Using Unconference in the Enterprise – Manifesting Social Business

My theory on Unconferences (and other participant-driven events) is pretty simple: put smart and passionate people in a room to talk about a common cause with some light facilitation and good things generally happen. Along with all the great knowledge-sharing and network-building that typically happens, an Unconference can be one of the key catalysts for the culture change needed to evolve to a more social business:  a day of suspended organizational hierarchy, authentic communication (no PPTs), collaboration, learning and relationship development.

I’ve been a huge believer in participant-driven events since I started hosting Online Community Roundtables in the summer of 1995, and I was first  introduced to the concept of an Unconference by Jim Cashel of Forum One a couple of years later. I went on to work for Jim and host a series of Unconferences about Social Media and Online Community. When I came to work at Dell, I saw an opportunity to do an Unconference series as a compliment to our social media training and strategy development efforts.

At Dell, we’ve hosted 5 SMaC Talk Unconference events globally, with locations including Dell HQ in Round Rock, TX, Bangalore, Xiamen and London over the last 18 months, with thousands of Dell employees representing most departments and all levels in the organization participating. Michael Dell even came to close our very first Unconference event – we are clearly invested in the format as an organization.

When I facilitate the events, I promise participants two key things:
1. They will leave the event with a long list of new ideas to put into practice immediatly, and
2. They will leave the event with an extended network of practitioners to collaborate with, learn from and gain support from in their day to day efforts.

Agenda Wall from Dell's Summer 2011 Unconference in Round Rock, TX

So, what is an Unconference?
An Unconference is a participant-driven event, where the attendees actually create the agenda. The methodology to create and facilitate an Unconference is drawn from Open Space Technology – a methodology first developed by Harrison Owen and subsequently shaped by the global community of facilitators.

An Unconference (or Open Space event) differs radically from a traditional conference in a number of different ways, including:

  • Attendees are responsible for creating the agenda
  • Speakers and sessions are not pre-programmed (although they do relate to the Unconferences theme)
  • The agenda is malleable – sessions can be suggested or changed throughout the day
  • After the agenda is set, the day is self guided – attendees are personally responsibility for getting the most out of the day

So, how does this Unconference thing work? The intention of the Open Space format is to remove the constraints and restrictions of “normal” conferences and to allow maximum creative thinking.

One of the most amazing parts of the day is the topic selection process. At the start of the morning, any attendee who wishes can come forward, announce a topic, and claim one of the ~50+ open slots on the grid.

Attendees announce session topics

Announcing topics - image courtesy of Forum One

The agenda begins to form

Image courtesy Forum One

Within about 35-40 minutes the grid fills up with topics

Image courtesy Forum One

Once all the topics are announced, we begin the Unconference sessions. The agenda grid plays the role of gathering place and ideamarketplace throughout the day, as attendees come back to the agenda to check for any updates, changes, or new sessions.

How can Unconference be used in the Enterprise?
Unconferences tend to be very effective when there is a large group of knowledgeable people struggling with a complex problem set. Although we’ve primarily used Unconferences for discussions of social media and social business, other likely topics in a large enterprise could be Sustainability, Change Management, Product Development or Brand re-engineering / relaunch.

The Net: An Unconference (using Open Space Technology) can be a great tool for your organization, bringing together diverse groups of people to collaborate and network around common organisational goals. Participants will leave the event with new ideas, new energy, new connections and shared vision and purpose.

Further Reading:

Open Space Technology – By Harrison Owen

OpenSpaceWorld – A community about Open Space Technology

5 comments

  1. Randy Ksar

    never attended an unconference but definitely seen many of them advertised. This would be great option for our developer community internally and externally. A few questions:
    -how do you market unconferences? any examples u can share. internal mailing list? intranet website? word of mouth? staff meetings? guess my worst fear is that there are no speakers.
    -should there be some prepared sessions/keynotes?
    -Is there anything you can plan ahead of time to make the day go by smoothly?
    -cost, what should be budgeted for? food, drinks, conference space, & a/v?

  2. Pingback: I Like This – October 25, 2011 | My Word with Douglas E. Welch
  3. Sanjay Shetty

    One addition to an unconference would be to get a visual thinking practioner on board. It’s just amazing what’s possible when everyone literally sees the problem and potential solutions, the subsequent ideas, participation in the room is multiplied 10 fold. Additionally, most importantly is the fact that people remember a much higher % of the material post the un-conference, which is what ultimately matters in order motivate change. Here’s an example of to illustrate the above points more clearly http://vizcraft.wordpress.com/2011/09/27/business-presentation-can-it-be-visual/

  4. Siddhartha

    How feasible it is to host an unconference in the Online Space? Probably using multiple Social Media platforms. Basically how do we leverage Social Media for an unconference?

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