What’s better than people augmented by technology at meetings?

What's better than people augmented by technology at meetings?
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.

The end of decent paid jobs and the need for basic income

The end of decent paid jobs and the need for basic incomeIn the summer of 1970 I had a cool teenager vacation job: writing computer programs for a trucking company in downtown Los Angeles. After I finished coding a new report, my boss asked me to share it with a small department’s employees. I told the fifteen people there what I had done. And I saw their horror as we realized that my report replaced what they had been doing for a paycheck.

I felt terrible about the consequences of my work. I felt angry with my boss who knew exactly what would happen. He had made me the unwitting messenger of bad news. I never found out the consequences, but we’ve all heard countless stories like this.

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Meetings are a mess—and how they got that way

Apple 1984

“Things are the way they are because they got that way.”
—Quip attributed to Kenneth Boulding

The hundreds-of-years-dominant paradigm for sessions, conferences, and meetings is broadcast: most of the time, one person presents and everyone else listens and watches. Why?

I think there are two principal historic reasons: one shaped by technology, the other by culture.

How technology shapes our system of education
Perhaps you’re thinking: Technology? Isn’t technology a relatively recent development? How could technology have influenced how we learnt hundreds of years ago?

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Re-envisage event technology to significantly improve your events

new technology 5465070837_1448a9bfa9_o

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

Don’t let the tech tail wag the event dog

wall-eI’m steamed up after reading an article by the prolific and thoughtful journalist Jason Hensel (don’t worry, this is not about you, Jason). Here’s the relevant excerpt:

I recently attended the second annual EventTech conference and expo in New York. It was a chance for me to learn more about “leveraging social media + technology to optimize live events,” as the event describes itself. There were several good sessions…however, there was one I think you’d find particularly interesting. It was called “FutureCast 2032: What Will Events Look Like in 20 Years?” Joe English, creative director-experiential marketing at Intel, led the discussion.

Joe started off by listing the value of live events, values that we’re all aware of: connecting people, serendipity, idea exchange and social exchange. What was most interesting, though, was his answers on how technology will be applied to live events in the future. There were six applications:

  1. We will know far more about the audience. Contextual tools and data management will be important. And we’ll move from a shotgun approach to more of a sniper rifle approach when marketing to potential delegates.
  2. We will gather much more about audience behavior. Once again, contextual tools will play a role in this, as well as relatedness engines and RFID/GPS.
  3. We will make more useful suggestions to our audience. Yep, you guessed it—contextual tools and relatedness engines will play a role in this.
  4. Our attendees’ roles as ambassadors will increase. This will be achieved via future social media technologies.
  5. Technology will be the delivery vehicle for information. Distance learning technologies will drive this.
  6. Technology will connect attendees with one another at events.

—6 Ways Technology Will Be Applied to Events in the Future, Jason Hensel

A couple of these predictions tick me off.

Been there, done that
“3. We will make more useful suggestions to our audience.”

While I hope this statement is true in the future, the notion that new technology is needed to make better suggestions to event audiences annoys me.

First, this formulation sides with the old worldview that treats event attendees not as adults but as children who need an external authority to determine what they need to learn. That’s training, and most successful organizations abandoned years ago the concept that the majority of learning comes from training.

Second, we know now how to allow people to control their own learning at an event; i.e. via well-designed participant-driven process that uncovers needs and matches them to the considerable resources available from the people formerly known as the audience. Unfortunately we rarely allow this to happen. I think we will find that future technology will not do as good a job at making better suggestions for our audiences when compared with what can be done now with well-tested, straightforward participative process.

Welcome to WALL•E
#3 started the pressure build-up, and #6 brings me closer to boiling point.

“6. Technology will connect attendees with one another at events.”

I guess this is what you might expect from a director of marketing at Intel—when you only have a hi-tech hammer, everything looks like a hi-tech nail. Joe’s pronouncement evokes the world of WALL•E—Disney’s 2008 movie about a future where obese humans live in outer space, barely able to move about, interacting with each other via advanced technology. Is this the vision of the future we want?

I’m a fan of virtual and hybrid events, and see them as providing important ways that technology can create new opportunities for us to be present at an event that we would not or could not attend physically. But in my opinion, baldly saying that in the future technology will connect attendees with one another at events goes too far. The human race has spent hundreds of thousands of years developing ways of connecting face to face. Unless we have holodeck-quality technology that creates a reality essentially indistinguishable from our face-to-face experience, I don’t believe that technology will replace the quality of connection and engagement that routinely occur at well-designed face-to-face events.

What to do?
Sadly these days, I routinely see queries on LinkedIn groups asking about the latest “hot” technology for events. This is sheer laziness that benefits no one except lucky tech suppliers. Instead of looking for new technology to make an event novel, spend your time incorporating process and formats that will fundamentally improve the quality and value of learning and connection at your event. And if this leads you to incorporate appropriate technology to support these activities, then your event dog will be wagging its tech tail, the way that nature intended, rather than the other way round.

Photo attribution: Scientific American

The effects of three centuries on our conferences

Our organizations are built on 19th century learning styles coupled by 20th century leadership models fused with 21st century technologies
—Dan Pontefract, Future of Work

Replace “organizations” with “conferences” in Dan’s great quote, and you encapsulate much of what is wrong with conferences today.

What are you going to do about it?

(Ironic) Powerpoint photo courtesy of Flickr user wmcap

Torn About Technology

Here’s a transcript of my four-minute Blink! talk Torn About Tech given on Monday, April 23, at the Green Meetings Industry Council 2012 Sustainable Meetings Conference:

“Let me make one thing clear.

I love technology!

I love my iPad, my iPhone! I love my iPod touch! (Three computers in one man purse!)

And I’m a big fan of the appropriate use of technology at events.

That people anywhere with an an internet connection can get a taste of what’s happening at this conference in Montreal, Canada, without having to use significant amounts of energy and resources to travel here is a GOOD THING!

But I’m Torn About Tech at face-to-face events.

I’m Torn About Tech because technology can distract us from what I believe is the core reason for having face-to-face events.

Because we don’t have to travel anymore to hear some someone speak or to obtain up-to-the-minute content.

We can get all that online.

So what is the core reason for having face-to-face events these days?

It’s so we can meet, share, and learn through face-to-face personal connection and interactions.

And there’s a danger, a very seductive danger that I’m certainly not immune to, of focusing on new technology, new gadgets, new apps to mediate our face-to-face experience and, in the process, ignoring much simpler non-tech ways to increase learning, connecting, and sharing at events.

An example: audience response systems, clickers, gadgets we can hand out to audience members to get responses to questions.

Great devices for anonymous polling, where no one in the room gets to find out how anyone else voted. Occasionally that’s appropriate and useful.

But, come on, is this really what we want at a face-to-face event? I’d like to know how you and you and you feel about an issue, and there are a ton of low-tech/no-tech methods we can use to share that information.

We have:

  • hand voting
  • card voting
  • voice voting
  • dot voting
  • Roman voting
  • (one of my favorites) body voting aka human spectrograms

Body voting has audience members stand along a line in the room to show the agreement/disagreement gradient on an issue. You can use it to discover different viewpoints, create debates, create homogeneous or heterogeneous small discussion groups on a topic—all things that gadgets can’t do.

These voting methods involve people moving about which improves learning, retention, and recall. They’re free or incredibly cheap and they’re a lot more fun.

Yes, there are some things that technology does better than the old ways. Having multiple session scribes live blog into a shared Google Doc projected on a big screen is much better than scribes taking notes on yellow pads or flip charts.

But let’s not fall into the trap of believing that new technology is the only way to improve events.

Very often we can simply use different human process to greatly improve learning, connection, and fun at our events.

That’s why I’m Torn About Tech.

Thank you very much.”