Inc Magazine, December 1, 2009 – “On a crisp October morning, more than 400 people have crowded into the café of a conference center in Burlington, Massachusetts. They are here for Innovation 2009, an unconference for tech start-ups sponsored by the Mass Technology Leadership Council. There are no programs: No one knows what the sessions will be about or who will speak. But the topics are guaranteed to be relevant to the attendees, because they are about to come up with those subjects on the spot.”
Looking for ways to engage conference and meeting participants? The unconference may be your answer. In an unconference, participants create and manage their own agenda of sessions around a theme or purpose. While the format has been around since the 80’s, it has enjoyed recent popularity as digital resources have made organizing unconferences easier and as Mitch Joel states in his book, Six Pixels of Separation, “Something happened in Silicon Valley where people went so far in the direction of technology, they wanted to bring back more of a ’60s communal aspect, with people getting together in the spirit of democracy, instead of conferences organized from the top down, where everything is mapped out and marketed.”
Attendees present their ideas for sessions to the participants at the opening of the unconference and then post their topics on a large centrally located wall. Location and session times are plotted on the wall. If no one shows up for a session it doesn’t happen. If too many participants show up an additional session is added. As the day progresses new sessions may be posted as new participant ideas may be spawned from previous sessions.
In an effort to sustain energy and spontaneity an unconference is guided by “the law of two feet”; If you are not learning or contributing, it is your responsibility to find someplace where you are.
In addition to the unconference being more engaging and receptive to networking than traditional conferences, unconferences can be as little as one tenth of the cost because you do not have speaker costs and typically food costs drop because coffee breaks and meals are less elaborate. The unconference can also serve as a incubator of innovative new ideas. While the unconference can present its logistical challenges, the end of conference evaluation most likely will provide some very pleasing results.