The conference rut

I’ve been thinking about knowledge sharing, after attending a couple of conferences in a row and heading off to another. One thing missing in these discrete time-based events is that there is litle time for reflection. Most presenters hold back their knowledge in order to “deliver” it just before the big official presentation. This presentation is followed by some immediate questions & discussions and a coffee break. Then it’s off to see the next presentation. Reflection, if it occurs, comes much later, and usually after the participants have gone home.

Of course, those of us who live in the internet cloud have no difficulties staying in touch, both before and after these events, and often during the event on some backchannel.

Observing inefficient, and I believe ineffective, knowledge sharing due to the lack of opportunities to connect before or after the event is rather frustrating. For instance, a problem is presented in a plenary session and participants are immediately asked to brainstorm & give feedback. Why was the issue not presented weeks ahead of time? What can be achieved in 10 minutes of thinking on demand?What is really achieved with 50 to 100 people in a room, a presenter and then questions from the floor? If we want to innovate in our organizations, we should be innovating how we share information. The tools and techniques are there, but the conference rut is a deep one to get out of.

5 Responses to “The conference rut”

  1. Gilbert Babin

    Very wise post.

    What is a bit disturbing is that plenary sessions are often used to create lists of recommendations and are given a lot of weight.

    We’ve all had clients or managers that throw a question at us and expect a quick answer. And their is always someone “intelligent” around that comes up with something pretty good really fast.

    Some problems require “Slow Intelligence”. Reflection is part of that process but there are also other elements.

    We won’t be able to innovate until we have a critical mass of people understanding the need for “deep thought”.

  2. Michele Martin

    Harold, I’ve been thinking a lot about conferences, too. Half facetiously I’m thinking of submitting a “Reflection” proposal to some upcoming conferences where I will spend 50 minutes providing the environment for people to reflect on what they’ve learned so far in other sessions of the conference. No presentations or anything–just the right environment and some tools for reflective learning. . . .

  3. Mark Berthelemy

    Hi Harold,

    I came to very similar conclusions after attending an “unconference” (which was a conference in all but name!)

    To summarise the post, I think we should look at doing the following:

    – The presentation is recorded in advance.
    – Anyone who’s attending the unconference can create a presentation.
    – To make sure it’s not just existing work being resubmitted, the organisers could ask all the presentations to contain the conference logo.
    – Delegates have the opportunity to view the presentation before the day.
    – Delegates can rate the presentation as being one they want to discuss or not.
    – Delegates can raise questions and comments online.
    – On the day, the conference facilitators prepare some starter questions based on the pre-conference activity.
    – All the unconference time is spent in conversation. If the delegates wish to view a particular presentation again, then that can happen.

    • Harold Jarche

      Good points, Mark. If nothing else, conferences would work better if there was less information presentation, more time for conversation as well as easy online access to all materials.

  4. Jeff Hurt


    Thanks for challenging presenters and conference organizers to think differently about conference design and experience. Seeing the face-to-face conference as only one touch in a much larger eco-system of integrated thinking, learning and connecting is so important. And we need to provide more adult white space, as I call it, in conferences and meetings. Adult white space is providing intentional time for participants to talk about concepts with each other, time to process new informatino and make new meaning of it.

    Let’s hope more people are reading your thoughts!


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