May 2009

Volume 24 Number 05

{End Bracket} - The Unconference: Where Geeks JIT Together

By Steven M | May 2009

More collaboration and less imposed structure. That's where technology is leading us. Whether it's Wikipedia's collaborative bottom-up organization or the Unconference's on-the-fly topic and presentation planning, the trend is clearly about less prescription and more participation.

Just a few years ago, there were no Unconferences, Open Spaces, BarCamp, FOO Camp, or DemoCamp. So why does it seem like today there's another Unconference or Open Space every other week? What's so compelling about geeky, nerdy, tech folks getting together just to talk about whatever's on their minds?

Well, I'll borrow the answer from the Agile community. What makes these events so compelling is that they're self-organizing.

Traditional events—such as conventions and conferences—are organized, planned, scheduled, and have content chosen by one or a few organizers. Then the content is prepared and presented by the speakers they select. What do you, the attendee, have to say about it? Nothing. How engaged does that make you feel? It depends.

Believe it or not—and this may be hard for some readers to swallow—Unconferences and Open Spaces are really about spirit. The spirit of self-organization. The spirit of the participants. The spirit of the community.


The Unconference Web Site

Self-organization: The idea is that the participants (note, not attendees), decide what to talk about and when to talk about it, and select topics based on their interests. These events truly involve the people who come, and sessions are generally dialogues and conversations, not presentations and passive reception.

I'm amazed to see various Unconference approaches used in such a wide variety of settings today. At ThoughtWorks, we've used Open Space Technology to kick off projects. The ALT.Net global community has embraced Open Space Technology for many of their events around the world. Of course, the Agile community uses Open Space actively, both at the big events (Agile2009) and smaller regional ones such as the Agile Open series of events. BarCamp, DemoCamp, and ProductCamp all exist as instances of Unconference technologies. Universities use these technologies, and user communities and professional communities use them as well.

There's something quite appealing about feeling like it's your own event. I understand that some of you may be skeptical of an event that has no content or agenda until the participants arrive, but trust me, you get over it quickly.

Now don't get me wrong. I'll admit that I believe that the facilitator makes a difference. Classic facilitation (which I do), involves helping to clarify issues and bringing out information, making it easier for people to communicate with each other. Open Space facilitation involves introducing the participants to the event, guiding them through creating the agenda, holding space and time (more on this another time), and guiding the participants through a closing. That's it.

It would seem that because running an Open Space event requires so much less "planning," it would be easy. And yet, when I facilitate an Open Space, I find myself exhausted. Perhaps it's because I bring my spirit and my passion, and I put them all out there. Just like the participants.

Steven M. List (known as "Doc") is a career technologist, leader, coach, and facilitator and currently works for ThoughtWorks as an organizational transformation consultant. He is a recognized professional Open Space facilitator, including having been embraced by Microsoft and the ALT.Net community.