Babies & bathwater again

February 26, 2013

I picked up a great tweet from Umair Haque yesterday (@umairh and a hat-tip to Jules for the link): Maybe I’ll start an anti-TED, with three-hour-long in-depth talks about Great Ideas. Oh, wait. It’s called “A University”.  I retweeted it, resisting the temptation to amend It’s called to It was called.  Now in parallel with this, I have been dealing with some of the ideological dancing around how a conference should be structured and reading reports of the Italian elections which seems to have discovered an old form of oratory, holding down large audiences for extended periods of time. Lots of potential material there but the focus of this post is how to structure a conference.

David Gurteen’s ever useful newsletter talked about a Conversational Conference using KM Asia as an example.  Under this format speakers are expected to present for 25 minutes, then there is a conversation before returning to Q&A.  Now I remember this one well as the new format was announced after speaker slots had been determined and content defined.  I protested at this late change, arguing that the only way to achieve that was to cut the content which would mean the conference brochure was inaccurate.   I then got told that the change did not apply to me which irritated me even more.  In the event, and ironically I was the only one on the first morning to actually follow the format; something that is not reported in the newsletter, everyone else overran. Now David suggests that this is a great first step to more open, participatory conferences so I assume he thinks it doesn’t go far enough, its what Trotskyites in the 70s used to term entryism.

The ideological privileging of one form over another is I think an error.  When I raise this with advocates they always claim that they are not doing so, but then the very next publication or email in effect uses the same value laden language.   The problem is magnified by the need of conference organisers to stuff their brochures full of case studies from blue-chip companies in order to allow people to justify attendance.  That is a simple reality of tightened budgets.  You are not going to get funding from your company to go along to an open-space event with no content.

So lets avoid the pendulum swing and think about a different form of event.   I’d suggest something along the following lines:

  • No more than one keynote a day ideally in the opening slot.  That keynote should be able to hold an audience through interesting content, controversy and entertainment.  The intent is to provoke, to prick complacency, to get people thinking and to do that you are talking about 45-90 minutes.  If a speaker can’t hold an audience they are not a keynote and should not be designated as such.  A problem here is that a lot of people are not up to keynoting but think they should be and some of the better ones get carried away with excessive fees.
  • The keynote should be followed by two respondents, people with the ability to think on their feet with knowledge of the field who can comment and raise issues or questions.
  • Then 45 minutes of conversation with coffee at the tables, followed by a 15-20 minute Q&A session with the keynote and the respondents finishing with the keynote doing a five-minute summation.
  • Then for the rest of the day case studies, in panels of three.  15 minutes each, no slides describing your company.  Each panel to be followed by 25 minutes of discussion at tables, with questions posed to the panel at the end.  Questions bunched together and asked of the panel by a chair.
  • One open-space session on day two or three with posters from those who want to present ideas.  I like open-space for a conference, I think its less value for strategy and problem resolution but at a conference it’s good.  The poster sessions at an academic conference are valuable and could move across to the commercial world with ease
  • I’d also manage the tweet streams and learning capture (we hope to trial a version of SenseMaker® for this at KM World in the fall, possibly earlier) with online activity before, during and after the event.  I’d also make that available to organisations who sponsor delegates so they can see added value.

I’d also organise a series of symposia, but I’ll talk more about that tomorrow.  It’s a different type of conversation with a different pedigree.  Now the above structure is a both/and, not an either/or.  Critically it doesn’t say that one form is the best way, but then allow exceptions – something I objected to at KM Asia.  It says that different mechanisms work in different ways and we want variety.  Soundbites and virtual learning can never substitute for three years at a university, similarly, at a conference we want case studies, but we also want to be provoked and inspired.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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