Sunday, 9 January 2011

Process matters!

NetrootsUK was billed as a “one day event to help network and inspire progressive activists working on the web”. As someone with this blog, my small creative ideas blog and my Twitter account (...facilitating the conversations, ideas & questions to help build a more ambitious, creative and fair world), I decided to go along to the event in London yesterday, along with about 600 other people. It was busy, fascinating & diverse, and the day made me think a great deal. (And I thank the organisers, sponsors and contributors who made it happen.)

But: did it help me network and was I inspired? In order: broadly no and very variably so.

It was a long day, a good half of which was spent in a large plenary listening to speakers. Some were very good: Stella Creasy MP gave a passionate & inspiring speech and Clifford Singer entertained the audience with his use of comic sans (among other things)! However the broad view that emerged from the parallel tweeting and some conversations that I had, was that this was not what the delegates had come really come for. The agenda in the middle of the day was jam packed with a range of interesting seminars. I only managed to get to three of them: I would have liked to have to gone to more. Towards the end of the event, an ‘open mike’ session, which I only understood what that meant when it happened, had six speakers who hurriedly gave us information about their particular project. There was interaction and participation, but not nearly as much as there could have been.

At the end of the day, I was left feeling tired and frustrated as I knew how much more could have been achieved. This was not because of the content of the day (the seminars were good) but the process. The process was mostly didactic, constraining and preset. In many respects it was a classic conference form which was (perhaps) doubly frustrating as the people attending were anything but. The principles of interactivity, emergence, self direction & exploration, randomness, transparency and creativity which are what make social media / Web 2.0 such an exciting medium were almost absent in how the conference was structured. There was just so much untapped potential in the room.

If I had been in charge (as it were...) this is what I would have done: 
  • made the whole event Open Space so that the people attending would have been able to shape the overall agenda and indeed their own conference. The event would have been far more fluid and allowed for people to network in open & deliberate ways that would have been so much more productive than the happen-chance discussions you might start (with the person standing next to you in the lift or over coffee). 
  • explained the process of how the day was going to function at the beginning so that people would have understood how they could make the most of it. For example I would have at least announced or publicised that there was free wifi for everyone to use in the subterranean room (away from mobile phone signals). 
  • have real and virtual walls for people to post their ideas, thoughts, concerns, links etc 
  • told people in advance what they were coming to and how they would be able to sponsor discussions and workshops. (Whilst some lunchtime seminars were organised like this – so many more could have been put on.) 
  • put all the chairs in a several concentric circles so that people could face each other rather than be put into passive audience style rows all facing the podium and speakers. (This was meant to be about networking – not a series of academic lectures!)


I am well aware that I am probably in a minority in my focus on process & outcomes as opposed to content. What comes first for most people, it seems – conference organisers and delegates – is content: who is speaking about what. I start with the outcomes: how do you want the world or yourself to be different as a result of the event? The form (or process) of the event must follow this function (outcome). If the purpose of yesterday’s event had been to inform people of some of the work going on around political activism in the UK at the moment, it did reasonably well. But as the purpose of the event (as billed) was to inspire people (to take action) and help people network, then this event did not succeed as much as it could have done. An opportunity was lost.

If there are any follow up events – nationally or locally – I sincerely hope that greater attention will be paid to the process of these events so that more, so much more, can be achieved. 

Moreover, progressive politics aside, what large or small event are you in the process of organising?

Does the form of the event match the outcomes you wish to achieve? How do you know? How will you evaluate the event (or meeting, or briefing, or whatever...) for how well these outcomes are achieved? 

1 comment:

  1. I like the idea about the virtual wall for posting ideas, but can you imagine the anacrhy that would've ensued while Polly Toynbee was speaking?

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