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?