Does the unconference have enterprise relevance? Learning from a Podcamp expert

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed June 11, 2015
The more unconferences I attend, the more potential I see for the enterprise. How many stale, over-moderated panels and sleep-inducing Powerpoint sessions do we need? Here's what I've learned about unconferences, with views from a Podcamp veteran.

The more unconferences I attend, the more potential I see for the enterprise. How many stale, over-moderated panels and sleep-inducing Powerpoint sessions do we need? Here's what I've learned about unconferences, with tips on how to adapt them for the enterprise.

Western Mass Podcamp, 2015

Since I wrote Why take a chance on an unconference day in November 2013, I've had a chance to attend a few more unconferences, including two Western Mass "Podcamps", where I also presented on content/media strategy.

The more unconferences I attend, the more potential I see for this format to be adapted for enterprise audiences. How many stale, over-moderated panels and sleep-inducing Powerpoint sessions do we need? An unconference raises the stakes, involving all participants directly into the outcome. Not a bad objective for an enterprise show, eh?

After the most recent podcamp, I had some back and forth with one of the Western Mass Podcamp founders, Morris Partee. The Western Mass Podcamp is one of the longest-running Podcamps, so Partee has seen the good, the spontaneous, and the not-so-good. Partee shared some hard-won unconference lessons, which I'll combine with a few of my own for enterprisey folks who are thinking of giving this a try.

How the Western Mass Podcamp does the unconference

But first: a bit about the format of the Western Mass Podcamp. The Podcamp kicks off with all attendees gathered together. Some have never attended an unconference before, or have never presented. This means going over a few basics and ground rules. (Here is a link to the event overview and structure).

Example: when you are new to group facilitation, you might struggle with a couple of - how do I put this - over-active participants who dominate the question and answer segment, leading to an unsatisfying session. The idea behind an unconference is that everyone has a key contribution to make, so it's important for attendees to be aware that it's their job to speak up, but also to zip their traps sometimes, and encourage others to find their role.

As you might expect, the event's ground rules focus on inclusion, and strict rules on use of offensive and hateful language - basically, Don't be an a-hole. There are also rules to "license" the use of the word PodCamp at an event. Some of these rules provoke thinking on content licensing and participant veto power, as in:

  • All content created in and around the event must be released under a Creative Commons license. This means that any recordings, video, pictures, podcasts, written documents, promos, and the like prepared for or recorded at the event must be licensed under the creative commons license.
  • All sessions must obey the Law of 2 Feet - if you're not getting what you want out of the session, you can and should walk out and do something else.
  • The event must be new-media focused - blogging, podcasting, video on the net, social media and any other new media formats.

podcamp - sticky notes
Once the ground rules are covered, the event begins. For the Western Mass Podcamp, that means heading over to the "sticky note schedule board."  The board has room for six concurrent sessions. If you know the topic and time slot you want to present on, you grab a marker, come up with a catchy title, and stick it on the board.

Some, however, are not ready to present. They may not even realize their knowledge is relevant. Or: they may have a burning question that needs answering. It might be specific, like, "How do you run a Google Hangout?" It might be broader, like, "I need help with e-books." Those questions are posted to the right hand side in a open question pool. From there, other attendees can help to answer them, group the questions together, or, ideally, schedule a session where the questions can be addressed. This goes on throughout the day.

Unconference lessons from Podcamp veteran Morris Partee

Morris Partee

Just like any uncoference, a Podcamp asks a lot of the participant. If you have a disappointing day, it might be your fault for not speaking up. I asked Partee how these events have evolved since his first Podcamp, Boston Podcamp 2 in 2007:

In 2007, it was clear to me that all of these platforms would create a big shift in online communications, marketing, and business communication. Since roughly 2012, instead of being an emerging idea, this is now assumed to be standard operating procedure. So the challenge is less "What is going to be adopted by the mainstream?" and more of "How do we best make use of these tools and platforms?"

As a Podcamp veteran, what advantages does Partee see in the unconference format?

An unconference can be kind of a scary "unknown" thing to attend. That's why my hat is off to everyone who tries it for the first time. But the way that unconferences are run, in what is known as Open Space Technology, has actually been proven to be a really effective way to communicate. The same concept is also used by leading-edge design companies for rapid prototyping of complex things with many people involved, like optimal hotel lobby design, for example.

The beauty is the interactive nature of getting sessions on the board. Whatever you want to discuss is discussed. When you are responsible for getting what you want out of the day, you are empowered to really be involved, and not a passive audience member who just sits back and waits for a nugget of information. When you sit back, you fall asleep. I'm sure we've all had that experience in a typical large conference. When you are an active participant, your brain is just more alert and you wind up learning more.

Fine - but what are the "gotchas"? Partee:

You may have so much information thrown at you at an unconference that it's too much to absorb, at which time you need to give yourself permission to pull back, take a break, go outside or just skip a time slot. There is no rule at PodCamp saying you must attend a session during every time slot. If you engage in such a great conversation with someone that you'd rather keep talking to them than go to another "formal" session, that is more than okay.

How could you adapt the unconference for the enterprise? Nine tips

Useful tips, but how could this translate to an enterprise event format? In my view, most of these approaches are relevant to an enterprise gathering, but with some crucial distinctions:

!. For large shows, you'd need to subdivide into a smaller group. I'd suggest no more than 150 participants, perhaps closer to 100.

2. To avoid giving attendees a "fish out of water" experience, consider an add-on unconference day rather than an entire event in this format.

3. Educate attendees in advance of the goals of the unconference day and the advantages/responsibilities of the format.

4. Consider identifying a series of problems to solve collectively, which could allow for smaller breakout sessions, then a reconvening to share collective learnings.

5. Instead of a totally unstructured day, consider launching the day with a topical keynote or informal panel to ensure a baseline of knowledge.

6. (Most important) Seat-of-the-pants doesn't work well for specialized enterprise days. A Podcamp has the advantage that the majority of attendees will have media expertise to share. With an enterprise event, there are specialized areas of knowledge that must be present for a discussion to advance (example: attendees want to talk about software-defined networking, and the only expert is already on a plane ride home). Therefore, the right mix of experts must be present for the informal sessions to work.

7. Unlike a Podcamp, an enterprise unconference should poll attendees ahead of time to better determine the types of experts that will be needed as per point 6. This loose structure might work best at shows where the organizers already have a good grasp of attendees topical needs and concerns from past events.

8. Designate roving facilitators who drop in on various sessions, or who can step in to help groups get over stumbling blocks or locate the right expert.

9.  As we've learned at the SAP Controlling shows, unconferences are ideal for the last day of an event. The format gives attendees a chance to push for information they have not been able to get from general sessions - reducing the chance they fly home unhappy.

Final thoughts

Too many enterprise events have become stale rehashes. The unconference is not an untested idea, but a proven structure that derives its know-how from long-running events like Podcamp. Emerging disciplines such as design thinking and agile development also bring elements that can inform the unconference approach.

Used judiciously, and adapted with care, the unconference format has a lot to offer enterprises that want to give their attendees a truly memorable event, one that pushes their own skills and requires more than passive consumption. The only downside? An unconference makes its much harder to attendees to tune out the presentation and catch up on their mobile Facebook activities. Come to think of it, perhaps a "Facebook break" should be built into the unconference day. If you've had success with variations on this format, let us know what you've learned.

End note: here's an audio podcast recording of an interactive session I did at Western Mass Podcamp 2014, Creating Content that Matters (and Avoiding Social Media Fails) - Live Talk.

Image credits: Photos by Michelle Girard of Michelle Girard Photography.

Disclosure: I paid my own way to the Western Mass Podcamps I attended, which charge a minimal registration fee. I am on the founding team of the SAP Controlling conference, an ongoing paid engagement.