Recently I was listening to the episode of the Lingthusiasm podcast. Gretchen McCulloch shared one tidbit of information (side note to the main topic of the episode) that led me to think deeper about conferences and what could be done to improve them. Here is the quote:

…conferences create a state of shared knowledge among their participants. You know that everyone else was also at the same talks or in the same environment or is interested in the same topic, and so it gives you springboards for having conversations about topics of mutual interest…

Reinventing online conferences

This is a compelling thought that, for me, finally nails down why people go to conferences, what is their special sauce, and why they stubbornly stay alive, even as more and more powerful information-sharing technologies have been created over the last century and a half.

When I read a book, watch a youtube video, or download some information directly to my brain (TBA), it is a very personal event, with no social aspect to it. And when I meet people in my field, later on, they might have the same information, or they might not have. I can never be sure unless it is something industry-shattering that everybody is talking about at the water coolers right this moment.

But at the conference, I saw that people were with me in the same room where the panel discussion happened. They were three seats over during the keynote. They saw the same celebrity walking past during lunch. We have this shared knowledge that we have just acquired together. So we can start discussing it without inquiries whether the partner has heard about it.

And what is even more important is that we have this shared knowledge with strangers, which allows us to approach them much more easily and start new conversations and relationships immediately on the spot.

Of course, not all conferences deliver this feeling, not always, and not to everybody. But it is certainly possible to catch it there. And the more specialized the conference, the easier it becomes. If everybody else in the room are astronomers studying gas planets orbiting red giants, then starting the conversation about the panel on new results from the space telescope is very easy.

But if the panel is about new management techniques, theoretically applicable for every single corporation on earth, and the room is filled with random middle managers working in industries that are nothing alike, then any serendipitous conversations are much less likely to appear.

And online conferences are, of course, the worst of them all. Many seem to be nothing more than a website that wraps youtube videos and adds a bit of an agenda text. This shared experience is not there if you don’t know exactly who else is tuning in, and if they are, are they even paying attention. If you are watching together with some friends, great, but conferences are not only about friends, you are supposed to interact with rare acquaintances and to make new connections as well.

Of course, there might be more innovative conferences out there, as there is a legion of them that I have never heard about. But, as it is said — if you have not heard about the idea, it means that in the market, there is room for another similar idea.

So how would I disrupt this market of online events, given the input above? The main goal would be to create this sense of shared knowledge between online conference participants. Easier said than done, of course, but it certainly is possible.

The formula that I will outline will be generic enough to be applied for all kinds of conferences, from small team events and corporate get-togethers to geeky tech conferences to significant industry events.

The pre-requisite is that all the participants have to be registered, and there have to be a limited number of places. It can be large, but it still has to be limited, to give this sense of a closed group to the people who join.

1The event should start with a keynote. Team manager, company CEO, technology leader, industry captain — the person who matters for the group that has gathered.

2 After that, there is a little bit of ice-breaker related to the second pre-requisite — homework. Everybody has been required to watch some youtube videos or read some papers or strategy documents before the event, to establish some similarity of starting conditions for everybody who participates. Ice-breaker consists of a quiz where people individually answer a series of questions regarding homework.

After the first two agenda items are done, all the participants already have some shared context. Note that it is mandatory that they have seen the keynote and participated in the quiz. If they have not, they can’t continue enjoying the event and have to leave.

3 Next step is 1:1 speed dating between participants to induce private conversations and get to know each other. People are automatically and randomly paired up and placed into breakout rooms within the conference software. There can be one or several consecutive short “dates” for everybody. Each lasting 10 to 15 minutes maximum.

As participants already have a specific shared context, it would be easy to find what to talk about, and there will be no awkwardness. Some discussions might lead to nothing, while others can facilitate the birth of a new longer-term relationship. Just like in an in-person conference.

The software also should facilitate automatic contact sharing between people who have interacted with one another, so you don’t need to spend more time than it takes to do one button click to share a virtual business card with your conversation partner.

4 After the ice-break is completed, regular lectures start. There can be multiple parallel streams, but you can watch only one at a time, just like usually in the conference. At the same time, you can also browse live transcripts of other panels or lectures, so you can quickly switch over if it becomes more interesting.

Each lecture also has a room chat for questions, interactive voting, and a list of participants. You can chat to specific participants, and chat windows from your first ice-breaker are also still open, so you can do short follow-up chats with your new acquaintances to see what they are up to and which panels they like. It is also visible which lecture others are listening to exchange some privacy for more shared knowledge.

5 Between lectures, there are 10–15 minute breaks that participants can spend having private conversations. Either with people of their choosing or by requesting random new acquaintances. Or perhaps requesting a chance to speak to one of the panelists privately. This allows either to deepen existing relationships or to keep looking for new ones. Exactly like in a physical conference, just with less awkwardness.

6During the conference day, there can also be longer breaks, such as lunch. Such breaks are also a good chance for people to chat, but now in slightly larger groups. In the same Lingthusiasm episode, you can also learn more about the maximum size of active group talk. It seems that discussion tends to break up into smaller conversations at certain group sizes. And the magic number for discussion to be active among all participants seems to be four.

So for a lunch break, we split people up into groups of four, where they can enjoy their conversation over food. Still from the comfort of their own homes, of course.

As stated before, all of this has to be relatively mandatory for people to participate, not to break shared context and this in-group feeling that accumulates over time. Of course, as the conference goes on, it becomes possible to skip a lecture or two without breaking the magic, and that should be taken into account. But the shared beginning is critical.

And that’s it, that’s the entire idea. It is nothing technologically complicated, just a little bit of forcing some new rules upon people to create this positive externality that you don’t even know that you are missing until it appears.

The Invisible Complexity

While you are here, please check out my new book “The Invisible Complexity.” (note that for shipping to Europe, it is better to use the site instead. And the same goes for UAE — use site.)

In the book, I explore how large enterprises’ IT and business functions keep fighting about everything, all the time. Why they do it, what drives them, what goals are set for them, and so on. I dive deep into thinking how various psychological quirks that are part of our human condition are at fault most of the time.

How software architecture choices reflect the pros and cons of particular solutions and the requirements for the enterprise architect, goals set to the IT director, and what the CEO wants to say in the next quarterly earnings call. Everything is always interconnected, and it is a pure joy to try to untangle it all.

There are no magical three-step solutions provided in the book, but it will give you a lot of extra clarity of corporate technology affairs and some tools on how to influence them.

Post scriptum For corporate events, you can also add shared activities where people have to do some work with the strategy or some other typical corporate thing. That is fine. Just have it in the second part of the event, after the context has been established, and keep the activity in relatively small groups, preferably no larger than four or five people.

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