On conferences

I admitted before the start of this week’s SSCC conference that I really had no idea what to expect. Since bidding au revoir to the edtech community earlier this year I’ve been on a steep learning curve in the world of student services, and this would be the first opportunity for me to meet with a couple of hundred peers working in this area. Like Barnaby Joyce wandering into a live radio interview I made naive comment about my wide-eyed wonder of what the conference would be like into the Twittersphere and received this gem back from Mark Smithers:

  
I am glad people like Mark exist. For every kool-aid drinking happy-clapper like me, there needs to be an equal and opposite force, in all their curmudgeonly glory. It promotes critical thought for those who are willing to reflect on it. It stops us all from blindly believing the hype.

In this case, it spawned a blog post, because as the conference draws to a close, I can see he was absolutely right. Now at this point I’ll also say that the presentations within the conference were, for me, excellent. I could write another whole blog post on the content, but for those already working in university student services it might not be anything new. For me however, the sessions alone made it worth coming. But this post isn’t about the content, it is about the networking.

At this point I’ll also drop a bombshell to my readers – I am painfully shy.

If I think back to the first conference I ever attended at the end of the last millennium, it was a nightmare. Dropped into a conference of several hundred people as a young public servant, not knowing a soul, I can recall the awkward wandering around at morning tea, not having a clue how to introduce myself to people, or who it would be good to introduce myself to. Each day was a new experience in terror, and although I met a person or two, the whole thing was bordering on a complete waste of time in terms of meeting people.

As a new kid barely knowing anyone in the student services area, this conference brought these memories flooding back. To be perfectly honest, I’m only marginally better at ‘cold networking’ now than I was back then. 

As a conference networker, I suck.

I will make a minor detour here to mention my brief attempt at networking during this conference. I had in the week before the conference been introduced via email to a contemporary from another university, but not replied to her email in time to ask if she was going to be at the conference. I emailed her to ask if she was around to meet during the conference, but got an Out Of Office reply. I snuck a quick look at the conference sign in sheet, and there she was, signed in and somewhere in the throng. But how to find her? Googled the name – found her, but with no picture anywhere. No LinkedIn profile. Asked the conference organisers – they didn’t know who she was. Hence I was reduced to attempting to seek out said person via visually scanning name tags.

Now, as I meander into my forties, I’ll admit that my eyesight isn’t as superhuman as it used to be. Couple this with the fact that the names printed on name tags were done in a small, perhaps 16 point, font. Couple this with the fact that only one side of the card was printed with a name so that our valued sponsors could have their branding on the reverse side (and a QR code, which I didn’t even realise was still a thing), meaning that there was a 50/50 chance of having the name on the name tag being visible. Couple this with the lanyard length holding the name tag, which inevitably landed the name tag at what could be called ‘mid-chest’ level. Couple all this with the fact that around two thirds of the delegates were female…

…and yes, I spent a concerted ten minutes at one morning tea walking around squinting at boobs, and getting back nothing in return aside from many an understandable stink-eye, until I gave up before I got my face slapped. Trust me ladies, it was as awkward for me as it was for you.

But enough conference boobs, back to the story.

I recall the feedback, formal and informal, I used to hear after each Moodle conference I helped organise, and one of the most common things I’d hear was the interpersonal networks that were built during conferences were more valuable than the content of the conference itself. Nothing new in this, the concept of an unconference has been around for many a while to try and put collaboration at the forefront of a ‘conference’ experience, but I am not sure why at least some shreds of this concept haven’t been put front and centre in any conference organiser’s mindset in virtually any of the conferences I’ve attended in the last 15 years.

And yes, before some clever Dick or Dora points it out, the subtext here is all about the client experience of conferences. But I’m not going down that specific conceptual rabbit warren today.

So how could conference organisers help facilitate better networking in the precious little time that exists when delegates are physically together, whilst still utilising a ‘traditional’ conference model rather than making the radical shift to an unconference model? Some conferences I’ve been to do try and build in time within the conference to allow and encourage people to network, which is at least something. For me however, the big gap is in the use of the time leading up to the conference.

If I look back to the Moodle conferences I was personally involved in, one of the things I tried to do was consciously make use of the month or so before the conference. The idea behind this was to get people interacting before the event, getting to know each other in advance so that when conference time came they already knew some names of people they needed to seek out and meet in person. On a personal level, I found it far easier and more effective to already know some of the people who were going to be there, where they came from and what they were interested in finding out at the conference, and then seek these people out when I made it to the conference.

This method needed two distinct things to work:

  1. A platform for delegates to communicate; and
  2. Some facilitation ‘seeds’ to start the conversations between delegates.

For the Moodle conferences this was easy – set up a Moodle platform and get conference organisers to ask some open ‘icebreaker’ questions in a forum, and let human nature do the rest. Delegates not only got to introduce themselves, but new Moodle users got to use the product a little bit more in real life. The uptake wouldn’t be all encompassing, perhaps between a third and a half of the delegates would engage before the conference, but when I used to read the threads on there then I would see plenty of conversations starting where people were getting to know others in the community prior to the conference.

Before this conference, I would have loved to have something similar.

I did try and throw a tweet or two out in the weeks leading up to the conference, but all I had in response was a deafening silence. Yes, Twitter is only one channel, and one not used by relatively many people, but I got absolutely nothing back. This could well be indicative of the clientele at this conference compared to the edtech conferences I used to attend, but there was also absolutely no effort I could see by anyone to make use of this concept anywhere. Perhaps it is because, like in edtech, many people in this environment already know each other, and so the needs of new kids like me aren’t front of mind. A quick show of hands in one of the keynote sessions showed that around two thirds of the delegates had worked in the university sector for more than ten years, so I am absolutely a new kid in this community. Perhaps it is because the sheer logistics of organising a conference, often done largely on volunteer time to keep costs down, don’t allow the time or headspace for this kind of thing.

At this point I want to make it clear that I’m not having a crack at the ATEM conference – as far as conventionally structured conferences go, this was a good one, and I definitely got my money’s worth. On reflection though, most if not all conferences I’ve attended have been pretty much the same (including the ones I helped organise), which is what Mark’s tweet made me realise. So why aren’t conference organisers putting more effort into the networking aspect of conferences? Why don’t they try and increase the value to delegates by focusing on maximising delegates’ networking time together if this is something of such value? Why isn’t there more effort invested in (and I’m punching myself square in the mouth with self-hate for using a weasel term) flipping the conference? Are conferences in other professions completely different? Am I alone in thinking and feeling this way?

If I can get momentarily philosophical, I wonder if educational sector conference structures are simply reflections of the broader educational sector. We continue to pay to come to conferences run like this because that’s what we’ve always done, meaning there is no driver for conferences to change their model of delivery. Where will the disruption (another punch in the mouth) come from, if it ever does?

I will draw one brief, final parallel to this situation from the University of Melbourne, and in particular Daphane Ng’s blog. Daphne was one of the excellent student panellists who presented on the first day of the conference about the student voice in support services areas. As well as being a student and working in the support centre, Daphne also created a blog to fill an information gap for students about life at UniMelb. Her blog is now syndicated, with multiple student contributors and a truckload of traffic. In a situation where the organisation did not provide enough information for students, the students did it themselves as a collaborative group, initiated by one person. Perhaps the parallel here is that education sector conferences need ‘seeds’ like Daphne to start the conversation outside of the formal conference channels to encourage community collaboration in an informal sense, but I would love to see conferences on the whole put more effort into is in a more structured way. It might not be as important as good coffee and free wi-fi, but to me it’s pretty damn important.

Finally, I would like to thank the organisers of the SSCC conference, and all the presenters. The content itself was of a higher quality than what I’ve seen at many other conferences, the organisers very welcoming and helpful, and I’d come back again for sure, but if asked for feedback then I’ll be definitely leaving a shorter version of this post for something I’d like to see next time. I’d also like to send a shout out of thanks to the lovely team at the ACU student central area, who were more than willing to give me a tour of the environment and answer a bunch of annoying questions about their approach to delivering student services.

Until next year!

2 thoughts on “On conferences

  1. Ahhh… The dreaded networking…

    As to the question of whether conferences in other sectors operate in the same way, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a relationship between conferences incorporating technology (and therefore having sponsors and vendors that would like to use delegate time and often are involved with the management) and less focus on delegate-delegate time?

    I also wonder if the post-event evaluation favouring delegate-delegate/networking time might not reflect purchasing decisions? Would the same (or more) people pay the typically high conference fees if they were going to get 1 days with of presentations and most networking time? Would that purchase be approved? Thinking about requesting approval for a conference, is it typical that it’s the presentation content that is assumed to be of value to the organisation?

    And how would a conference with more networking time cater for delegates like you, well, us, who aren’t confident or competent at networking? I would think it would require more facilitation and support from organisers. Do they want to invest that?

    Also, you said “boobs” … *giggle*

  2. I agree about catering to those of us less confident at meeting others and like your suggestions. I think educator and student services persons can also be different. I usually associate educators as more extrovert and those in student services as “people” people, good once you get talking with them, but less likely to relate online, at least not without a lot more encouragement.

    You write well Mark, even without reference to boobs!

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