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Open source, open space, grapevines and gossip, conversations and stories, learning spaces and learnscapes, unconferences and The World Cafe, podcasts and wikis, graphics and concept maps, complexity and community…these are part and parcel of the free-range learning I investigated relentlessly while writing Informal Learning


Business meetings used to come in one flavor: dull. New approaches create meetings that people enjoy, often organized in scant time, at minimal cost. Unconferences are characterized by:


  • No keynote speaker or designated expert Breakthrough thinking born of diversity
  • Having fun dealing with serious subjects
  • Emergent self-organization
  • Genuine community, intimacy and respect


Conventional meetings are events; unmeetings are on-going processes. Unconferences work because they spur relevant conversations, which I think of as the stem-cells of innovation. My summary on unconferences.


Meaningful conversation is more important than ever because conversations are essential not only for imparting knowledge, but for creating it. Knowledge flows. Imagine the power of conversation with other free range learners conducted outside one's specialty!


Inc magazine on unconferences

Kaliya Hamlin's Unconference Blog

  Jay presenting results of World Cafe to

His Excellency Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan,

Minister of Education of Abu Dhabi



We've Got to Start Meeting Like This, CLO magazine


David Gurteen on effective participatory conferences.





Dave Winer's concept for Hypercamp




"Learned Helplessness" applies to most oganizations when it comes to meetings. (The classic learned helplessness story is from Marty Seligman. A puppy spends a while in a box with a glass ceiling. When the glass is removed, he's still trapped in the box because he has given up trying.)


Most meetings carry the same bad baggage as schooling. They are top-down, one-way events that fail to make use of current technology. 



See Meetings and Technology, a Connective Approach, which says:

Technology will continue to streamline how information is exchanged, and that will continue to have an impact


By deploying a connective model, we are able to leverage the benefits of technology to extend relationships with key audiences from the moment of the initial outreach, making the dialogue personal and relevant.


Connective communications ties all of the different pieces together, allowing the meeting producer and clients to use technologies as the keys to maximizing the dialogue, creating links, synergies and connections across boundaries and borders.


Un-meetings are often more effective than their planned, formal counterparts; see Getting the best return from meeting time investment.


 Chris Corrigan


What's an Unconference? An Unmeeting? An Unworkshop?


Delicious tags for Unconference


“An unconference is a conference where the content of the sessions is driven and created by the participants, generally day-by-day during the course of the event, rather than by organizers.” Wikipedia


Admission and travel to conferences claim a significant amount of many a corporation’s investment in learning. That’s why CLOs need to be aware of a fresh alternative that costs less and works better.



Professionals attend conferences to learn things. Yet conference participants often say they learn more in the hallway than in formal sessions.


Unconferences bring the hallway conversations back into the main tent by handing control to participants instead of experts on stage.


Software guru Dave Winer began promoting the unconference format after “sitting in the audience of a panel discussion at a conference, waiting for someone to say something intelligent, or not self-serving, or not mind-numbingly boring. The idea came while listening to someone drone endlessly through PowerPoint slides, nodding off, or (in later years) checking email, or posting something to my blog.”


An unconference begins with participants suggesting topics they want to present or hear about. The hosts post an attendance list for all to see. All this is generally coordinated on a wiki.


Unconferences have a general theme but no set agenda and scant organization. Instead, the group collaboratively determines the direction of the gathering, creating an ad hoc agenda. There's an organic, self-organizing, "bottom-up" feel to unconferences, which is why they appeal to software developers, many of whom are do-it-yourselfers.


Unconferences don’t have attendees and presenters; everyone is a participant. The assumption is that the people in the room know more than the people on the stage.



In lieu of a speaker or master of ceremonies talking to an audience, a Discussion Leader or reporter weaves together a story told by the participants. Helpers hold roving microphones to the mouths of participants with something to say. The result resembles Oprah or Donohue more than a lecture.

The Discussion Leader cuts short speakers who are repetitious, confusing, or self-promotional. PowerPoint presentations are not allowed. (“PowerPoint is tyranny,” says a friend.) Everyone is encouraged to IM, chat, blog, and email to assist the flow of useful ideas. Participants document what’s going on with blogs, podcasts, video streams, and photos posted to Flickr to capture ideas and seed future gatherings.



An good unconference is punctuated with multiple opportunities to schmooze and reflect. Free beer and wine are great social lubricants.


Dave Winer (did I mention that Dave thinks he invented the genre?) says that people who have participated in a real unconference “can never again sit in a dark room, with their hands folded, waiting for the Q&A period, listening to a PowerPoint presenter drone on and on, while the heads bob up and down and a dull roar of enthusiastic discussion can be heard in the distance, in the hallway.”


An example: Gnomedex.


A long and active thread on what's wrong with conferences via Tony Karrer.


  Painting of Abu Dhabi World Cafe



Unmeetings are not totally free-form. Popular sets of boundaries for conduct of an unmeeting are:



This list is from the World Cafe's site:



The first Bar Camp --


Notes and photos from the very first Bar Camp

Vlog of SF Barcamp & their wiki



BarCamp is an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment. It is an intense event with discussions, demos, and interaction from attendees.


Last fall several people were talking about the exclusivity of a private unconference (O'Reilly's Foo-Camp) in the Bay Area, so they decided to start their own. That evening a notice on the web announced “an open, welcoming, once-a-year event for geeks to camp out for a couple days with wifi and smash their brains together. It’s about … having a focal point for great ideas.”


Six days later several hundred of us rallied in Palo Alto for a free, full-blown two-day event complete with great content, pizza, beer, wi-fi, sponsors, T-shirts, buttons, and press coverage. Imagine setting up a conference in six days instead of six months!


The co-leader of the Palo Alto unconference blogged, “When we embarked on this strange and fantastic journey, we knew that we had a week. We had no money, no sponsors, no venue and no idea if just the five of us or 50 random folks would show. But we knew that we had to stage the event and that, among other things, it would serve as a demonstration of the decentralized organizing potential of the Web2.0 Generation.”


The concept caught fire, inspiring “camps” in Paris, Hyderabad, Toronto, Austin, Seattle, Vancouver, San Diego, Grand Rapids, and more. WineCamp, TagCamp, MashUp Camp, and other hot-topic events began popping up.


Unconferences are ad-hoc gatherings born from people’s desire to share and learn in an open environment. They are intense events, chock full of discussions, demos, and interaction. The wisdom of crowds supplants the wisdom of experts. They maximize value for participants, not for organizers. They are funded on shoe-string budgets. They replace slides with stories, information-sharing with collaborative learning, and instruction with discovery. You should try it some time.



The World Cafe






The very first World Cafe took place in this room a dozen years ago. Juanita Brown and David Isaacs live here. From the deck, you can see Mt. Tamalpais, our own magic mountain.


They recount the story of how The World Cafe came to be in this marvellous book, World Cafe, that I recommend to anyone planning to conduct an open session for a group.








Pro and Con



Shannon Clark to Value-Networks:


As defined by Dave Winer, an "unconference" has session leaders instead of speakers - the session leaders then manage the conversation for a block of time (at his events this is a long block generally 1 1/2 hours, at other events such as Gnomedex it was shorter, more like 30 minutes). Typically an unconference is held in a single track format - so all attendees experience the same set of speakers.


The format has many strengths but also has some very real and serious weaknesses.


The strengths - done well, it can lead to rich conversations and interaction between the audience - with a moderator on stage facilitating but not dominating the conversation. It can be a great experience and often leads to richer comments and input from the audience than typically seen at most conference.


The weaknesses - there is a very valid and important role, I feel, for giving experts on a topic time and a forum to present their knowledge (and especially to document it for future reference, such as via recording/videotaping it). The unconference format forgoes this and thus often results in lots of questions and ad-hoc suggestions from an audience without the substance that a good presenter can add to an event. Also no matter how efficient the discussion leader is, the format is inherently single tracked and limited by the format of one questioner from the audience speaking at a time - meaning that for most of the audience you are merely listening - but to a lot of voices vs. the one of a more traditional presentor.


This last weakness is not a weakness of the Open Space format.


Open Space is a meeting format that differs from the Unconference format in a couple of crucial ways.


First, Open Space is all about the invitation to the space - about who shows up, and what will happen is dependant on the people who are there - not on the selection of session leaders in advance. Rather, the organizer/facilitor for an open space sets up the space (best literally to be an open space with no tables or walls), and sets up some rough discussion areas and a rough timetable.


Then the attendees suggest topics which they are passionate about and which they are willing to lead a discussion on - as they suggest these topics they usually present them to the group and announce a time and place they will convene a discussion on that topic. Often there is some mutual agreements to combine topics that are related.


Then as each session starts the topic leaders comitt to starting the discussion on that topic - but after that, there is also a concept of the "Law of two feet" - which states that you, and you alone, know when you are contributing to a given topic - and so you have permission (and indeed the responsibility) to leave a discussion when you are not contributing and join other conversations (or start a new one). This explicit permission to move about helps achieve another concept - that of "butterflies" - i.e. the cross-polination of discussions and conversations.


Generally Open Space works best when people know each other and share some large common goal. When a group does not all know each other, I find that it is often best to start an Open Space with a round of introductions - whether individual introductions or perhaps even better people introducing each other. Perhaps along with some simple questions or group activities that also help self-identify relationships and interests (and perhaps knowledge) within the group.


The invitation to attend an event in Open Space is critical - it sets the tone for what will happen and what to bring to the event. Only rarely are formal presentations part of Open Space (though they certainly can and do have a role from time to time). More generally however, a group wiki or other online space which can be used during the Open Space to document the conversations and the outcomes of those conversations (and crucially what people comitt to doing as a result of each conversation) is a vital part of the productivity of an Open Space meeting.


Generally I also find that setting up the structure of the meeting to ebb and flow - from full group experiences to sessions and back to the group helps with the overall experience. Often as well shared times such as meals should not also be a time for sessions - the relative stickyness of a table when you are eating limits the open space experience - but sharing meals and the conversations that happen during them is a very vital part of Open Space and should be fostered.



How to Run an Unconference from Kaliya


Three-minute video of  the start of an unmeeting with Ross Mayfield




August 13, 2008 Conversation recording (50 minutes) Thoughts swimming around in my head as a result of today's conversation on unmeetings and learning. BarCamps, Open Space, and other forms of unmeeting are another expression of the demand-driven, bottom-up rebellion against convention and hierarchy we see in collaborative decision-making, bossless workplaces, and self-service learning. Participants need a feel for where a meeting or conference falls on a continuum from wide-open to tightly controlled. What's the frame? What are the boundaries? Participants need "air cover" for honest conversation, a safe space where they don't fear that what they say may come back to haunt them. Designers/conveners should choose how much structure is optimal for the situation at hand. Is the session for problem-solving, innovation, opening channels, what? Should we start with a single, powerful question or multiple topics and objectives? An unmeeting that's intended to invent the future should probably cast the net as far and wide as possible. Afterward, champions might continue the flow on a wiki or though other means. Useful sessions require agile facilitation. Tara Hunt's Unmanaging, Unleashing the Creative Beast in Your Team deals with innovation, but her suggestions are appropriate for unmeetings: create a safe place to say dumb ideas, start with the simple stuff, move from the personal to the communal, celebrate risk-taking, be open and transparent, laugh and enjoy, and employ oodles of encouragement. UBS is in terrible shape because it overreached its grasp and invited regulatory backlash. They are hurting in spite of the exemplary learning and talent management processes put in place by Michelle Blieberg.


December 23, 2009

Welcome to the Unconference

Why more industry associations and trade groups are letting members organize their own free-form "unconferences"

For more on how unconferences work, visit openspaceworld.org. Kaliya Hamlin, who organized Innovation 2009, offers tips for planners and attendees on her blog at unconference.net.

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