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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?