If you know me you’re probably scratching your head at the title of this post.
“Adrian,” you’re thinking, “unconferences are what you do! How can you not like unconferences?”
Well, it’s the word “unconference” I object to, not what it represents. Unfortunately, “unconference” has come to mean any kind of conference that isn’t a traditional conference. Originally the word “unconference” was coined to describe a participant-driven meeting, but in recent years—rather like the encroachments on “counter-culture” and “green”—it has started to be used by people to imply that their conference is cool in some way, even if it still employs the programmed speaker-centric event designs that we’ve suffered for hundreds of years.
What is sad about the word “conference” is that its meaning has been corrupted to virtually the opposite of its original intent. As I describe in Conferences That Work, “conference” was first used around the middle of the 16th century as a verb that described the act of conferring with others in conversation. Over time, the word’s meaning shifted to denoting the meeting itself.
Regrettably few of today’s “conferences” provide substantive opportunities for conferring—consultation or discussion—instead they have become primarily conduits for the one-to-many transfer of information on the conference topic.
I believe that participant-driven event designs are a response to this drift of meeting process that has occurred over the years. In a sense, participant-driven events are the true conferences: events where conferring is supported and encouraged.
To be accurate, we should be calling traditional conferences “unconferences”, reserving the word “conference” for the participant-driven event designs that are slowly becoming more popular.
Sadly, that’s unlikely to happen, so I talk about “participant-driven events” and avoid using the term “unconference” whenever possible.
In the end, I know my thoughts on the meaning and use of a word carry little weight. With rare exceptions, our culture, not the pronouncements of an individual, determines the meaning and usage of words. But if you agree with me, feel free to follow my example and spurn unconferences—but just the word, not the concept!
Nine hundred years ago, when the world’s first universities were being founded and prestigious libraries might contain a few hundred hand-copied books, the way you learned something was to travel to where a man (in those days it was always a man) knew it, and sit and listen to him teach it to you.
This model for learning sank deep into our culture. Today, on a computer we can hold in our hands, we can search the internet for information or watch videos of the finest presenters. Yet, even though we have amazing content at our fingertips, our meeting designs have not changed much from the classroom model required by the technologies available during the Middle Ages.
Over the last twenty years, new face-to-face meeting designs—such as Open Space, World Café, Conferences That Work, Future Search, and Everyday Democracy—have appeared that challenge the entrenched dominant learning paradigm of passive reception of predetermined information. Although each design has unique features and goals, what they all have in common is that what happens at the event is participant-driven, rather than being largely prescribed by the conference organizers. Collectively, these formats are known as unconferences.
Here are some of the key features of an unconference:
Unconferences can be designed to work on a group problem or goal, or as a time for individualized learning and sharing. Longer events can also include traditional sessions, keynotes, etc.
Meaningful and useful interaction between attendees is put center stage, instead of being something that happens in the breaks between sessions.
The culture is designed to be participatory, not passive. This has a highly positive effect on the environment, outcomes, and community created at the event.
Learning happens in small groups, rather than in large general sessions.
Teaching and learning aren’t fixed roles; a teacher at one moment may be a learner the next.
The experience and expertise of the participants is harnessed, rather than relying on the contributions of a few outside experts.
Participants have more input into and control over their learning and takeaways from an unconference, and thus are more likely to satisfy the goals for the event.
Interesting, unexpected things are likely to happen. While traditional conferences discourage risky learning, unconferences create an environment where sessions can be created on the spot, questions are welcomed, and sharing is encouraged.
It’s no coincidence that unconference designs were developed as our society responded to the increased availability of information and ease of sharing made possible by the personal computer and the internet. And yet, despite the pervasive reality of ubiquitous knowledge and connectivity, these new designs are still rarely used by professional event planners.
One reason is the fear that an unconference just won’t work. I’ve run unconferences for twenty years, and reviewed thousands of evaluations, and I can assure you that the level of satisfaction with unconference formats is much higher than traditional events. (One of the reasons for this is that I’ve found that traditional program committees predict less than half the sessions that attendees actually want.) Other reasons include the misconception that crowdsourcing session topics before an event makes it an unconference, the understandable fear of giving up control over one’s event, and general unfamiliarity with unconference revenue models, facilitation requirements, and logistical considerations.
All these barriers to the implementation of unconference meeting designs are readily overcome with education and experience. Most event planners (and their clients) have begun to hear the rumbles of dissatisfaction from attendees who are no longer satisfied flying hundreds of miles to listen to speakers they could have watched on YouTube, or to attend a conference where a majority of the sessions are not what they really wanted. Instead, these attendees are increasingly demanding meetings that concentrate on what only face-to-face events can provide—like Howard Givner’s experience of a recent unconference:
“…one of the most innovative and eye-opening professional experiences I’ve had. Aside from coming back with lots of new tips and ideas, I easily established triple the number of new contacts, and formed stronger relationships with them, than at any other conference I’ve been to.”
We know how to create these events. Our clients are starting to ask for them. So, if you haven’t already, attend an unconference in 2011 and experience a participant-driven event firsthand. Or talk to people who have. Then you’ll be ready to begin to build unconference designs into your event planning future.