Questions about unconferences

The Buzz Bin asks some interesting questions about unconferences.

I haven’t been to an unconference as of this posting and I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Are they really as great as people say? Or is it just hype because it’s something new?

To start off with the format of ‘unconference’ that you are referencing is at Corporate Communications and the Social Media Revolution. It is using a format that is quite challenging to actually do well.

Ragan has recruited Social Media guru Shel Holtz to chair the event and act as one of the discussion leaders. Think of these leaders as researchers who have been given the task of writing a report based on the knowledge in the room.

Let’s take the topic: “How do I get my CEO to write a blog that is personal and honest?”

The discussion leader will immediately call on those in the room who have already done this and ask them to explain. Meanwhile, Ragan will use interactive brainstorming technology to post tips, tactics and strategies on a screen as the day unfolds.

The format of rooms of 50-200 people with a ‘discussion leader’ that is pre-chosen and the topic areas are generated by the audience or that are ‘pre-chosen.’ I personally don’t think they are that different than talking heads conferences, and depending on the style of facilitation, can be more frustrating. If they organize breakout rooms and help people make the agenda in the morning, they can be amazing events.
Unconferences are really great when you have a good invitation – a clear purpose or inspiring reason that is attracting people to the event. Supernova Open Space was good but it wasn’t ‘great’ because the topic was very broad and the organizers did not really promote it as part of the ‘main’ event.

Several people who attended both said they enjoyed the Open Space day more then the talking heads conference part of Supernova. Unconferences are particularly great if you have someone taking care of holding the space well. This is details around the event by ensuring people’s needs are met for food, liquid nourishment and physical comfort.

First of all, the unconference is totally free. Really? OK, what’s the catch? Turns out only the first day is free – then they “hope you stick around” for the $795 conference that follows the next two days. Guess there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

First of all, unconferences are not by default “free.” There are many costs to bringing people together in large groups (venue, food, facilitation, supplies, hotel for the organizers, AV etc.). This can be covered by the participants themselves through a fee (granted this is at A LOT lower cost then traditional conferences, usually 5-15x lower) or by sponsors. Getting sponsors takes a lot of effort on the part of the organizers and can create sponsor fatigue. Just getting participants to pay something can make the model more sustainable. A friend of mine who put on a weekend unconference that he did not charge for ended up $3000 out of pocket. If he had charged something, he would have had a better handle on the number of attendees AND he would have had some money left over to cover unforeseen expenses that sponsors’ money didn’t cover.

The Internet Identity Workshop and the Online Community Unconference both are events that had very strong invitations and communities that they were reaching. They have a reasonable fee (anyone whose job it is to pay attention to or work in those fields has no problem paying the cost to attend). The organizers of both are committed to letting those for whom the cost is an issue attend. They also both had sponsors.

Next, the audience helps prepare the agenda. Two weeks before the event registrants will receive a survey to help shape the agenda and choose topics. Does this really work?

I am not sure what unconferences you are talking about that actually ‘set’ the agenda ahead of time online (perhaps PodCamp?). This makes for a regular talking heads conference without the benefit of organizer curation. What does work really well is attendees or potential attendees putting forward topic ideas ahead of time on the wiki. Then the day of the conference, they make the agenda together in the opening session using Open Space Technology. I use a grid on the wall with times along the side and spaces along the top and then the individuals come forward, write their session topic on a 8×11 paper, their name and then announce to the audience their topic and then post it on the wall.

Finally, it’s promoted as an idea exchange and brainstorming session. No boring lectures. Instead, a question will be posed and the “wisdom of the crowd” will answer it based on their collective knowledge. Sounds utopian. Wouldn’t chaos ensue if “everyone’s a speaker”?

Using open space technology everyone ‘can be’ a speaker, but in practice about 1/4 – 1/3 of attendees put sessions on the agenda. They do a range of things from giving a talk for 1/2 an hour, demoing their product, posing a problem they have and seek answers, or hosting a conversation about a burning question. You can think of these as a peer-to-peer learning environment.

Andrea in the comment asks this question: can this translate to an executive audience?

YES! if you have a facilitator with experience who is working with the conveners to ensure that the space is created in alignment with the cultural norms of the executive. Your production values for space and food must match that audience and therefore the price is not free.

The internet Identity Workshop has top people at Microsoft (Chief Identity Architect), Liberty Alliance (Executive Director), top people from Sun Microsystems, CA, Oracle, AOL, and other companies. It is a working tech conference, however. Recently I flew out to AOL and led an unconference that senior architects participated in. I was at TED 2005 and there was so much amazing brain power in the audience all sitting listening to presentations. I wonder what it would be like if they supported the audience making their own conference. David Hornik is trying an format called “The Lobby” with a $4,000 price point – so if you are attending you are an executive. I am curious what format they are choosing to use besides milling in the lobby.

One downfall, posted by blogger Kaliya Hamlin, is the gender bias she experienced. “I am ‘the woman’ doing the more feminine role of facilitation – a key part of what actually makes an unconference run was made invisible in the [BusinessWeek] article.”

I find it interesting the way my commentary on the Business Week article was put forward as a downfall of the event when it was really just a critique of media coverage of the phenomena, not the phenomena itself and specifically the writer of the Business Week article. The producers of the Online Community Unconference were very grateful for my help and fully ‘saw me’ to the attendees at all of my events. The article had a challenge.

Having said that womens’ attendance at BarCamps and other very geeky unconferences is an issue, I think this is in part because the ‘rules of barcamp‘ are not particularly welcoming and usually those communities don’t emphasize the art and practice of invitation.

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