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/


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