Have conferences become too enthralled with experts and attendees swapping solutions?
Have conference organizers resigned themselves to the inertia of the way we’ve always done it? Is the traditional conference experience in danger of being institutionalized which devalues individual expression?
Are we addicted to providing passive plop, placate and pay* experiences? Are conference organizers sitting on a ticking time bomb doomed to repeat their past experiences because they don’t know of any other ways to “conference?”
*Paraphrase of sociologist Josh Packard’s insights.
The Information Internet Affect
Conferences seem to be competing with Google, the current icon of today’s modern information world.
The traditional conference experience has created a culture of information economics.
We deal and traffic facts from industry leaders. We trade expert speakers’ experiences as tangible evidence of solutions. Experts and authority figures state with great pride that there data points are necessary for any profession or trade.
We seem to have embraced a conference culture marked by a voracious appetite for knowledge. We have cuddled the internet information explosion believing we need to offer, more, faster and easier conference sessions than in the past.
Now we even do it quicker with TED-style presentations.
It’s about sessions flooded with facts, inundated with information and deluged with data. Attendees flaunt false confidence because they now have the insiders’ quick tips on how to succeed.
Done With Passive Plop, Placate And Pay
Many industry professionals and veterans are done with traditional passive plop, placate and pay conference experiences.
They want to participate. They want to ponder. They want to play. They want to partake in peer discussions.
Conference factual swamp sessions lead to surface learning.
Instead, many conference attendees want deeper transformational experiences with authentic learning. Not information dumps.
Conference Routines Lead To Institutionalization
Research from sociologist Josh Packard shows that routines eventually become internalized. Thus the logic that supports those routines becomes taken for granted.
When this happens, the activity becomes institutionalized he says. Institutionalization devalues personalization, expression and diversity.
The typical conference schedule is an example of an activity that has become institutionalized. Conferences start with an opening general session followed by a break followed by breakouts followed by lunch followed by a break followed by breakouts followed by evening receptions or parties. Lather, rinse, repeat with dedicated time for the expo hall on the next day. Lather, rinse repeat for a third day.
The rationale for why this is the typical conference schedule is rarely understood by the average attendee. No one has questioned this routine or a better way.
Thus this conference institutionalization constrains people’s activities. People can’t even imagine a different way of engaging at any given point during the event. Try to imagine a conference without lectures and breakouts. Difficult isn’t it?
Thus the conference experience has become homogenized.
Resisting Homogenized Plop, Placate, Pay
So how can conferences survive and thrive in the 21st century?
Packard says that organizations and experiences should resist becoming institutionalized. Conference organizers must use deliberate, specific, intentional strategies not based on past methods or efficiency. Instead their strategies must be based on effectiveness and collective experiences.
Routine often creeps into conferences in the name of tradition. When a conference committee picks speakers and topics using the same method because it’s the way it’s always been done, the activity has lost connection with the conference goals.
Too often standardized process and procedures lead to rigid and inflexible structures which do not have available resources to devote to changing conference demands. We can’t keep reinventing the wheel. We need to reinvent the entire conference experience.
Sources and hat tips to Curious: The Desire To Know And Why Your Future Depends On It author Ian Leslie and Ignorance: How It Drives Science author Stuart Firestein.
Where do we start at reinventing the entire conference experience? What do we need to develop authentic learning experiences and effective collective conference experiences?