An internal unconference – how would that work? The unconference as a concept is starting to get quite well-established also on Swedish ground, and though it has primarily been within the digital sector so far, including SSWC and WebCoast, the world of journalism has started warming to the idea too, like with last fall’s potluck conference on the theme ‘The trolls & the roles’.
The Swedish word ‘knytkonferens’, translating as potluck conference, was coined last year when the first Swedish unconference on the west coast, WebCoast, took place. And the word really hits the nail on the head of what the concept is all about.
How so? It is the participants who contribute to the content of the conferences with their own skills and experience. That it sparks associations with potluck dinners is unsurprising, but instead of food, it is knowledge that is being shared; instead of bringing a cake to the table, the participants put up a note on a notice board about what they would like to talk about and add to the agenda. And isn’t it true that a couple of the dishes at a potluck party always appear particularly enticing?
In order for a potluck conference to work, there are a handful of prerequisites. You need a space with a number of smaller rooms; everyone must know what time things kick off in the morning and when you will call it a day; and a time must be agreed when the participants get to stick their notes up on a board, or ‘the grid’. A session, then, can be anything from a discussion to a workshop or lecture. The grid offers a square for each time slot, and as the session notes are added the conference agenda starts to take shape. You can read more about the different terms and concepts here.
The dynamic that emerges when everyone gets the chance to talk about something that matters deeply to them is very rewarding and tends to lead to stimulating discussions – chats that don’t follow a traditional round-the-table format but bring in new perspectives. As a participant you are forced to really get to grips with what’s on offer, rather than simply follow a pre-determined agenda and passively listen to the speakers and sales people like you normally would. At a potluck conference you actively choose which sessions to attend; it is not about ‘any other business’ or other last-minute items at the end of the day-two timetable when everyone’s itching to go home.
The potluck conference concept creates an environment where everyone who wants to speak gets to speak, increasing understanding and cooperation across departments. I can picture sessions on customer service, complaint handling and campaign ideas, to suggest a few examples based on my experience over the years. Imagine the fresh perspectives you can get when discussing issues with colleagues you normally don’t work with on a day-to-day basis. For those of us working with communication, creativity is a word that has become almost like a mantra, and with that in mind, the potluck conference fits right in.
The fact that you have to go to a specific place to check the agenda (the grid) means that mingling and networking comes naturally – unlike when you rush to the coffee machine on the way to a meeting and barely notice whether the person next in line is a colleague or an external visitor.
Here are some concrete tips. Start by making half a day of your next conference into a potluck conference. Let the employees talk openly about their passions – and don’t limit it to work-related topics. Appoint someone who starts off by talking about their hobby, just to get people to think outside the box. Ensure that there are plenty of smaller conference rooms and spaces to help stimulate dialogue and conversation. Appoint another person who is responsible for bringing the grid and pieces of paper to write on. Make it easy for yourselves! It may sound like a sweeping generalization, but all organizations want to create an environment where everyone gets to have their say and enjoy a creative milieu with inspiring colleagues. Swapping a traditional conference setting for one with no agenda can be one way of kickstarting that process – so be open-minded and try out a potluck conference!
What businesses are brave enough to let the staff decide on the content of a conference in 2012, thereby creating the first internal potluck conferences in Sweden? That, I’d like to know!
This post was written by Sandra Gonzalez Sköld, one of the people behind WebCoast.