Don’t put your notes on the flip chart paper yet; we’ll do that communally soon. Any questions?” [There were none.] “Two final thoughts:
        • 1) Words are fine, but feel free to draw pictures or diagrams too!
        • 2) Consider adding your name to any of your notes. We’re going to display your notes on the wall over there. If you have expertise or experience of one of your themes, adding your name to your note will allow others who are interested in the topic to find you. If you have a question or puzzle you need help with, adding your name will allow others who can help to find you.”

3) I gave everyone five minutes to create their individual notes, asking them to shoot for a few responses in each category.

4) For the second phase of the exercise, I asked for each person to briefly explain their notes with the others at their table, placing on the appropriate quadrant of the flip chart as they did so. I allocated each person a minute for this, and rang a bell when it was time for the next person to begin.

5) The final phase was a gallery walk. I asked one person from each table to go and stick their flip chart page on a large blank meeting room wall. Once done, I invited everyone to go to the gallery and explore what we had created together.

Here’s one end of the resulting sharing wall.

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6) Later that evening I had a small number of subject matter experts cluster the themes they saw. (If I had had more time, I would have had all the participants work on this together during my session.) The resulting clusters were referred to throughout the conference for people to browse and use as a resource. Here’s a picture, taken later, showing the reclustered items in our “sharing space”.

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Even when time is short, an exercise like this can quickly foster huge amounts of personal learning, connection (via the table work and named sticky notes), and audience-wide awareness of interests and expertise available in the room. I believe that reflective and connective processes like this should be used after every traditional presentation session to maximize its value to meeting participants.

Convenings 2.0: Connecting adult learning, communication strategies and event logistics to build stronger relationships

Convenings 2.0

“The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is a relationship-based and an event-based organization. We love to bring our grantees together so they can learn, network and share best practices.”
Sterling Speirn, President and CEO, W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Hot off the press! This beautifully designed report, which can be downloaded for free by clicking on the report cover above, describes a wealth of thoughtful approaches, proposals, and standards for meetings hosted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for its grantees. Containing extensive research by Carol and Mike Galle, and Sharon McMurray of Special D Events, I believe this document deserves wide circulation to associations, foundations, and event and association professionals.

Thirty-five subject matter expert contributors from foundations, the meeting industry, and adult learning/academia  contributed to the report, including my friends and colleagues Mitchell Beer, Michelle Bruno, Sandy Heierbacher, Carolyn Ray, Maarten Vanneste, and myself. The bibliography includes books and reports by Joan Eisenstodt, Jackie Mulligan, Maarten, myself, and many others.

The report scope includes meeting and event logistics, knowledge management, integrated communications, technology, foundation considerations, design and execution, communication and branding, a set of twenty-one recommendations, and an outline of design, execution, and evaluation process, with an appendix covering adult learning theory and its application to meetings and a glossary. Apposite quotes are sprinkled throughout the fifty-two pages.

There’s something for everyone here, folks. It’s well worth reading!

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

Process, not product

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“We shape our buildings, then our buildings shape us.”
—Winston Churchill

For about ten years I had a piece of paper thumbtacked at eye level on my office wall. It said:

Process, not product.

I needed that piece of paper in plain view to remind me as I worked on projects that, ultimately, the process I use to achieve my goals is more important than the end-result.

No, I’m not saying that the products of my work aren’t important; far from it. Rather, if I concentrate on my end-goals to the extent that my awareness of the process I am using to obtain them suffers, then:

  1. My end results will be inferior to what I could have achieved; and
  2. I’ll be living a miserable life.

It took me ten years before I removed that piece of paper, ten years to be able to reliably remember not to plunge into achievement at the expense of mindful action.

Which is more important for you? Process or product?

Image attribution: Flickr user sixmilliondollardan

Five fundamental questions about conference design

Questions_2326448445_254db07d4fNo one expects that every conference attendee will have the same needs as every other participant and contribute an equal amount to the event. Each of us has a unique set of interests, knowledge, and skills. And there will be people present who have much to offer, and those who, for whatever reason, add little to the available pool of relevant knowledge and experience.

This raises five fundamental questions:

  1. What are the best ways to use conference time to respond to a variety of attendee knowledge and experience?
  2. How can we discover the topics that have energy for attendees?
  3. What experience and expertise exist for exploring these topics?
  4. What processes provide the best way to match uncovered needs with available conference resources?
  5. How can we effectively support the resulting conference sessions?

If you agree with me that these questions are important, have you answered them to your satisfaction for your events?

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/seandreilinger/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0