Applying Ideas Of The Industrial Revolution To People & Events Was Wrong

Lee Bryant of Headshift has some interesting thoughts about how the Twentieth Century was wrong.

He says:
Some people see new social technology and networked culture as dangerous and ‘new’, and they fall back on their experience of technology and organizational culture in the late Twentieth Century as the ‘established’ model. Yet, in fact the reverse is true. The Twentieth century took the ideas of the industrial revolution and applied them to people. Mass production. Mass marketing. Mass slaughter.

20th Century engraving factory manufacturing silk

20th Century engraving factory manufacturing silk

If you look at a longer timeframe, you will see that our new era of social technology and social business is in fact more traditional, and continues very old, resilient models of network-based trade, business and socialization. The difference is, we now have the technology and infrastructure (and arguably the globalised world) that enables us to scale up these old ways of working to support our modern life.

I agree with Bryant on many levels and as a professional educator I know that much of today’s public education is built on the framework of the industrial revolution. The goal was to train students to sit in rows, follow a leader’s instructions, do rote memory tasks and all have same outcomes.

Interesting enough, so many of today’s conferences, events and meetings still use the command and control, hierarchy approach grounded in the industrial revolution as well. People enter large ballrooms, sit in rows and passively listen to one presenter as if everyone will leave the room with the same outcomes. Adult white space, as I call it, is rarely used allowing attendees to digest information, bounce ideas off other attendees, view those ideas from different perspectives and consider a variety of ways to apply it. It is as if attendees are to leave the ballroom and create the same intellectual widget in the same way as everyone else. Often conference organizer’s consider group think, collaboration, peer-to-peer sharing as out of step with mass production and against the grain. Attendees talking and sharing with others is seen as out of control instead of controlled chaos and engagement.

Bryant believes that network-based organizations and collaboration are actually old resilient traditional models from socialization and history. Here is his PPT presentation that he delivered to the Lift Conference 2009 that discusses how the Twentieth Century got it wrong.

As you view this presentation, consider

  • How can we change our education efforts within meetings and events to embrace a network-based collaborative conference. 
  • How we can change the focus of conferences from one presenter to many with passive audience members to many presenters to many with engaged attendees.

I don’t have all the answers yet, and the more I consider this issue, the more questions I have.

View more documents from Lee Bryant.

So what are your thoughts?


  1. says

    Jeff – deep stuff. I wonder – don’t we see evidence of this kind of breakdown of 1 to many relationship happening in progressive venues that allow Twitter streams and hashtags to be displayed behind the presenter at conferences – this effectively brings in the audience and creates an ongoing discussion that becomes part of the presentation itself. Also – fielding questions via twitter in real time helps. I’ve seen this effectively done at ETech and Web2.0. Your thoughts?

  2. says

    Technology now gives us the capability to break down one-many. I question willingness of those in the “one” position to give up control and ego stroking.

    “How can we change our education efforts within meetings and events to embrace a network-based collaborative conference?”

    This could start in two ways:

    Offline dialogue, face-to-face, among those in the “one” position.
    Online anarchy from those in the “many” position (I heart anarchy).

    • Jeff Hurt says

      @JohnHaydon – Thanks for stopping by and sharing your views.

      Yep, I believe there’s hierarchy, anarchy and heterarchy. I think conference organizers can create facilitated and structured event situations that involve models of networked, collaborative learning with heterarchies. Unfortunately, that takes more effort than the traditional top-down, controlled one to many presentations. It also requires new thinking on the part of the presenter and conference organizer. It’s noisy and feels different than the traditional presentations.

      @Laurent – Thanks for sharing the link to Lee’s presentation. There’s some interesting information in it.

      @Steffanantonas – I like your post about Netflix’s Culture of Freedom and Responsibility. It resonates with me and extends this conversation into the corporate workforce as well. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. says

    Well Jeff, as usual, you offer interesting and provocative content.

    In watching this slideshow I couldn’t help but run to my copy of “understanding media” by Marshall McLuhan, where he says:

    “… when the instant speed of information movement begins… there is a collapse of delegated authority. The separation of functions and the division of stages, spaces, and tasks are characteristic of literate and visual society and of the Western world. These divisions tend to dissolve through the action of the instant and organic interrelations of electricity.” (Page 247)

    Also wanted to add, the “educational format” of one teacher speaking to many underling students is severely ingrained in the mind after 12 years of compulsory education. Another book, “The 12 Year Sentence,” explains the evolution of compulsory public education in the United States and how it was essentially based on factory models. So overcoming that social inertia will be a big job.

    Full disclosure here, being a speaker, I would hate to see the “speaker speaking to the multitude” format disappear! But what I learned in the music business was, the best speakers/seminar leader/conductor achieved the goal that I think you are hoping to come to, which is using their position of power to actually minimize their input and maximize the output of the entire group. I have seen people do this, but, sadly, they are certainly the exception, not the rule… there is always the desire to return to the familiar, and everyone is familiar with being a passive obedience student in a classroom.

    In my opinion, the seminar leader/speaker format by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It becomes a bad thing when the person at the podium has a goal of maintaining the status quo, of maintaining the existing power structure and their place in that hierarchy. But as I learned from great conductors, the more power you delegate and give up, the more power you get.

    • Jeff Hurt says

      @Justin Locke
      I can always count of you to add another level of thought and insights to my posts. I really like what Marchall McLuhan wrote about understanding media. It’s so relevant today.

      Yes, you’re right that I’m not advocating the demise of ballroom presentations. I would like to see more hybrid presentations where the presenter spends 10-15 minutes sharing insights into a subject and then attendees spend 15 minutes talking about it with each other, then repeating the process several times. I’d like to see the audience interacting with that content as well as engaging with each other. Of course there will always be times when the one to many makes sense and is the right thing to do.

  4. says

    thanks jeff.

    hmmm do you have an example of the hybrid presentation you describe? has it been done? who’s doing it? how can i do it? what hasn’t been done yet that we should try? – jl

    • Jeff Hurt says

      Yes, there are presenters doing it and it requires more focus on the education design of the presentation. The quickest and easiest way to do it is to look at the natural stopping places in the presentation you already have. After you share a main point and backup information supporting that point, stop and ask the audience to turn to a neighbor on their right or left and discuss how they could implement that point. Or discuss their experience with that point. I often then will have that pair, turn to another pair and share each other’s thoughts. I call it PairSquared. It’s a great little effective tip to make your presentations more interactive and attendees internalize your main points that way too.

      I will often work with my general session speakers to help them make their presentations more interactive. When I have the space, I’ll put the audience in rounds of 12 and intentionally select people at each table to help facilitate discussions. Then the presenter will share for about 15 minutes followed by each table discussing the presentation. When WiFi is available, and we’ve set up the technology as well, after that 15 minutes we’ll have a note taker from each table text or tweet their high point to a specific hashtag. The presenter can quickly debrief top takeaways from each table and then proceed to the next point of his or her presentation.

      It takes intentionality on the part of the presenter and conference organizer to create these hybrid presentations as I’m calling them. When you trust the learning process and implement education design correctly, everyone walks away with the presenters main points applied to their own situations and with adequate discussion.

  5. says

    I have been a session leader at “unconferences” where the idea is exactly as you suggest. The session participants provide just about the same amount of input as the session leader. I think this works best when you have participants that are also content experts and can contribute ideas that advance the conversation and learning. However, this model is more difficult for highly complex material (medical education for example) & the audience is mostly inexperienced with the content.

    Also, I have taught classes for a university where the “teaching” model is exactly as your propose. Again, for topics where participants have some experience to draw from, it works out quite well. However, when the participants have little to no experience, it can be problematic.

    • Jeff Hurt says

      @Lisa B. Marshall

      Thanks for dropping by and adding your comments. I think we’re seeing the rise of informal and social learning and in many cases presenters need to expect that there are content experts in their audiences as well. Learning how to tap that audience expertise and engage them with others is a win for all. I agree that in some cases like medical education and some scientific arenas this model does not work as well.

      Perhaps conference organizers and presenters should adopt a new mantra: None of us is as smart as all of us. :)


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