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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Better Conferences or Better Learning?

Better Conferences or Better Learning? post image

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.

in: communication, personal development

2 comments… add one

  • Bob Marshall April 8, 2012, 9:19 am

    Hi Pawel,

    Nice post. Some specific observations:

    Different folks have different reasons for attending conferences. Some go because they’re sent, some for entertainment, some for solidarity, some to learn, some to socialise., some for other reasons. I’m not suggesting any one conference should attempt to cover all possible reasons. Actually, it might be helpful if the organisers made explicit the reasons they were specifically catering to.

    And I posit that every attendee would benefit from a more conscious examination / declaration of their reasons for attending (in my post I referred to this as “purpose”).

    Even in one particular purpose, like learning, different folks will likely be at different stages (cf Dreyfus). And different stages require different learning styles (and hence, different formats, probably, across the whole spectrum from push to pull).

    I believe we all have a long way to go to make things better. Are they good as they are? Occasionally, but not nearly frequently enough.

    – Bob

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 9, 2012, 3:17 am

    @Bob – I definitely agree that more explicit and conscious statement what an audience needs/expects from an event and how they expect or are prepared to learn could make the event better. And you’re right that we often make a mistake of assuming we know better what the audience expects. Personally, I’m guilty of making this mistake pretty often too.

    Sometimes the mechanics is different – by setting a specific event type you want to drive specific people to attend (unconferences come to me as a good example here). However, the pattern you point is still true, except in this case it would be more about explicitly stating which purpose and which learning style will be covered by the event so potential attendees can make more conscious decisions when choosing whether they want to go or not.

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