Building the right conference

IMG_0982In 2005, spec homes—homes that builder start, and sometimes finish, before selling them—made up a quarter of the homes being built in the United States. Today, in the aftermath of the bursting of the housing bubble, almost no spec homes are being built. From 25% market share to 1-2% in just four years.

A traditional conference is like a spec home. The program is designed and built for you based on what a program committee thought people like you would want.

I don’t think the traditional conference market is going to implode like the market for spec homes. On the other hand, I’ve found during my eighteen years of experience running Conferences That Work that the best program committees predict only half the topics that participants at attendee-driven conferences actually request.

If conference organizers continue to believe they can predict what their attendees want to share, learn, and do at their conferences they may, at some point, experience the bursting of a bubble of their own.

Housing data from http://www.census.gov/starts

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

2 thoughts on “Building the right conference

  1. I have (once) been at a conference that had few invited speakers, no honorariums, inexpensive registration costs, no selection committee. All attendees had to submit position papers and were allowed to submit more than one. There were some suggested topics/areas, but the program was built around the topics that the position papers represented. The result was that everyone seemed engaged and seemed to feel they had a stake in the conference. There was also no sense of competition to “be a speaker.”

    All position papers were published as the Conference “Proceedings” collected into the topioc areas tjhat emerged. (It was pre websites and wikis, so it was a paper document) The Program Committee consisted of people who chaired/recorded session activity and ideas. All attendees could get copies of all session results sent to them. (Again pre website and wikis.)

    Results were an important idea, i.e., sessions were expected to address the position paper ideas and come up with some consensus, debate points, directions for research/practice, etc.

    The “Open Space” idea used by many conferences these days is a mini-version of this, but is still a “sideshow” to the “real” conference in most cases.

    1. Scott, thanks for describing your experience. Examples of this kind of conference include Renaissance Weekend, and the Gordon Research Conferences. Requiring/expecting in advance that every attendee will contribute tangibly to the conference certainly creates an environment of engagement and will usually reduce traditional distinctions between conference presenters and their audiences. It sounds like we agree that these are improvements over what happens at conventional conferences.

      There are a couple of reasons why I prefer a somewhat different model for the conferences I run.

      First, when contributions are solicited in advance there’s no way of knowing whether a contribution will be of interest to the attendees at the event. It can be pretty discouraging to put effort into a paper and then discover at the event that no one is really interested.

      Second, requiring a contribution from everyone in advance may deter some people from attending because they believe (often, in my experience, incorrectly) that they have nothing of value to offer.

      The conference model I’ve developed (described in detail in my book) reserves the first few hours of the conference for the participants to find out about each other in a structured roundtable session and then rapidly develops popular sessions for the conference program. The resulting schedule accurately reflects what the attendees actually want to share and learn about. In every conference I’ve run, valuable expertise and expertise has been uncovered that was unknown to the conference organizers.

      You’re right that many conferences set aside some time for Open Space sessions that are indeed a “sideshow” to the “proper” conference. This is a piecemeal approach to conference model reform. Many conference organizers find it too risky to make a leap to a conference where little or none of what happens is decided in advance. But there are a growing number of pure Open Space conferences these days, and many people enjoy them. I explain in my book why I think the peer conference model I’ve developed works better than Open Space in most cases.

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