A new way to hold conferences

‘Flat conference’ nixes talking heads, lets participants build own learning

It’s been said that a 19th century time-traveller wouldn’t recognize much in the 21st century except for the classroom, where she’d feel right at home with the “chalk and talk” approach. She’d be equally familiar with conferences, where, apart from PowerPoint, the “sage on the stage” design has received little updating over the centuries.

The time for new models is long overdue, and Learning 2005, which took place from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2 in Orlando, Fla., used effective techniques to adapt the traditional forum to contemporary needs.

The conference organizer was internationally renowned trainer, speaker and writer Elliott Masie. His objective was to maximize learning by reducing the hierarchy between experts and participants, and emphasize collaborative learning between individuals and among communities of practice. Masie called his conference “extreme learning.” Another way of categorizing the result is “a flat conference for a flat world.”

In his book The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman describes our flattened world as one where hierarchies are becoming more horizontal and structures more collaborative. Knowledge is becoming barrier-free as learners pull what they need off the Internet and customize it for themselves. Information is empowering the lowest level of the hierarchy. The speed and openness of the medium is leading to the free movement of best practices, resulting in an increasing meritocracy of ideas. The new models are self-organizing collaborative communities, and self-collaboration (building and deploying your own personal supply chain).

Learning 2005 incorporated the following flat conference characteristics:

•There were plenary sessions, but no presentations. Thought leaders, rather than speakers, were engaged in conversation with Masie and each other, in some cases discussing participants’ questions.

•There were more than 200 small-group sessions, but no PowerPoint and no session recordings. The organizer, rather than presenter, was urged to facilitate discussion among participants. Instead of handouts, a wiki (web pages that allow users to add and edit content) summarizing the session outcome was posted on the conference website.

•Self-organizing was facilitated through communities of practice pods.

•Learner self-service was supported by a gathering space called “LearningLand,” with resources ranging from computer-based demos to a climbing wall.

•Exchange of ideas across a broad spectrum was facilitated by cross-sector representation ranging from the U.S. Navy to e-Learning for Kids, and from the CIA to Lingos (learning for international NGOs).

•Suppliers facilitated some of the small groups and participated in others, but there was no marketplace.

A flat conference makes new demands on everyone. Participants must be self-reliant, experts must be sharers, suppliers must be facilitators and organizers must be flexible.

Participants must take charge

To go after their own learning, participants need to know about the expertise of those around them. To assist in this process people were encouraged to use an online social network to make their personal profiles available to one another. In one section of the profile, people were asked to describe themselves under the four categories “About Me,” “My Work,” “Issues” and “I’m Seeking,” using a series of pre-designated labels. The software allowed people to search the participant database and locate those with whom they shared characteristics. People started using the network several weeks before the event, and about two-thirds of the 1,600 participants completed profiles. People used the network to meet one another, and to set up communities with a range of purposes from discussing how to select a learning management system to organizing a morning jog.

Participants need to home in on their own objectives, and a variety of techniques were used to prompt participants to figure this out. The online social network requested that people articulate what they were seeking from the conference. And a pre-conference session, designed to help participants get the most from the event, asked people to set three goals for themselves.

Experts must be sharers

Thought leaders and facilitators need to be selected for their willingness to share ideas and learn from other people, as much as for their knowledge. For Learning 2005, the standard request for proposals were replaced by personal invitations from Masie, directed at those he felt were up to the task.

Suppliers must be facilitators

Suppliers get a chance to personalize their approach. They were able to structure their small group sessions as interactive demos of their products and services by collaborating with participants in interactive exercises. And they were full participants in the online social network, with opportunities to identify and connect with potential customers.

Organizers must be flexible

Organizers of a flat conference need to be flexible and responsive when dealing with 1,600 people all on individual learning missions. Learning 2005 was a process of ongoing restructuring. As Masie said, “Some things will succeed, some will change and some will fail. You need to give me permission, and give yourselves permission.”

Once people have experienced a flat conference they may have difficulty reverting to the traditional mode. But the model has definite challenges. The conference organizer must have a very strong personal network to convince people they’ll be playing with their equals in the learning sandbox. Because of the power of Masie’s pull, Learning 2005 attracted 30 chief learning officers and thinkers such as Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink and The Tipping Point). And if the thought leaders and facilitators are selected by invitation, then the organizer needs to have a rolodex that is as wide-ranging and deep as Masie’s. Also, it’s tough for many spoon-fed participants to convert to free-range learners. But if they don’t get what they want from the conference, they have nobody to blame but themselves.

Lyndsay Green is a pioneer in e-learning. She co-founded The Training Technology Monitor in 1993 and was chair of the Canadian Society for Training and Development’s first e-learning symposium in 2001. She can be reached at [email protected].

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