Some Thoughts About Unconferences…

I spent several hours during the summer at two conferences – both very interesting, and of different topics, but in the same building which has a classical lecture theatre with a raked auditorium; both conferences featured talks followed by short Q&A. This seemed somewhat ironic, given that both were about change (one technological, the other political): the format of these conferences was one that had remained constant for decades, with one person lecturing to the audience, who sat and listened.

I mentioned to someone in the coffee break how it might have been beneficial to have more participation and engagement – after a day and a half in the lecture theatre, I certainly needed it – and I started to talk about the unconference format. My friend hadn’t come across the idea of an unconference before, and as I tried to explain it, I thought I must have blogged about it before and told her I’d send a link.


It turns out I was wrong. I have written about several unconferences before – BarCamp and another BarCamp, ConnectingHR. and another ConnectingHR, TweetCamp, and BarCampBank, for instance – but I have only obliquely written about unconferences per se.

This post aims to put that right. (Also, I have just read Lloyd’s post asking what people would like an unconference about.)

Unconferences sprang out of the experience that many conference goers have – that the real value of some conferences comes from the conversations over coffee and lunch rather than the lectures themselves. Lectures didn’t engage and could inhibited discussion – one person standing at the front of a room of peers holding forth.

The first unconference-like events I attended were corporate events to aid organisation change programmes, using open space technology. (The “technology” here refers to the process – just as a stone can be technology, and a pencil can be technology. Some of the best open space events I have been to have been the most lo-tech; and the best technology talk I have been to used no technological aids at all!). The grounds rules for open space events are (as far as I remember them…)

  • it starts when it starts
  • the people who are there are the right people to be there
  • everyone has to be prepared to contribute to the discussion
  • when it’s over, it’s over (so don’t keep going over the same issue if you have sorted it out)
  • “the rule of two feet” – it is fine to get up and walk away, either because you want to hear another talk or because you feel you have nothing to add to the one you’re at

The same apply for unconferences, and they have some very profound effects. They are very empowering: there is no one controlling the discussion. The agenda is decided by the participants: an unconference is “self-organised”: if there’s is nothing on the agenda that interests you, do something about it! Start your own session – even if it is “Nothing else interests me – what should we talk about?” You don’t need to ask anyone permission. You are only there because you want to be.


There is a paradox, though: unconferences happen because someone – the lead-organiser, perhaps – has decided there is something worth discussing – a central topic. (This is not the case for BarCamps.) So there is an element of curation. And self-organised doesn’t mean disorganised: there is usually a lot of pre-event organisation which, I imagine, takes a lot of work. Someone has to find the space, find sponsorship, sort out catering, and so on. (I am sure it would be possible to do without some or all of these things, but not for an unconference of any size.)

But the day itself is self-organised. That agenda – it is decided by participants offering to run sessions, slotted into a skeleton timetable. And there can be “wash-up” sessions, so people can share anything they have learned.

There is one last common feature of open space events that is not necessarily found in unconferences. Open space events are often focused on action and change, and one of the outcomes is therefore a list of actions. An unconference may produce an agenda for change, but it is often more personal change rather than organisational – people taking away their own change.

Because of the participation and the large amount of sharing of ideas, unconferences can be very energising – and exhausting! I believe they work best when they attract people from many disciplines who come together to explore their ideas. If you want to learn how to do plumbing, don’t go to an unconference; but if you want to explore what different things you might be able to do with pipes – well, that’s sounds about perfect… An unconference can be very liberating!

(Here are a couple of posts I came across recently on others’ experiences at unconferences – one about a ConnectingHR event I wasn’t at, the other about a pair of events. It isn’t just me who finds these things empowering, energising and liberating!)

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