Confessions of a justified camper

A little while ago, Paul Coxon wrote a blog post querying the long term viability of unconferences in the public sector. I didn’t respond, because I felt I couldn’t do so without sounding defensive and chippy.

This evening, the weekly Twitter chat, #lgovsm, was based on Paul’s ideas. I did decide to involve myself, and it turned out that everything I said was defensive and chippy. Ah well.

Paul’s basic point is that there are a lot of unconference type events going on – perhaps too many – and that this saturation means people will soon get annoyed that they don’t get enough out of all these events, all these Saturdays that they have to give up and so the ‘movement’ will implode and the sector will be no better off.

I think my issue here is not necessarily with what Paul is saying – he is of course perfectly entitled to his opinions. Nor am I touchy about criticism of these events – after all, I am only vaguely responsible for two a year, and there’s usually some critique of them afterwards, which doesn’t tend to bother me.

Instead, I think Paul is perhaps criticising a group of events – and I can only speak for the ones I am involved with of course – against a set of criteria (ROI, measurable outcomes etc) that we never aimed to meet – which strikes me as being a trifle unfair.

Unconferences for me are social learning events. People learn from each other. But it’s just one type of learning event, and there’s room for many. I get involved in traditional conferences too, and they can be extremely valuable when done well (e.g. when they have me speaking at them).

So here’s a quick overview of how I see this stuff and why I think that some of the things Paul is talking about don’t matter for me all that much.

1. When I am involved in these things, I have no objectives other than people turn up, sessions are pitched, people talk to one another and there is plenty of smiling. That’s it. Others may have their own outcomes in mind – good for them!

2. The content of the event is of course driven by the attendees and that can have variable results. I’ve attended some sessions at ‘camps that were frankly rubbish. I’ve attended others that were simply a room of people telling one another how great they are. The point is that I could leave, and I did.

The other point is that if people want to spend time discussing how great they are then of course that’s fine and I am delighted to have provided a space for them to do that in.

3. The echo chamber argument is true to a certain extent and not in another. The attendance of the events I am involved in grows all the time and there’s roughly a 50% churn in attendees each time. So new people come, veterans come, and they all add what they feel comfortable with. There’s a lot of agreement, because it’s a self selecting group – and again, that’s fine. But it’s not true to say it is a load of continual back-slapping, because it isn’t. There is debate and disagreement – albeit very polite debate and disagreement.

4. I feel no responsibility for anyone else’s personal development. If you got nothing from an event, then that’s a shame, but at least you tried.

5. The best people to attend an event are those that attend the event. I don’t like the idea of trying to get specific groups along – it’s a melting pot of the enthusiastic, the curious and the weird. Let’s keep it that way.

6. What a good unconference is, at the end of the day, is a room full of interesting people. What people choose to do with within the time and space that they have chosen to be in is entirely up to them.

7. There are lots of ‘camp type events going on. I guess we will now when saturation happens because people will stop going. But of course nobody goes to all of these things (I hope!!) and it’s a case of picking and choosing the best ones for you. Nobody ought to feel under an obligation to attend (unless it’s the sort of thing like when you go to the pub with your mates, even though you really don’t feel like it, just in case you miss something).

8. Sponsors see value in these sorts of events, increasingly so. Also, they don’t ask for ROI, or direct sales, or access to budget holders. They come for two reasons, I think. First, it’s to get to talk to people they rarely get to talk to – often the people who actually use their products, or products like theirs. Second, they just want to support the sector, and a bit of the sector that feels dynamic and motivated.

9. If you feel you can do these events in a better way, that appeals to different people, or more people, then go for it! Steph might even let you have some money to make it happen.

10. It might be that nobody will want unconferences any more, which would be fine by me. They are a pig to sort out, and other than a bit of goodwill, aren’t terribly productive. But it seems to be that for the moment, there is plenty of demand and plenty more people who want to be involved, and plenty of interest in more specific, focus events.

Unconferences are an important part of the learning mix for any sector, but it’s important not to think of them as more than they are, nor to ascribe overly high expectations for what they might achieve.

By the way, UKGovCamp is back on 19th January 2013. See you there?

10 thoughts on “Confessions of a justified camper

  1. Steph Gray

    +1

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been on a bit of a journey myself re: unconferences over the last five years, and I’ve certainly spent time trying to engineer them to achieve particular goals. It’s a bad idea.

    Let’s not worry too much about it, throw the doors as wide open as possible, keep it simple and see what happens.

  2. Sasha Taylor

    Hi Dave
    Great blog that sums up unconferences. For those attending it is a personal choice to attend or not. Sponsors are still seeing the benefits of these events and continue to support them … I already have 4 sponsors for BlueLightCamp 2013. And if I ever get board of them or get nothing out of them I will step aside and let the next person take them forward.
    Yes there are many unconferences out there, not all will appeal. I have been to specific unconferences, localgov camps, govcamp, CityCamps, BlueLightCamp, LibraryCamp, Museumcamp to name a few… I also know that people attending an unconference will go away enthused perhaps enough to set up their on sector equivalents. I get something out of each of them. I have been to one that I did not enjoy, a barcamp, so I have not attend another … Again my choice.
    In terms of ROI, will nothing definable, but the evidence is there that people get benefit from attending unconferences. You can not ignore that.
    Agree that a good conference is one that stimulates debate, sharing of good practice, networking and enjoyment.
    See you at UKGovCamp :-)

  3. Antony

    Hello Dave

    Am interested in the points you raise because I’d love to have a public sector/voluntary sector unConference in Cambridge aimed at East Anglia. The reason being that it feels like the county and region are lagging behind what’s happening in the power houses of London and the West Midlands.

    My main interest here is getting a new audience together with some seasoned experts – not just to spread the word on social media but also on the unConference style of event. Many events here are still on the old traditional conference style and lack the energy of unConference events. However, if there are not enough people familiar with unConference style events, things run the risk of slipping back into a traditional structure and mindset, as I have seen happen once before.

    Interested in yours and others’ thoughts.

  4. vicky sargent (@vickysargent)

    Probably the key benefit of going to a free unconference in your own time is that you don’t need to jump through the absurd ROI hoops that management normally require you to because they don’t trust your judgement, they need to a tick a box for someone else, and their main interest at work is covering their own a*se….

    My personal judgement is that, not even counting the fee issue, ROI is usually (not always) higher than conventional conferences because a) networking is way more effective b) people want to be there and are keen to share their ideas and enthusiasm c) a bunch of other stuff I haven’t time to list

  5. Dan Slee

    Good points well made, Dave.

    I always think that a good idea can live with someone standing up and saying ‘wtf?’

    Paul made some interesting points. I don’t agree with hius fundamental argument but I don’t mind he made them because the unconference format is resilient enough to stand questioning because it remains a good idea.

  6. Shane Dillon

    Quite right that the un-conference should be questioned but that said I find them particularly useful. Why?

    1. Keeps you in even when you are not doing a digital job day to day. The set piece un-conferences like GovCamp are well attended by those whose day jobs involve digital communications and all sorts of interesting tech work. My current role does not have much digital stuff. Going to GovCamp keeps me connected with the very best in UK digital. Especially good as I cannot get out much for TeaCamp.

    2. Contacts. Last year’s BlueLight Camp was pretty good in particular a talk by Dr Farida Vis. Dr Vis kindly agreed to visit my organisation to give a talk which was well attended. Real world stuff is being done off the back of BlueLight Camp.

    3. In terms of learning outcomes. I can only speak for myself but un-conferences can provide better value for money than some of those work inspired courses of the ‘Learn how to .. ” variety. Might it be cheaper to send staff to an un-conference than a learning provider in the city.

  7. Paul coxon

    In response to this from Sasha:

    “Sponsors are still seeing the benefits of these events and continue to support them … I already have 4 sponsors for BlueLightCamp 2013. ”

    Glad to hear you have found 4 sponsors…how many of the 4 sponsors were sponsors from last time (excluding BAPCO)?

  8. Matthew

    The whole ROI thing is a non-issue. The real issue is this:

    Employee: “I’d like to go to this event.”
    Manager: “Great. What’s it about?”
    Employee: “Er, I don’t know. But everyone says it will be awesome.”

    If you were the manager, what would you say next?

    1. Dave Briggs Post author

      OK – but would you really not know? Wouldn’t you say that it’s a conference about innovating using technology?

      And besides, you’d surely only need permission if you’re taking work time out to attend, which in most cases isn’t an issue as they are at the weekend.

      Besides, going back to the meat of my post, the issue you point out is not an issue for the events themselves, just for those who unfortunately can’t attend them. People get requests to attend events turned down by managers all the time, for a host of reasons. Doesn’t mean the events themselves are necessarily flawed.

      1. Matthew

        No, it doesn’t mean that the events are flawed. But I do think that there is an opportunity to look at how they are promoted and run *if* there is a desire to see more widespread acceptance and adoption of the unconference format.

        Unconferences have their place, without a question. But their followers need to get over their complex about how others see them, or address this question. Their choice.

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