Unconferences – the future of business events? (Part 1)

Alex Ranson is our regular correspondent covering social media and all things new or innovative. This week she’s explaining all about the “Unconference” which, I must admit, was a new one on me.  Could we see procurement events going this way? The next CIPS, Procurement Leaders or ProcureCon event perhaps? Read Alex’s views today and tomorrow and see what you think. (The Editor)

How many years of your life have you wasted ... on boring, mostly useless away-days, conferences and management team retreats?

Be honest.

Over the years I've been to a fair few. Whether it's a concrete Hilton in Baltimore or a country house hotel in Bath: whether we're sitting on beanbags in a wacky Clerkenwell "design space", old tyres in a muddy field, or hard backed chairs in a windowless Helsinki basement, I feel like I've seen it all... and it's rarely much good.

Yes, some conferences are lavish.  One of my former employers hired out the whole of Beijing's Forbidden City for a conference closing party for its top 400 global managers. Cost millions.  Another time, we ended up down a salt mine in Krakow.

Some are impressive merely by who else is present. I've never been to Davos, but I imagine when you've paid $150,000 to attend, you're going to come home raving about it whether or not you shared a ski lift with Angelina Jolie.

But for me, all these fancy trimmings are just sugar to help some seriously nasty conference medicine go down.

  • Is there a universal rule that the bigger the title the keynote speaker has, the duller his or her speech will be?
  • Or that you must get yourself stuck in plenary sessions dominated by sponsors' agenda, not your agenda?
  • Or trapped in a neverending panel session that bears no resemblance to the topic advertised, where audience questions are taken in threes so they don't have to be answered properly?
  • Or worst of all, get involved in a brainstorm where lots of great intentions and ideas are generated that everyone knows will never make it out of the break-out room?

There's something both inspiring and depressing about being asked to organise an internal conference or away-day. You start with a blank sheet of paper, full of possibility and potential.  Then before you know it, you've got an agenda of information-heavy PowerPoint presentations that are "vital" for various - mainly political - reasons and you're wondering how you're going to fit in time to let the attendees go to the loo.

Or at least, all that was what I thought it had to be, before I came across the "Unconference".

And tomorrow I’ll explain exactly what that is… and why it might just be the future of business events.

You can contact Alex at alex@beaglethinking.com and follow her on Twitter at  @beaglethoughts

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