Participatory Conferences

Turning conferences into more exciting and engaging learning environments



David Gurteen


http://nswkmforum.wordpress.com/2009/05/04/future-of-confere ...


Collaboration; Knowledge Cafe; Knowledge Networking; Open Space Technology; Unconference

I have, over recent years, spoken at, attended, chaired or run Gurteen Knowledge Cafes at very many conferences and apart from a one or two notable exceptions have been appalled at the design of the events. And the delegates agree with me!

Too often, talks are packed in back to back, often in multi-streams with little or no time for questions and answers and genuine discussion - never mind - networking among the participants. And the participants (I call them participants not delegates) are seated in neat theatre style rows reminiscent of the worst of class room teaching.

Speakers are not sufficiently briefed or disciplined and run over time; insufficient time is allowed for coffee breaks and for lunch and no time is built in to the day for conversation and reflection.

What's worse is that these conferences are about 'learning and knowledge management' - the organizers are just not walking the talk!

But of course there is good reason for this. By and large it is intentional - the organizers pack in as many speakers as they can as it looks good in their marketing material. The aim is not to create a great experience for the participants but to pack 'bums on seats' !

But as Bob Dylan once sang "the times they are changing" LOL - it need not be that way and increasingly smaller conference organizations are seeing the light and running more participatory events.

So this page is one that is continually under development and captures and disseminates some ideas and tools for making conferences more interactive, participatory and engaging and thus better learning environments.

Its still all a bit rough but I hope you find it useful. If you are a conference organizer and would like some help, especially in building Gurteen Knowledge Cafes into your event, then please contact me.

  • Remember a conference should be a social event and should be designed to facilitate networking by the participants.

  • Participants (do not call them delegates) should sit at round tables, allows discussion, also after each presentation, participants can discuss the talk before asking questions, also possible for them to take part in mini-workshop sessions at times

  • Speed networking sessions at start of each day even morning and afternoon - need only take 10 mins

  • Try a special form of social tagging - give participants a self sticky label on which they can write a word or short phrase that says something about themselves or one of their interests - stuck close to their name badge it helps facilitate networking.

  • Knowledge cafe as a review process at end of each day or very least, end of last day

  • Allow sufficient time for coffee breaks and lunch. At an absolute minimum 30 mins for morning and afternoon breaks and 60 mins for lunch. But 45 mins for breaks and 90 mins for lunch works so much better and builds a little bit of slack into the day if things do overrun. Buffet lunches are fine but sit down lunches at round tables even better. You can even post discussion themes at the tables to help enhance the conversation and networking.

  • Conversation Dinners as run by Theodore Zeldin are also a great idea. They can also be adapted for lunch and coffee breaks too.

  • Get heavy with the speakers up front - and tell them they MUST ONLY speak for 20 mins and then there will be a full 15 mins for discussion and questions.

  • At the end of a talk - the audience are asked to discuss the talk amongst themselves for 5 mins - if tables as a group - if no tables - then turn to a neighbor and then only after they have discussed the presentation do they get to ask questions for 10 minutes or so.

  • Give speakers some good guidelines on speaking - most do not seem to ask themselves "Is what I have to say of any interest or relevance to the audience?"

  • Conference Posters (Presentation Posters) sessions for participants : great overview here.

  • Conversation Meetings

  • Open Space Technology Sessions

  • If your conference includes vendors then get tough on the vendor speakers - by and large their talks are DIRE!

  • Get the vendors into the conference - one on each table - so they become part of things. Maybe even create vendor led Knowledge Cafes -- the vendors are there to share their expertise in a subject area - not their products!

  • One wonderful way of capturing the soul and energy of a conference is to take lots of photos and videos. You can do this in such a way that everyone can post their photos to Flickr and thus create a group slideshow. Participants love this and it makes great material for publicizing future events.

  • Name badges should serve one purpose only and that is so that participants can find each other and quickly get to know each others names. The badges should be large and so should the names. Badges also serve a secondary purpose at large conferences in that they are a security pass. However, they should NOT be used to advertise the vendors.at the expense of their prime function. I have seen badges where vendor names and logos totally dominate the badge and where the participants name is in unreadable small print!

  • Arrange dinner or other social events if the conference runs for more than one day.

  • Take a look at Patrick Lambe talking about the KM Conference scene and also this document that Patrick put together from an actKM discussion in September 2006 that is a great resource for anyone putting together a participatory conference.

  • Take a look at the Unconference concept and here. Plus this this Business Week Article and blog posting by Patti Anklam.
Finally, take a look at this Gurteen Knowledge Cafe that I ran at the SmartLab in 2006 - to get an idea of the energy and excitement involved when people really get the opportunity to participate in an event.

Video: Knowledge Cafe at KMAP 2006

Gurteen Knowledge Cafe at KMAP 2006 in Hong Kong, December 2006, facilitated by David Gurteen and Raksha Sukhia. Courtesy of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Knowledge Management Research Centre.

Media Information: Image

If you are interested in Knowledge Management, the Knowledge Café or the role of conversation in organizational life then you my be interested in this online book I am writing on Conversational Leadership
David Gurteen

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