Thursday, 28 October 2010

Unconferences: Social vs Structure


   We’re still getting lots of great feedback on last week’s Connecting HR unconference (CHRU).  However, I want to respond to the small amount of criticism we received about there being too much structure and organisation.

I don’t mind criticism (not much that more than most other people anyway), but I think it’s important people associated with Connecting HR, and other related unconferences, understand why we did what we did.

I do completely discount the point that we needed structure because our attendees are from HR (“HR folk need a bit more structure and order than the rest of the social media population").  I’m not sure if HR people do need structure, but I’m sure the people who attended our unconference don’t.  In any case, we included people from recruitment, learning, legal and other areas, not just core HR.

And actually, I don’t really believe the amount of structure we used was that high.  Developing the grid was a facilitated process but it was all over with fairly quickly.  And I don’t believe this process could have completed before the event while providing the same level of benefits (not this time around anyway).

The completed grid provided an agenda, but it was still completely up to individual people which sessions they went to, and what they discussed when they were there.

And I don’t believe believe the presentations we included were a problem – all were just 6 minute Pecha Kucha’s and to me, simply one way of injecting some variety into the formats to provide additional interest to people.  The key point is that we’re not against slides, just the mind numbing way they’re used in lots of traditional conferences.

But I challenge the criticism on a deeper level too.  To me, a lot of this goes back to what we’re trying to do.

Bill Boorman defines an unconference as:

“An unconference is an event that has no fixed structure and only two rules, no power point and no presentations.”


If that’s his / Andy’s definition then I can see where they’re coming from.  But this isn’t the definition I would use.

My definition of an unconference would be something linked to social learning – about it providing an environment designed for exchanging insights between people rather than cascading knowledge down from the speaker to attendees.  Even more than this, it would be something about allowing people to connect and develop relationships in order to engage in meaningful conversation.  Something about understanding that if the relationships are there, the rest will follow.

Structure, powerpoint and presentations are immaterial.  We included them in the day because we felt that they would help with the connecting that we wanted to take place.  But if someone thinks they can create the same level of connection without this level of structure then fine.

But simply taking away structure doesn’t create relationships.  Bill’s TRUs are interesting events, and I really enjoyed the one that I acted as track leader at.  And I connected with plenty of people too.  But the fact that there was a commercial purpose, sponsors, track leaders, pre-defined sessions, and yes, even a certain lack of organisation, detracted from what I felt could have been achieved.

Don’t get me wrong, Bill deserves heaps of praise for trying something new – and I’d much rather attend a TRU event than many, though not all, traditional conferences, but my sort of unconference it’s not.

The key for me is a focus on ‘social’ (ie relationships), not an absence of structure.  And social is what everyone seems to agree that CHRU well and truly was.



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