How I came to rekindle my love for the conference

I work in Digital. Nothing spectacular in that. In fact, nearly everyone you meet these days works in Digital (I am guessing it was the same in the 19th century with the invention of the internal combustion engine where every second person you met was a mechanic of some sort!).  A side-effect of working in Digital is the number of conferences one has to (or should) attend in order to supposedly ‘keep up’ with what is happening. After all, if Digital does nothing else it does change rather quickly. And a side side-effect of going to all these conferences is conference burn-out – a term used to describe the ashen-faced ones like me who sit in the back and smart-phone their way through the presentations/panels and once in a while tweet a snidey remark about the panel/presenter (I take this opportunity to say sorry to them all – I was just bored!).

But then something happened in the middle of one of these conferences while I was buying a 10mm Red Power Ranger for my son on my Amazon app – a question suddenly popped into my head:

Were conferences always like this – so static, passive and lethargic? Is there not another way?

Digital Deserves Better Of Me

Wikipedia defines a conference as

the meeting of two people or more to exchange views and discuss matters of common interest’.

I doubt this is really my goal when I book that 3 day jolly, I mean conference, in Amsterdam on the company. It is more likely that my goal is more for me to unwind, catch up on my email, learn a little, eat a lot and see a bit of a foreign country.  Even possibly a little time away from the chaos of a young family perhaps?

Maybe that is not how you experience conferences at all. After all,  conferences are great at imparting certain types of knowledge.   Maybe you are the person who sits in the second row and takes notes and tweets 300 times a day with every snippet of useful information that comes out of the panelist’s mouths aiming for that sort after ‘transcendental knowledge experience’ which will lift you to the next level of expertise and gain you that promotion/business deal etc!

Ok I’m jealous, because during a conference I generally tune in and out of snippets of interesting and not so interesting presentations in between thoughts of lunch, dinner, alcohol, Skype calls with my kids (I miss them), free peanuts and fluffy bathrobes. Sad but true.

Question is, was I always a passive conference audience member with not much to say?

As that passive audience member I spend more of my time looking down at a screen in my hands laughing at disparaging tweets about the presenter than I do interacting with what’s going on around me. Does it have to be like this though? Am I not missing a great opportunity to learn and connect?

Put another way, doesn’t Digital deserve better from me?

Passive Conference Puppy

In fact, in past conferences when I was younger and not as grey as I am I was so excited about Digital that I was prepared for an ‘exchange of views and discussion matters of common interest’ and I would purposely search out the ‘expert’ presenters in the coffee breaks and beguile them with my knowledge of future trends, Apple rumours and the Facebook social graph etc.

When exactly did I become the passive puppy I am today with little or no expectation from conferences except that the food is half decent and the hotel is not too close to a major motorway?

I take some responsibility for this change in me – but conference organizers need to take their share too for packing their panels with half-arse Digital experts such as junior bank clerks who do twitter support and people who happen to own an ipad (I know finding experienced digital talent is hard but the ownership of a tablet senza stylus is just not enough these days).

Presenter vs. Audience: Round 212

In my view many of today’s digital conferences have evolved into a battle of Presenter vs. Audience where the Presenter battles to present his (already old) untested social media ideas in an interesting way and the Audience battle to be interested in his (already old) untested social media ideas. In the end the battle is not won by the quality of the ideas (who can tell as most of them are untested theories?) but by the personality of the Presenter and his or her ability to inject some humanness into their presentation. No one remembers the presentation but they may remember the presenter if he stops reading social media stats off his slides long enough to actually seem like a another human being and connect with his audience. Harsh but true!

Conference Corridor Connections

Obviously there are still great conferences and great speakers out there – but much like the proliferation of music festivals where even your Mum & Dad are going to one in their neighbour’s garden (with Dire Straits headlining) it is hard to find the quality among the dirge. Of course, there are still great opportunities to learn and challenge yourself within the traditional conference format. But this miracle of human connectivity and ideation doesn’t generally happen within the traditional conference format in my experience, it invariably happens in the corridors in-between and after the presentations and panels i.e. in the bit the organizers don’t organize!

It has actually been a long standing complaint of mine of traditional conferences that the most interesting and useful part of the whole experience is the chance meetings and conversations that happen in the corridors while everyone waits for the next battle of Presenter vs Audience to commence.  In the corridors everyone can look up from their smart-phones and actually engage each other and exchange views and confer around the subject of ‘common interest’.  I find it weird (and slightly preposterous) that the actual conference limits the actual event it wanted to happen from happening by its very being i.e. the transfer of knowledge and collaboration by the meeting, talking and sharing. A strange world indeed!

The Expert is Dead

In Digital more than any other industry the speed of change and proliferation of new ideas actually means it will always be difficult for the traditional conference format to deliver the kind of insight and learning we want due to the fact that the expert-audience relationship does not exist as concretely as it does in other industries. In fact, the existence of the ‘expert’ in Digital in the old sense of the word (someone who knows more than most about a particular subject) is rather temporal and short-lived. It could be argued that in Digital everyone is an expert in their own particular subject and the sharing of ‘expertise’ is no longer about sharing knowledge others don’t have (the internet put a stop to that) but about sharing points of view around the knowledge, about sharing applications of the knowledge in the real world, and about visioning the future evolution of the knowledge in certain scenarios. In fact, in some of the conferences I have been to the expert up on stage is just someone who is quicker at sharing links on Twitter than me, or has 3 failed startups to his or her name to my none.

 Open Space Technology

 So what kind of conference format would fit the fast moving complex Digital industry? When I asked this question of colleagues they instantly answered – an unconference!

What is an unconference you hear me ask?

The unconference is a participatory format which turns the traditional passive conference audience into active participants where they create the agenda on the day of the conference.. The unconference turns the traditional conference into an active conversational space where everyone can share and learn.

The format is based on the Open Space Technology ideas of Harrison Owen in the 1980s where a conference was simply an open space for participants to self-organize around issues and opportunities they saw as essential to their areas of interest. The format laid the onus on the participants to collaborate and ‘maximize their productive learning’ themselves, and reduced the organisational overheads and costs of setting up a conference.

The modern day Unconference generally has a theme linked to the industry it is organized for, but other than that is exactly what OST was –  a space where anyone can stand up and talk about their ideas, find people to answer their questions, or find cross-discipline collaboration partners. It is a format which is well suited to the emerging Digital industry where the pace of change, the deepening complexity of the subject matter, and the multitude of different disciplines involved mean traditional conferences are too restrictive and non-collaborative.  More and more digital conferences are either including an unconference track or are being run as full unconferences – and the change is most welcome by me.

Serendipitous Cross-Discipline Collaboration and Learning

 Once of the reasons the unconference format is the perfect conference format for Digital is because cross-discipline collaboration is vital in digital as successful digital products or services generally must include expertise from the three key disciplines of Design, Business and Technology. The possibilities of this kind of collaboration happening within the traditional conference audience-presenter format are limited due to the very few opportunities for serendipitous cross-discipline collaboration and learning (SCCL) i.e. the fortuitous bumping into people who have what you need or need what you have. The unconference format maximizes the potential for SCCL by allowing the participants to run the show – and therefore maximizes the potential of kick starting new and innovative projects/ideas/future products by allowing all the ‘experts’ to take part in the conference in order to maximize the number of ideas/projects/thinking aired.

Audience Participation Phobia

However, when I began thinking about attending an unconference the one part of the format I feared most of all was the dreaded audience participation.

The traditional conference (and being British) had imprinted an expectation of a pattern of behaviour in me which I found it painful to break. When I went to conferences I generally wanted to be left alone to participate when I chose to – I didn’t want some NLP fanatic pulling me up on stage to metaphorically saw someone in half! But I came to question this behaviour. Was it correct? Did I not need to rethink this pattern?

Conferences are about ‘maximizing productive learning’ as Harrison Owen termed it – and the best way to do that is to break some behavioural patterns by getting involved, taking a chance and maybe even running a workshop or two.  And this is exactly what I did in my first unconference. And it was amazing, invigorating – but most of all it was a learning experience (not sure if I maximized my learning but I got close!)

Get Up Stand Up

 So, if and when you find yourself in an unconference ( and I strongly suggest you do) – get up, get yourself moving, share you expertise (because you are an expert) and learn something new. You never know  – you may even find yourself hugging the grey middle-aged man on your left and feeling all at one with the digital universe. And I promise I won’t complain if you hug me too enthusiastically either!


Justin K Small is a digital strategist and digital brand expert. He helps multi-nationals thrive in the digital economy. He is also part of the team running Rewire London Unconference on September 28th  2012 at Google Campus. He tweets @justinksmall and blogs at  


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