Friday 20 January 2012

Unconferencing at the HR Directors Business Summit


   This is an (updated) article I wrote to support the HR Director’s Business Summit next week:


The next HR Directors Business Summit taking place in January 2012 will, for the first time, feature an unconference.  Since this format may be unfamiliar to many delegates, I have written this article to explain a little about the history of unconferencing, and what you can expect if you attend one of the unconference sessions at the Summit.


What is an Unconference?

Unconferences, also commonly known as barcamps, are events a bit like a conference, but which also quite unlike a conference, as there are no pre-set agendas, pre-booked speakers or formal presentations.

Instead of this, unconference attendees all participate on an equal basis, deciding between them on the topics which will be the focus of the unconference, and all contributing to conversations around these topics.

Unconference attendees are also encouraged to take responsibility for their own participation.  As well as helping to set the agenda, this includes deciding on which sessions they are going to attend and, if necessary, moving between sessions during the unconference to ensure they are contributing and learning.

But probably the main difference between the two formats is that rather than following a model of traditional training, unconferences focus on social learning.  Even if they involve less dissemination of expertise (because nobody is there as an expert), everybody’s learning is usually greater because it is built upon the knowledge and insights of all participants.


What is the history of unconferencing – why have I never come across it?

Unconferences are based loosely upon Open Space Technology and were first held in the Californian ‘technology geek’ community in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Their use extended slowly into HR, led by people like Jay Cross, the pioneer of informal learning, and Jason Davis, the founder of Recruiting Blogs, with Recruitfest in 2008.  The first cross-HR unconference, HRevolution was held in Louisville, Kentucky in 2009.

In the UK, unconferencing also kicked off in the recruitment space with TRU (the recruitment unconference) in 2009 before moving into broader HR with Connecting HR and CHRU (Connecting HR Unconference) which I established in 2010 with Gareth Jones, who at that time was leading one of the UK’s main HR recruitment agencies.

Connecting HR has now organised three UK based HR unconferences and feedback has been extremely positive, with participants stating that they have learnt as much, if not more, than they do at most conferences, as well as developing many more, and deeper, relationships which they continue to draw on to support their learning after the event.

However these unconferences have been largely limited to users of social media.  The HR Directors Business Summit will see the first time that an unconference has been run for a broader HR population and also the first time that one has ever been fully integrated into a traditional conference.

Increasingly of course, unconferences are also being organised within organisations, but it is still currently early days in their broader adoption. So we would not be too surprised if you have never heard of them before.


What will be happening at the HR Directors Business Summit?

The unconference will consist of three phases held over the two days of the Summit.

The unconference discussion sessions will all be held on the second day of the unconference.  There will be two sets of concurrent sessions, each consisting of about a dozen people, taking place at the same time as the workshops, conference sessions and masterclasses in the main conference.

The unconference will then close with a plenary panel debate back in the main conference, summarising the discussions that have taken place and enabling further conversation about some of the key themes emerging in the unconference sessions.  We will also be using Twitter to encourage further input into these discussions from people not at the conference.

On the first day, the focus will be on creating the grid – the matrix detailing the topics that will be discussed on the second day.  We will be asking delegates to suggest topics and to sponsor sessions to discuss these.

Topics can relate to a particular conference session or a point raised by a speaker in the conference, a key theme emerging from a couple of different conference sessions, or anything else.

Sponsors do not need to be experts in these areas, it may be that they simply want to know more about these topics from other delegates.  It is therefore up to each sponsor as to how they want to run the session, though we suggest that if they do want to make an input before the start of a discussion, that this should last for no more than five to ten minutes.  However, the sponsor may choose simply to explain why they think the topic is important, and to ask a question to kick the conversation off.  Whatever role the sponsor decides to take, their main job will be to facilitate the conversation to maximise participants’ learning and if possible and appropriate, to generate some conclusions from the conversation.


Why should I attend one of the unconference sessions (as sponsor or participant)?

The HR Directors Business Summit is incorporating unconferencing into this year’s conference as a direct response to an increasing desire for more involvement and interaction.  To date, this has been encouraged by taking questions at the end of each speaker’s presentation and through one-to-one meetings with suppliers, networking time at breaks, and social events in the evening.  However, the new unconference sessions will provide the first real opportunity for a much higher proportion of delegates to participate in the main flow of conversation at the summit.

There is an excellent line-up of speakers in the main conference and missing one of the speaker’s presentations to attend an unconference session may mean that you learn about less.  However having the opportunity to discuss key points from one or more of the sessions with other delegates should help you internalise and remember your learnings about these topics better – helping you to maximise the benefits you have received from the sessions you have attended.

Unconferencing is something you can do within your organisations as well and the sessions at the HR Directors Business Summit will provide you will an opportunity to explore the unconferencing approach and then potentially take this back into your own organisation.



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