Getting Better Results by NOT Planning Your Next Meeting - Have an Unconference
Meetings and events are one of the tools used by corporations to bring employees or other valued members of distribution channels together to learn, share and build relationships. Typically, the content and activities within the meeting are developed and directed by the executive staff of the organizing company. But there is an “new” approach to meetings and events that may provide greater return – but possibly greater anxiety for most corporate meeting planners and event managers. They are called Unconferences.
From the Wikipedia site:
"An unconference is a conference where the content of the sessions is created and managed by the participants, generally day-by-day during the course of the event, rather than by one or more organizers in advance of the event. To date, the term is primarily in use in the geek community. Open space Technology however, is an unconference process that has been around since 1985 and is now in widespread use. Open Space Technology is an energizing and emergent way to organize an agenda for a conference. Those coming to the event can post on a wiki ahead of time topics they want to present about or hope others will present about. The wiki can also be used to share who is coming because it is the attendees who have a passion to share that contribute to the event and will make it great."
I was made aware of unconferences by Julius Solaris an event manager and a blogger based in Italy. Below are my questions to Julius with his answers. Julius also took the time to ask me a few questions concerning team building events as a motivational tool on his blog. I encourage you to click through and read his post.
Questions on "Unconferences"
1. How have these types of “user-generated” conferences been traditionally used? What industries or groups have been the biggest proponents
Open Space Technology, unconferences and Barcamps share a common sense of urgency. A few years ago a group of people realized that meetings coudl be more effective if the content at the meeting should be put in the hands of those participating. This statement is well summed up by Harrison Owen's (who I recently interviewed in my blog and to whom I'll reference a lot during the interview) point of view that no matter how well conceived a conference, the most useful part of it is usually the coffee break. That is the moment when people link to each other and discuss what has been presented. It is at this time when attendees gain possession of the content and use it to interact with their peers. And this is what unconferences do.
Traditionally unconferences have been adopted when there was:
- an issue very important to a group of people
- the issue needed an answer
- the participants were the best people to get to the answer
It could be thought of as a brainstorming activity but it is really a mass gathering where there is no set agenda apart from the agenda the attendees decide upon - typically on the spot.
Unconferences as well as Barcamps have been traditionally linked to IT and technology but are gaining momentum in business environments where creativity is preferred over control. I like to think as unconferences as open source applied to the Meetings industry, the Linux of events.
2. Given the almost religious zeal surrounding Return on Investment in the corporate world today how do you measure the success of an “unconference”?
As I previously mentioned there should be a strong question behind setting up an unconference. The success can be measured by analyzing the answers given to that burning question. I've participated at unconferences where at the end of the unconference roadmaps and documents where created and actions where taken to solve the problem. These were the result of the effort of hundreds of people and therefore innovative and revolutionary.
Moreover, participation could be another item to monitor in order to understand success. Low participation from the very beginning could mean that the question may have been posed in the wrong way or it is not very relevant to the perspective participants.
To understand the results that could be achieved I'd provide an excerpt from the interview I had with Harrison Owen: "... a group of engineers at Boeing re-designed the manufacturing process for making doors on their airplanes. They did this in two days when everybody “knew” that doing something like this could take several years. Not every Open Space produces results like that, but after 20 years and several 100,000 iterations in 134 countries it has become quite clear that the Boeing experience is not unique."
To me this sounds like a good achievement and if we want to quantify that in terms of hours of work saved, increased satisfaction of the employees and high levels of motivation, I reckon the benefit of this approach is a realty check for those planning the next convention or corporate event.
If we look at it from a sponsorship point of view there could be great opportunities in terms of the community echo that could result from participating or hosting an unconference. In the same way a lot of big companies are trying to get a piece of Myspace, Secondlife, Facebook, etc., they should dive into unconference as they are the real representation of the virtual forums and communities. Having a presence there by donating the venue or supplying catering will expose e.g. the donor in the Barcamp wiki, on which I'll talk more later.
3. Most events and meetings are almost micro-managed in order to keep things from “going wrong” - it would seem that unconferences rely on a “lack of control” - how do organizers handle that level of ambiguity?
I must say this is one of the aspects which have challenged me the most when I first tackled the subject. Working in events, my running sheets have always got to a detail that included at least a plan B - and in many cases, a plan C - for every single step of a conference. With such background it is very difficult to release control to someone else.
This is also why advertising is now generated by customers and companies such as VISA and General Motors have decided to profit with this approach.
4. Is there a typical demographic for which an unconference works better – or worse?
I must say that of course, people in technology tend to understand the approach better as they are more familiar with what Linus Torvald has introduced to IT.
But this is not an IT thing.
I reckon that the methods of unconferences will be loved by anyone who cares for a particular subject matter and is ready to contribute to the solution. Therefore, I'd say that those stepping into the methodology should question themselves about the degree of motivation their audience has toward what will be discussed.
If motivation is low the role of the unconference manager is to clarify objectives and questions and to facilitate participation.
5. How would a company go about converting to an unconference when all they've ever done is the traditional meeting structure?
I think that the first step would be to give responsibility to their employees. Responsibility enables dynamics such as reputation among peers. These results have been pointed out as one of the fundamental reason behind the success of Open source technology.
Secondly I'd suggest to release control as much as possible while asking for answers at the same time. This combination could introduce great surprises.
Thirdly I would leave the question as general as possible in order to let the participants decide how to get to the answer and not a scientific committee.
6. Do unconferences lend themselves to specific objectives or can they be used for any type of meeting or event?
As I said before the objective could be of virtually every kind, as long as this it is relevant to the group of people participating and the answer is generated by them.
7. What is the biggest concern a company should have relating to unconferences?
The level of control of companies participating is the exact same of all other participants. In this view, it is very much accepted that a company could suggest a topic to discuss but bear in mind that the reaction will not be controlled.
Those companies that have strong values and believe in a creative approach should be using unconferences. On the other hand, those hiding behind advertising claims and escaping from customer feedback should avoid the practice.
8. Are there companies that specialize in unconferences?
As the trend is growing and there is a lot of interest toward Barcamps in particular. The most attentive companies are increasingly participating, sponsoring or suggesting themed unconferences. But again the degree of participation is equal to all others participants, therefore only companies with strong statements approach the field.
A reporter from CNN money was surprised to find at a famous unconference top execs from Adobe, eBay, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo working together.
9. How important is it to have a technologically savvy participant base?
Well, wireless internet is a must have at an unconference but I have to say that this is the most technology you'll get there. Participation, a fun yet productive environment, and diversity are the main features of unconferences. To me, these attributes appeal to anyone who has ever found himself/herself bored while listening to a person reading bullet points of a presentation.
10. Unconferences sound a bit like improv. On the surface improv doesn't look like it has rules but I understand that in order to have a good improv session the participants must follow rules. Is that the same with unconference? Are there any rules?
I fell in love with this approach when I read the rules of Open Space (from Wikipedia):
- Whoever comes are the right people
- Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
- Whenever it starts is the right time
- When it's over, it's over
People can choose different roles for participation in Open Space meetings:
- Host: the person who feels a burning passion for the subject and is willing to take responsibility to call the conversation, invite others in and make sure something gets harvested.
- Participant: Anyone who is drawn to a conversation wants to stay the whole time and participate fully.
- Bumble bee: The ones who move from conversation to conversation cross-pollinating the learning.
- Butterfly: A butterfly may not want to be in any conversation, instead they prefer to sit on the lawn and look beautiful. A new, unexpected conversation may happen when two butterflies meet.
11. Assuming most of the attendees at an Unconference probably have a history of attending the traditional meeting format – is there any training that should be done prior to an unconference that will help make it work?
There is no a specific training but they need to be informed. Barcamps use wikis to do this. Wikis are a stable platform where participants register, connect before the event, suggest the topic they will present, share transportation to the location, etc,
On wikis, the organization can communicate rules and culture of the event and educate them about best practices. This also helps in skimming the audience from those not willing to participate or co-create.
12. Is there a common participant response to unconferences? In other words, do they like them, do they feel anxious at first – or is it pretty much a great time for all?
Harrison Owen in his book "Open Space Technology. A User's Guide" as well as in his interview describes how even the worst enemies enjoyed the newness of such approach and started working together. The relaxed atmosphere of the gatherings allow the audience to make themselves at ease. At the same time, the role of facilitators and event coordinators becomes crucial. They need to guide the people through the methodology and facilitate freedom at all levels.
13. What advice would you give a company thinking about using an Unconference as their next meeting format?
As I said before this method is quickly changing the meeting and events business. It does not seem like this is a bubble that is going to burst; I look at it in the same way Myspace has energized the Internet. Moving toward the practice and understanding the logic behind it, might give today a huge competitive advantage to those companies that want to really innovate.
Many thanks to Julius for taking the time to outline this interesting approach to conferences and meetings.
From my point of view the "unconference" can, for the few who believe that their employees and other partners hold the keys to success, provide the perfect format and venue to move the impact of virtual communities, user-generated content and social networking to the real world.
Now - if I can just get the top dogs to loosen the collar a bit and take a leap of faith with their next sales meeting....