What If We Started Organizing *Real* Conferences?

Last year I attended 20 conferences. This year will not be much different. This means I get to think about conferences regularly, and sometimes I wonder, “Shouldn’t we do this differently?”

con·fer·ence [kon-fer-uhns, -fruhns]

  1. a meeting for consultation or discussion.
  2. an interchange of views.
  3. a meeting to settle disagreements.

(shortened from Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster)

The word conference originates from the Latin word cnferentia which means to bring together.

So I am wondering…

Are We Really Having Conferences?

Is it really a conference when a “chair” or “committee” evaluates sessions on behalf of the attendees, who then only get to see a finalized program? Should we not delegate the selection of topics to self-organizing participants?

Is it really a conference when the program is full of unidirectional talks by speakers addressing attendees? Don’t we all know that consultation, interchanging views, settling agreements, and other discussions require bidirectional communication?

Is it really a conference when we convene in boring air-conditioned hotels? Don’t we all know that social systems are influenced by their environment? Isn’t it true we all enjoy better interaction in restaurants, bars, art cafés, and coffee houses?

And finally, is it really a conference when organizers estimate the number of participants, select one central venue, and then turn away last-minute participants because “the venue is full”? Shouldn’t we interact with the ones who are most valuable, instead of the ones who are earlier?

Did I Attend 20 Conferences? Or 20 Speaker Shows?

With the Stoos Stampede in Amsterdam, on 6+7 July, I hope things will be different. Of course, I’m just one person. There will be other organizers too. (BTW, the “call for organizers” is still open.) But I hope I can convince the others there should be a better way to organize a real conference.

And don’t tell me “open space” is the solution. Because it’s not.

Is It Open Space? Or Open Opinions?

Open space solves some of the issues mentioned above, but not all. And it adds its own problems too. For example, as a participant I want to know before a conference what we’re going to discuss and exchange views on. Discussions have more value when people can prepare their views.

I’ve been on many open space sessions with a lot of opinion and very little substance.

I hope, someday, to be part of a conference that is not merely a show of well-prepared speakers. And also not a gathering of uninformed enthusiasts.

I’d like something in between, whatever that may be…

  • Join the Stoos Stampede on 6+7 July in Amsterdam
  • Separation of Social Concerns
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  • http://profile.typepad.com/jitterted Jitterted

    This is what SF Agile 2012 is trying to do, but it’s hard when the people behind the conference are volunteers. The hardest part is evaluating sessions based only on a few paragraphs of text and some back and forth comments.
    I very much agree that “open space” is not the answer, for the reasons you mention, but also because there can be a lack of focus. As you say, there needs to be someone who’s prepared to talk about it (the one who would normally present), and then you can have great interactivity. Otherwise it can turn into a group therapy session, but without the psychiatrist leading the way and guiding the conversation.
    I’m all for interactive workshops, but sometimes I just want to learn from someone who’s been there and can tell me what to do and what not to do. Obviously, though, it depends on what the topic is: for technical skills, I want an expert who can dump some of their knowledge, but for softer skills, a guided workshop might be better.
    What about LAWST style conferences? I’m very interested in having people prepare, but then leaving it open for discussion.

  • http://www.nilswloka.com Nils Wloka

    As I wrote (http://nilswloka.com/2011/07/08/openspace-in-the-company.html), we use a lot of open space style meetings (which by the definition you cited could be called conferences) in the company I work with. To tackle the “uninformed enthusiast” problem, we collect sessions beforehand. So far, this is working pretty well. It’s basically like Jimmy_Byrd’s idea but with unlimited slots. It might be worth to mention that we still have an opening circle at the actual event. I believe that something similar would work for bigger conferences as well: Collect and discuss sessions beforehand, but let the Law of Two Feet instead of an artificial selection mechanism decide about the actual program.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jimmybyrd Jimmy_Byrd

    I agree the word ‘Conference’ is definitely the wrong word to used to describe these events. I’m tending to see what
    you’re getting at as like a bigger version of a user group. That being said I’m going to jump around a bit from your post.
    “I hope, someday, to be part of a conference that is not merely a show of well-prepared speakers. And also not a gathering of uninformed enthusiasts.”
    I think that’s the reason people goto these events, it’s because the uninformed want to be informed. I tend to skip
    sessions when I know I’ve been to similar sessions. It’s kind of like would I take a college class over again? Not really but that leads to…
    “Is it really a conference when the program is full of unidirectional talks…”
    This would be the reason I don’t go back to sessions I know about, because I don’t need to be preached to again. However I do like the Q&A parts because it can turn into a dicussion of sorts.
    “Isn’t it true we all enjoy better interaction in restaurants, bars, art cafés, and coffee houses?”
    This is completely true. This environment also lends itself to having way more discussion and much less lecturing (maybe from the beer or coffee). The only issue with this is it doesn’t allow for a mass amount of people to participate which may or may not be a bad thing. However, does that justify itself as being a conference or just a user group?
    “And don’t tell me ‘open space’ is the solution. Because it’s not.”
    “Should we not delegate the selection of topics to self-organizing participants?”

    Should the solution to this be an open calander, setup before a conference where people collaborate and create spots for discussion then is (maybe) closed at a certain time before the conference? But that leads right to the problem of “earlier vs more valuable.” Also that’s assuming you’re going to get participation required to make the conference useful.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    I totally agree. However…
    “The hardest part is evaluating sessions based only on a few paragraphs of text and some back and forth comments.”
    Who is evaluating? The volunteers? Why not the attendees themselves before they come to the conference. If a proposal is badly written, it shouldn’t get any votes from attendees, and won’t be selected.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jitterted Jitterted

    The community is evaluating (as well as the volunteers). How does one really get potential attendees involved and invested in the “conference” (for lack of a better term)? To use SF Agile as an example, there are probably almost as many proposals as there are comments and discussions. That is, there’s a very low-level of interaction (other than by a few volunteers).
    From that angle, the problems are similar to community building, which is hard.

  • Adrian Perreau de Pinninck

    I attended a conference on 2011 (http://bcndevcon.org/) that solved the selection of talks by having an open vote on the different sessions. It was a step in the right direction, yet it can become a popularity contest.
    For conferences to scale, we will have to work hard to find distributed organization techniques that are fair. Otherwise the inertia for traditional hierarchical organization will go on.
    I would love to bounce some ideas with you before the ALE2012 program is too stiff. e.g., blind voting for talks…

  • http://www.andybrandt.net/ Andy Brandt

    I’d say this is not the problem of format. The problem is that few people have really anything meaningful to say but there are lots of events. It is just like television – thousands of channels, not enough talent to fill them with quality content (hence “reality TV”, sport, stupid sitcoms etc.). Still, the problem is not TV itself – it is just that there is too much of it.
    And, BTW, as a participant I hope a committee will select a good set of speakers for me, because I don’t want to waste my time wandering just in hope of striking gold. As someone going to a conference as an attendee I’m a client – I pay to outsource this job to those that organize it, so that I can just sit back and enjoy a stream of interesting ideas or challenging questions.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    There’s nothing wrong with a stream of interesting ideas. But it would be a broadcast, not a conference. At least not in the original sense of the word.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/lebedevdmitry1 Lebedev_dmitry

    Well, as I told, I’m half agree and half disagree with you.
    I definitely would like to participate the Real Conference, but it requires a lot of preparation out of any attendee, not just speakers.
    Just like in your chart with classification of adopters, not any person would be up to this. Majority of people are visiting conferences to be entertained and to get some clue about what is going around, without committing a great deal of effort into that.
    After handling a feedback from recent conference, I’ve written a blog post on that wp.me/p20Ws0-l
    But again, we can’t just invite all those people, who come to be entertained into a real one conf. I see my mission, as a conference organizer, to change their PoV on conferences and to give them a possibility to chose between an entertainment and a hard work and effective collaboration.

  • Volker

    The comparison of most conference session to something like a broadcast fits also to my own experience. There seems not to be a great difference in attending a recorded session in my office or being at the conference on myself.
    But when I go to a conference I take a day off from my usual work. I am prepared and open minded to let something new strike me. That makes a difference.
    For me there are mainly two intentions when I’m going to a conference, learning something new or looking for a solution to an existing problem.
    There are speakers and there are listeners. So the question is from a customer point of view who cares about my expectation upfront? The conference organisation? The speaker? Afterwards is also good, but will not help me.
    With the fact that at conference are the experts and a crowd of people in potential similar situations, looking for problem solving things is still the harder part there.
    Once I thought it would be great to get more easily in discussion with other conference participants. I thought about something like having the possibility to announce a discussion, I’m interested in topic A and let’s meet at meeting point B.
    In sum interaction on conference seems to be something that can evolve.
    But at least conference is a word with a meaning. We are getting what is announced. Good to think it over.

  • http://www.andybrandt.net/ Andy Brandt

    This is semantics, really.

  • http://scrum.agile.lt Vaidas

    IMHO, conference (whatever original meaning of this word is)is just one way of learning. Of course it can be executed in many different ways. It is great that people like you Jurgen are looking for new ways to run the conferences! as more we have, as more choices organizers will have to run conferences and participants to choose from. More learning will happen. Isn’t it just a supply and demand question? 🙂

  • http://plusonetesting.wordpress.com Geir Gulbrandsen

    I haven’t had the pleasure of attending any conferences yet, but from what I read it seems like the software testing conferences CAST (http://www.associationforsoftwaretesting.org/conference/) and Let’s Test (http://lets-test.com/) is having some of the same thoughts as you. I’m sure the people behind both would be happy to confer.

  • http://ceezone.wordpress.com srinivas C

    20 conferences! You must be jaded. I attend about 2 a year.
    Do you think a fish bowl may work? Maybe with even one or two moderating experts always present? The topics can be chosen in advance.

  • http://km4meu.wordpress.com/ Ewen Le Borgne

    Sounds good indeed – too many conferences are killing conversations (see: http://km4meu.wordpress.com/2011/11/06/stop-taking-hostages-the-ills-of-poor-event-design-and-facilitation/).
    I would definitely go for participants ‘voting with their feet’ if any element of an open space to keep. I don’t quite believe most participants prepare themselves actively (enough) for conferences so if there was a programme and activities beforehand, it would have to be facilitated well I guess.
    Another idea could also be to have an open space-type selection of topics on the spot for the next day, with people then preparing themselves for the next day.
    All in all, the interesting bit here is that there should be a kind of conference between Open Space and ‘Death by Powerpoint’, thanks for giving me/us food for thought and blogging…

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