symposium reflections


The symposium wrapped up on Tuesday night, and I took yesterday off--went to Pike Place with my family, played some WoW, and made every effort not to do a post-mortem until I'd had a little rest. But this morning, it's time for me to think about what went right and what went wrong and what I'd do differently if I were to do it again.

For those of you not interested in this kind of navel-gazing, I've placed the rest of this post "below the fold." And for those of you who would prefer to read about the content of the event rather than the process, I strongly recommend Tim Burke's excellent series of "liveblogged" entries.

I'll start with what went right. The mix of people was very good, and the nearly unbridgeable gap we had between academics and practicioners in 2004 was not nearly as much of an issue this year. I saw a lot of connections get sparked between people who normally wouldn't encounter each other in professional settings, and the interaction energy level never seemed to drop much-- when I let people go early on Monday afternoon, 80% of them stayed in the (windowless) room and kept talking with each other.

Also good was the overall format that we used--30-minute panels with short (~5 minute) presentations, followed by self-organized discussions sessions led by whomever in the audience (or from the panel) wanted to propose a topic. This was by no means a true "Open Space" event, but it was far less structured than most other conferences and symposia I've attended. That was pretty scary to do, but overall I think the basic structure was extremely successful. One of my barometers of success was the backchannel, which long-time readers of this blog (and many-to-many) know was quite the contentious component in past events. This year we did have an IRC backchannel, but for the most part it was low-traffic, on-topic, and snark-free. (And no, for those of you who asked, I'm not aware of any "back-backchannels" that emerged.) Why? Well, it's very hard to participate on an active backchannel and pick up anything from a 5-minute talk. And it's nearly impossible when you're in a discussion group and actively talking about a topic you're interested in.

I have to give huge props to Jim Crawford and Shane Sears from MSR's technical support group (aka AV_Squad on the backchannel), who pulled off something I didn't think would happen by providing a live (well, 27-second-delayed) streaming webcast of the event so that the people unable to attend in person could see and hear what was going on (at least during the panels--there was no easy way to make that happen for the discussion sessions). Combined with the IRC channel, it meant we could have people participating remotely, which was great.

But enough of all that good stuff. What went wrong? A few things.

The hardest part about doing an invitation-only event is not being able to invite all the people you'd like to have there, and all of the people who'd like to be there. This year I was trying to get as many new voices into the mix as I could, and to put people together who normally wouldn't have an opportunity for professional interaction. But for every new person I added to the list, I had to drop a name from previous years. (Of the 60 non-Microsoft invitees, 23 had been to one of the two past symposia, and 9 had been to both.) This year we also tried to focus the event more narrowly on a few aspects of social computing (online 'third places,' and mobile technology). As a result, a lot of people, many of whom I really value and enjoy, didn't get invited. While some of them (like Nancy White, Kevin Marks, and Tom Vander Wal) were active participants on the backchannel, I know that's not the same thing as being part of the on-site event. In retrospect, I wish I'd been better at communicating with some of the people I didn't invite, and clearer about the invitation process.

The ad-hoc discussion group idea worked on a lot of levels, and overall I think it was better for this group than the longer-format presentation style we've had in the past. However, there were a number of things that would have made it run more smoothly. First, there should have been clearly marked locations (separate rooms, or at least numbered tables) associated with each of the sessions, so that people who'd signed up for a topic could find each other--that created some stress. Second, I wish I had clearly communicated the need for someone to be a note-taker/reporter for each group, so that discussions weren't so ephemeral. Third, I probably should have drawn more on some of the core open space aspects--like the law of two feet--to help foster better interactions in the group.

I didn't build in enough contingency-planning into the schedule, so when one of our keynote speakers lost his passport and had to cancel, I didn't have a good "plan B" in place to manage that. And while I delegated it to the best possible people, I should have communicated more with them so that I'd know what the new plan was rather than being caught by surprise.

One of the biggest problems was that despite the many new connections and conversations that took place, there were a number of newcomers to this even that I think felt awkward and out of place, even by the end. The format made it easy for natural extroverts to seek out and connect with other people, but very difficult for the introverts. One thing I'd like to do next time, which was suggested in the feedback session on Tuesday afternoon, is a little more in the way of icebreakers and structured facilitation of one-on-one connections. Maybe that means the "speed dating" intro approach that one person suggested, maybe it's an explicit buddy system for newcomers, maybe it's something I haven't thought of yet. But it's definitely an issue.

I screwed up at the end and didn't thank all of the people who'd been involved in helping to plan the event--danah boyd, Linda Stone, Randy Farmer, Elizabeth Churchill, and Jonathan Grudin in particular. I'm planning on sending out a follow-up note to all the participants to help correct that, but I'm kicking myself for not doing it on-site.

I'm sure there will be other things that come up over the next few weeks, as I get feedback from participants.

Overall, though, I feel as though the event was truly a success, and I'm so delighted and grateful to have been able to play a role in bringing such a wonderful group of people together.


Thanks for the reflections, Liz. I really find these helpful as I think about gatherings that I am supporting/planning/attending

I would love to think together more about how to convince some of the powers that be that an Open Space event would be exactly what you need when you have a smart bunch of people with tons of ideas to share and intersections to be made. I think it is pretty darn magical.

I am wondering now about how the opening circle of an OS event can help with some of that bringing in of new folks. I bet Chris Corrigan would have some great ideas.

The format, obviously, was stimulating for me. I think the only thing I would change is to put a really strong charge onto all the presenters to "drop a bomb", as it were--that the lightning sessions need explicitly to be about provoking discussion in the next round.

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This page contains a single entry published on May 11, 2006 8:53 AM.

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