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Monday, June 18, 2007

Better Conferences - Response Needed

I'm pretty sure it's not just me... I believe we can build better conferences. And, I need you to help by doing one or more of the following:
  • provide a response to the poll below (won't show in an RSS feed - sorry)
  • provide suggestions for what you'd like to see in future conferences (add comment).
If you don't vote, then we'll assume you either will never go to a conference or think that every conference is just great as it is.

I am talking to conference organizers fairly often and I'm sure they'd love to hear your frank opinions.

If you've been a reader of my blog for a while, you may have figured out that I'm almost continually surprised by what I consider to be obvious problems with the conferences I regularly attend - and no offense to the eLearningGuild, ASTD, etc. - because most conferences have these same problems.

Certainly a big part of the issue is that attendees are quite willing to hop on a plane to attend a conference, but are much less willing to spend time preparing. If you talk to any conference organizer, they will tell you that it's almost impossible to get people to spend time ahead of a conference preparing. So, while my suggestions in Be an Insanely Great Professional Conference Attendee, Conference Preparation and Better Questions for Learning Professionals may be theoretically correct, in practice they don't stand a chance.

But this really does make you wonder. And, I'm not alone. Dave Pollard tells us:

The self-initiated learner can now often learn more in an hour's online research than in an hour listening to the most profound and articulate expert. And while some don't have the skill or interest in doing such research, and are willing to pay money to hear someone step them through something they could teach themselves for free in the same time, the freeing of information has raised expectations and lowered the satisfaction of many audiences with formal conference presentations and panels.

And, don't tell me that you've not felt that you could have spent your hour's worth of time in a session in front of a computer and received much more value by just searching on the keywords being used in the session.

Now, I'm personally not ready to throw in the towel on conferences. I still feel that Face to Face Still Matters. But I believe we need to see some changes in order to make the conference experience a better use of time.

Some some initial thoughts/suggestions -

1. Experts Only Time

Most conferences attract 50% newbies. So most sessions have to bring along newbies. Let the newbies have their time, but create opportunities for the experts to exchange.

Mark Oehlert and Tom Crawford suggested that we do a day prior to the conference and only invite experts. We are all willing to help make this happen. We think that doing this similar to an unconference style or doing it around The Big Question type topics where we get to exchange ideas with other experts in the field would be a fantastic learning and networking experience.

2. Unconference within a Conference

Unconferences allow the participants to present themselves on particular topics. I'd suggest we learn from this kind of exchange, but that we do it a little different. Here's my current thinking:
  • Have a morning of the first day session aimed at a particular audience segment, e.g., managers of corporate eLearning, facilitated by me and someone else that will help them identify their key issues, big questions and also identify topics they would want to discuss with others, what they would be willing to present as a case study to be discussed, or a topic where they might want to lead a discussion. Alone, this would have value in just identifying what they need to focus on. A mini strategic planning session.
  • We would then take these topics and establish cracker-barrel sessions that look at particular issues, e.g., how do you structure your eLearning production, centralized vs. distributed. You could probably do 25 minute exchanges in small groups around these topics and get tremendous value from each other. Yes, this would take a lot more work. No you don't get to just sit in the audience. But, wouldn't this be a good use of time?
  • Also, wouldn't it be great to have this list of issues just to know what everyone is facing. And as a presenter, it would be great to know the key issues that people are facing.
3. Better Fun Activities

I'm not sure that I know how to make this happen for more attendees, but Beer Tasting at ASTD TechKnowledge, Boston, Beer - Bloggers - and similar things at ASTD in Atlanta were definitely fun. Getting together with other experts over some beer was great. Having a really great Southern dinner at ASTD and talking about the implications of eLearning 2.0 was great.

Part of this is being able to connect with people who you will have good conversations with. Part of this is having fun activities that are actually fun and allow for good conversation. Food and beer/wine seem to help. But the typical conference thing, with a little bit of food and one drink ticket (and why just one - how about 3 or 4 - and add that into the cost) just doesn't work all that well. And finding people to talk to around particular topics never seems to work either. And, I'm not convinced that Conference Networking Tools really helps with this.

4. Passionate Keynotes aimed at Us

There's some really incredible stuff going on in our field right now. Learning is changing. Technology for learning is changing. This is an exciting time to be part of this field. While Jim Collins was inspiring at ASTD (and probably much more inspiring if you haven't read Good to Great). However, there's a big leap from what he was talking about to taking action as a member of this community.

While I know that getting big name speakers is a tried-and-true formula for conferences, I'm tired of feeling like I'm seeing entertainment rather than getting value. I'd much rather hear from luminaries in our industry talking about real issues that we are facing and firing us up about the real opportunities. Or maybe I'm the only one who is excited about what's happening here.

5. Demos

One of the reasons for my recent Big Question - Examples of eLearning? was that it is often hard to see demonstrations of what everyone else is doing. I like that the eLearningGuild at DevLearn has done a room full of demonstrations in the past. Some are really good. Some not as good. I liked going to a presentation by the folks from Brandon Hall that showed demonstrations of award winning projects. However, as I discussed in Award for the Best and Worst Presentation - the fact that the people weren't there to give context made it frustrating. What would be even better is to invite a few folks like Will Thalheimer to a session where some different pieces were presented and we could hear what's good and bad about them. Another good one with demonstrations is Judy Brown showing a bunch of mobile learning applications.

One thing that I would require as a conference organizer is to have demonstrations near the beginning of a session. How many sessions do you sit through a lot of blah, blah waiting for them to demo something cool? Then they finally demo near the end and it's not interesting at all.

6. Expert (or Crowd) Produced Cheat Sheets for Sessions and Expo

As I wandered around the expo hall at ASTD, what I really wanted was help in finding anything that was new/different. Seeing a bunch of custom vendors, niche off-the-shelf content folks, etc., made it hard to find much that was new or different. Because Bob Becker from Becker Multimedia had approached me before the conference, I at least got to see his device used to record customer interactions on something that looks like an iPod and then you can use the recording much like you do in a call center. A good idea. Something new and different.

But, what else was new and different in the expo? What would be worth checking out? The way you find out is by talking to people informally over lunch or dinner. Why don't we have a few experts ahead of the conference talk to the vendors and create a cheat sheet to help us make sense of the expo? Or we could allow attendees to post (twitter?) with cool things they are finding?

Doing this for sessions would be a bit more difficult, because it would have to be done ahead of the session. Finding out over lunch that there was a great session that you missed doesn't help. So, again, maybe we rely on experts ahead of time to go through the content that is going to be presented and create notes, a cheat sheet or something like that. It might help the presenters too. We could also allow things to be tagged with something like - demo at the end. But even better would be demo at the end and probably not worth seeing.

7. Free Wifi

Need I say more on this.


Okay, what did I miss? Add a comment below. And please fill in the poll.


Clark said...

Tony, I think it's up to 'the experts' to self-organize extra things, as that's value to the experts, but not to the ordinary conference goer (and hence the conference organizer), no? I agree there needs to be stuff for practitioner level as well as novice, but I like when conference keynotes are 'out of the box' (read: good stuff related but helping prompt us to think in new ways). That doesn't preclude someone coming up with new ideas (I volunteer ;). So I guess I'm not as keen to change too much the way conferences run, but perhaps better ways for the average conference goer to have access to the experts.

The point being, we want to have a community of practice, and there have to be ways for those on the periphery to move inward and that includes watching the experts play. I remember grad school, sitting in seminars where faculty were discussing the latest 'hot book'. I think we might need something beyond a panel, more a goldfish bowl or something where experts wrestle with a tough issue, or a some ill-structured problem, with verbal protocols or something so they can see the underlying thought processes.

Tony Karrer said...

Clark - as always - good job sparking some thoughts!

In terms of it being up to the experts to self organize... I actually think it falls on both them and the conference organizer. The conference itself should get tremendous value from having a bunch of experts coming to the conference. Heck, you already have a large number of speakers at most of these conferences. So, I think it should be both.

Good point on "out of the box" keynotes! I like those too.

I'm not sure I get what you are thinking around "have access to the experts"? I like your idea of the fish bowl. Maybe the idea of the experts exchange has everyone in the room, just there's no expectation that we'll explain what synchronous vs. asynchronous means.

"want to have a community of practice" - you know that's something I've wondered about for a long time. It seems like we should be ideal to have possibly several CoPs. But it's still at the wanting stage right? Why?

Tracy Parish said...

Great ideas Tony. A couple of thoughts I have are...
Experts only: I kind of like this idea. I'm by no means an expert, but the preconference of the Annual Gathering was way behind my knowlege and turned out to be a waste of money. I could have toured around the city.

Better Fun Activities: I went to a conference 2 years ago for Studer Group and they offered several different outings every night that participants could sign up for. Sight seeing trips, theatre, etc. All arranged through the conference. One night of demos offered wine and cheese. Another night was just networking around buffet stations (seafood at one, pasta another, dessert). They also brought in the neatest thing where you made your own ridiculous funky hat with feathers, beads, etc out of paper bags. I wore mine home on the plane (even with the silly looks).

Demos: I'd love to see what peers are doing as demos not vendors. I can shop for vendors usually on my own from my pc. But to see how another company has used wikis, or created their own elearning, would be more interesting to myself. I want to see how peers have best utilized the tools out there (what worked, what didn't work).

Tony, Thanks for the idea generating.

Tony Karrer said...

Tracy - fantastic input.

I should probably come up with a different term rather than "expert" - maybe "experienced" or "knowledgeable" - but about 25% of the attendees are way ahead of where the presentations are. But as a presenter, you feel like you have to aim at the 50% who are relatively newer.

On the demos - definitely DevLearn has done a good job of getting demonstrations to happen - but what a great idea to have a demo of a Wiki or something like that. The only issue I have with the way DevLearn does it is that it's just in a big room with 30-50 demos going on. It's loud and there's not a lot of discussion around each demo. It does make it so that it's easy to get around and see a lot, but I think I'd rather see a few of the better ones highlighted and put in a bigger venue with an audience or somehow make it a bit easier on both the person doing the demo and the audience.

Anonymous said...


I believe that conferences can offer greater value than virtual encounters, though they have significant barriers as well. Attending ISPI's annual confab, for example, could easily cost $2,000 (air, hotel, conference, food, drink, and lost-opportunity cost back at home base), which explains why I haven't been in three years.

I do agree with attendees in general not preparing, though I don't think that's anything new under the sun. In my experience people don't do prework for face-to-face learning or for online learning. Exceptions exist, but I'll pay you a dollar for each person who preps if you pay me 50 cents for each one who doesn't.

I'm not so sure Pollard is right -- the self-initated learner who's already done work to separate wheat from chaff may be able to learn more in an hour than from listening to an expert. (And how come it's just listening?)

"Expert Only Time" isn't a bad idea -- especially if you're one of the In Crowd. But how do you achieve that lofty status? Get a Known Expert to endorse you? Link to the right right blogs? Get enough trackbacks?

As an outsider, how do I recognize an expert? Will they get ribbons reading EXPERT to hang on their conference badge? Will there be a secret handshake or a password? ("We met upon the level, and parted on the square.")

You also suggest experts doing a lot of stuff ahead of time -- checking out the vendors, creating a cheat sheet, creating notes for content that hasn't been presented yet.

I think some of that can happen as conferences are more open about what they're doing -- but some of it, in theory, happens now, at conferences where sessions are proposed and evaluated. I've helped review proposals for a few conferences, and it's (a) not that much fun, (b) not that tidy a process, and (c) not that easy to find reviewers (who I suppose are not the same as "experts").

And, amazingly, some of the "experts" assume their proposals will be approved. After all, they're experts.

The informal conference-within-a-conference has value, especially if the organizers of the event open their mailing lists / registrations to independent (even guerilla) organizers.

I suppose this differs from ASTD's SIGs or ISPI's ProComms in being looser in organization, though it's the sort of thing those groups could do if they had the zeal and bodies.

As for fun activities -- there are probably multiple dimensions, like meeting up with likeminded folks who've participated in sessions you've attended, or suggesting a meeting format/topic to a group ahead of time (as I did years ago on the old TRDEV-L listserv).

Food and drink can act as a networking catalyst, though there are logistic practicalities... if your event is at a hotel or conference center, the venue derives income from the sales of food and drink. Also, why should my fee go up $X to pay for Y drinks if perhaps I mingle very well on one... or on soda water?

I'd sooner pay an extra buck or two to get the free WiFi (how much can it cost to have it available at the site?).

One thing I'd like to see is an online, real-time database of attendees / presenters (with a clear opt-out option) -- maybe it's a conference web page add-on, so I can see who might also be attending by name / affiliation / employer / area of interest / local and long-term contact info. (How you protect that from spam harvesters? Maybe a way to send mail from the page without showing the receiver's email?)

What about a conference-specific attendee page, MySpace/Facebook style, where I can put as little or much info about myself as I want. Maybe even update it while there, or link to my own page where I really do the updating (assuming I have a page).

Not everyone has a blog (astounding as that sounds), and not everyone attends with a laptop, so the conference needs ample computers for attendees to use.

Another thought: what about a show-and-tell (physical space, or virtual site, or both)? At first I'd have said "not for vendors," but in practice that means "not for companies, but individual practitioners get in."

So maybe it's for everybody... the idea is to show what you've been doing that you're proud of, or maybe struggling with. I'd add a Craigslist "don't contact me to sell stuff" option. And maybe a suggestion, for people who work for corporations (as I did for years) that if necessary they fictionalize details of their work. That would protect client / employer confidentiality while allowing the individual or team to proclaim success.

Tony Karrer said...

Dave F. - wow, great stuff. A couple of things it sparks for me:

I agree with you (and Tracy) on the "In Crowd" issue. I've been on the outside at conferences and it's no fun. And, in fact, there are still lots of crowds that I'm not part of. I'd rather it be more inclusive - but it shouldn't require us to accept newbies. And I'm definitely not sure what the criteria should be. My choice of language "expert" clearly was not a good idea.

I believe that Tom Crawford and Mark Oehlert had some ideas on how to identify the necessary qualifications to be part of the In Crowd. And, I would expect someone like you (Dave) to be a great part of this kind of thing.

Your question on this is really good. Hopefully someone else can weigh in. Tom and Mark - where are you?

Your points on the review process and how that works now is really great! Absolutely there is "review" for every conference. But this is different that having someone actively participate to create something like a cheat sheet or a description of what the session is going to be. For sessions that I'm organizing or panel sessions, I spend time with the presenters to make sure they are going to be doing a good job. It wouldn't be hard to provide some description of what they are going to cover. But, you are right that getting this to happen across all sessions might be tough. It's that dang lack of prep-work thing. So, I'm not as sure on this suggestion being practical. But, I'd still love to be able to take advantage of the wisdom of crowds a bit more around the content of the conference. Not sure how to make that happen. Anyone have a suggestion?

I like your idea of getting together with people around topic areas - such as people who attended a session and thought it was interesting.

Love the Facebook / real-time ideas! With free Wifi - that could be a really cool thing. Better if we figured out how to leverage to find people with similar interests.

Very cool ideas! Wow!

Anonymous said...

Sorry I don't have time to write more, but one thing about conferences in our field that is in vital need of a change is that the format we use doesn't allow for skepticism and debate. Too many times all those newbies shake their heads with enthusiasm when some passionate yet misguided speaker says something that's flat out a bad idea. They go away from the session believing what is untrue--or they believe something that is true but only in limited situations.

We need to build some skepticism into our conference sessions. I'm not exactly sure how to make this work with so many newbies, but perhaps sessions could have discussants whose job it is to test boundary conditions, challenge assertions, etc. Gently and with wisdom, of course.

Also, we need a better way to select speakers in the first place. I was once on a program-selection committee and let me tell you the process of choosing 150 speakers from 1500 proposals is like making liverwurst. You don't want to know how folks get selected and the end product stinks.

Mark said...

Didn't mean to leave you hanging...been on travel and NO WIFI!! Anyway this is a great discussion and I'm more than happy to jump in.

Let's see...again with the caveat that I know a good number of the folks putting on these conferences and I really feel that they are trying to do the right thing by the attendees and give people good value for their money. That being said, I think we should explicitly state that all of our opinions and suggestions will have to either find root in the current realities of the economics of conferences as Dave F has ably pointed out OR we're going to have to couch our ideas as perhaps the as yet disconnected atoms of a new molecular structure for face-to-face events (sort of like porting FOO Camp over to our industry). So I'll proceed on the explicit basis of making suggestions related to the existing conference reality.

So I think that Will, as usual, is also dead on point - I will disagree however that gentleness is a required element in the criticism and debate that MUST become a part of both our industry and our conferences. I think that at some level we can make structural changes to events all we want but if we don't figure out how to get people in this field - even newbies - feeling that part of what they owe this field - in return for providing them with some kind of career path - is an enthusiastic, honest and ongoing critique of the same, then we are just re-arranging deck chairs on some huge, supposedly unsinkable ship. One of my favorite quotes has always been: "I hold every man a debtor to his profession; from the which as men of course do seek to receive countenance and profit, so ought they of duty to endeavour themselves by way of amends to be a help and ornament thereunto." on to the rest of the one of the co-authors of the pre-con idea let me just say that here is the issue - I've been to a lot of conferences and have done a good numer of presentations and while I do get energized by doing those parts, I'd really love some time when I can be around and learn from the other folks like Tony and Clark who I really only get to connect with in a f-2-f mode at conferences. I can also tell you exactly what spurred this idea for me - it was the best session I've ever been to at any conference - the Game Design Challenge session at the Game Developers Conference. Man! This session is just just people pushing each other to new levels of creativity and innovation...I desparately want that kind of passion and excitement in this field and at our conferences. So call it Expert Time, call it whatever but please lets design something to let people stretch and challenge each other.

The UnConference idea...I love it but I have to say that I think the success of something like that will be directly correlated to the level of passion as outlined above. UnConferences can operate with a less formal structure but that means greater reliance on an involved populace. I'm also going to argue that especially at something like an UnCon (see also FOO Camp) then that would be a great opportunity to talk about issues like the nature of learning, learning vs instruction, the role of design, the role of the instructor...let's take big, grand swings for the fences that are sure to miss sometimes but just think about the ones we could hit out of the park! Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.

I love Dave F's suggestions...Conference it...but let's also make sure we provide the tools and opportunities to maybe self-organize groups around food and drink and maybe baseball or whatever...but lets be sure we provide opps (if not the explicit organization) to make these things happen.

Demos...demo, demo, demo, 'em! One rule: No pitches - show me how to use the product then step back and let me play - I'll ask if I want to know something.

Cheat sheet...ok..needs some more design here but I love the twitter idea...could we do a google map of a conference hall expo floor and then do a mash-up so we could annotate it?

Free Wifi? oh hell yes....but....I've also been on the conference planning side and know how the venues try to hold this capability hostage and do things like only hand out static IPs...blah blah...I'm with Dave here ...charge me $5 more and just buy the access.

Phew. How's that for a comeback post Tony? :-)

Tony Karrer said...

Thanks Mark - couple of things you sparked for me:

First - I completely agree that conference organizers are "trying to do the right thing by the attendees and give people good value for their money" ... in fact, if we have reasonable suggestions, most organizers I know would be more than happy to try to use them. And like you, Mark, I would first look to work within the system, rather than try to do something like completely grassroots. And, I highly doubt that this conversation is wasted breath.

"ease lets design something to let people stretch and challenge each other" - what that would be or what different things might it be would be exactly the right question. I love your idea of the Big Question live. But I'm not sure that I have enough experience or perspective to know if that would work. Raising issues such as what role does personal learning play in overall learning solutions, how do we support informal learning, etc. would be really interesting to hear discussed - but it ultimately needs to be somewhat practical for it to be valuable to me. My gut says it would be great, but I don't really know.

I'm definitely with you and Dave F on "Conference Facebook" - and I agree that having it feed into something else - a purpose - would be excellent. Unfortunately, because of the lack of prep that most attendees do - this would have to be pretty quick hit and doable at the conference. Still, I really like it as well.

Like the idea of the Expo floor as a Google Mash-up + comments. Again, need a way for this to happen quickly at the conference and other people to see it. I've heard that at some conferences they have big screens showing Twitters of attendees. It would be great to have a big screen showing what's cool at the conference and a bank of computers nearby to take action on it. And, of course, free Wifi for those of us with laptops.

On the Free Wifi - seems like that's something that everyone agrees is a good idea. I'm with you. Add it to the price of the conference so that we can look for smart ways to leverage it. And, if the venue is holding you hostage on it, then maybe it's important enough (with some of the creative ideas above) to look at other venues.

You know - I'd be pretty dang excited going to a conference that had these different kinds of things going on. There would need to be a large session that teaches people what they are. But what better way to show people things like social networking, blogging, mash-ups, etc. than having first hand experience at the conference.

Wow, Mark - good stuff - as always. :)

bschlenker said...

Okay guys...I'm in on this...

1) There are many many people out there in our industry that don't make the rounds the way we do. These are the learning professionals that go to work, punch the time clock, and do what their told. They attend conferences when managers "let" them as part of some reward system. So, NO PASSION!!! The expectation is that they will be entertained...and their conference experience will be "managed" for them. So, right or wrong, Tony, I think the perception is that the conference will handle all social activities and get togethers.

2) Demos...this is gold. Actually user demos and vendor demos. I think we should merge the idea of UNconference with demos. Have EVERYONE bring a demo. Day1: write down what you brought on the big white board. Others "vote" by checking off the ones they want to see. Day2: depending on space, the top vote getters "run what they brung". Might work, might not...just a thought.

3) I want my attendee ID badge to have an RFID chip in it. Then I want a google mashup displayed prominantly on a big screen (and on mobile devices) showing dynamically where everyone is at any given time. That way, at a glance I can see where the hot sessions are just by seeing the cluster of dots. Talk about changing the dynamics of the conference! Or perhaps this is part of the social network and participants can choose who gets to see their dot on the map. So my map may look very different then say a noobies map.
My friends are the experts and so I see their dots gathering at the local pub and so I blow off the conference and head over there too ;-)

Tony, you run a software company...I think there's a product idea in this somewhere. Can we build it?

Excellent conversation and I'd be willing to be that many of these wonderful ideas will find their way into DevLearn this year. Good stuff!!!

Harold Jarche said...

What about a parallel event to one of the more traditional conferences? BarCamp was a result of FOOCamp being by invitation only. There are a lot of people, newbies and experts, who attend the name-brand event. Would it be that difficult to have an "unevent" in the same city at the same time? Or perhaps just before or after? This could be a good way to test out the concept, and would in some ways be an extension of the Beer Tasting kind of event.

I have to agree with Dave Ferguson though. Traditional conferences are dang expensive and that's why I haven't been to many in the past four years. I could probably swing a BarCamp style meeting though.

Mark said...


Lets play off that...if we were going to schedule something at just before or after another event..ala BarCamp...there'd be no registration fee true, but there'd still be air and hotel - I'd want to make sure the folks who came got something out of it...what do you think that contributions would like and what do you think takeaways could be?

Alternative word choice offering instead of "expert": Concerned Citizen, Tyler Durden, Campers....

Mark Prasatik said...

There are lots of excellent points being made here. From my perspective I am a guy with a foot in both the corporate learning professional camp and the (I want to hang around the people way smarter than me) expert camp. I GET to attend one, maybe two conferences a year and that is probably above average for the corporate person and below average for the expert. As a person who has attended maybe 12 conferences in my career I can say that the value of going to another conference as they are mostly structured is diminishing EXCEPT when I can network with people the caliber of the blogging beer group (BBG). The newbie needs alot of 101 type information to get a framework to take back and have structure for doing the job. The expert needs to network with smart people and talk about what's new. All of the ideas mentioned here are great AND I think there needs to be a lot more clarity as to who the intended audience is for each session/event as well as publishing that information to the conference attendee. Then people can self select and get the best experience for the level of knowledge and experience they posess.

The facebook idea is awesome and I am on board for the wifi. Facebook could allow people to network before the event (identify experts for example) and also extend the conference experience with people they meet. Love the big screen idea and Brent on the RFID chip is brilliant except some people don't want to be found! Thanks for putting all the thinking time into this guys.

Harold Jarche said...

In response to Mark Oehlert's question, I see BarCamp running similar to the Wikipedia definition. That means that a sponsor is probably necessary for the venue and some other aspects. We would use a wiki to develop the various ideas on presentations, but like an unconference, people would vote with their feet. We could go a step farther and require that everyone who attends has to have something to present. This would help to limit the size.

Personally, I could see myself flying out and paying for air/hotel but not the conference, in order to have some interesting and much less controlled, conversations.

Anonymous said...

Tony, you've fired up a good one here. I especially like the intersection of interests and purposes.

Mark's comment about "getting" to attend one or maybe two conferences a year really resonated with me. For much of my career, I was bringing Good Things to Life. It was never easy to get the okay to attend a conference or formal event like a developmental seminar.

(Maybe that's one reason I fret about one potential of "informal learning" -- the organizations employing over 85% of U.S. workers just might like to offload learning/development onto the individual, in the way they have pensions.)

I think the novice/expert dichotomy is always real. At the same time, if there are enough alternate ways to meet and focus (as opposed to telling war stories), maybe that becomes a pathway for novices.

(I tend to think that "newbie" is an okay name to give yourself, but not others.)

Another thought is locale -- ISPI this year was in San Francisco, next year in NYC. Couldn't get much more costly places. Cincinnati as a venue a few years back was criticized, but it's more central, less overloaded.

More both/and thinking, I hope, so people can make a case for richness / opportunity / practical networking while smuggling in the looser stuff.

Anonymous said...

So what happens to the comments we add on the Zoho page? They don't seem to be listed here, and I can't see them when I revisit the poll itself :-(

thcrawford said...

Sorry for taking so long to respond. I was, ironically, at a traditional conference. I agree with almost everything that's been said here. So, I'll just bullet a few comments or additions:

- Because of the volume of newbies (the one I just left had 56% first time attendees who had been in training less than 1 year), conferences have to cater to a different audience. Since there is no content for the rest of us, we rarely attend yet we know that learning from peers and face-to-face are both really valuable. So, it's up to us to create our own if we want to use this modality.
- The conferences could benefit by having a great pool of resources who might not normally attend available for presentations. So if this was a precon, it probably wouldn't be as hard to get some of us to stick around for an extra day to do a session or two.
- Demos can be great if they are something truly new or are a great application. I don't need to see a screenshot of Second Life or of Wikipedia again, but if there's a new application or a new technology absolutely bring it on.
- On a related note, I definitely think individuals at vendors should be involved. Some of the best thinkers and experimenters in this industry are at the vendors. I'm not saying they should be there to do a pitch, but excluding them would unnecessarily remove content that I think is essential. Also, technically, Jay, Judy, Tony, I, and many others who would possibly be in this group are all vendors to some extent.
- Wrapping any event around food, libation, and an interesting location is always a great idea. I'm usually not in for conference parties, but the ASTD Atlanta Aquarium event was perfect. Learning, food, drinks, and great conversations all in one place.
- Expert Cheat Sheets: I really like the idea. It wouldn't have to be a "I-know-this-session-is-going-to-be-good" sheet, more likely it's a "here's-the-vendors-or-sessions-I'm-thinking-about-checking-out" sheet. It's what we do any way. When I saw Mark at the last conference we were continuously comparing notes about upcoming sessions. If there was a hard choice between 2, we'd split them and compare notes later. It's a great way to get other people's thoughts on sessions and cover more ground too.
- Free WiFi everywhere at a conference is an absolute must and inexcusable not to have at a tech conference of any sort. Why is it that the expensive hotels and conference centers charge outrageous rates and the cheap hotels give it away for free. It's certainly not a cost issue. Clearly they think they can make more money off that.
- I'd have to think more about the goldfish bowl idea. It has some good parts, but my gut says that a different approach might be better. An isolationist approach is bad. Yet, newbies in particular will just put us back where we were. Maybe what we need is a commitment by attendees to give back to the broader community by doing presentations, blog posts, summaries, books, new content for the broader audience, etc.
- I love the idea of an opt-in locator system. It wouldn't even have to identify who each specific dot was. If I knew a bunch of friends were all in a session or at the local drinking establishment I would almost certainly switch what I was doing.
- I also love the idea of skepticism. Chris Crawford (no relation) wrote several of his books with a counterpoint presented through out. It made for a very engaging read. I think it would be a blast to do a presentation and have all of you sitting along the side pointing out alternative or better views.
- Good add on Foo Camp. I think it could be a good template.
- Google Map the Conference floor with comments? Brilliant. Love it.

This is pretty exciting. Tony thanks for kicking off a hot topic. I can't wait to see where it goes!

Mark said...

Check out Avanoo ( be a nice tool for doing some rolling polling stuff at a conference...

Karl Kapp said...

Tony et al,

Having been to dozens of conferences (sometimes all in the same year)over the year, I found that the single most valuable conference I ever attended had less than 150 people and all the presenters and the attendees were "required" to stay and go to social events together. I presented and learned a ton from the other presentations and from the attendees. We had meals together, round tables together and generally got to know (at least by site) most of the attendees at the 3 day event.

The problem is that most conferences go for size...the more attendees the more profitable. But we all know from learning research that smaller class sizes are better.

The difference between a big conference and a small conference is like a big box hardware store and a mom and pop hardware store.

Both have what you need but at the big store, you are forced to find it on your own with little guidance or help. Sometimes you are successful this way and sometimes frustrated.

In a mom and pop store, you can get more personalized and special attention. You feel more comfortable and you are carefully able to explain what you need. Although you might not always find everyting you are looking for.

At the box stores, you get to sample a lot but none of it is really too indepth or helpful unless you already have an idea of what you need to accomplish.

Now economically, it might not make sense to have small conferences but a broadcast lecture to 100 or so people can easily be done via web technologies. An intimate group discussion with 20 people honestly talking about issues of concern is not so easily done on the web and is one of the strengths of face-to-face communication.

I think we need to leverage conferences for what they can do well...shared experiences (drinking beer together), ad hoc discussions in small groups, robust question and answer sessions, personal demos... and use technologies for broadcast lectures and such...the things they are good for.

Why not have a "blended conference" where the broadcast stuff (like a keynote) is done online and the discussions are done at the conference. If there were only a few people in each session, you bet people would prep (ok, you hope people would prep but the threat of exposure might force more people to prep...ok, so it only works in academia...never mind).

Also, love Brent's RFID badge to see where everybody is hanging out...great idea.

And Will's idea about critiques and saving people from bad ideas would work in small groups with multiple people who are experienced in the field. This would also help our field weed out falsehoods and misperceptions.

Finally, maybe have a conference where everybody presents...people new to the field and those experienced. With the caveate that they types of presentations are different.

Newer folks present on problems or frustrations they are facing and audience members provide feedback...more like a facilitated exercise than a presentation. If a number of experienced people were in the audience, they could crituqe each other and collaborate as a group on a solution.

Then more experienced folks could present on best practices, new ideas, etc. That might break down the presenter/non-presenter wall that sometimes exists.

One other thing, I went to a conference once that had sessions in the morning until noon. Then fun activities during the day organized by conference and then we got back together from 5:00-9:00 with a buffet dinner to discuss ideas that came to the attendees during the fun time. Great idea...again need a smaller number of attendees.

Just a few ideas and, of course, you could do an entire discussion on helping conferences be more Presenter friendly as well. But that's another post.

Tony Karrer said...

Wow, this has been some really interesting thoughts. At some point, I'll try to summarize a bit of what we are saying here. Although it might be really interesting to see someone from the eLearningGuild or ASTD jump in a bit in the discussion at this point.

A few thoughts...

Karyn - I don't see your comment either - I did a test comment - do you see that one when you click "full results"?

The cost aspect is an interesting issue. Travel costs are always going to be relatively high (air+hotel+food). So, trying to do a "less expensive" conference may be difficult. Although the point about location/price is interesting. I personally like when conferences get scheduled somewhere I want to travel already. It's a good way to see places. This is likely going to be a bit of a challenge. Finding a location and price point that will balance these things. I guess I'd first look for us to create something that people would feel compelled to attend.

Point noted on my use of terms - "experts" and "newbies" - Is "Novice" right? In volleyball we call it "fresh meat" - but that probably won't work either. :) And expert is clearly wrong, but I'm not feeling the "Concerned Citizen" either - maybe it's more "Experienced Professional"? Surely these labels must exist elsewhere?

It seems that we all want to see demos - but like Tom Crawford - I want to see what's new and different. And I also want to see where the level set is at so having a bunch of demos available that gives a level set - just don't make me sit through all of them.

Karl's experience with the 150 attendees is interesting. If we do something as a precon, but then have those same folks filtering into the main conference - do you think that would be able to get a similar effect?

I like the idea of "everyone presents" in some form. It certainly would force preparation which would be really interesting. If we really wanted conferences to have impact on folks, we would do something more like that. The problem is that most folks are just along for a ride. Doubtful they would even attended the online keynote prior to the conference.

But this gets me to wondering if there's not maybe a different mindset that could be applied here. Should a conference possibly focus itself on the people who were willing to commit to more than a ride? Go along the lines of certification, but not make it a certificate - rather make it a badge of distinction that might have value or cache in the industry?

Tony Karrer said...

Just saw a couple of interesting posts on this topic from Tom Haskins:

Meeting of the Minds


Strange Persistence of Conferences

Anonymous said...

"Karyn - I don't see your comment either - I did a test comment - do you see that one when you click "full results"?"

I do indeed. Who knows what happened there?

The suggestion I made was on the lines of a distibuted conference, with centres in various places, linked by simulcast a la the Live 8 concerts. Saving on travel costs and reducing the conference carbon footprint. Some of the presenters could appear at each of the locations. Organisation carried out by partnering businesses in each centre. I don't have all the details sorted out in my head, yet, but I think it's an avenue worth exploring. The time zone issue could be a risk, but it could also add to the fun - making the whole thing a bit bar-campish for delegates.

Mark said...

I just posted a new bit on this topic here.

I also wanted say too that I love the idea of conferences reducing their carbon footprint. In this age of print-on-demand I'd like to say I don't know why we are still printing huge programs but of course I do know why. Its the same reason that 150 person conferences don't Conferences are big business and programs mean print maybe one part of this discussion becomes how can conferences come up with a business model that both supports a fair profit and yet doesn't make me feel personally responsible for the death of a rain forest every time I whip out that program?

One of the main reasons I like the BarCamp style is that everyone presents - I also like crafting a distributed experience - but want to make sure we preserve the "everyone presents" motiff even within a distributed set up. No fair if you can just sit there at your computer and lurk while everyone else has to prep. :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony
just a couple of quick thoughts:
i) if you're presenting design for partial attention/glanceability (Tony Hirst and I have discussed this), ie have slides that prick people's attention with good visuals, not lots of text, but be happy for them to dip in and out while doing email. Personally I probably pay more attention _overall_ when I can dip in and out.
ii) Similar to a lot of the ideas mentioned recently, Tony Kaye organised a cracker barrell session at a conference last year. There were lots of tables laid out with free wine and cheese. Each table had a hot topic to discuss. You had ten minutes at each and then a klaxon sounded and you had to move to another. Good for socialising, discussion, feeding in to talks, etc.

jay said...

Conference organizers face a dilemma. Economies of scale push them to go for big numbers. This leads to conferences which are purported to serve novices, experts, executives, developers, old hands, and anyone else with the money to spend. Events like that are usually lousy for all involved.

Among the conferences I've learned the most from are those that are outside of my discipline. The annual neuroaesthetics conference is always an eye-opener. The conference on Accelerating Change is a mind-blower. I'll never forget a video industry event where I described what I do for a living, and this guy lights up, saying "Oh, you're a content provider."

Last week I attended Supernova, a gathering of business folks and techies exploring what's at the fringes. I asked a pal I saw in the hall what he thought of the conference. He said he wasn't attending; he was simply waiting for a lunch date. He said he refused to go to regular conferences anymore: unconferences are the only ones worthwhile.

I agree wholeheartedly with Karl Kapp's observations, especially that small is beautiful.

Generally, I think it's best to put one speaker on the platform when you could have three or four.

Part of the dissatisfaction with conference structure reflects a larger cultural shift. Fewer people want to be spectators; they want to be active participants.

Tony, this is a never-ending topic. I'm not certain the conference hosts will be able to change. They have an "installed base" that expects to be talked at.

Anyone up for a conference in Monterey? Passionate people only. Wine, beer, hot tubs, low cost, sixty people max, user-defined agenda, and overall theme of helping one another.

Tony Karrer said...

I just ran across a brief mention of the Blogger Cafe at the NECC. I found a brief description on the conference site.

What's interesting about it was the intention that these were just rooms to get together to discuss a topic. What a great idea. I could have an informal follow-on to a session with folks in one of the rooms. The folks who were in the Blogger Cafe sound like they had a particularly good experience with lots of discussion and informal learning.

This might be an interesting model!

Karl Kapp said...


Count me for for Monterey! Sounds great.

Tony Karrer said...

Jay and Karl - maybe just prior to the eLearningGuild event in October in Santa Clara (San Jose) we could arrange some time with a few of us? Monterey is certainly nice and not far away, but my guess is that the eLearningGuild folks would be happy to try to provide us space at their venue roughly when the pre-cons are happening.

Plus, I'm thinking that since it's Silicon Valley, maybe we could get a few start-ups to talk about the stuff that they are doing.

Any thoughts?

Jody Baty said...

I'm wondering if vendors/exhibitors might be able to play a bigger role in making a conference successful? Having participated in several e-learning conferences as an exhibitor, I can tell you that it is a boring, tedious experience. It's kind of like fishing, only without the beer. Many hours pass by with little or no action, then there's a break, everybody storms in and it's like a feeding frenzy (quite literally because we're usually located by the food).

Seriously though, most vendors I've spoken to would welcome the opportunity to participate more fully in the conferences they attend. The question is how?

Tony Karrer said...

Jody - want a fantastic line of thinking. sponsored one of our beer and bloggers. They were great to work with on making that happen. And it was a great way for us to get to meet them.

I'm definitely thinking that most vendors will have folks who would participate as experts. What's interesting is how few of the major vendors have blogs. I've been pushing a few of the experts to start their own blog so they can be more like the folks from Articulate who've definitely done a good job getting a personal connection to folks through their blog.

I'm not sure what models would work here for greater vendor participation. I wonder if any vendors will see this and provide thoughts?

Mark said...

Great idea for precon activity before the idea - let's figure out how to make it valuable to them and look for some soft of sponsorship maybe...ooohhhh t-shirts.....

Jody - also really like your idea, and I was just thinking about how to get vendors more active in the conference...maybe there is some eating your own dog food possible there...make your tools available and let people convert the content of sessions into Web-based modules or whatever using your stuff...people learn how to use your tools, we get to generate some interesting content and bingo! (but seriously, don't forget the t-shirts)

Clark said...

I'm up for Monterey! Some of us will be involved in pre-con activity (e.g. the symposiums), so even before would be good.

I like the idea of vendors being more involved, but has anyone else noticed how few elearning vendors have anyone who understands learning on their executive team? Check out their sites, and their management team. They know biz, and technology, but learning? Sorry, one of my hot buttons.

But I'd like to get them involved meaningfully. Really engage... Maybe a 'blind date', randomly matching speaker with vendor, and they have several weeks to see what emerges from their collaboration before the conference. Could be good for both, and the captured reflections (required) could be of interest too.

Mark said...

Just came across this on the TED site. How does this strike everyone here as a guiding design principle for conferences?

"TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader. The annual conference now brings together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives."

Mark said...

Oh other thing...anybody else feel like this comment thread could almost be its blog or wiki site or something?

Anonymous said...

Mark makes a good point. This thread should be converted lock, stock and barrel to a wiki.

Tony Karrer said...

I think I like the idea of putting this on a Wiki, but I'm not sure I get what it would look like?

Let me know thoughts on that.

Anonymous said...

bring in the fringe, and make talking more productive.

in a BBC conference, delegates attending were invited to host 'fringe' presentations which happened at the end of the day. these were planned only a few weeks before the conference. attendance was a bit lower than the regular conference, and these fringe presentations were in smaller satellite rooms running concurrently. but it was a chance for smaller companies and projects to get some airing. and the people who showed up were strongly interested in the topic.

the best thing about a conference, for me, is meeting like-minds, sharing ideas and making connections. this is much easier to do in person than online. using open-space technology on the day to prepare topical sessions would help. experts and attendees could choose to participate where they felt the most interest, and small group discussion in those rooms could be noted by a volunteer 'scribe' online via a wiki, etc.

open space meetings i have attended have always been shockingly productive. and i think conferences could harness some of that spontaneous energy of open space. it requires less planning ahead of time- and the topics are also unavoidably relevant and important- because people put them on the table to start.

Tony Karrer said...

Love the idea of having "fringe presentations" at the end of the day. Actually, it sounds like a hybrid conference - unconference and conference combined. This is likely something that could work well with traditional conference organizers!