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Unconference: Room for Open Space

Conference and trade show organizers tend to be conservative in terms of content issues. I rarely see any major events breaking from the traditional model of pre-set agenda, presentations, 5 minutes q&a, maybe with an occasional “birds of a feather” session, or hospitality event. But I’ve tried to keep tabs on the Open Space Technology movement, commonly referred to as “unconference.” A couple of great sites are available to give you an overview on this meeting structure: Open Space World includes a great collection overview information and links about the Open Space community. Unconference.net is more of a first-person take on creating and facilitating unconference events. There’s must-read information here for anyone in the events business.

I have never organized nor participated in an event that was structured like this. I’ve spoken to people who have and they uniformly rave. However, these events are more closely associated with groups that have a specific purpose–like companies or tech standards groups. It would be hard to market an event that had no agenda, I think. We’re looking to incorporate an unconference approach into our hybrid event technology. If you’ve had experience with this format, I’d love to hear about it.

  1. September 25th, 2009 at 13:10 | #1

    Hi Bill,
    Thanks for linking to my site :) glad you think it is useful.
    As for the question of how to market an even with “no agenda” this is what I work with my clients to do. The invitation is critical to get the people you want to be there for the kind of conversations you hope to have. I often get clients to name 20-30 people who would in the old model be listed as “speakers” and to invite their participation before the event is announced. The ones who say yes to attending you get to list as “attending” and this can be a marketing draw. When attendees register for the conference ask them what they are hoping to present about, learn and discuss with peers. The answers to these questions can be presented to the other potential attendees to help them get a sense of what will likely be on the agenda.

  2. September 28th, 2009 at 11:31 | #2

    Hi Kaliya:

    Thanks for this great information, and for your helpful website. I think this model would be a great format for an event. Can you point me to any “for profit” conference events that are following this model? Also, do you know of anyone who uses a mixed format of open space and traditional conference content?

    Regards, Bill

  3. September 30th, 2009 at 10:07 | #3

    Dear Bill,

    I ran a conference last year which bought together the private and public sectors and social enterprise, charities and entrepreneurs. The way we formed the conference was to have a theme of innovation and collaboration. We also marketed as a different type of conference, where there would be no PowerPoint presentations and that the conference agenda would be made up by the participants through such tools as Open Space and World Cafe. What this allowed us to do was to have very open style sessions, which inspired creativity and led to collaborations that you wouldn’t necessarily have in normal conferences.

    My viewpoint on this is to provide different media for connections to be made before hand through social media and video. Getting the issues on the table before a conference through an open forum such as a facebook blog or twitter can help you and the participants create community before, during and ultimately after the event.

    Having innovative and creative ways to create better conversations, better collaborations and for participants to walk away with an experiential flavour will win the day and not the typical ‘being talked at methods’.

    Hope this helps, if you need any other help please let me know.

    All the best,

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