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.



  • Consulting - Research - Speaking  - Training -  Writing
  • Strategy  -  Talent  -  Engagement  -  Change and OD
  • Contact  me to  create more  value for  your business
  • jon  [dot] ingham [at] strategic [dash] hcm [dot] com



  1. I don't think you have to defend what you did. From the feedback, it sounded like it was a great event with learning and connections taking place. For the people who came and paid money, that's an important takeaway.

    Personally? I've been from very unstructured to extremely structured events. Both are fine if the right mix of people, speakers and topics are in place.

    Kudos from my side of things. Running an event of any size is tough work.

  2. What a shame that this needed to be said, Jon, and how typical that some passengers on the journey find it easier to critisise the transport rather than consider the destination.

    You and Gareth led 60 odd people, mostly strangers, to a disused warehouse in South London. The strength and purpose of your combined vision created an energy that is evident through countless blogs and has rippled through Twitter every day since. This is a tremendous achievement.

    Carping about the first hour of the day is like objecting to having to order from a menu in a restaurant. Telling the Chef what you want and expecting them to have it just isn't gonna work.

    Anyway, I'm all for any piece of process which allows me to witness your funky chicken in action.

  3. Thanks both, it's great to have your support.

    Let me just explain however, that I don't mind the criticism, don't see it as carping, and don't see my response as a defence.

    People have different perspectives - that's a good thing. Sticking to the subject of the post, there's little point in connecting with anyone with exactly the same views.

    And I'm pleased people feel able to share their perspectives too - that's an essential part of social connecting as well.

    All I'm seeking to do here is to explain that there is a reason our event was designed in the way it was (that there is a difference between CHRU and TRU if you like).

    Experiencing the event was one thing, but I want to help people understand the intent behind the experience s well.

    I hope this understanding will help
    people choose whether they want to go to future CHRUs or other types of unconference in the future.

    And this understanding is also essential if people want to run similar events inside their own organisations too (which increasingly, I hope they will).

  4. John,
    Can i just make clear what I meant by structure. i thought #ConnectingHR was a great event that achieved your objectives. It was 100% unconference. No question there.
    In terms of structure (which seems to be the comment that has bothered you),I saw 2 things that were quite different in terms of participants. I saw the same thing at #HREvolution as oposed to #Recruitfest. TheGBUnconference, #Socialbootcamp and other unconference type events I have attended.
    The differences:
    lots of active note taking and recording of the conversation and key-points. I think this is connected to learning style and make up. I also think that many from HR have an academic learning background, and this is how they like to learn.
    You also included debrief sessions in the circle and were very conscious to push the last sessions to action points and a conclusions. I think this reflects a need for outcomes and action points to implement as a result of the day. I think this is not unique to HR but quite charachteristic.
    I view it that people draw their own action plans, and that unconferences normally set the questions, investigation points and connections that lead to the action points down the road a little. That is certainly the way they have worked for me. I don't expect outcomes from unconferences, more questions. I wrote something simmilar after #HREvolution, and had a call with trish about it. That is feedback, not critiscism. On that occasion it was the requested feedback and not taken as critiscism. I hope you can see it the same way. As I said in the post, it was "different", not wrong. I also went on to list 10 takeaways. please don't focus just on the introduction.
    You did a great job. There were some differences, there always will be, and we shouldn't make an issue out of it.



Please add your comment here (email me your comments if you have trouble and I will put them up for you)