Unconferences, outcomes and small steps

In the wake of Friday’s successful HyperWM event for local government in the West Midlands, I was involved in yet another exchange on Twitter about the people who are not allowed to attend such events because their managers don’t see them as legitimate. I’ve written about this before, here, because I think that free, self-organised, events must have an increasingly important role to play in staff development, as finances get ever tighter. But, as some of the stories from HyperWM 2011 show, there are still people who are prevented from attending such opportunities. Part of the discussion about this suggested that one officer had been specifically stopped from attending because he was unable to prove any “identifiable outcomes” from the event.  Leaving aside the almost impossible nature of this task, it shows what those of us who believe in such events are up against.

Personally, I think that anyone who has actually attended a localgovcamp-type event cannot fail to be persuaded of its benefits. But, the problem is, there are still many more people who have not attended one than have. So, I have an idea, which might help more people get experience of such activities and, hopefully, then become evangelists for the approach,

I’d like to find a public sector organisation, probably a local authority, prepared to organise its own internal unconference, just for its own staff. It could even be done within the one department. My idea is that the event would be open only to the staff of that organisation, and that what happens there would be shared only to others in the organisation, via Yammer and the staff intranet. Hopefully, this would provide an environment where people could safely experiment with the format, and put out ideas they might be tentative about sharing in a more widely open forum.

I have a slight twist to the format which might help in embedding the approach. If organisers are feeling brave enough, there could be a mid-afternoon session of, say, half an hour, when participants decide what elements of discussions they want to share with the wider world. There could then be a closing plenary during which views are solicited from outsiders, via twitter and other forms of social media. This could serve to build confidence in the good ideas raised, and ensure the non-valid ideas are able to “fail fast”.

Is there an organisation out there prepared to experiment with this approach? I am confident it would create a sizeable cohort of unconference evangelists within the institution, and offer a model for wider adoption.

9 thoughts on “Unconferences, outcomes and small steps

  1. Teachmeet avoids the necessity for asking permission to attend as they are mostly held outwith normal working hours. This however comes with additional problems such as dealing with childcare and only attracting those who have serious commitment to do extra outside of their workplace. Several educational establishments have held internal teachmeets, with varying degrees of success. At my own college we only managed to attract around 20 staff to our internal Teachmeet, and fewer were willing to share their ideas. Several people have told me they feel intimidated to speak in public to an audience of their peers and that that they don’t feel they do anything ‘special’ in their classrooms that is worthy of sharing. A sad indictment of the teaching profession.

  2. I think it will depend if an organisation has even heard of unconferences let alone twitter or any other social media. There are so many councils full of dinosaurs, and the new and younger members coming through the ranks are often ignored. We don’t seem to have any great leaders any more who are up for a challenge to the old ways of working.

    • You’ve got a point, to an extent, Dave, but doing that means the event and what is learned there is unlikely to be accepted as important to the individual’s practice. And many people won’t like the idea of giving up a day’s holiday for staff development

  3. I kind of like the Saturday/weekend/evening vibe for unconferences, – coming under your own volition adds to the spirit. I know that some people do get their travel paid, but generally – and I think its a key feature – by being there everyone gives something, and this is instrumental to reciprocity that makes openspace so valuable. There is also an issue of ensuring that the attendance remains wider than a narrow group, because without broad-inclusion there’s a danger of losing the knowledge-spillover.

    Never-the-less I do think that the format needs extending to help more people to experience open innovation mindset. At the moment I’m really concerned with the inertia around the transformation agenda in local authorities, and I’m sure that the unconference format can help, in general but also specifically in looking how we integrate social media in open service delivery.

    At the moment, I suspect we just have to keep knocking on doors until they open. Blogs like this can only help.

  4. John,
    I am more than happy to promote your service to “faciltate” and “make happen” unconference activities within local authorities and other public sector organisations.
    I think where the internal skills of event production and facilitation dont exist, you are providing a service that should be paid for and someone like yourself who has done a great deal of work on podcasting and videoing unconference activity can bring alot of value added outputs that could be used local authority clients in future activities.
    To justify the expenditure by potential local gov clients, would think that some “outcomes” from the unconference such as an ideas pot plus some next steps plans would make it a more attractive proposition. I know that Carl Haggerty ran a very successful DCCSMF (Devon CC Social Media Forum) with an unconference approach so he might also be a good person to contact.
    Good luck !!!!

    • Many thanks for this, Nick.

      I would hope that , in most cases, local government could just “JFDI” this sort of thing. But I am ready and available to help if anyone needs it

  5. I’ve tried on a couple of occasions to get colleagues interested in a internal unconference (I work in the Scottish Government) – reactions have ranged from complete disinterest to abject horror (a conference without an agenda!!! First step on a slippery slope to complete anarchy… :)). Even the folk that I thought would be keen, just weren’t. I think sometimes those of us who ‘get it’ forget that we are still very much a rare breed.

    I shall keep trying though…the timing may eventually be right🙂

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