I attended a meeting last week that wasn’t a complete waste of time. A shock, I know. Sure, it did take 45 minutes to drive the 13 miles to the meeting. It was rush hour, after all. All told, the trip took me 4 1/2 hours, which included about 2 1/2 hours of presentations.
The presentations were mostly of the endless-Powerpoint-bullet variety. While they did contain a few nuggets of really useful information, that information was more than covered in the 150 pages (!) of printed materials provided. Still, the presenters had something to say, and they were well prepared. That made this meeting better than most.
The valuable part, of course, was the informal interaction with the other participants. In all, there were about 100 people in attendance. I talked to other tech coordinators about Internet filtering, and learned about a new method students are using to bypass proxy servers. We also discussed various approaches to professional development, online learning with Moodle, and e-rate filing procedures. None of these were on the agenda for the day.
It’s not new for the informal bits of meetings and conferences to be more valuable than the structured parts. Many people express the idea that the best part of a conference is the discussion that takes place in the hallway, or the person you meet while waiting for a keynote to start, or the breakout session you attended by mistake after getting the room number wrong. These serendipitous moments are the best part.
So why do we bother with the formal agenda? If the whole event were structured to take advantage of these informal moments, it would certainly save a lot of planning time, and everyone would get more out of it, right? That’s the concept behind an unconference. While the idea has been around for decades, they’ve started to become really popular in the last few years.
The concept is an acknowledgment that, in most cases, the expertise present in the audience far outpaces the expertise of the people on stage. Dave Winer explained it better than I can, but I’ll give it a shot. Everyone in the audience becomes a “participant.” The leader isn’t a presenter. He doesn’t have scores of Powerpoint slides prepared. He knows something about the topic (yes, there’s a topic pre-decided). He leads a discussion, asks questions, and encourages people in the room to participate. No one gets to dominate the discourse. Different points of view are expressed and challenged. At the end of it all, we have a broader picture of the topic, based on the collective experience of the participants, that is far more valuable than anything a single person could have presented.
Now, what if we take this a step further? Rather than meeting in a conference room at a hotel or convention center, why can’t we meet online? We have all of the tools. Combine Skype, Yugma, Skrbl, Google Docs, and Ustream, all of which are free. The session can be recorded, so people unable to attend can watch it later. I don’t have to sit in traffic, so a one hour meeting actually takes one hour. Plus, anyone in the world can attend.
It’s going to take a while, but this is going to change how we interact professionally.