The Future of Meetings: The UnconferenceJuly 1, 2013

Why the Participant-Driven Event Is Popular and Effective By
July 1, 2013

The Future of Meetings: The Unconference

Why the Participant-Driven Event Is Popular and Effective

Using the Open Space Technology concept, Misha Glouberman staged this unconference for people working in the performing arts. Credit: Jacob Zimmer

As far as conference designer and facilitator Adrian Segar is concerned, everything having to do with traditional meetings has changed over the last decade or so.

For example, potential meeting attendees don’t need to fly across the country to listen to someone speak — they can watch that speaker online. Add in the fact that conferences have never been very good at encouraging or supporting networking, Segar says, and the question becomes, “Why go at all?”

But, what conference attendees are interested in, he says, is talking to and learning from their peers. And that’s the value of an unconference, also known as a participant-driven event, which is designed to take advantage of the collective expertise of the attendees to create meeting content in order to encourage discussion and collaboration.

Segar, founder of Conferences That Work, based in Marlboro, VT, actually has a problem with the term unconference — or at least the way it’s used now. According to Segar, the problem with the term is that it’s come to mean “any kind of conference that’s not a traditional conference.”

Lisa Heft, a consultant, facilitator and educator for her Berkeley, CA-based company Opening Space, specializing in open space meetings, agrees that the term “unconference” has been corrupted over the years.
“Unconference is a word used by a lot of different people, and it means a lot of different things,” says Heft. “It can mean something as simple as deciding not to use PowerPoint. So you get planners who are walking away from (what they think is an unconference), and they’re upset that it’s not very productive.”

Segar prefers the term, “participant-driven event,” which simply means that the meeting becomes what attendees want and need it to be. The process he uses involves setting up a peer-driven event in which the attendees essentially create the content and then decide what sessions they’d like to participate in.

Whatever term is used, it’s one that meeting planners should be aware of, says Misha Glouberman, an unconference designer from Toronto, Ontario who presented a session on “Unconferences and Open Spaces: Designing Participatory Events to Create Real Connections” at last summer’s Meeting Professionals In­ternational World Education Conference in St. Louis.
“It was a micro version of what I do when we run conferences,” he says. “And it was very popular.” So popular, in fact, that he repeated the same session a day later.

But, what he found rather surprising was the degree to which those planners attending the session were unfamiliar with the concept of unconferences or participatory events. “The people obviously know about meetings,” he says. “So you would think they’d be familiar with this, because it’s really been going on for a while.”

The concept of Open Space Technology was developed in the mid-1980s by an organizational consultant named Harrison Owen. And, according to Glouberman, unconferences started to become popular around the turn of the millennium, particularly in the technology sector.

“People see them and say it’s exactly what they need,” he says. “Yet, it hasn’t spread like wildfire.” He speculates that, like most people, meeting planners are creatures of habit.

“People usually have a certain way of doing things,” he says. “So, if you run a big annual conference and lots of people are involved in running it, many people attend it, so making any kind of change is going to be difficult even if it’s one that 98 percent of the people think is a change for the better.”

Glouberman also believes that if planners really thought about why their events were being held in the first place, there would be more interest in participant-driven events. “A lot of times people run conferences simply because they’ve run them year after year,” he says. “But you can’t really get them to articulate why they’re holding the conference. That’s what I try to do — get them to articulate what their conference is really about, and usually they end up telling me that the reason for the conference is to get people to meet and learn from each other.”

Innovative and Cutting Edge

Attending technology conferences was how Steve Radick, formerly a lead associate with the strategy and technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, was first exposed to the idea of unconferences. Radick, who is now vice president at Cramer-Krasselt, an advertising agency headquartered in Chicago, says that what most impressed him about the format, “was how involved everyone got. It wasn’t a meeting where everyone went, sat in a room and listened to a speaker,” he says. “Everyone had some kind of a role. And they were contributing ideas and leading discussions, and they were able to go from session to session, and leave a session after 10 minutes if it just didn’t suit them, and there was nothing wrong with that — it was just the way (the event) worked. So, I wondered why we couldn’t do something like this at Booz Allen.”

After deciding this kind of format was something that could work at Booz Allen Hamilton, Radick began engaging in some internal education to explain to his team colleagues and leaders what an unconference is all about. He started by posting some blog posts on his company’s intranet and “generated some groundswell around the idea.”

Since Booz Allen Hamilton is a consulting company, some PowerPoint presentations to the leadership team were necessary to explain the rationale behind the idea, as well as its benefits. Radick pitched the idea to his leadership team as a low-cost, low-resource opportunity to network with, learn from and collaborate with other members of the team.
“The question I asked was, ‘Why shouldn’t we do this?’ ” he says. “We were always saying we’re innovative and cutting edge, and we used these words in proposals and new business development, but were we living it? This was a chance to demonstrate it.”

For the location Radick and his colleagues chose a pub because it was big enough for the 100 or so attendees, had space for breakouts, had free Wi-Fi and was informal enough to express the idea that this was not the normal Booz Allen Hamilton hands-on meeting.

The results of a post-event survey indicated that attendees liked the informal nature of the unconference, and the leadership team liked the ideas and discussion that resulted from the event and agreed that the format should be used again. An unconference was the perfect kind of format for this event, Radick says, because it was “all about innovation and things that we could be doing better.” But, he added, a typical all-hands meeting in which employees are called in to hear the latest quarterly updates, “probably won’t work as well.”

Who Should Use It?

Segar says the format should work anywhere, including a corporate setting, even though he doesn’t count too many corporations among his clients.
“It depends on the company culture,” he says. “But it certainly can work, and it has worked when I’ve done them — people loved them.”

One problem, he says, is getting corporate leaders to sign off on something that is so untraditional. “I’ve had meetings with corporations, and the meeting planners and vice presidents and other executives have been totally gung-ho, but then the president or CEO turns the idea down,” Segar says. “And you can understand why — they’re hesitant about losing control.”

With those kinds of concerns in mind, Glouberman says, it should be remembered that an unconference is “not some crazy free-for-all.” It’s actually a very fixed structure, he points out, with a very broad range of things that can happen within it.

“If you think about it, in a lot of ways it’s like a wiki,” he says. “Wikipedia has a very strict structure, but within it there are millions of different pages describing millions of different things.”
Glouberman says the format works best “in organizations where people have to talk to each other — and that’s really all organizations. One thing I hear from virtually every organization I work with is that it’s not going to work with their people, that their group is different. But, it always works, because people want to talk to each other.”

In addition, organizations — particularly corporations — want their employees to see the big picture when it comes to organizational goals. “So one thing an unconference does well is that it breaks people out of their silos,” he says. “You get people talking across silos and what happens pretty quickly is that people see that they have common concerns they want to talk about. And that gets people thinking about the bigger picture within the organization, which is great.”

Big Environment for Big Ideas

Robert Hendrickson, managing director of The Garden Center Group in Ellicott City, MD, went with an open space event for the group’s 2011 annual fall event at the Copper Mountain Resort in Copper Mountain, CO.
Hendrickson had previously attended a session Adrian Segar had put on for meeting planners in Chicago and realized that what Segar advocated jibed with his thinking about The Garden City Group, which is an alliance of about 130 garden centers from around the United States.

“I had been concerned that we needed to start tapping into our own talent, and needed to talk about their own problems, rather than just listening to a series of speakers over and over again,” Hendrickson says. “We’re in an industry with a lot of concerns, and we ought to stop, take a break, and spend some time addressing those concerns. As a workshop planner, I’m always guessing what the most popular topics at a meeting should be, and I thought that instead of taking on that responsibility again, I’d have my clients tell me what they wanted to talk about.”

The decision to book Copper Mountain was a big change for the group, since previous events had always taken place at fairly large city hotels. “But I think this kind of event required a place with a big environment to have big thoughts,” he says. “And it requires an environment out of the norm.” It also helped that the group booked Copper Mountain during the resort’s shoulder season, so that the attendees basically had the place to themselves.

Hendrickson says the response from the 140 attendees was “wonderful. I had people who’ve been in the industry for a long time, and they said it was the most valuable conference they’ve ever attended.”

The Garden Center Group followed up the 2011 event with a more traditional one in 2012, though it did include a half-day session led by Segar. As for the future, Hendrickson says a full open space meeting is probably something that wouldn’t work every year, but that the group will probably use the format for every third event.

Radick says that at Booz Allen Hamilton the unconference was used several more times after the original event. “We didn’t necessarily repeat it with that particular team,” he adds. “But we did keep components of it where we would have a typical all hands meeting, and where the participants would filter out of the conference room or ballroom into the bar area and would continue meeting there. We picked up the pieces that worked and hybridized it.”

Radick recently left Booz Allen Hamilton for his current position at Cramer-Krasselt, where the environment may not be as conducive to an unconference. An advertising agency like Cramer-Krasselt doesn’t have the same kind of meeting culture, Radick says. Instead employees are already working in small collaborative groups, and he suspects the unconference approach won’t work as well with 10 or 12 participants compared to 100 or so.

Still, “I think an unconference would work spectacularly here, because we have a lot of creative people here,” he says. “It’s an ad agency, so you have people coming up with the most creative, original, fun stuff you could imagine, so I really think it would work well here.”
Heft says that it’s important that once meeting planners commit to using open space or some kind of participant-driven event, that they remain open to it in the future. Too many times, she says, planners or clients will choose to use open space because they want to “try something new” and then never use it again.

But, she adds, the planner should really examine the objectives of future meetings, because if those objectives can be met by using something like open space, “then it doesn’t make sense to throw this tool out if it will help you deliver on your objectives and desired outcomes.”

A meeting planner who rejects a participant-driven format because he or she has used it before, and wants something different, “is not connecting process with objectives and outcomes,” says Heft. “I don’t do icebreakers and warm-ups that aren’t going to be directly related to content. I’m not the person you would bring in to do something fun for you. What I do is really about creative thinking and knowledge sharing. But it still can be done in a lively way.” C&IT

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