Are We Ready For Annual Conferences In Perpetual Beta To Improve Attendee Experiences?

Change is the constant today.

What would happen if conference organizers released information about their annual event and called it a perpetual beta version?

What if a specific number of presentations were not identified and instead were labeled beta and the organizers asked attendees to help them co-create the sessions? What if some of the sessions were labeled with controversial topics with a caveat that the information was in beta? What if some of the beta sessions had pre-reading required that offered diverse viewpoints without any conclusions and instructions that onsite attendees would continue the conversations?

Would you be willing as a meeting professional to relinquish some control and provide a beta conference? Would you as an attendee be willing to participate in a conference format in beta?

Uncertainty Engages The Mind
Think of it like this. Why do you go to a baseball, basketball, football game or other spectator sport? Is it because you know who is going to win? Do you attend because you know what is going to happen each second?

No, you attend because the thrill of uncertainty is enticing. Not knowing is exactly what keeps you glued to your seat and watching. Uncertainty engages the mind.

Reading a great book or watching a suspenseful movie have the same affect. The uncertainty attracts us. Knowing what is next is not as exciting or engaging. (Read more about this process in Order Out Of Choas: Learning To Embrace Uncertainty which was a catalyst for my thoughts about uncertainty engaging the mind.)

Psychotherapist Mel Schwartz compares predictability with uncertainty like this:

  • Predictable = certain = already known in advance = no need to really be here = a non-participatory life.
  • Uncertainty = not knowing in advance = fully engaged in creating the future event = participatory in our life’s creation.

Which type of conference experience would you like to provide for your attendees? One that offers predictable, non participatory experiences? Or one that offers uncertainty, vitality and the ability for attendees to participate and co-create in engaged experiences?

The Perpetual Beta
Software developers identify their programs as alpha, beta, release candidate or general availability. According to Wikipedia, “Perpetual beta is a term used to describe software or a system which remains at the beta development stage for an extended or even indefinite period of time. It is often used by developers in order to allow them to constantly release new features that might not be fully tested.”

Traditional software companies like Microsoft release new versions of software every couple of years in the general availability phase. Customers don’t see new features until after they’ve been tested in beta format, behind the scenes. Beta versions are limited to employee or a small handpicked group of users outside the company.

Netscape changed the traditional software process and released both beta and general availability versions. Netscape saw its users differently as valued partners, working in tandem to improve the product. They welcomed input, recommendations and suggestions in the beta process so that the users experience was ultimately better.

Google is the perfect example of a company that embraces perpetual beta. Google Search stayed in beta for more than a year. Google Buzz and Google Wave are two examples of products that are released before finished. Their beta versions are continually changing, morphing and improving with the users input.

Conference Learning Is Perpetual Beta
Tim O’Reilly says that the perpetual beta uprising is a core principle of Web 2.0. Here are some of the Web 2.0 beta characteristics he identifies:

  • Data sources that get richer as more people use them
  • Harnessing collective intelligence
  • Trusting users as co-developers

 These principles have great implications for conference learning. All learning is co-creation: a process of a learner and an outside agent that impacts the process.

Conference organizers that embrace perpetual beta experiences develop a relationship of mutual self-interest with the attendees. They see attendees as co-creators of the experience, the knowledge and the program. They recognize that information changes, unlearning often needs to occur and that there is always room for improvement.

They invite attendees to help shape the conversation, add their experiences to the content and drive the discussion. They relinquish control of a top-down, hierarchal presentation with only one person in the know treating the rest as not-in-the-know. They harness their collective intelligence of their attendees about specific topics and issues.

Practically Speaking What Does Conference Learning In Perpetual Beta Look Like
Meeting professionals that embrace a perpetual beta experience indentify some umbrella topics, even those that are controversial, and then invite attendees to engage in discourse about these issues at the face-to-face experience. Sessions are labeled with overarching topics and facilitators.

Instead of content matter specialists, event professionals secure experienced facilitators skilled at moderating diverse views. The attendees serve as subject matter experts each with their own experiences and content. Learner outcomes identify the processes used for attendee enrichment, discussion and engagement instead of specific knowledge and skills.

During the session, facilitators help attendees separate facts from emotions, fiction from truth while providing frameworks for them to see new contexts. The session content is unpredictable, in flux as attendees drive and shape the discourse and outcomes.

Conference organizers that embrace perpetual beta experiences give attendees the incentive to participate in an ongoing relationship with them. Beta learning experiences empowers attendees to decide what is good enough and when to say the content is final. The uncertainty of the subject outcome engages attendees’ minds. It invites participation.

What are the consequences of planning and securing conference content six to eight months in advance of the program? What changes would meeting professionals have to embrace in order to implement some perpetual beta conference programming? What are the benefits of producing perpetual beta conferences? How do you feel about the idea?

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff Hurt, Paul Cook. Paul Cook said: RT @JeffHurt: R We Ready 4 Annual Conferences In Perpetual Beta 2 Improve Attendee Experiences? #eventprofs […]

  2. Wow! Jeff, as a “speaker”, I really get excited thinking about this concept. If delegates arrived to one of my educational sessions even slightly prepared (ie short reading list, prerequisite courses, quick pre-event webinar, etc.), it would truly alleviate the need to introduce a new concept and elevate the session from a “try to understand new information” to “apply and absorb education” learning experience!

    I usually have to spend so much of the precious, limited time with introducing basic concepts (such as sustainability). If I could skip this piece, I would be able to give learners so much more interactive time!!

    Brilliant, but I would never expect any less.
    Midori Connolly, Chief AVGirl

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I think this is where some conferences and events are moving towards. When seeing an event withing a bigger organization ecosystem, this makes perfect sense.

      Thanks for adding your thoughts too.

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