Category Archives: unconference

Everyone’s a Peer. Live with it.

I stole the title of this post from the last two sentences in But Miss, they’re not listening to me, a blog post by JP Rangaswami on Confused of Calcutta.

In his post, JP describes a world where hierarchical command and control structures are being displaced by more democratized networked environments. The days of expert speakers who talk at us while we take notes and passively absorb the information with little or no opportunity for discussion are gradually disappearing.

This post resonated with me and helps to describe my recent thinking about conferences and speaking engagements. I’m finding that I rarely enjoy giving formal presentations where I yammer on and on with a slide deck while people listen to me talk. In these presentations, I don’t get much real time feedback from the audience other than the occasional non-verbal cue (nodding in agreement vs. nodding off, for example), and I learn little or nothing during these presentations.

In contrast, my favorite speaking environment usually happens at unconferences (BarCamp, etc.) where I can lead a lively discussion about a topic of interest by kicking it off with 5-10 minutes of my ideas on the topic and moving quickly to a facilitation role where many people contribute to the discussion. Since each person comes into the discussion with different experiences and diverse views, I learn as much or more from the other people participating as they learn from me.

Panels fall somewhere in the middle depending on the structure. I despise panels where the moderator asks too many questions or where each panel member essentially gives a mini-presentation with little time for audience questions. On the other hand, my favorite panels are similar to my unconference speaking style with a couple of minutes of discussion at the beginning, but opening it up to audience questions no later than in the first 10-15 minutes of the panel. The audience questions help target the discussion to topics that are interesting to the audience, but even more important is what you can learn from the questions being asked. Questions give so much insight into what people are thinking about the topic and what is important to the audience. My Social Networking panel at Defrag was a good example of one that moved into audience questions early, and I think it benefited greatly by the participation.

JP says in his post:

It’s a new world out there. We can’t go around saying “But Miss, they’re not listening to me”. We have to earn the respect of our peers. But remember, in a networked society, everyone is a peer. Your professors. Your children. Your subordinates. Your bosses.

Everyone’s a peer.

Live with it.

(Quote from Confused of Calcutta)

We each come into a discussion with unique and diverse ideas, and we learn by listening and sharing ideas with our peers aka everyone.

Related Fast Wonder Posts:

Putting Collaboration to Work Conference

For those of you who attended our recent BarCamp Portland and are eager to attend another open space event, you might be interested in Putting Collaboration to Work on June 8th. It is a mix of traditional conference and unconference with a traditional, scheduled conference session format in the morning, while the afternoon is an open spaces agenda (similar to BarCamp Portland and Recent Changes Camp).

A few details:

I don’t think that I will attend this one. With BarCamp Portland, OSBC, and other events in the past month, I am a bit “conferenced out” right now.

BarCamp Portland was Awesome

OK, as an organizer of the event, I am probably not the most neutral party; however, I do think the we managed to pull of a great BarCamp here in Portland. First of all, a huge thank you to Eva, David, and the rest of the crew at CubeSpace who generously gave us the run of the facility, were an amazing help, let us stay until 11pm both nights, and were extremely flexible when the registrations soared out of control the 3 days leading up to the event from our expected attendance of 125 to a final count of about 250 attendees. Also a huge thank you to Raven Zachary, co-organizer and partner in crime for the event, and the rest of the planning team: Carl Johnson, LaVonne Reimer, Audrey Eschright, Patrick Sullivan, Sioux Fleming, Kelly Mackin, and Rashid Ahmed. Each person on this list was a tremendous help. Todd was also an enormous help: staying up late to help draw the grid; bringing me bubble tea; getting last minute materials cut at Kinkos, putting up with my crap as my grouchiness escalated during final preparations, and much more.

During the initial planning of BarCamp Portland, we thought that would be really cool if we could get maybe 75-100 people at Portland’s first BarCamp. As people began signing up, we thought that 125 was a pretty realistic number (this is what we budgeted for). A week or two before the event, we had 125-150 people signed up, and we felt really good about that number. As we moved closer to the Friday start of BarCamp, the numbers escalated rapidly to 274. Based on signups at the registration desks, we think we had about 250 people physically present at the event. Our sponsors were very generous in making last minute increases in sponsorship funding to provide additional food for the extra people.

A few neat things about BarCamp Portland:

Thanks to everyone who attended. A BarCamp event is only successful if the people who attend make it successful. We had an amazing, geeky, smart, and fun crowd leading to an amazing, geeky, smart, and fun event!

Camps and Conferences – Synergy or Animosity?

I was talking to Scott Kirsner yesterday about BarCamp Portland and other unconferences. He is writing an article for BusinessWeek on unconferences, and some of his questions got me thinking about the similarities and differences between camps/unconferences and traditional conferences. Are these two ideas synergistic or is there animosity between traditional conferences and unconferences? I think that answer is both.

Are traditional conferences worried about unconferences taking business away from traditional conferences? Maybe. Unconferences are usually free and are often local. The unconference is an adhoc gathering shaped by those who attend with the sessions and agenda being driven by the participants. The framework is defined in advance, but the sessions are organized and produced by the attendees. In other words, instead of a full agenda with sessions and speakers clearly determined in advance, you start with a blank grid containing times on one axis and rooms / locations on the other axis; lunches and any other common activities are often added to the grid in advance to provide some basic infrastructure for the event. You never what discussions, demos, and other interactions to expect before the event, but you can count on it being an interesting time!

Unconferences and traditional conferences may even attract slightly different types of people. Some people really like the traditional conference structure. They can plan out exactly which sessions to attend way in advance, and easily justify the cost of attending by making a business case to the boss for what will be learned from the conferences which appeals to many traditional companies. I know this because I used to be one of these people. I viewed conferences as a time to passively soak up knowledge from the “experts” while completely missing the value associated with networking and learning from the other participants. Traditional conferences also have the appeal of drawing in speakers who may not attend your unconference. For example, it is unlikely that Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt will show up at the Portland BarCamp; however, I could see both of them speak at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco next week.

Unconferences on the other hand may tend to attract people who enjoy shaping their environment and who may value networking and conversation more than presentation. You become a participant, instead of just an attendee. Sessions are proposed, refined, and often combined as the event progresses and conversations evolve. I also find more networking opportunities at unconferences, since many sessions are discussion based rather than a single person giving a presentation.

It seems like fewer people are attending traditional conferences and some of the large technology conferences have been canceled over the past few years (COMDEX). It used to be that we went to conferences to learn about upcoming technologies in an age before every company had a website and before we had thousands of blogs and podcasts providing information on any topic possible. Now, with more information available online, conferences have to provide compelling reasons to attend – amazing content, networking opportunities, and more.

Will traditional conferences suffer in this new environment? Some will, but it depends on how they react to it. Conferences that embrace the unconference format in some way are probably more likely to succeed.

O’Reilly, as usual, is handling the situation with style by being generous with their conference space and encouraging people to hold unconferences along side their traditional conference program. The most recent example is the Community Roundtable happening alongside the Web 2.0 Expo. O’Reilly also holds their own unconference, FooCamp, every summer. Companies like O’Reilly “get it”. O’Reilly knows that synergy and cooperation will be more beneficial than animosity. More conference organizers could learn from this example.