I picked up a great tweet from Umair Haque yesterday(@umairh and a hat-tip to Jules for the link): Maybe I'll start an anti-TED, with three-hour-long in-depth talks about Great Ideas. Oh, wait. It's called "A University". I retweeted it, resisting the temptation to amend It's called to It was called. Now in parallel with this I have being dealing with some of the ideological dancing around how a conference should be structured and reading reports of the Italian elections which seems to have discovered a old form of oratory, holding down large audiences for extended periods of time. Lots of potential material there but the focus of this post is how to structure a conference.
David Gurteen's ever useful newsletter talked about a Conversational Conference using KM Asia as an example. Under this format speakers are expected to present for 25 minutes, then there is a conversation before returning to Q&A. Now I remember this one well as the new format was announced after speaker slots had been determined and content defined. I protested at this late change, arguing that the only way to achieve that was to cut the content which would mean the conference brochure was inaccurate. I then got told that the change did not apply to me which irritated me even more. In the event, and ironically I was the only one on the first morning to actually follow the format; something that is not reported in the newsletter, everyone else overran. Now David suggests that this is a great first step to more open, participatory conferences so I assume he thinks it doesn't go far enough, its what Trotskyites in the 70s used to term entryism.
The ideological privileging of one form over an other is I think an error. When I raise this with advocates they always claim that they are not doing so, but then the very next publication or email in effect uses the same value laiden language. The problem is magnified by the need of conference organisers to stuff their brochures full of case studies from blue chip companies in order to allow people to justify attendance. That is a simple reality of tightened budgets. You are not going to get funding from your company to go along to an open-space event with no content.
So lets avoid the pendulum swing and think about a different form of event. I'd suggest something along the following lines:
I'd also organise a series of symposia, but I'll talk more about that tomorrow. It's a different type of conversation with a different pedigree. Now the above structure is a both/and, not an either/or. Critically it doesn't say that one form is the best way, but then allow exceptions - something I objected to at KM Asia. It says that different mechanisms work in different ways and we want variety. Soundbites and virtual learning can never substitute for three years at a university, similarly at a conference we want case studies, but we also want to be provoked and inspired.