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The Unconference Model: Cure for the Pain Caused by Digital Disruption?

Last month I participated in an event which was refreshingly different from the types of industry gatherings I normally attend as a tech industry analyst and consultant. Cognifide, a digital agency that is part of the WPP group of companies, sponsored the one-day, London-based gathering, which was billed as an “unconference.”

Cognifide invited the participants, who came from a wide variety of industries, including financial services, transportation, communications, publishing, and consumer goods (Cognifide put together a nice summary of the overall event, which you can read here). A common denominator for all participants was that they were all in some way grappling with the thorny issues facing their organizations from the rapidly changing dynamics of digital and the subsequent changes in customer behavior and exceptions.

There was no preset agenda, no celebrity keynote speaker, no Powerpoint presentations (indeed Powerpoint was expressly forbidden), and no panels of experts. Instead, every participant had the opportunity to propose a topic for which they would lead an interactive discussion. Before the event began, each participant had to pitch their topic to the rest of the group. The agenda, posted on a whiteboard, offered two parallel tracks of sessions: the rest of the participants could choose which session to attend, and even leave one session for another at any time.

During the day – where I was both a session moderator and a participant – I noticed one glaring difference from traditional conferences: people were looking at each other more than at screens. What’s more, they were actively, physically involved: engaging in discussions, starting debates, answering questions, offering solutions, and moving about the room having animated conversations between sessions. And these participants were a group of experienced professionals with significant responsibilities at their respective organizations, who undoubtedly had emails, messages, and other urgent communications zinging at them non-stop the whole time.

I can’t speak for the other participants, but I came out feeling both energized and that I had learned things that I could take back to my day-to-day work. This is the complete opposite of how drained I feel after a 3-day Vegas-based extravaganza with stadium rock concert levels of attendees that are more typical of tech industry events today. Given how engaged the other participants were, I’m willing to bet many of them felt similarly. In today’s digitally-obsessed era, where – let’s face it – no one is an expert, and everyone is figuring out what works as they go, there is an urgent need for more tech industry events that follow the unconference model.

Here’s why.

The Unconference Goal: The Best Coffee Break Ever

The unconference has its roots in the work of Harrison Owen, an organizational consultant who promoted the concept of “open space technology” in the early 1980s. Owen spent a year organizing an international conference: setting the agenda, inviting speakers, evaluating topics, combing through presentations, and creating panels. And yet after all that time, expense, and effort, the parts of the conference that participants most valued were the coffee breaks. Owen wondered,

Was it possible to combine the level of synergy and excitement present in a good coffee break, with the substantive activity and results characteristic of a good meeting?

To answer his own question, Owen reflected on his background as a photojournalist who had traveled the globe and observed commonalities in ways that people naturally meet and solve complex problems across cultures. He came up with a few basic principles:

  • the circle is the most effective physical arrangement for people to organize to solve difficult problems, since they are face-to-face;
  • people need enough breathing space in order to form these circles: they can’t be crowded into a small room with chairs all facing one direction;
  • a community bulletin board is sufficient to organize content and provide a structure for discussion;
  • that participants decide on the topics for the discussions, have a choice of whichones to attend, so that they have an incentive to actively engage in session discussions.

Owen organized many such events according to these principles, and the tech industry took note. Several  tech industry events in the 1990s and early 2000s, such as Foo Camp and BloggerCon, employed OST concepts. The organizers of these events described them as unconferences and served to popularize that term to encompass participant-driven events.

Yet despite the popularity of the unconference model, and its role in promoting it, the tech industry has since moved in the opposite direction. Tech events still employ the same conventional conference model of sponsors, pre-set panels, keynotes, and presentations by industry experts. Is this because the unconference model is not as profitable? That it protects participants’ identities rather than showcasing them in conference marketing collateral? That is is easier for employees to make the case to their line managers that they should use their precious travel and training budgets (if indeed they still have them) to attend big events with lots of attendees? I suspect all of the above.

However, clinging to this traditional format strikes me as being at odds with the characteristics of today’s realities: we all have compressed schedules, yet conferences take anywhere from two days to a week out of our time; we grapple with problems daily where we would value the opinions of peers at other similar organizations, yet when we see those peers at conferences, we’re sitting side-by-side watching slides rather than talking to each other; we are told over and over to fail fast and not be afraid to experiment, yet the reality of our organizations is that failure is penalized and experimentation requires several levels of approvals to even be considered.

At Digital Clarity Group, in our research for our VOCalis program, as well as in our technology and agency selection engagements, we regularly hear about digital projects that go over budget and over timelines, and yet fail to deliver the expected value that the vendor or implementation partner initially promised. Best practices in choosing, implementing and using the technology that undlies so many so-called “digital transformation” initiatives are in dire need, but industry events are just not providing them.

I think there is an opening for someone – an enterprising tech vendor, an agency network, or an upstart events company – to take the unconference model and develop a business around it. Organizations are struggling to helping organizations adapt and thrive in the digital era. Traditional tech events may be great for selling software and services and offering an idealistic vision of the future, but are failing at helping their attendees – who are also customers – choose the best fit solutions for their organizations.

What do you think? Do you find tech industry events useful, or does the unconference model appeal? If you prefer, you can contact us by email with your thoughts.




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