HYPER GO: Why bother with an unconference?

Hoorah. For the third time in three years there will be an unconference for those in and around local government in the West Midlands.

Called Hyper WM this half day event has grown from being a half germ of an idea to something a bit big a bit splendid and I’m proud to be involved with.

Staged at The Public in West Bromwich on Monday November 19 the event will give people the space to think a bit differently. Hats off to Sandwell Council’s chief executive Jan Britton and Liz O’nions for really picking up the ball and running with it and to Si Whitehouse who has played a big role this year.

It’s the biggest event yet there’s some tickets here if you’re quick.

But what’s the purpose of one of these things? Aren’t we all unconferenced out? Paul Coxon recently wrote a challenging and thoughtful piece that questioned the worth of unconferences. Paul has done some great work in local government and like anything half-decent if it’s a good idea it can stand a level of scrutiny. So here’s my own take on them.

What do I get out of them?

Simply, it’s a chance to connect, be challenged, think differently and learn. It’s a chance to see what is on the horizon and just over the hill. Do I learn something that I can put into place first thing Monday morning? Yes. But it’s often equips me for that thing that lands on my lap in six months time. Often it’s thanks to an unconference that I’ve knowing the basics and know the right person who can help. Like a glorified address book with ‘problem solving’ on the cover. Everything that I’ve done over the last three years with digital – direct or indirectly – has come from an unconference. How can I start to calculate that?

What would new people get out of them?

It’s a chance to take some time out of the office to learn and to think differently. Job titles are handed in at the door and there’s a chance to contribute to a discussion or even start a discussion with someone with something you have in common. The coffee break at a traditional event is often the most valuable time as it’s a chance to talk, ask questions and learn. A good unconference can be a whole lot of that.

What do sponsors get out of it?

A chance to test out ideas, horizon scan, see what ideas are developing and to attach a name to a room full of people who believe in doing something a bit innovative. There’s also the passing traffic of eyeballs to the website and to the event. But that’s almost a by-product.

Oh, no it’s not structured!

Rather like taking a dip in the deep end without water wings for the first time there’s a leap of faith involved. You may hate it. You’re more likely to like it. At the last Hyper WM there was the press officer who refused to come because he didn’t have an agenda. That misses the point.

Nine unconference pitfalls and ways to dodge them

Three years on from my first unconference and it’s clear that the model has evolved and has matured. There was an intake of breath at localgovcamp in Birmingham in 2012 when for a whole variety of reasons many veterans couldn’t make it. But others stepped up to the plate which was brilliant to see.

1. If the same faces turn up.

There’s no question that there’s a group of people who will turn up to unconferences. That’s fine. They’ll get the ball rolling and encourage and cajole. But the danger is there’s an imbalance of new people with fresh ideas. An imaginative use of the wait list can ration the right balance. Easy.

2. If the same faces pitch a session idea.

There’s also no question that the unconference pitching session where you stand in front of a room of people can be daunting. It encourages a certain type of people who don’t mind public displays of popularity. So how to fix it? Maybe it’s encouraging ideas before the event itself. Maybe it’s blank postcards and pens. And someone else reading them out. Easy.

3. If there’s no ideas

Like the actor who dreams of being on stage with no clothes surely deep down the unconference organiser dreads. Teeing up a couple of ideas and making the pitching less scary is a must. Especially from new people.

4. If there’s cliques

Open data people only talking to other open data people in open data sessions is a bit of a missed opportunity and a bit boring, frankly. The times when I’ve been to events I’ve made a deliberate policy of heading to an event where I’ve known absolutely nothing. In short, I’ve sat in the corner and said nothing. At one event I sat through a session on WordPress as a web platform. That’s not my day job. But I learned things that helped with the day job. If you’ve been before, find someone you’ve not met before and chat to them. Then repeat. You’ll learn things.

5. If the focus on problems not the shiny tech

I’d love to see sessions that floated a problem and looked for solutions that may or may not be about the tech. Coventry City Council Martin Reeves at the 10 by 10 WM event made a valuable point. At a recent session for chief executives social media wasn’t mentioned once, he said. Don’t be an evangelist. Bring a solution that may just have some tech as part of it.

6. If there’s measurement

Yes, but how do we measure the success? Maybe it’s coming back in six months time to see what people have learned and put into practice. Then working out what the cost of what that would have been if you’d bought it off the shelf. Good luck with calculating that.You’ll need a stack of numbers.

7. Yes, but aren’t we unconferenced out?

Not nearly close. If 150 people want to stage an event to talk museums and hold it in an unconference format that’s fine by me if those 150 get something out of it. The public sector is a broad church. With training budgets vanishing the unconference is a way of sharing knowledge. If a room full of public health people want to get together to crack something that’s fine by me. Or librarians.

8. It’s the brewcamps, stupid

For all I love big organised events it’s actually things like brewcamp – and teacamp in London – where I can see the most potential. What’s this? It’s a group of like minded people coming together to drink coffee, eat cake and learn things. At no cost. In a coffee shop. Splintering is the new black.

Crack those eight and you’ve a good chance of helping to create something vibrant and innovative. Best thing is you don’t have to be an organiser to play a big part.

9. It’s not a golden bullet 
Like marmite, some people will love unconferences. Some people won’t. They’re both right and that’s fine.

Creative commons credits

Shropcamp http://www.flickr.com/photos/bryn_s/5655320144/sizes/l/in/pool-1638817@N22/

Hyper WM http://www.flickr.com/photos/danieldslee/5059208628/

Ally Hook http://www.flickr.com/photos/nohaatef/5058081740/sizes/l/


TIMELINE: 12 tips after three years of blogging… and some reflection

“Of course,” said John Lennon in passing, “the problem is we’re bigger than Jesus.”

Always put the most eye-catching quote in the first par of a feature is indeed a handy trick to know.

It reels the reader in and makes them want to read on. Same for pictures too. Get something arresting and witty.

Two things I’ve learned over three years as a blogger. There. Now they’re yours.

Only thing is, a Beatles quote and a picture of an exploding car doesn’t work when it’s a reflective piece. Unless, of course you use them as a device to get people reading and keep them reading by offering blogging tips in amongst the reflection.

Tip three:  Have a very understanding partner who doesn’t mind you hammering into a laptop when she’s watching the telly.

Tip four: Don’t worry that your first few are rubbish. It’s the law.

Now for some reflection. Three years ago I started to blog to add to the debate and conversation. There were many people I admired and respected and very few of my contemporaries are still at it. Many have moved on and are now turning their talents to other things. Realising this made me feel a bit lonely. Every blog has a lifespan. It made me think of what this blog’s timeline would be. We Love Local Government was a blog that was a cornerstone on the digital landscape. Speaking to the people behind it Glen Ocsko and Gareth Young a while back I felt a burning sense of kinship.

“Sometimes you really don’t want to write something,” one said “but you sort of have to because you’ve set yourself this deadline. Which is mad because it’s all self-imposed.”

Tip five: Write where you feel comfortable. In a chair. On the train. At the kitchen table. Vary it if it helps. But give yourself a weekly deadline.

One lapsed blogger Ingrid Koehler drifted through my timeline today. Ingrid used to work at the IdEA. It’s criminal that her talents have been lost to the public sector. She is responsible for some great work and much of it stands the test of time. Like her Connected Councillors guide, for example.

Ingrid used to collect case studies and blog them insanely early the morning. It was one of the many inspirations for comms2point0 a blog about comms and PR and an idea that Darren Caveney came up with that I sprinkled some hundreds and thousands on.

I spoke to another lapsed blogger today too. Sarah Lay is still passionate about what she does but has taken a conscious step back from writing.

We spoke of how the great mountain of work and case studies on digital innovation in local government has been produced in people’s spare time. In my corner of the allotment, it’s about public relations and communications.

We also spoke about how you can only go so far to embed good digital practice by out-of-hours work and unconferences. We’ve both thought at one time or another that they were the golden bullets.

We agreed that if local government is serious about mainstreaming change then the bright sparks doing the innovation need to be able to have room – and funding – to create and share the best practice sweets.

Tip six: It doesn’t matter what you write about is niche. It’s your niche and you’ll be amazed at how you’ll find fellow travellers.

On a lighter note, three years on and Hyper WM is going from strength to strength. A loose collection of local government people help run it. This time, Sandwell Council chief executive Jan Britton and officer Liz Onions have chipped in and former Birmingham City Council officer Si Whitehouse is taking a lead this year. The first 50 tickets went in 24-hours. If you want one go here. Quickly. It makes me feel quietly proud something that was quietly floated on this blog  following a Eureka conversation with Si Whitehouse has taken root with help, love, dedication and cake from a bunch of others. A handful of people read that blog post proposing it. But the good thing was that several of those that did wanted to come and wanted to help. That’s the beauty of a blog post. It circulates an idea cheaply.

Tips seven to ten: Write about things you are passionate about. Write one every week. Post what you write on Twitter and add the #weeklyblogclub hashtag for a ready made audience.

Since I started there are new bloggers in and around local government whose work I love. There’s comms officer Stuart Macintosh from Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council, Ross Wigham head of communications at Northumberland County Council, London social worker Ermintrude2, Carolyne Mitchell in Scottish local government and from the US Jim Garrow who is doing some brilliant stuff. Matt Murray in Brisbane Australia is doing some great stuff with photography. Kate Hughes does housing comms really well, Helen Reynolds of Monmouthshire County Council writes some cracking stuff in Shropshire Jon King  and Kate Bentham  are doing some brilliant things as is Phil Jewitt at Leeds City Council while the weeklyblogclub initiative skippered by Janet Davis is a constant source of good content.

Whatever the future holds for me I’m sure that it will be in part because of the work I’ve done and shared. I’m certain of that.

Tip eleven: Compfight is a brilliant tool to search for creative commons pictures for blogs (especially ones of people smiling which draw you in.)

Tip twelve: Don’t write too much. A few hundred words will do. That’s why I’m ending this post here.

Around 3,000 people read this blog every month which is slightly mad. If you’ve read, commented, shared or taken something from any of the 120 posts I’ve written in the last three years from me to you: ‘thank you’.

Creative commons credits
Exploding car http://www.flickr.com/photos/yourbartender/49458670/sizes/l/
Table http://www.flickr.com/photos/cocokelley/4433654477/sizes/o/
Smile http://www.flickr.com/photos/alexmasters/106771263/sizes/z/
Bang http://www.flickr.com/photos/hoyvinmayvin/5002699621/sizes/l/

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