Conferences. What’s not to like? As a knowledge mobiliser & researcher I’m always looking for spaces to connect with and learn from people who share my interests and passions and to hear about new work and perspectives. On the surface of it, conferences seem like my natural habitat, but I often come away feeling mildly frustrated and dissatisfied.
The recent rise of the ‘unconference’ format suggests that it’s not just me who feels frustrated and is looking for something a bit different. Unconferences are specifically designed as spaces for peer-to-peer learning, collaboration and creativity. The general idea is that the conference programme is co-created by whoever turns up on the day with each person taking responsibility for their own learning. In practice this means pitching, leading and/or participating in sessions (and ways) that interest you and help you to learn. It’s definitely not for the faint-hearted (or the control freak!), but holds enormous promise as a way of empowering, encouraging and connecting participants together.
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to see one in action at the Social Media & Research Unconference which was taking place the day before this years’ Canadian Knowledge Mobilization Forum. The unconference organisers (the Alberta SPOR SUPPORT Knowledge Translation Platform) were kind enough to let me watch the day to see what I could learn (on the proviso that I shared my learning with you in this blog post!) So here’s what happened…
A few days before the unconference participants were sent a few instructions and a helpful link to some information about what to expect and how to prepare to attend. We were also sent some initial ideas about the possible topics we might want to cover, but our instructions emphasised that an unconference programme is fluid and can change throughout the day as conversations continue and new ideas develop.
On the day, we arrived to a fairly standard-looking meeting room – except for the post-it notes, bowls of sweets, pens and ‘fidget’ toys strewn around the room and the giant sticky noticeboard on the wall! There were no handouts, no programmes and, although there was a laptop and projector, this was showing inspirational pictures and quotes. So far, so different.
We began by gathering in a semi-circle to hear about how the day would work from our facilitator, Anne Bergen. The group was small – around 25 people – so we were able to do a quick ‘round the room’ to find out who else was there and why. Anne introduced us to the ‘rules’ or principles of open space and the ‘law of movement’ before explaining that we would try to shape the day around 4 hour-long blocks of time, plus an opening and closing section. These blocks were themed around
- questioning (e.g. how can I keep up to date with what social media tools are available?)
- venting (e.g. HELP! My comms team doesn’t do or understand social media)
- reflecting (e.g. how do I want to craft my social media identity?)
- reworking (i.e. what have we learned/what can we do differently?)
Next we moved into ‘agenda setting’. We were sent off with pens and post-it notes to write down our questions, frustrations and areas for reflection and think about the different methods we might use to explore and discuss those topics (e.g. fishbowl, dialogue, reflective walk etc.). When we reconvened, there were A LOT of post-it notes which meant that we had to work hard to group them into sensible-sounding topics for discussion.
For the rest of the morning we decided to split into two groups, each of which would tackle one of the topics we had identified. I chose to ‘eavesdrop’ on both groups, moving between them to see how things were going. One of the things I noticed was that the group discussion went in lots of different directions with little separation between ‘questioning’ and ‘venting’. Neither group chose a specific method to use, preferring instead to have a general group discussion around their chosen topic.
Over lunch Anne and I reflected on how the morning had gone so far. One of our reflections was that during the agenda setting section people had focused on asking questions rather than pitching an idea or expertise to share with others. We also noticed that everyone seemed to be there to learn (which was great), but that this sometimes made them reluctant to share their expertise with others. We agreed that unconferences took a lot more planning and thought than you might think!
After lunch, Anne suggested a ‘fishbowl’ format for the final topic. With everyone sat in a circle, she invited people to self-identify as an ‘expert’ in evaluating the impact of social media strategies. 3 people moved into the middle of the circle where they started a conversation amongst themselves while the rest of us listened in. Before long the rest of the group had started pitching in with questions and advice and everyone was scribbling down thoughts, ideas, website addresses and paper references.
At the end of the day I left with a lot of food for thought. My first experience of an unconference had certainly been interesting and left me with no doubt that this kind of approach would be very relevant to knowledge mobilisers, who are often seeking opportunities to network and build community as well as spaces for creative thinking and learning. I did begin to wonder how the format could be scaled-up to a bigger audience (e.g. the UK Knowledge Mobilisation Forum which I’m helping to organise). Thankfully I found this short video by the brilliantly-named Devoted & Disgruntled which shows how this can work. I hope you enjoy it and find some inspiration for your own work. Enjoy!