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Earlier this week, I wrote about design and how design is a powerful tool in leadership. By coincidence, a day later, I was writing about conferences over on the Talent Anarchy blog. Conferences provide a great example of the power of design. Well-designed conferences are memorable, energizing and enlightening. Poorly designed conferences are a waste of time and money.
I shared some ideas in my Talent Anarchy post for how to design a good conference experience. But, these same ideas extend into other kinds of design and I think it’s a good example of what I mean when I think about design. So, I’m going to share that post with you here. You can click over to the original post or I’ve included it here for your convenience.
Thanks for the invitation to talk about the conference experience. I’ve written on this topic in the past, primarily to make the point that new and innovative approaches are emerging that, I think, will change the way we think of conferences forever.
Let me start by saying that I have always loved conferences. I still love conferences, but the reasons have changed. Early in my career, conferences offered an opportunity to learn and be exposed to ideas that I wasn’t finding elsewhere. It was an opportunity to hear people either telling their story (case study) or talking about a new approach (concept). Both were really valuable to me. But, at that time, there weren’t a billion blogs and twitter and the Human Capital Institute or TLNT. So, getting access to new ideas and information was a lot more challenging than it is today. Today, I could sit at my desk to read and watch webinars all day, every day about case studies and new concepts online. I have access to more information than I can digest–particularly the mainstream stuff, so hearing that same information presented at conferences isn’t nearly as valuable as it used to be.
The other reason I loved conferences in the early days was for the opportunity to network with peers in other parts of the country. I’d meet other smart, motivated professionals at a conference who loved to talk shop. Then, we’d schedule phone calls after the conference to talk more and share information. It was my only reliable way to build a network of peers outside of my local area. Obviously, this dynamic has changed tremendously as well. Today, social media has shrunk the world. I can find and connect to HR peers in all corners of the globe fairly easily. Not only has social media made it easier to find people with whom to connect, it’s also made people generally more open to the idea of connecting and forming networks. All good things, but certainly this changes the value a conference creates for the participant. It’s no longer the primary way to build network, it’s simply another way to meet people.
So, how does the conference look in this brave new world of social technology? Here are a few thoughts I have about where conferences are headed.
- Conferences should becoming a gathering of the tribe. I think the days of a conference just being a two day event (read learning experience) that happens and then disperses are over. Successful conferences are going to simply be a part of a larger effort to create a community, or more powerfully, a tribe. To create a cohesive tribe, it will be important to get very clear about who the tribe is for. We’ve been at a lot of HR conferences over the past year or two. In HR, there are different audiences, there are entry-level, mid-career, and leaders/executives. There are also major HR differences between industries like healthcare versus manufacturing versus professional services. There are progressive HR folks and traditional HR folks. Who do you want in your tribe? Once you define that, the conference organizer needs to create an ongoing way for people to belong to and participate in the tribe (online, in person, etc.). HR Tech is a conference that seems to do this fairly well (check out their LinkedIn group). The point of all of this is that the conference becomes a gathering of the tribe. It’s a chance to get together with people who have common interests to yours, some of who you already know, for the purpose of deepening connections, creating shared expeierience, and talking about content and ideas that are important to the tribe.
- Conference experiences need to be carefully designed. Few conferences do this really well. Design means starting with the question, “How do we want our participants to feel about this experience?’ and then designing every part of the process to create that experience. For example, if you want your participants to leave energized, then you need to think about creating an experience that creates and maintains energy. That means spaces that might be a little small for the number of attendees. That might mean energetic music playing in the hall ways and conference spaces. That might mean a compact agenda that moves at a brisk pace. Contrast that with a conference design where your primary goal is to talk about change. If your theme is change, then you should work in change throughout. Maybe you pick a non-traditional venue versus a hotel or conference center. Maybe you put the speaker in the middle of the room instead of on a stage. Maybe change the agenda half way through the conference, by design, just to keep the topic of change top of mind. Design can mean the different between not remembering the name of the conference you went to last year and telling everyone you know about it.
- Conferences have to be interactive. The days of putting on conferences that are an endless parade of talking heads are gone. It’s still okay to have a few traditional power keynotes on the agenda, but the experience has to be an interactive one. We live in a world where everyone carries a personal computer and gaming system in their pocket. And, the popularity of “livetweeting” at conferences has made it okay for people to sit during a session and play with their phone (regardless of what they are doing on it). People are increasingly treating a conference presentation like a webinar you watch at your desk even though people are presenting right in front of you. If you are interested, you pay attention. If you don’t get pulled in right away, you do something else. I actually witnessed someone at a conference recently sitting in the front row, reading the newspaper while a speaker was talking. There are two ways to work with this trend. First, have incredibly compelling content and speakers (easier said than done). Second, design sessions at your conference to be interactive, shared learning experiences facilitated by experts who are skilled teachers. You can’t play Angry Birds or catch up on email when you are in a session where everyone is expected to contribute to the discussion. And, if you are engaged, you are more likely to learn and have a great experience.
- Conferences must be more affordable. If your focus is to make money off of your conference, you will likely fail. The days of big, juicy profitable conferences are gone–at least until you amass a large, loyal and fierce tribe. Until then, the conference experience needs to simply be a piece of a larger strategy to build community within the tribe. Large professional associations and industry groups will continue to cling to the old model for now, because they are profiting. They have a built in tribe that will attend their show, regardless of design. But, for those who don’t have that luxury, the cost of attending your conference needs to go down. Travel is more expensive than it’s ever been and budgets are tight. If you build a tribe and design an experience that appeals to the tribe, they will come (if you make it affordable). And sponsors who have products for the members of that tribe will be happy to help you subsidize it.
So, that’s my take on the future of conferences. I’ll be interested to hear if you agree or if your perspective on conferences is something different.
Great content here. Enjoy your point of view which is similar but still different enough to stimulate a couple AHAs! I get to many conferences (too many perhaps) and spend a good deal of my time learning from the speakers as well as watching the audiences, real and virtual, learn…or not.
Here's my take:
1. The gathering of the tribe is both an opportunity to extend a growing community of interest and, at the same time, presents a constant danger of developing cliques, that appear as tribes but misrepresent opinion as knowledge, fail to share outside their closed boundaries and fixates on shiny new objects.
I imagine the 'tribe' as you presented- a positive group of like minded learners, compelled to improve their body of work at home and willing to share with their peers (both the good and bad) as well as being open to those outside the 'tribe' who stumble on them.
Unlike our digital native children and grandchildren, we need to get more comfortable outing those who fail to meet some of the positive attributes you describe so well here if your future conference vision is to happen. That will be awhile.
2&3 Conferences need to be carefully designed AND interactive. I absolutely agree but this can be a tricky design combination because the skills to engage an audience with real content AND leave it open enough for the unanticipated learning that is evident among practitioners in the trench who share their knowledge is in short supply. It will be many years before the skill sets match your description in sufficient quantity. I'm a fan of Unconferences for this reason but, if we're being honest, both design and skill are not yet there.
4. Affordable. Yup. I think they already are. You can attend most conferences virtually for free. There are at least 25 local and regional monthly meet-ups around the country that are no more than a few dollars. Volunteer to be on the program committee and make some of this happen. In addition, folks who spent 100k on their formal education ought to either negotiate better with their employer for the budget they need to attend a range of learning events or, simply be willing to pay out of their pocket.
Thanks for the great comments, Gerry. You are spot on with your comments about the tribe. When tribes lose their openness, they cease being of optimal value.
I also completely agree with your comments about content and interaction. Having put together a couple of small conferences myself, I know how hard it is to find facilitators and speakers who can do both effectively. But, if put in the effort to find them and design the experience this way, it pays off. The participants love it.