Meetings And Events As Systems Thinking: The Community Ecosystem

Recently I wrote Meetings And Events As Systems Thinking: The Contact Sport.

I talked about viewing each meeting or event within the larger context of a system using the analogy of a sports season.

Here’s another way to think about your annual conference, event or meeting: part of a community ecosystem.

An ecosystem (or ecological system) is a collection of organisms and the environment in which they live. Ecosystems contain dynamic interactions between plants, animals, microorganisms and their environment. These interactions work together as a functional unit and everything is interrelated.

LakeEcosystem_Postersm

Ecosystems can vary greatly in size. Some examples of small ecosystems are tidal pools, a home garden, or the stomach of an individual cow. (Yeah, that’s gross but it shows the variety of ecosystems. And, we’ve all attended conferences that felt like all the content and experiences were regurgitation—and not in a good way—of stuff we’ve already had.) Larger ecosystems might encompass lakes, farm fields or forests.

So now, take that concept of the ecosystem and consider your annual face-to-face meeting. Attendees at your event are part of a larger community. The face-to-face meeting is just one event in a specific time that is part of the larger series of community events and experiences. Dynamic interactions occur between attendees, customers, employees, exhibitors, members, sponsors, vendors and the conference organizers throughout the entire year.

Instead of seeing the annual event in isolation as a one-time occurrence, conference organizers could view it as one touch point within a variety of touch points. Then, the event professional might consider connecting that annual event to other face-to-face and virtual events. Conference organizers would think about integrating content through Webinars, blogs, eCommunities and enewsletters. Event organizers might think about yearlong over-arching themes, users’ experiences and global outcomes.

In this model, organizers would build an integrated, spiraling experience across four seasons and the customer would have many opportunities to digest, ponder and consider the content. Learning and retention would increase. Attendees would design customized experiences with multiple ways to connect with others and the content.

So how do you plan such an event?

Valeria Maltoni identified the components of social integration. Applying her model to the community ecosystem for events, it might look like this:

  • the community planning and engagement team (includes content, marketing, meetings and technology members)
  • meetings/events experience delivery team (these are the folks that would design online and face-to-face experiences and include player from AV, education, entertainment, logistics, speakers, tradeshow, etc.)
  • attendee touch points (webinars, conference eCommunity, eMarketing, online chats, virtual experiences)
  • content and experience development

Final thoughts: Ecosystems will fail if they do not remain in balance. Ecologists see an ecosystem as a fundamental life-support service upon which human civilization depends.

It’s time to view the annual face-to-face event as a way to help create a more sustainable community. Don’t see each meeting or event as an isolated production unit that produces specific outcomes that only occur once each year. Instead, view them as ways to generate the life-blood, pulse, oxygen, water, and nutrients for sustainable growth of the community ecosystem. Then you’ll create a healthy community wanting to consume each experience you provide.

So, how could you plan your next event differently with an eye towards creating a sustainable community ecosystem for all of your stakeholders and players?

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Jeff,

    Great post. There is a lot for people to think about in here.

    I really like the idea of viewing events as ways “to generate the life-blood, pulse, oxygen, water and nutrients for sustainable growth of the community.” One of my favorite things about going to a conference, meeting or event is the energy that I draw from the people around me. Most of that energy comes from the conversations and sharing that takes place.

    One question that popped into my head is how can you recognize when the eco-system is out of balance OR headed out of balance? And, is it self correcting or is it something that needs intervention?

    Cool idea! Thanks for giving me something interesting to think about on a Friday!

    - Sam

  2. says

    Jeff, another thought provoking post! Aren’t analogies great? (not the cow stomach one, but the others)

    As I was reading your post, and Sam’s comment, what was going through my head is that every ecosystem has lots of species. Each specie, or audience segment, requires different things to help them thrive. Conference organizers need to do a real good job of identifying those primary segments and creating education, expanded networks and great experiences with each primary segment in mind. There will be some overlap, but each person needs to be able to customize their own unique experience from a well thought out menu. From an education perspective, the best conferences tend to be the ones that offer 2 or more concurrent sessions that the attendee wants to attend, but can’t, because they’re at the same time. If you are able to make attendees feel like they are missing something, you’ve done a good job with content creation. Maybe next year they’ll bring a co-worker.

    Some people might say technology/social media is the answer to helping attendees keep engaged throughout the year. While that would work for Sam, you and me, there are a ton of participants that just aren’t playing on these platforms regularly. Sure lots of folks have accounts, but there seems to be more inactive than active users. Participants will still need to engaged in lower tech pushed touches like email, newsletters or maybe even a phone call or fax.

    What I think is a real winner today, is to expand each speaker’s responsibility beyond their 75 minute session. Get them to commit to a webinar, YouTube video and/or blog posts. Get them to agree on a follow-up article or communication to all interested attendees one week after the session. Ask them to leverage their personal networks for the good of the conference.

    We can’t forget that we are social animals. Some of us feel great when our association does something to help a charity. Other times we dig that our association is environmentally friendly. Sometimes we just want to be entertained, party, or eat a great meal. From my experience, members get the biggest high when they are involved in creating a part of the conference, participating and feeling the sense of accomplishment. We all love it when a plan comes together. Sometimes dealing with volunteers is a pain, but when you are able to get them contributing to the success, you just might win them over for life.

    Dave Lutz – @velchain
    Velvet Chainsaw Consulting

    • Jeff Hurt says

      @Samuel
      How can you recognize when an ecosystem is out of balance? Great question. The quick answer is if the community stops flourshing and growing. Think of pollinators like bees and bats. If they don’t have enough flowers or plants to attract them, they leave the habitat and go searching somewhere else. Without them, the entire ecosystem suffers. Now think of the community ecosystem. It thrives on connections (human, emotional, social) and content. Start feeding the community poor content without any nutrients and people start leaving the ecosystem. Give it too much content that it can’t use at the expense of human social connections, and people go elsewhere. You can probably take the analogy from there and run with it. Thanks again for adding your thoughts.

      @VelChain
      Amen, amen, amen, amen! Let it be so! Great comments and I whole heartedly agree with your thoughts. I believe, as I know Sam does, that some of the best learning occurs in informal and social environments. Having a discussion over a meal with like-minded peers is one of my favorite things to do.

      As to your point about integrating technology before and after event, I offer the following option. To involve both the social, human need for connection and to engage parts of the ecosystem with content, consider holding regional or city meet-ups for Webinars. (Think of Super Bowl or Oscar Parties for an example.)

      I’ve been involved in designing Webinar programs with content for an international association with regional chapters. We pick our topic, find our speaker, discuss their presentation and rehearse it. I used a process where everyone in the room could quickly respond to Webinar questions by holding up color coded papers (red for no, green for yes, yellow for I don’t know.) I also designed open-ended discussion questions for facilitators.

      People meet in homes, office spaces, conference rooms or other venues for the streaming Webinar. Everyone meets at a specific location for a 60- or 45-minute webinar, simultaneously across the globe. Once the Webinar is complete, the group digests and debriefs the Webinar with a 30- to 45 minutes of discussion using the pre-planned questions as a guide. Add some food and refreshment and you’ve just created a great way to provide the right nutrients for the entire ecosystem on the global, national and regional levels. That’s the perfect way to create the healthy connections everyone craves.

  3. says

    Great follow-up post, Jeff. Sam’s question made me remember a story I read on a flight a few months back about an upset in the ecosystem killing off frogs that produce antibiotics. It took a while for people to pay attention to this problem, because the first thought is, “why should I care about some little frogs?”
    http://www.americanwaymag.com/el-valle-hotel-united-states-the-wyoming-toad-central-america
    The event/person/process that tips your community’s ecosystem out of balance may be so slight on the outset it is ignored. That is dangerous. We must all come from a place of greater understanding. I think those who are most successul in our industry, in any industry, in life, are those who truly care about others, about all their stakeholders, who notice all the different “species” in their ecosystem and work to understand their motivations and meet their needs.
    I turned back to The Invisible Exhibitor whitepaper because there is a graphic in there representing the trade show as an ecosystem. The funny thing is, the convergence of the ecosystem is depicted at a bricks-and-mortar trade show, which (18 months later) I would no longer consider an accurate graphical representation. I twitpic’d it: http://twitpic.com/q8iu1.

    • Jeff Hurt says

      @Dana
      Fantastic thoughts and insight. Good pic too to help people get an initial understanding of an ecosystem. I relly like what you said, “We must all come from a place of greater understanding. I think those who are must successful…are those who truly care about others…” I’m with you on that one!

  4. says

    Great post, I love the framework. I suggest you check out Tim Brown’s new book, Change by Design. I think you’ll like it, if you haven’t read it already.

  5. says

    Hi Jeff,
    I love the comments in this post, too! I think @Velchain is right on: The best conferences are the ones that have 2 or more concurrent sessions. How to find out what they are is the challenge to creating a vibrant ecosystem during the conference. I can think of a lot of ways to do that, but I mostly want to point out that the ecosystem (and I love that analogy) should incorporate both the pre-and post-conference conversation.

    I also thought about extending the conference, as mentioned by both you and @Velchain, but with another iteration: continue some of the conference sessions virtually. It’s added value for the attendees (perception of an extra “free” session), and offers everyone the time to go home, chew over the information with colleagues and use the information, and come back together for a richer discussion in “Round Two.”

    @askdebra

    • Jeff Hurt says

      @Debra – Yes, I so agree with you. Great insight to consider some of the conference sessions virtually. Dave Lutz and I are giving two workshops in January on creating hybrid events. We’ll incorporate your thoughts.

      @Velchain & @Carol-Anne – I’m loving the comments on this post. There is a wealth of wisdome here for sure.

  6. Neeraj Jaggi says

    Hi I Am Neeraj- I feel,the event/person/process that tips your community’s ecosystem out of balance may be so slight on the outset it is ignored. That is dangerous. We must all come from a place of greater understanding.People meet in homes, office spaces, conference rooms or other venues for the streaming Webinar. Everyone meets at a specific location for a 60- or 45-minute webinar, simultaneously across the globe. Once the Webinar is complete, the group digests and debriefs the Webinar with a 30- to 45 minutes of discussion using the pre-planned questions as a guide
    From an education perspective, the best conferences tend to be the ones that offer 2 or more concurrent sessions that the attendee wants to attend, but can’t, because they’re at the same time.

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