6 Real World Conference Disruptors


All disruptions are innovations.

But not all innovations are disruptors. At least that’s what Forbes writer Caroline Howard says.

Think of innovation and disruption as both makers and builders. However disruption dislodges and changes how we think, act, do business, learn and go about our day-to-day tasks.

Defining Disruptors

Harvard Business School professor and disruption guru Clayton Christensen says that a disruption displaces an existing market, paradigm, industry, or technology. It produces something new, more efficient and worthwhile. It is at once destructive and creative.

Rarely can we stop a disruption. It happens. It’s up to us to leverage it or react to it.

Conference Disruption

Here’s our challenge with organizing and planning conferences: Can we simply adapt and apply old skills to new contexts? Or do we need to learn new ways of thinking, doing and being?

One thing we know for sure: Our conferences are dynamic, complex systems. They are embedded within an even more dynamic, complex übersystem: human society. And society changes fast.

The Traditional Conference Scenario

Consider the following typical conference scenario:

After registering for a conference and paying a fee, Sue travels to the headquarters city and hotel. (The conference is closed to individuals unless you can afford to pay.)

Once onsite, she makes her way to a large ballroom with theater seating for the opening general session. (Sue is tethered to this place and time if she wants to attend the presentation.)

Talking to others during the presentation is taboo and the host organization has a strict “lids down, mobile devices off” policy to help attendees focus on the content. (Sue is isolated from her friends even though she is surrounded by colleagues and wireless Internet access is available. Leaders forbid attendees from using those resources during sessions.)

Having read the final printed conference program (analog materials) describing the experience and education, Sue joins 1,500 others in listening to a 60-minute lecture. (Every registrant is a consumer of the same one-size-fit-all generic information regardless of their years of industry experience.)

The Real World Experience Of A Conference Attendee

Now consider Sue’s experience during the rest of the day.

From her hotel room, the conference center, the coffee shop, the restaurant and bus, Sue connects to the Internet via her smartphone, tablet device and laptop. (Sue is mobile.)

She searches for information (digital resources are open for her to freely access) relevant to the conference’s presentations.

She texts with friends to see which education sessions they will attend. In some cases, she sets up onsite meetings with people in her social networks. (She is connected to other people.)

She posts in social networks questions and comments about conference speakers and presentations. (She is connected to online communities.)

Her social connections respond with links to related information. (Her social networks are connected to content.)

She skims the electronic materials (reading only what is important to her personally).

Later that evening at a meetup, she shares with her friends what she discovered about tomorrow’s speakers and presentations (creating and participating in the process.)

6 Conference Disconnects With Our Everyday Lives

People’s everyday lives are often drastically different than our programs and services. It’s critical that conferences recognize, understand and adapt to these changes.

(These six society categories were first identified by David Wiley, 2006. I’ve changed the headings to apply to conferences.)

Many organizations held a monopoly on industry specific information, subject matter experts and communities of likeminded individuals.

Today, they are being challenged in each of their major functional areas:

Access to specific content and information

  • Education programs
  • Research materials
  • Hubs of like-minded individuals
  • Advocacy issues

With no monopoly position and no bailout coming, are these organizations, such as nonprofit associations, so arrogant as to really believe they are immune to what is happening in the ubersystem?

Repurposed from a post originally published in 2011. Tomorrow: More information about these six trends and the changing context.

Which of these six categories will be the most difficult for your organization to address and why? How can conferences blend both traditional and everyday life trends?

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  1. What an interesting read. One area where I believe conferences can blend traditional with everyday life trends is mobile/tethered. While I do understand why conference leaders prefer mobile devices to be off, I think it’s also an area where conference organizers are now capitalizing on delegate participation/feedback. In real time, the presenter can engage the audience via social media, apps etc. The feedback is immediate and the audience members feel that they are actually participating in the conversation.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I agree with you that our conference continue to evolve and grow by blending mobile/tethered with analog experiences. Feedback is so critical to our attendees’ learning cycle and conference organizers improvement processes too.

      Thanks for reading and continuing the conversation too.

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