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Friday, June 06, 2008

Conference Balance

Just read a great post by Clive Shepherd - Cutting the Pie - where he discusses what the appropriate balance is at conferences. As you know creating Better Conferences is something that very much interests me. Check out that post, the poll results and the discussion for lots of ideas on how to make conferences better. But Clive's major point is that at today's conferences the mix is:

His definitions are:
  • ideas - presentations from gurus, experts and thought leaders, primarily abstract in nature.
  • examples - case studies from users, sharing successes and lessons learned.
  • participation - opportunities for attendees to interact with each other to explore the ideas, share their own experiences and make contacts that can take follow-up after the event.
He'd like to see a balance:

This is interesting timing for me having just returned from the ASTD Conference. That conference was certainly the old model - mostly ideas and examples. Very little participation. But in fairness to ASTD - it seems like it's hard to get participation when 70% of attendees are relatively new to the industry and are first time attendees.

I personally tried (a little) to create my own participation ahead of the event through getting together at conferences. But I wasn't very successful.

I've always highly encourage participation, but my general sense is that people aren't really that interested in doing the Conference Preparation that might be required to Be an Insanely Great Professional Conference Attendee or using Social Conference Tools

So while I agree, my basic question:
When can you get effective participation at conferences?
It seems like the eLearningGuild is doing a better job at this recently. There were morning discussion groups last time that I thought were great. They are starting to do more with online tools. I think that conferences really need to adopt a mentality of having unconferences within a conference structure to allow for participation of all kinds intermixed with ideas and examples.

I'd be curious to hear thoughts on this as I always struggle with whether going to a conference is worth the investment of time.


Tim Martin said...

My thought on this, after attending ASTD myself, is that the usefulness of a show relates inversely to its size. ASTD is so massive, that participation and insight become almost impossible.

Fred Wilson posted on a similar concept recently in his industry, and it really resonated for me.

Tony Karrer said...

I'm not sure I buy that. I think that large conferences have to work harder to make participation effective, but theoretically you can get much more specific in your topics given a large audience.

Sarah Stewart said...

Its funny you ask this question because I have been wondering the same thing myself only today. I was having a conversation about the learning and participation I get from my PLE and how much more it is than from attending conferences.

But the value to me for attending conferences, as an academic, continues to be the face-to-face networking because conferences are still the 'learning' tool/event that is most valued in health. Also, it is a research output that leads to publications, which is demanded by my profession for career advancement etc.

Tony Karrer said...

Sarah - that's exactly it. But what's funny is that many conferences (and yes to Tim's point often the larger conferences) don't seem to work to support networking, participation, etc.

So, to Clive's point - as more people transition to getting the information via their PLE, then the point of the conference shift towards having f2f opportunities with peers.

Anonymous said...

Reading your post, I realize something I "knew" all along. This relates to conference size, networking, and participation.

I attended my first ISPI conference around 1979. ISPI tends to be much smaller than ASTD -- I'd guess back then, maybe 800 participants; I think it's around 1200 - 1500 more recently. (The one ASTD conference I've attended was split between two hotels, which is prima facie evidence that your shindig is too damn big.)

Anyway -- I was a newcomer to the field of performance improvement, and the relatively small size of the '79 conference made it easy for me to get exposed to a wide range of ideas from a spectrum of presenters -- gurus, old hands, journeymen, enthusiastic newcomers.

Over the years, I've attended perhaps 10 ISPI conferences. As my own skills developed and my interests changed, I still looked for some exposure to a new area (someone talking about a trend or a kind of intervention I wanted to know more about). But I also tried to meet face-to-face with colleagues I'd built up some relationship with.

Today, social tool enable some of that relationship-building to occur without a prior meeting. I've never met Tony, but I'm pretty sure we've shared enough informally that we'd enjoy the face-to-face opportunity.

If professional organizations figure out some way to encourage and support such virtual connections, and follow them up with increased value in the face-to-face setting, that would be powerful.