Conference Homophily is a Problem--Maybe Conference Mashups are the Solution
Embracing the "Social" in Social Media

More on Conferencing Mash-ups


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

Tim Davies suggested framing a conference around some shared challenges or problems:

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.

You could also frame it in terms of collaborative opportunities, as Dianne Rees suggested in her comment:

My perfect mashup right now would bring mhealth professionals together with mlearning professionals and health care social media mavens to innovate patient/physician-centered mobile apps.

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...



Conference Challenges

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. . .



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Michele -- Improving conferences is on the minds of a lot of people these days, and I'm glad to hear your ideas and suggestions and those of others who've commented on them.

Should be no surprise that ASAE's Decision to Learn report includes this statement: "The preferred education format is in person, led by an instructor or presenter but not at a conference, tradeshow, or convention."

Could it be that no one wants to admit what's probably really going on? That people want to attend conferences so they can network (maybe even to connect for a new job), visit a desirable location (I can tell you that choice of location has a LOT to do with numbers of registrations), have some great meals and a few days away on someone else's dime...

Ah! But to get that travel money and time away approved, the boss wants to see some benefit. So we'll add in some educational sessions to make the powers that be happy.

Now that there's more accountability about how every dollar is spent, there's greater pressure to deliver real value from those educational events than there used to be.

Hence the increased attention (and frustration) about educational sessions at conferences.

I'd have to agree with the ASAE survey respondents -- conferences, conventions, and tradeshows aren't the best places to learn for a variety of reasons. They just aren't structured for effective learning. We keep trying to find the workarounds to make them effective learning environments, but their very nature is limiting.

Why not abandon them? $$. Really. Even non-profits -- in their most honest moments -- will tell you even they need to generate revenue to keep the organization afloat. And one of the biggest sources of revenues is often the annual conference.

I guess you got me on my soapbox about this... but if we're going to keep pushing the education rock up the conference hill, we should at least know what we're up against.

I'm glad you're making some suggestions -- keep them coming! We're surely in a Catch-22 with conferences and could use all the help pushing the rock up the hill that we can get!

Ellen, I think you make a great point that what conference-goers want (a great location, opportunities to network, and a few days away from the office) is different from what their managers want. But I also wonder if we haven't set certain expectations with conferences that make them less desirable as a place to learn. I see the growth in things like unconferences and Bar Camps as a move in a different direction, but those are still happening for relatively small pockets of people. I suspect that if we were able to incorporate those kinds of structures into more conferences, there might be a more positive response from both conference-goers and managers. I could be wrong, of course, but a girl can dream. :-)

Michele -- I sure hope you're right! Maybe I'm not giving the bosses the credit they deserve, but I haven't had one in my time that would have signed a check if the conference promotional materials said things like, "Choose your own topics!" "Structure your own event!" or "Come to our Bar Camp!"

Here's a real-world example: I once had someone tell me they couldn't attend an event one year (they were a regular other than that one time) because the location name had the words "Golf Resort" in it -- even though the event's content itself didn't change significantly from any other year.

Here's another: One event (day-and-a-half in length) was structured intentionally around a peer-to-peer, issue-sharing, problem-solving, relatively open-topic sessions with some panel discussions and a facility tour as well. I got several calls from potential registrants who needed to know the specifics of those open sessions because the boss wasn't going to sign a check based on a bunch of question marks.

Eventually things will change, and obviously already are for some organizations (the success of some of these alternative formats are obvious proof) but we need to be conscious of how we go about implementing these sorts of changes to the traditional format or we'll end up with a drop -- rather than the desire increase -- in attendance.

Just the view from here... :)

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