Ever had the feeling conversations during a coffee break were the most productive part of a conference? Well, there is a good explanation! During a break, you are in charge of the topic of the conversation. You decide who you want to talk to and how much time you want to spend on a person or a topic. This desire for involvement and intimacy leads towards a new type of event: Unconference. During an Unconference, there is no pre-planned agenda, no central organisation and no fixed speakers.
Usually an event is planned months in advance. The organization determines the goal of the event, the budget and chooses a suiting venue. Then the event agenda is filled. Depending on the interests of the guests, different speakers are selected but guests rarely get an opportunity to have an influence on the agenda. Unconferences take a different approach and believe that maximum behaviour change and impact can be achieved by letting the guests decide on the content of the agenda.
Howard Owen created the foundation for Unconferences at the end of the twentieth century. He noticed – after spending a year of his life organizing a single conference – his guests were most energetic while speaking to each other during the breaks. This eventually formed the basics of his Open Space Technology.
The philosophy behind his method is simple: being able to move freely and decide for your own have a positive effect on the sense of involvement. Involvement will lead to more enthusiasm and a proactive attitude. Owen designed Open Space Technology to combine this sense of involvement with the effectivity of a good meeting. Therefore, during an Unconference the guests needs are paramount.
The word ‘Unconference’ itself implies it’s literal meaning: a non-conference. An Unconference can not be planned in advance, which may seem like a nightmare to every event professional. The only two things that can be planned are the location and the topic of the Unconference.
When a topic is complex, most of the times a lot of opinions are involved. This is exactly what you need while organizing an Unconference. A fitting topic can be anything between organizational problems and sharing knowledge about a particular theme. When a plenary introduction has taken place, it is time to determine the agenda. Everybody can propose a session related to the general theme or topic. All propositions are assigned a timeslot and when the agenda is filled, the Unconference can start. Due to the unplanned nature of an Unconference it is vital to communicate the topic with your visitors in time, this will help your visitors with preparing a session.
During a conference, whenever a speaker asks the audience a question, the response is often silence. So why would visitors speak up during a Unconference then? The answer is simple: personal involvement. A good example could be a reorganization. Employees need to know how an reorganization will affect them due to the direct consequences a reorganization has on their personal lifes. This means the people who are affected by such decisions are willing to put a lot of time and energy in a potential solution. An Unconference offers an opportunity for everyone to share knowledge and experiences about the organization to come up with this solution. The manner of personal involvement in the solution also influences the manner of support a corporate decision can count on.
Unconferences offer a lot of opportunities, but just like other event types there is a risk. The need for involvement among visitors while visiting an event is growing. This trend is undeniable. To follow this trend does not mean the quality of your event is decreasing. Although it is unlikely for Unconferences to take over the whole event branche, its benefits can teach the whole sector a lot.