Yes, it sounds like an oxymoron: a ‘CORPORATE UNCONFERENCE‘.
An unconference is diametrically opposite to what ‘corporates’ stands for. Unconferences are unstructured, self organized, non hierarchical, user driven, sense of chaos, loose controls, speaking your mind out, no formality etc. A corporate is all about control, hierarchy, structure, predictability, organizational thoroughness, formality etc. It’s like echoing Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.. It’s like Eric Raymonds “The Cathedral & the Bazaar” — the ‘cathedral’ standing for the formal organization and the ‘bazaar’ for the unconference…
However; the reality is that unconferences gaining traction and being widely adopted in the techie circles, and this provides an opportunity for corporates to try out unconferences as a mode of sharing & learning, conversations within their setups.So, how do organizations go about adopting, adapting, experimenting with this social, participative & emergent concept of an unconference?
One way can be to learn from other organizations that have tried unconferences within their organizational setup and factor those learning’s, inputs into their planned corporate unconference. Needless to say that each organization is different and the organizations culture, structure etc will for sure have a bearing on how the corporate unconference is rolled out.
Here are some tips that can be adopted/adapted according to your needs while planning a corporate unconference.
Tip #1: Don’t make it MANDATORY: In my opinion, making participation mandatory for all employees can be the biggest in a corporate unconference. An organization, in all its best intentions, may decide that ‘everyone’ needs to attend the unconference. However; this goes against the spirit of an unconference and is a sure fire way making the unconference unsuccessful. Organizations need to understand that an attendance of 4000 does not guarantee participation from 4000. However only 1000 out of 4000 people participate in the unconference, it is absolutely great.
At MindTree, we did the unconference on a Saturday and did not make it compulsory for people to attend. There were more than 1000 people who turned up out of their own choice – and EACH one of them enjoyed the 30+ sessions during the unconference.
Tip #2: Don’t do a PoC. Yes…!!! In my view, this can be the biggest deciding factor in the overall success of the corporate unconference. At MindTree, we made unconference to the grand finale of a quarter long Osmosis event. One of the fundamental aspects of an unconference is to bring in people with diverse backgrounds, interests together and then have discussions, sessions. If an organization tries to do a PoC for an unconference, it would most probably be limited to a function, technology group of limited set of people – essentially people with SAME background interests etc… This in my opinion could be a foolproof way of ensuring a conclusion that unconferences don’t work in an organization. We did not do a PoC – though there were suggestions to try out a PoC. So, just do it… LARGE!
Tip #3: Get involved in organizing unconferences: If you have never been part of organizing unconferences in the outside world, then DO SO. There are plenty or barcamps happening in most of the cities and all of them need volunteers. Get involved as a volunteer – from the planning stages itself to get a first hand feel on what it takes to organize an unconference. Get down to the nitty-gritty details. This will come in handy when you organize your corporate unconference and is your insurance for NOT doing a PoC internally.
Tip #4: Educate the masses: The moment you announce that your organization will be doing an unconference, people will have all sorts of questions. What is this, why? How? When? Etc. Plan for educating people on the concept of barcamps/unconferences from the moment you announce the unconference. Dig out the appropriate barcamp/unconference videos from youtube and reach out to their authors for permission to use them for evangelizing the concept of unconference/barcamp in your organization. Most authors will be happy to allow their video’s being used for the promotion of unconference concept. We at MindTree did this and this helped a lot in educating people and answering their questions.
While the videos will help in general education, you need to prepare a FAQ/Mailer on what exactly will happen in the unconference in your organization. This will bring in a sense of reality for the people, within the context of your organization, and also help you in your planning of the unconference.
If possible, take awareness sessions around unconference. We did such in MindTree and more than the corporate unconference, we asked them to get involved in barcamp/unconference movement outside of the organization. That’s more important in my view.
We even created a cheat sheet around unconference concepts and made it as part of the unconference email campaign within the organization.
Tip #5: Ensure content ahead of time: Let’s face it. 99.99% of people in an organization would have no clue to what an unconference is. In a typical unconference, the content [sessions] are decided impromptu by the participants on the morning of the unconference. However; in a corporate setup, where almost no one has an idea of what an unconference is, hoping that content [sessions] will spring up on the morning of the unconference is wishing for 100 mm/day of rain in the Sahara. You need to put up a wiki, web page to solicit unconference topics well in advance. This serves multiple purposes.
– You build content for the unconference. After all the ‘meat’ of the unconference are the sessions.
– The fence sitters can decide to take part in the unconference depending on the sessions suggested.
– It helps in breaking the ice. More people are likely to come up and take sessions if they see few sessions already listed.
– You get inputs for your logistics planning
Tip #6: Educate the facilitators: Once you get the content ahead of time, you need to educate the session facilitators. For most of the participants, the sessions would be the barometer, their yardstick for measuring how the unconference went. In this scenario the role of the session facilitators becomes very important in a corporate unconference. Most of the facilitators would never have taken an unconference session before and you need to ensure that the facilitators understand how unconference sessions happen and how they are different from regular sessions. They need to know things like people can interrupt any time, people can walk in/out any time, sessions should be conversational, bi-directional, discussion oriented and not necessarily training/tutorial, and most importantly facilitators need to be comfortable with the session scheduling happening on the morning of the unconference.
You can communicate the same to all facilitators either though emails, meetings, sessions etc. This way you can ensure that sessions happen in the true spirit of an unconference.
Tip #7: Do some prior scheduling & have 10-15 minute gaps between sessions: Even after all the education, personal sessions & awareness campaigns; most people will still not get the unconference concept until they experience it. This means that you need to set the ball rolling by scheduling few unconference sessions from the session list you would have solicited earlier. This would require you to prepare your ‘paper wiki’, your session notice board, and scheduling/populating some sessions in advance. The key is that on the morning of the unconference, there should be no vacuum with people just standing there and no one knowing what to do – in a corporate setup, considering that most people would be new to the unconference concept, this could be a dampener, a false start (in a regular barcamp, this is something that people are used to but things are different in a corporate setup). Once you ‘seed’ some sessions, things will flow smoothly. This will also address the request from some facilitators who will continue to ping you for knowing when, where their session is.
Also, try to have a uniform duration for each session (ideally between 30-45 minutes) and keep 10-15 minute break between each session. This will help you in couple of ways:
– Provide a buffer if some sessions overshoot their allocated time.
– Participants can again flock to the notice board after the session is over in a relaxed manner to choose which session they would like to attend next, take refreshments breaks in a relaxed manner.
A large, vibrant & humming crowd around the notice board creates the necessary energy in the atmosphere making it contagious.
Tip #8: Get Volunteers: You will need an army of volunteers to run the unconference. In my opinion the best volunteers for the corporate unconference would be the ‘fresh campus graduates’. They have unbridled enthusiasm, energy and are always full of ideas. The best people you can wish for as volunteers and to be honest, they make the corporate unconference vibrant and colorful.
Many things that happen on it’s own in a regular unconference – such as the paper wiki/notice board update, would need volunteers. You will need volunteers for announcements, food, registration desk etc.
Most importantly, these volunteers help infuse energy and joy into the whole unconference.
Tip #9: Have all venues close by: One of the beauties of an unconference is several sessions running in parallel and participants having the freedom to choose which session to attend. This would mean people having to walk from one session to another quickly, in between sessions or after sessions and having all rooms/venues close by helps a great deal. Ideally all the rooms/venue should be on the same floor so that mobility between rooms is easy for the participants. In choosing the rooms/venue for the unconference sessions, don’t worry about the chairs, tables etc. participants will stand in the aisle, sit on the floor, squat around as long as the session is interesting.
Tip #10: Fun/Cultural activities around the unconference: This may seem trivial, but has a lot of value in creating the necessary energy. Every organization will have its share of artists – leverage their talent to create a platform for people to have fun.
This will also serve the purpose of allowing participants, who are not present but not attending sessions to bond together, socialize and meet up with each other in a relaxed atmosphere.
In MindTree we arranged for a rock band, instruments etc and we had enough people within the organization who were more than happy to perform. In the true spirit of an unconference, there were impromptu songs, dance and jamming sessions going on.
We also had ‘Mob the Leader’ sessions, where a group of 20-30 participants would ‘mob’ a person from the senior management and have them talk on topics of the ‘mobs’ choice. This was a way of encouraging unstructured conversations, discussions in a very relaxed atmosphere
Tip #11: Create an easy to use virtual platform: For people to share their experiences, pictures, blogs about the unconference and even the unconference sessions. If your organization has the culture of Corporate Wiki’s and corporate blogging, then leverage those platforms. This way, the conversations can start well before the sessions and even carry on after the unconference sessions.
At MindTree, we used the concept of ‘Citizen Journalists’ to encourage participants to cover and share the unconference proceedings as they see it. We encouraged participants to bring their cameras video recorders or even use their mobile phones to cover the Osmosis unconference.
We even created the equivalent of Flickr, Blogger etc within the organization, making it easy and intuitive for people to share their experiences with each other.
Here are some blogs that have a review of how the MindTree Osmosis – A Corporate Unconference went.