Bob Marshall recently published his ideas how to improve conferences. Pretty radical ideas I’d say. Basically what Bob proposes is to move from traditional one-way communication to bi- or multi-directional conversations with expertise available on demand (read the whole post – it’s worth it). By the way similar points were shared by Jurgen Appelo in his writing as well.
I’m no conference animal, even though I helped a bit to organize a few of such events and attended a few more. I went through different formats, from whole day long workshops, through few hour long tutorials, through anything between 90 and 30 minute long sessions, open spaces, TED-like no-more-than-18 minute-long performances, lightning talks, pecha kuchas and whatnot.
While I understand Bob’s desire to change knowledge consumption from push model to pull model I find it hard to buy his ideas uncritically.
There is one reason. The conference isn’t better because this or that format is generally better, but because the very set of people attending the very event learned much. In other words, thinking about an event we should think how this specific set of attendees is going to learn, which is a function of how they expect to learn and how they are prepared to learn.
One of the best events I ever attended was Kanban Leadership Retreat. It was an unconference. It exploited many of ideas Bob shares. From a perspective of attendee, who was willing to learn even though they brought significant knowledge on the subject, it was great. The learning process was very multi-directional and pretty much everyone was both: a teacher and a student.
At the same time on occasions I speak at events where such format would fall flat on its face. It would, as people who attend generally expect knowledge to be pushed to their heads. You may laugh but actually even such approach is sometimes expected in a whole spectrum of behaviors. On one end there’s mindless zombie who was sent to the event by the company (yet still they can learn something). On another there’s TED, where you know close to nothing on vast majority of subjects being discussed and actually expect expertise from people on the stage. Note: we’re still in “Dear speaker, I know nothing of whatever you’re talking about” land. I know there is another dimension where you move from one-way learning to everyone’s a teacher attitude.
So basically my thought on the subject is: first, understand what the effective method of learning is for this very group you’re sharing your knowledge with. And yes, I’m talking here about majority, or average, if you excuse me such vast oversimplifications. I’m saying so because we don’t measure success of event by happiness of most demanding person in the room. Even more, probably the most demanding person in the room shouldn’t be happy with the event, because arguably it would usually come at a price of having many others not catching up with the content.
Having said that I believe that generally speaking conferences should head the way Bob describes as our focus is still on pushing knowledge, not pulling it. I wouldn’t be so quick to revolutionary change all the events though – I would rather look for opportunity to broaden variety of methods attendees can use to learn.
This is what a better learning is all about. And better learning is something better conferences should be all about.