Friday I wrote a post on conference homophily--conferences that bring together people who share the same worldview and conceptual frameworks--and proposed conference mash-ups as a solution. I got a lot of great comments that I think warranted another post.
Conference Mashup Models and Options
I wonder how this would work framed around particular 'problems' and challenges: the literature on open innovation and wide-search innovation - taking problems from one field into completely different fields to find solutions - suggests there is great benefit to be found here.
Two or more fields grappling with similar challenges might benefit from co-hosting a conference around that area.
This seems to me to be one of the more fruitful areas for getting buy-in and participation, especially if you can make the case for how two different fields could benefit from collaborative problem-solving.
This is a great example of how three different groups could find opportunity in working together. Dianne's idea also lends itself to a 48 hours approach, where the groups could come together to actually develop their mobile apps over an intensive 2-day period.
A few people suggested some potential structures for a conference mashup. Ronda Grizzle pointed me in the direction of THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp), a "free, open 'unconference' where humanists and technologists meet to work together for the common good." As Ronda described it:
It's an unconference--short, cheap, no papers, no invited speakers. It's about gathering together a small group of varied experience and skills to actually work on problems and issues. The agenda is set during the first hour of the conference, with people suggesting topics for sessions, and then voting on the topics. The ones with the most votes get put on the schedule. Nobody brings presentations or reads at you; it's about making connections and getting work done.
Their website is a rich resource for planning and implementing an open space-type conference where there is a much greater focus on networking and collaborative discussions. They also have a Boot Camp option for helping people develop new skills. This is generally an "add-on" to the larger un-conference.
Paul Angileri shared the idea of Gangplank, a group of small business owners from a variety of fields who meet and work together on a regular basis, in part to encourage cross-pollination and innovation. Their Manifesto would make some great conference organizing principles:
We have the talent. We just need to work together. Different environments need to overlap, to connect and to interact in order to transform our culture. In order to create a sustainable community based on trust, we value:
- collaboration over competition
- community over agendas
- participation over observation
- doing over saying
- friendship over formality
- boldness over assurance
- learning over expertise
- people over personalities
Tim Davies offered another model, based on "The Interesting Conference":
By simply paying the £20.00 ticket price and bringing our own mug and plate of goodies to share, access was granted to a quirky, lively, but refreshingly low-key event. Organiser Russell Davies filled Conway Hall in Bloomsbury with 200 guests and 30 interesting speakers, who were tasked with presenting for 10 minutes on a topic unrelated to their day jobs. The result was eclectic and delightful: a school teacher entreating us to reconsider our assumptions about nuclear power; a designer confessing her Indian superpowers; a typographer mapping out his 5000 mile cycling adventure; and a media consultant revealing psychological violence in 1970s girls’ comics. The latter taught the women in the audience to never mock a monkey, for fear of winding up like poor Kitty, whose demise is graphically documented in the Misty magazine circa 1979.
A sense of democracy and community spirit pervaded the day, with speakers introduced on a first-name-only basis, everyone lunching together in the park, and, at one point, the entire hall standing to wave their arms in unison as they conducted an invisible orchestra (led ably by a man identified only as John, who won a competition to conduct a real orchestra a few years back and wished to pass on the skill).
Tim also had some great suggestions for combating conference homopily on a smaller scale, without going the complete conference mashup route:
Alternatively, just inviting someone from outside the field to keynote at an event, or people from different fields to take part in key panels, may be a way to at least shake up unquestioned assumptions that are often implicit in homiphilous gatherings...
A few commenters had some concerns. Tracy felt that the conference mashup idea won't work in all sectors:
Nonprofits are the best to setup since they're mission-driven. The public sector is another good one as well since it's under one roof.
The private sector is tough because there's a lot of competition and talent could be taken away and rivalries can start (which is not a bad thing, but not good for your purpose on this post).
And despite her personal enthusiasm for the idea, Ellen Behrens said that some past experiences with the concept had led her to believe it might be a hard sell.
My association staffer experience tells me that it's one of those "nice in theory but tricky in practice" ideas. Mostly because of (guess!) money.
When I've heard association execs talk about various conferences they've held in cooperation (and collaboration) with other associations, they've generally ended with a remark such as, "We'll never do that again."
Why not? "We did most of the work, but they got half the revenue." Or: "Most of the attendees were our members, but they got half the revenue." Or: "The logistics of holding a conference are difficult enough without doubling -- or tripling -- or quadrupling -- the number of player groups involved."
There's no doubt that both Tracy and Ellen raise some very legitimate concerns. The objection I suspect we'd hear most frequently is that other industries or sectors don't understand our issues and problems, so what would we have to learn from them?
To Tracy's concern that there could be issues around talent stealing and competition, I actually think that a mashed up conference would cause LESS of a problem. I think there's probably more competition within an industry than between industries, so if companies can come together for industry-associated conferences, they would have less to fear from a mashed up version.
One challenge I think would be in deciding how to mash it up--which industry or occupation would you connect with and how would you frame the conference to meet the needs of all the stakeholders? This would require considerably more planning and networking than probably goes into most conference organizing efforts, although I think it would be well worth the work.
I also think there's a general entropy challenge that comes from having the same people organizing conferences year after year. I've been involved with several organizations where I've tried to introduce some new ideas and been met with a ton of resistance from the organizers who have been running their conferences for years. They feel like they have a model that works and no one wants to mess with it. Even adding some things around the edges--like incorporating technology--can be a real challenge.
This whole conversation has me thinking more about conferences as professional development and what we could be doing to shake things up to make them more interesting and useful. I'd love to hear more from people on what conferences they've attended recently that were really interesting and what activities made them that way. . .