How do you use the wisdom of the crowds? Participants attend conferences to gain more knowledge, but as a group they also bring with them a wealth of experience and brainpower. Those who exploit the full potential of the interaction contribute immense added value to their conference. The time is ripe for this, argue four specialists in the field of conferences and crowdsourcing.
Illustration © iStock.Logorilla
Eric de Groot of MindMeeting calls the developments the conference world is undergoing a silent transition. ‘We are moving away from traditional knowledge sharing by experts, in the form of a classroom, to knowledge sharing via far more effective work methods. It has long been known that receiving passive lessons in the classroom is not very effective. Teaching the subject yourself, for example, is far more instructive. Providing a demonstration is also highly effective. These insights are beginning to force changes. In countries with greater social margins, with more room for experimentation with people’s interactions, the transition is faster.’
Ruud Janssen of The New Objective Collective (TNOC) sees a relationship between the new developments in conference management and those of the traditional media. ‘People are increasingly discovering the power of the Internet. They also want to see evidence of that power at conferences. They’re going to try things out, they’re curious. And if what they try out is better, works better – that’s just adding fuel to the fire to do more with it. I think that conferences are lagging about five to eight years behind online developments. The user adoption cycle plays out at conferences as well. This cycle revolves around more than just technology; for example, it also involves questions such as: do you design one conference for a thousand people, or a thousand conferences for one person?
The greatest added value of being ‘live’ is the interaction, says Erik Peekel of Aaaaha! The Actor Factory. ‘The wisdom of the crowd suggests that, taken together, participants have a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience. Whenever you bring people together, you have to exploit that potential. In evaluations, participants also ask: Where does the interaction take place? Give participants the opportunity to connect with one another and to each other’s ideas. It is the organiser’s responsibility to achieve this.’
Blowing Hot Air
One pitfall that conference organisers should avoid, according to Ruud Janssen, is organising a conference in the exact same manner as the previous event. ‘After the event you are to answer the question: “how has the participants’ behaviour changed?” You will use these outcomes when considering improvements in the form and format of the subsequent meeting. Otherwise, it is a useless endeavour – like the air wasted on blowing up a perforated balloon. Unfortunately I still see that happen quite frequently. If you continue to do what you’ve always done and it provides no additional value or has less of an impact: people are going to consider new ways of getting what they came for.. Continuous repetition without innovation is like signing the death sentence of your event.”
Another major pitfall of conference organisers, according to partner Mike van der Vijver of MindMeeting, is the idea that it is too difficult or complicated on a physical or organisational level to bring together large groups of people to exchange views.
“That’s why they prefer to dispense with large group discussions or only give the participants the opportunity to cast a vote. Voting can be a useful solution, but there is so much more possible. That does mean, however, that organisers should be prepared to leave the beaten track far behind – like that tired concept of people sitting on chairs in neat rows. And that’s scary for many. People think all too quickly about everything that can go wrong.”
Van der Vijver and Janssen have also collaborated on the development of the Solution Room: a strictly directed closing general session format to activate the behaviour change induced by peer led consultation.
“Lose the closing keynote speech, no one is looking for yet more information and motivational talks at the end of an event’, says Janssen. Energetic, structured solutions arise from the meeting where problems are given up for adoption and every problem is actioned by 7 peers whilst you observe and are consulted. In turn everyone’s problem gets addressed. Deep conversations, practical advice and actionable steps are key to create change in behaviour with intent and purpose.”
Also the use of “human spectrograms” to demonstrate the impact of the solution room and physical note taking on paper table cloths create a rich engaged user experience that create strong bonds at the end of the event.
Janssen: “It is essential that you are aware before you go home of the next steps to address the actions you want to take. Three months later we send the participants a self addressed postcard – as a friendly reminder of their Solution Room resolution and next steps.”
According to Janssen, there is more and more demand for these kinds of precision engineered action meeting designs. ‘Those in instructional design and the professional trainers worldwide have definitely become used to doing that with small groups; but the question does arise: is it also possible with a thousand or more participants? I am convinced it is. I also think that in due time eighty per cent of future meeting formats could be designed to be “shelf ready”, much like Ikea packages its furniture . Designing it to be standardised and fashionable tools is one task, the other is creating bespoke customised formats for the remaining twenty per cent of events that require tailored approaches. We’re already working on making this happen in the foreseeable future.
Amateurism around social media
When it comes deploying new media and interactive technology – the experts are clear: only use them if it offers a solution for something that the stakeholder needs, when it is physically impossible to come up with a “live” alternative.
Peekel: “Twitter can link participants, but it can also draw attention away from the speaker. Casting votes by machine or via mobile telephone is only useful when you are also actually going to do something with the outcomes. Otherwise a simple show of hands is faster and simpler.”
Janssen sees a lot of “amateurism” around social media and it can become a weapon of mass distraction and frustration unless deployed properly. ‘It is good that there is so much experimentation with social media. In the meantime, it is becoming a sought after competence and profession alike. People who do not pause for thought about that can end up doing more harm than good. It is a like the granddaughter of the chairman of the board who plays violin and is sometimes allowed to perform during the intermission.’
Van der Vijver adds: “Modern communication methods and social media offer countless extra opportunities, especially in the communication taking place before and after a meeting. You can, for example, allow participants in a simple online survey to select in advance from a range of subjects. At the end of the meeting, you can provide follow up information for participants in all manner of ways, even if practice has shown that there is little use made of the option. I think the most useful aspect is the freedom with which new contacts can be incorporated into networks that remain long after the meeting has ended, and less in the substantive follow-up.”
Knowledge sharing and crowdsourcing during, before and after conferences are two developments that should not be stopped. Of that the interviewees are convinced.
“Participants visit a conference in the hope that afterwards they will better be able to practice their profession”, says Erik Peekel. “All that you learn, but do not directly apply, is quickly forgotten. Interaction at the conference offers you the chance to build a bridge between new insights and your own practice. That interaction makes knowledge more relevant and also increases appreciation.”
“Events in and of themselves have no value”, submits Ruud Janssen. “Value is only created once the conference causes behavioural changes by the stakeholders which include the participants. That is why you should ask the following question: what change in behaviour does the stakeholders need to happen as a result of attending the event? You must determine what the objectives for each stakeholder are for attending the conference. ROI methodology has been applied already for twenty years in the training and the HR world. Objectives and results can also be measured very well for conferences. Remember that it is not sufficient to just give participants a feeling or something to think about. Each participant must do something, undertake an action. Only then does the conference have a chance at delivering real value.”
‘Teaching the subject yourself is far more instructive’
MindMeeting delivers meeting design for meetings with an international audience. This means that Eric de Groot and Mike van der Vijver evaluate for international clients how the meeting programme can achieve the client’s objective; both on the harder side: such as decisions and insights; and on the gentler side: such as the atmosphere and impact. MindMeeting makes a design and oversees its implementation.
‘All that you learn, but do not directly apply, is quickly forgotten’
Aaaaha! the Actor Factory works on assignment for associations and Professional Conference Organisers or PCOs. The communications agency brings participants together and gives them an active role in the programme. Erik Peekel and his team provide the added value of networking and interaction. Aaaaha! The Actor Factory produces various session formats: workshops, talk shows and
‘Conferences are lagging about five to eight years behind online developments’
TNOC | The New Objective Collective bring ideas to life with use of live and digital communication. The collective provides innovative community management and services for live, hybrid and digital events. Ruud Janssen focuses on strategic consulting, facilitation & moderation, online and multimedia marketing, community building, online collaboration, mind mapping, new media training, meeting architecture and service design consultancy.