Ed Bernacki Designing Innovative Conferences
Practical Mass Collaboration at Conferences

Posted on January 02, 2009

I spoke at the British Columbia Human Resource Management Association annual conference. One of the keynote speakers was Canadian Don Tapscott, who has an international reputation for his ideas on the future of the Web. Wikinomics is his most recent book.

He talked of the potential for mass collaboration, linking hundreds or thousands of people together via the Web. The message Don delivered was via a conference. It occurred to me that we should put these two concepts together. Why not use conferences as a practical use of mass collaboration? It's a tremendous way to improve the bottom line effectiveness of staff and association conferences.

I am aware of only a few conferences that view participants as sources of expertise to solve major challenges or create new ideas.

This is the essence of mass collaboration and it could provide an ideal way to transform conferences from a training / learning model to one capable of innovation. I began my career hosting brainstorming workshops to engage a management team of five to 10 people. Within a few hours we could create new strategies or concepts, often resulting from insights that arise during the event. If five people could create a new strategy, I wondered about the potential for new ideas if 50 or 500 people focused on the same challenge.

In 2002, for example, I was asked to speak on innovation at a conference for CEOs. Being the fifth speaker of five, I wondered what I could add that the first four speakers would have missed. Instead, I proposed to introduce some research on the 10 factors that make innovative organizations innovative.
The audience was made up of 230 CEOs sitting at round tables in groups of seven or eight.

After a 10-minute introduction, the focus shifted to the group sessions. Each table focused on one of the 10 factors and was asked to come up with five strategies to support that specific factor. Each group picked a facilitator to lead the conversation and summarize key ideas on a page that was provided. About 300 ideas were collected and later published in a booklet that was distributed to participants. The booklet summarized the innovation theme and ideas. 

Edel Tierney from the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies in Ireland, read my book, Seven Rules for Designing More Innovative Conference and called to get advice on designing eight three-hour workshops for her next conference. Each workshop started with 90 minutes of presentations to prompt new thinking. Participants then had 90 minutes to discuss and brainstorm two challenges:

  1. What would a different (or better) outcome look like?
  2. What do we have to do to get there?

One person was assigned to capture all the key discussion themes and outcomes. This was later enhanced and expanded into a 68 page book created for all participants. This is a brilliant example of knowledge creation and capture. You can review the process and even download the book at:  http://conference.fedvol.ie/

Mass Collaboration for Your Conference
Use your audience to generate research, ideas, processes, challenges, or other important calls to action. Be creative in generating ideas and then use those ideas to create value for participants. Challenges could include these:

  • What are the big challenges you face next year?
  • How can we solve a specific challenge?
  • How can we make this a better company to work for?
  • What have our customers told us is "wrong" with our company?
  • How can we improve the way we service our customers?

There is no limit to the ideas that participants can create if they collaborate on a common challenge.

How Not to Use a Great Speaker

Posted on December 31, 2008

As a speaker at many conferences, I view the chance to listen to other great speakers as one of the benefits of the job. I recognize that my message on innovative thinking is functional and informative. I make people think. My goal is to make people say, “I never thought of that before!” At the other end of the scale are motivational speakers. Their goal is often to make people feel something. They want to touch the hearts of attendees in some way.

Here is a story of a great speaker with a great message that was ruined for a group of us by poor conference design.

The motivational speaker was inspiring. He was a former professional football player who suffered a major brain injury in a terrible traffic accident. From a dynamic, larger-than-life, well-known personality, he had to start life again. He had little or no memory of his wife, his family, or his sporting achievement. Nor could he remember his speeches. He needed a deck of cue cards to remind of him of what to say next yet this did not stop his message being very memorable.

He opened the conference and ended at the right moment. People applauded. People left, perhaps a bit weepy.

A group of us sat as people left because we left that his message deserved more reflection. We discussed this question: What moved you the most about his talk? The result was a meaningful conversation and allowed us to revisit his stories and insights. This discussion allowed each of us to create our own connection to his message. Here lies the dilemma: We were late for the next session despite getting this value from his talk.

How many great inspiring speakers fail to connect with an audience as people have no time to reflect and to create their own meaning? Why not build in an extra 20 to 30 minutes to get the extra value from your investment in your high profile speakers? Have your emcee start a conversation at your tables based on this question:

  • Which of the speaker’s main messages was the most meaningful to you?
  • Discuss this in groups and share insights.

You can take this one step further by getting teams or groups to define questions that they would like to ask the speaker. Despite the brain injury inhibiting his ability to remember a presentation, his ability to answer questions in a meaningful way was inspiring. Too bad the conference designers were unable to let the whole audience benefit from the lessons he learned in life that brought him to that conference room. 

Design your major motivation keynote presentation to include 20 to 30 minutes for table or small group discussions on the key themes of the presentation. This will make the keynote more meaningful to your audience.

Who Said Conferences are About Learning?

Posted on December 29, 2008

Ten years ago MPI completed a study for making meetings more effective and concluded with: “Meeting planners can play an instrumental role in addressing areas that need to be improved by increasing their knowledge of how to institute change within an organization and the proper role of education.”

The research found a tremendous gap between what meeting planners think is important about a conference and what management thinks is important. The key meeting success factors of senior managers were:

  1. Clear sense of organizational priorities
  2. Concrete action plans
  3. Improved interaction
  4. Important messages are remembered
  5. Greater productivity from learning
  6. Improved motivation and inspiration
  7. Greater commitment to the organization

It is very clear that managers who pay for the bills are looking for a bottom line return to the organization.

Change takes much more than learning and I often wonder if this is a core reason why we struggle with issues such as measuring the return on conference investments. Management is looking for change and yet all they see is learning. If this study was completed in 2008, would the results be any different? I doubt it. I have spoken at numerous conferences to realize that far too few attempt to go beyond the traditional ‘speaker as expert speaks at the audience’ model.  

The challenge for meeting designers is to dig into the corporate or association issues to define what can be influenced, changed, promoted, or advanced to benefit participants. This can reflect personal or business development issues. Some events focus on bringing company values to life while others are intended to prompt sales people to sell more through new approaches.

Perhaps the place to start the planning for your next association or corporate conference is with the research. Use these findings to brainstorm how you can use the conference to create results in more effective ways. For example:

  • What are the organizational priorities that participants will need to have a clear grasp of?
  • What could participants focus on to create concrete action plans during the event?
  • Improved interaction begins with networking objectives: who needs to meet who and why?
  • What are the important messages that should be remembered?
  • What specific areas need greater productivity from learning that is possible at the conference?
  • Why is there a need for improved motivation and inspiration?
  • What stops people from having a greater commitment to the organization?

The answers to these questions will lead to new insights for the design of the event. They will help you answer--why is our next conference important?

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