The strange persistence of conferences

I've just been reading the comments that Tony Karrer has been getting on his post: Better Conferences - Response Needed. All the wonderful ideas show ways to make conferences more useful to those of us who are already swimming in useful information. We don't need to be told what we can find for ourselves online. The premise of many comments is that we need to interact, watch demos, disagree, synergize, and collaborate on deeper explorations.

Attending conferences was an "eighties thing" for me. I was the keynote speaker at the last conference I attended. That gave me the privilege of drifting around between all the breakout sessions to get a feel for the entire gathering. I made notes of quotes from different sessions that I wove into my closing remarks. I had already become a voracious reader. While there, I was having the experience of getting almost no new information. The printed summation of all the sessions was practically useless. This was a precursor to our current experiences of not needing to be spoon-fed info now that we have online access to phenomenal resources.

I suspect we are in the middle of a transition stage, like the cocoon that transforms a caterpillar into a butterfly. Transitional forms include unconference, Future Search, Appreciative Inquiry, World Cafe, and Open Space technology models of gathering. These structures are open-ended. The outcomes are unpredictable. The process is fluid and emergent from the interactions among the particular participants.

These transition forms move beyond getting information to what we do with information, how we're trying to make better use of it and ways we change in the process of interacting with information. In this, we are seeing added functionality prior to a breakthrough product: like

  • tape or CD players (Walkman) that surpassed phonographs,
  • but still played replaceable media, (prerecorded tapes & CD's)
  • unlike the MP3 players (iPod & iTunes)
  • that transformed portable music listening, shopping and sharing

This raises the question: "why are conferences for the presentation of information so persistent?" There are several factors at play here:

  1. It makes sense to present information formally when lots of the sources are unreliable. Experts are relied upon to sort out the accurate and verifiable sources from the distorted and conjectural. Citizen participation has increased the need for expert filters or collaborative processes (ranking, voting, commenting, tagging, etc) to get to the good stuff.
  2. Presenting information seems valuable when information is scarce or hard to come by. While digital information resources are growing daily and seem highly accessible, several artificial scarcities exist. Information put on paper is not free or searchable. It's artificially scarce because there are page limits for a publication, storage limits for a physical archive, indexing limitations for cataloguing the contents and spending limits for the purchase of hard copies.
  3. Professionals in the trenches have no time to read, reflect and research outside the scope of their pressing obligations. "Digital information overload" shifts the scarcity from information access to time available. We need presenters who had time to read those PDF files, listen to those podcasts, look through those slides or watch those videos. We have access to the information, but no time to absorb it, tie it together or apply it to practical situations.

The persistence of conferences raises another question. What are likely replacements to the transition forms that are creeping into conference schedules? Said another way: what will the butterfly look like once it exits our current cocoon?


  1. Hi Tom,

    I am told that only 7% of "verbal" communication is contained in the words. Tone of voice, body language, facial expressions and the like carry the remaining 93% of meaning.

    Reading the "I Had a Dream" speech, or any of JFK's speeches really loose something, if you've never heard recordings of them.

    I really enjoy recorded music, but nothing beats a good live performance.

    Beyond that, if you really want to get to know someone, and understand the context of what they are saying, I think you have to share a meal with them.

    I see a really important place for high bandwidth, high quality, video conferencing, particularly in the business arena. But as humans, we require the use of all our senses in our interactions with each other. We cannot shut off touch and smell, so I think there will always be a need for gatherings, like conferences, to bring us together as a group.


  2. Thanks for the rich insights, Roger.
    Some of my own peak life experiences were at live concert venues. I can relate to what you're say about live performances. I've also had let downs when I met some of my favorite authors in person. I suspect there are two separate issues here:
    1) the need for "in person" contact when the intent is to be inspiring or motivational.
    2) the possibility of using online communication when reasoning is being clarified, information is being transmitted or logistics are getting resolved.

    I hope this helps.


  3. A few days ago, Tom, you were exploring business models for blogging and independent professional development. It seems to me that creating better conferences may be fertile ground for a version of the "live road show." Someone needs to help people go beyond just getting access to information and into making that information useful.

    I personally think that a better investment of conference dollars might be in paying for the creation of truly rich and useful content that could be delivered via inexpensive digital venues. I'm also a big fan of unconferencing and Open Space.

    It will be interesting to see where this all lands.

  4. I agree with you Michele, that people need to go beyond the easy access to content. I've not considered "helping them make it useful" until you mentioned it. I've been assuming "the context of the customer" happens naturally and the usefulness depends on the situation of each learner.

    I suspect this ties into another facet of disempowerment: decontextualization. When we're disempowered, we are morbidly dependent on authority figures to tell us what to think, know and say. We cannot think for ourselves. Our own problems, feelings, history and situations are invalidated. We cannot see new content as USEFUL to those problems, feelings, etc - but our context does not count.

    When we are easing someone's pain, reviving their power, dishing out dignity, etc. -- we are restoring their context. We validate their feelings, speak their mind about problems, include their history and relate to their current situations. I had not thought of that as "helping them make content useful". Thanks for provoking that connection in my mind.