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Practical Mass Collaboration at Conferences

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.

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