Six reasons to change our conferences

Six reasons to change our conferencesIn my keynote at Blend Abu Dhabi, the inaugural meeting industry conference at the new Yas Conference Centre, I shared six reasons to change our conferences for them to remain relevant to today’s attendees.

Although I’ve written about these issues before, this is the first time I’ve summarized them in one place. Together they make a strong business case for the participant-driven and participation-rich meetings I’ve been advocating since 1992.

Enjoy!

Sessions provide no connection around content

Today, the most important reason why people go to conferences is to usefully connect with others around relevant content. But our conference programs still focus on lectures, where a few experts broadcast their knowledge to passive listeners: the audience. During lectures there’s no connection between audience members; no connection around lecture content.

At traditional conferences, connection is relegated to the breaks, meals, and socials! That’s why you so often hear “the best part of that conference was the conversations in the hallways”. It doesn’t have to be that way! Peer conferences provide conference sessions where participants connect around relevant, timely content.

Lectures are a terrible way to learn

We’ve known for over a hundred years that lectures are a terrible way to learn something. Lectures are a seductive meeting format because they are very efficient ways of sharing information. Unfortunately, lectures are perhaps the least effective way of learning anything.

Why? Over time, we rapidly forget most everything someone tells us. But when we engage with content, we remember more of it, remember it more accurately, and remember it longer. Every measure of learning increases drastically when attendees actively participate while learning in sessions.

The rise of online

Most broadcast content is now readily available online. An internet connection provides expert content anywhere, just in time when it’s needed. You don’t need to go to conferences for broadcast content (which you’ll probably have forgotten by the time you need it) any more!

Professionals learn predominantly socially, not in the classroom

Until about twenty years ago, professionals learned most of what they needed to know to do their jobs in the classroom. Today we know that only about 10% of what we need to know to do our jobs involves formal classroom teaching. The other 90% is informal, provided by a combination of self-directed learning and social, active, experiential learning with our peers on the job or (what an opportunity!) at conferences with our peers.

Though ~90% of the learning modalities adult workers need these days are informal social learning from our peers, we persist in making the bulk of “education” at meetings formal presentations by a few experts! Instead, we need to concentrate on and provide maximum opportunities for the just-in-time peer learning our attendees need and want.

Today, everyone has expertise and experience to share

Everyone who has worked in a profession for a while is a expert resource for some of her or his peers. Instead of limiting content to broadcast by a few “experts”, peer conferences provide process and support to uncover and tap the thousands of years of expertise and experience in the room. Remember how David Weinberger puts it: “the smartest person in the room is the room.” We need conference process that uncovers and taps everyone’s experience and expertise while people are together at the conference!

Most pre-scheduled sessions don’t address actual attendee wants and needs

Because we’ll forget learning that isn’t currently needed and reinforced, conferences need to provide just-in-time learning.  And you can’t predict most of the just-in-time learning by asking a program committee, or attendees for that matter, in advance. My research has found that 50 – 90% of all pre-scheduled conference sessions are not what attendees actually want and need! In contrast, just about all peer conference sessions, chosen and run by participants during the event, are rated highly because they provide the just-in-time learning and connection that participants want from the event.

Conclusion

My first two books explore all these themes in detail. To get the full story, buy ’em!

Four reasons why traditional conferences are obsolete

traditional conferences are obsoleteSorry folks, but traditional conferences are obsolete.

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.

Software and machines will clearly take over some work, which large numbers of humans will never perform again. But 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.

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.” That means traditional conferences are obsolete. Say goodbye to traditional conferences — and say hello to peer learning!

Photo attribution: Flickr user astrid

How the rise of online is changing your events

How is the rise of online changing your events?rise of online Encyclopaedia Britannica

How I used to find information

When I was living in England in the 1960’s, finding a telephone number was cumbersome. Five huge telephone books, each requiring both hands to lift, sat in a cupboard in our hallway, with millions of alphabetized names and associated numbers in microscopic print. The books quickly became out of date and were updated sporadically. And, if you didn’t know the exact spelling, or had only an address, you were out of luck.

Books were a key way to obtain information. Wealthy families (not mine) purchased the Encyclopedia Britannica and proudly displayed the 24+ volumes on sturdy bookshelves. The local free library was a key resource. For current information, I could watch three TV channels and read several rather good print newspapers. For specialized information, I subscribed to, or read in the library, a bewildering variety of magazines and journals.

And, of course, I talked to people. My parents, my teachers, my friends, and, later, my professional colleagues were all valuable resources. I found my friends from face-to-face social events or through my work. Finally, if I needed to know more about a subject of interest, I would attend a conference and listen to papers delivered by experts in the field.

How I find information today

the rise of online has changed everything. I don’t remember the last time I consulted a paper telephone directory. Ten years ago I checked eBay to see if an Encyclopedia Britannica set was worth anything. Reluctantly, I ended up recycling the books, because no one wanted to buy them. Today, apart from a local paper and a few paper magazine subscriptions, online is where I find telephone numbers, email or physical addresses, and information on just about any subject that, in quantity and mostly quality, dwarfs the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

People are still a major resource for me, but the primary way that I first meet new people professionally these days is online, via a variety of social media, rather than an initial face-to-face encounter.

And, of course, these days I am a creator of conferences rather than a passive consumer of them. For me, a good conference is one where I can interact, connect, share, and learn with others, and can influence what happens at the event in a way that is useful and meaningful to me.

How the bountiful availability of online content changes events

Today there is amazing one-way content on the web. The internet is where we go for information about people, places, facts, processes, techniques, and solutions to problems. Our resources have migrated from cumbersome books and broadcast media to browsable indexed data servers in the internet cloud.

For face-to-face attendees, this makes vanilla delivery of content at events far less compelling.

In the future, people are not going to travel to your event to listen to a speaker they could watch streamed live, or as a recording at a time and place of their choosing. Providing a ten-minute opportunity for questions at the end of a presentation isn’t going to cut it either. Viewing one-way content over the internet is cheaper and more convenient for attendees. If broadcast content is mostly what you have to offer people will gravitate to obtaining it online; either from you or a competitor.

As a result, traditional events concentrating on the transfer of predetermined content from experts to a local audience are dying. I don’t know how long it will be before rigor mortis sets in. Perhaps some events will remain viable as training opportunities for novices, or as vehicles for CEUs to be awarded or certifications to be maintained. Over time, however, the majority of professionals who care about their profession and best use of their time will stop going to face-to-face events that don’t incorporate significant opportunities for connection, peer-to-peer sharing, and participant-driven sessions. And, no, a lunch and an evening social or two aren’t going to be enough any more. Instead you need to put opportunities for connection front and center of your events, because connection around content is becoming the most important reason that people attend face-to-face events.

Why you should care

In the fifteen months since my book on participant-driven conferences was published I have been amazed and delighted by the flood of interest from meeting professionals, peer communities, and business & association leaders. And I’ve also been disturbed. A common story I hear is of long-running conferences in trouble: conferences where attendance, evaluations, and consequent income are falling. The organizers who are contacting me have realized that the traditional conferences-as-usual models are not working like they used to. Attendees are starting to defect, or ask for something different. I’ve heard this story from professionals in many different fields.

In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before the importance of the shift in emphasis away from content towards connection at face-to-face events becomes apparent and generally accepted by the events community. As usual with industry trends, the people who recognize and respond well to them early will be the beneficiaries. Those who continue doing things the old way will lose out. If you’re not currently investigating ways to restructure your events to significantly increase attendee connections and participation, I recommend you start.

Do you see a trend of increased attendee dissatisfaction at traditional events? If so, why do you think it’s happening, and what are you doing about it?