Are Conferences Just Another Form of Large-Group Interventions?

Thinking of it, it seems strange: the probably by far most common large-group intervention in fact is none; at least it remains largely unaffected by all the more recent and progressive insights and understanding on how to work with large groups. The impact is quite drastic: while we know how powerful and effective in particular the potential of large groups in simultaneous interaction is, this potential remains largely untapped. Quite on the opposite: the most common of all large-group events has an often sad outcome – on the one hand it’s very consuming in terms of effort, resources and time,  and on the outcome we consistently hear about the frustration of organisers and participants alike: it’s been boring, disengaging, there was a high drop-out rate, very limited outcome… We all know the famous sentence of Harrison Owen that led him to inventing Open Space Technology: he says when he asked people in conventional conferences what they liked most, what was most useful, they quite overwhelmingly responded: the coffee breaks!

We can look at a “conference” as a large group event and largely shape and organise it according to the principles, design patterns and with methods we use in our work elsewhere. However, we must be aware of some particularities of conferences and cater for those. Roughly we can separate them into three areas: a) the purpose and goal of the event, b) the nature of participants and subsequently c) the event structure and organisation.

Purposes and Goals of Conferences

In contrast to other events, the goal often lacks in terms of clarity and stridency. Goals are often formulated like sharing knowledge; allowing exchange; comparing ideas, notes and experiences; getting updated; having dialogues; etc. For other workshops, that usually wouldn’t do it – all these goals would rather be means to achieve a higher purpose like transforming an issue, deciding and committing on a particular change or so. What many conferences lack (in distinction to a strategic event or so) is the unifying goals, the direct collaboration of participants in their daily work routine (eg. they mostly are not members of one and the same institution, they don’t need to achieve concrete outputs jointly), conferences hardly ever have any particular decisions to take (let alone the power to take binding decisions) and there are very little obligations that bind participants to each other (often more on a moral level if any at all). People want something from each other, not with each other (ie. they want ideas, information, but there is no need nor expectation to achieve something jointly beyond the duration of the conference).

In many events and for many methods, we can define some basic conditions for success. They constitute somehow a magnetic core, a centre of gravitation and cohesion, the engine of the event. These conditions could be summarised as I) a burning issue at stake, II) authority to prepare or take decisions, III) some sort of conflict or tension (even if its just latent) at the centre, and IV) ideally a decision time of yesterday, ie. a sense of urgency. None of those is given in many conferences as we know them, which poses questions and challenges in terms of cohesion and commitment.

Last but not least we made the important observation that there mostly are parallel definitions and expectations of purpose: sponsors and organisers of conferences may have their very own agenda, ie. they want to elaborate a declaration, they want to promote an issue or product, or they may look for answers to certain questions they are carrying. However, in many instances the majority of participants may have an entirely different motivation or agenda to take part. These may be to network, make and cultivate old and new contacts; to promote their own ideas, viewpoints or issues; to use the event as a platform to promote and sell their own services and products; to do fundraising or gain new mandates or contracts; to find a new job; or many more. Obviously these purposes can clash and a conference needs to cater in some way or another for several of those or it risks to produce frustration, dissatisfaction and disruption.

The Nature of Conference Participants

Conference participants are a quite a special kind of species – often quite dissimilar to participants in other workshops, trainings and large-group events. Many participants however can and do play different roles, but already the term „conference“ can trigger a particular role and thus a corresponding set of attitudes and behaviours, which the same persons would not hold and show in different situations.

There is also a large group of „conference tourists and habitués“, who attend countless conferences every year. They show a pronouncedly “veteran” behaviour. For instance they will only participate on a very selective basis, show up at around 11:00 in the morning (no matter what time the event actually starts), grab a programme and then select just a few sessions where they expect to hear something of particular interest or meet specific people they are after. In a conference, there are often several side events and parallel workshops (of a formal or informal nature, they can be planned and announced or spontaneous/ad-hoc, they can be declared and open or confidential and closed) and people will not really bother to follow the main stream of events and sessions – the latter often more being the “hub” and providing the occasion and legitimisation to attend in the first place.

First of all this leads to conferences being quite unforeseeable in terms of participants: how many persons will attend when, who will be in which room or session when and for how long? Questions of a more oracular nature. And even if a session starts with a particular number and group of persons, it will say little about who will be there in the end. All of this demands for much increased flexibility in terms of organisation, facilitation and proceedings.

Secondly this high fluctuation and unpredictability in terms of attendance poses a problem if the conference – in the style of classical large-group/ whole-system events – is carefully designed and choreographed, where the succession of sessions follows an inherent logic, where one module builds on top of the previous ones. In these events, it is crucial that the overwhelming majority of participants jointly go through a learning and transformation process to gain shared understandings, build common grounds and jointly co-create visions and action items.

Lastly, we must be aware, that (in sharp contrast to many workshops) participants mostly travel and attend at their own expenses. Therefore they expect to be offered some sort of show and excitement. They will only accept instructions on an entirely voluntary basis and there is no authority to issue directives. And last but not least the credo of whole-system events to bring the whole system into one room (ie. to make sure that all perspectives on an issue are represented in the sessions) is very questionable and fragile, because important parts of a system, crucial “view-holders” may be unable or unwilling to raise the funds to participate in the conference – after all there may be nobody who has the power to dictate people to attend.

Event Structure and Organisation

In our events we apply the pattern of “Divergence → Emergence → Convergence” as the fundamental structure of sessions. Participants undergo a phase where they learn from different sources, open up their minds to new ideas and become very broad; on this basis they co-create a shared vision of what to achieve, something new and innovative; lastly – when considering action to follow up (concrete steps and measures, a plan, …) they narrow down again in an excluding move towards agreeing on one “plan” or “set of measures” or “guideline” or whatever the intention and hence the outcome of the workshop should be.

Conference however can be considered as a “once-in-a-lifetime” gathering. Even if it is repeated or people know each other from before, the event as such very much stands as a once-off event. People gather from very different backgrounds and converge in their discussions towards a common understanding of the issues at stake. At this stage they have the unique opportunity to elaborate jointly something new, eg. a set of recommendations, a new idea, a guide or so (emergence). Lastly they take this “novelty” and reflect about how to carry that back home into their own, particular context and what to do with it – eventually everyone on his how – very much a divergent movement. In this sense a conference can be looked at as an inversion of the same pattern to “Convergence → Emergence → Divergence”.

A conference often cannot achieve more than recommendations, because this is the highest degree of obligation that is attainable. Unlike an intra-institutional workshop a conference does mostly not allow for joint action planning because participants do not have a shared institutional framework but they all work for/ act in individual organisations.

Given the “voluntary” character of attending a conference, participants want to have a certain degree of personal choice. The conference is more a kind of container or even “biotope” for various different modules, which cater for different styles of engaging and learning. This however requires new, more sophisticated guidance systems to allow participants at any given time to orient themselves and find their individual way to whatever attracts their interest.

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