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How the unconference format can add value to face to face gatherings, large and small

In a recent study "ASAE & The Center Impact Study-Beliefs, Behaviors and Attitudes in Response to the Current Economy," only 58 percent of association members who attended a face-to-face meeting or event last year plan to do so again this year.


Is it because many conferences are boring and uninspired?

Is it time for a "new paradigm" more in line with how people interact in their daily lives over the web?

Yes, says Elizabeth Perry, a fellow at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University.

To her, while the web has changed the means for communication, people will interact once given the chance--and what they walk away with will be more satisfying and memorable then any static, styled conference.

Perry is a proponent of a set of methods that fall broadly under the new term "unconference".

"What if you got to design the perfect conference for yourself? A conference where you could share your experience and expertise, and learn from others who could teach you - a conference where the issues and information are up-to-the-moment and perfectly focused on your own needs?

"That perfect conference exists, but perhaps you haven't heard of it - it is called an unconference. In an unconference, the participants provide the content. There are a number of different approaches to conducting an unconference - my focus here is on a kind of unconference called an Open Space Unconference - {you can read more about it at or visit}.

"Participants and a facilitator gather in one large space. Ground rules and guidelines are posted around the space, a schedule is created, and the conference is shaped and conducted by the people present."

"Posted on the wall is a giant empty schedule grid. For a full-day workshop this would be marked off in hours down one side, with breaks. The grid is also marked off along the top by location - the locations can be as simple as tables or corners of a large room.

"At the beginning, the whole group gathers in a big circle. The facilitator describes what will take place, explains the principles and ground rules, and may organize a VERY rapid round of introductions.

"Then individuals from the circle step into the center. Each announces something he or she would like to learn, teach, or discuss - writes that topic on a piece of paper and posts it in a time slot and location on the wall. When the grid is full - the people disperse to the topics/people of interest to them. "

"Basic principles of the open space unconference include:

" Things begin when they begin; end when they end, and the amount of time they last is the right amount of time.
" However many people come to a group is the right number for that group to have.
" Whatever expertise is in that group is the right expertise.

"Ground rules also include The Law of Two Feet: If you are not contributing or not getting what you need from a session, it is your obligation and responsibility to go someplace else.

"I've been in amazing sessions with only one other person, and I've been in packed rooms - equally fantastic."

"After the pre-arranged time interval the facilitator announces the opportunity to switch. People may keep talking if they want, but they can move as well.

" If extra groups need to form or extra locations need to be improvised, that's fine, too."

"At the end of all the breakout sessions, the facilitator calls the group back to the circle and brings the event to a close with a recap or reflective question to evoke a quick round of final remarks from each person, or to encourage popcorn-style volunteer remarks if that's more appropriate to the session.

And that's how an unconference can work.

"I've been a participant/speaker at several conferences that ran this way, and they were among the best professional development and networking experiences of my career."

Elizabeth Perry runs workshops about blogging and other uses of social media at a regional Technology and the Arts Conference at Carnegie Mellon University.