Why Go to the Conference?

Slide from Maxwell Anderson's MW2009 pres. - "Help visitors apply that memory and empathetic response to everyday life"

Slide from Maxwell Anderson's MW2009 pres. - "Help visitors apply that memory and empathetic response to everyday life"

By James G. Leventhal

There’s been a lot of back channel recently about the relevance and even necessity of professional conferences in this perpetually, overwhelmingly networked world.

So I thought this was a good forum to further the discussion.  Of the blogs, colleagues and cohorts I follow, the one who really got the ball rolling, for me, in terms of real questioning was Elizabeth Merritt on her Future of Museums blog.  Merritt wrote a post entitled, “The Future of Carbon-based Conferences.”

I am thinking a lot about the carbon footprint of such conferences and, more broadly, the environmental impact of the museum field…In the past these gatherings have served as the bedrock of professional development and networking. Is this sustainable in the future? I suspect not.

Merritt’s observations are astute and her recommendations about how to improve conferences and to optimize the in-between time are wise.  You gotta check out her post, her prescriptions and the respondents’ comments.

Museum 3.0 has started a conversation and referenced two separate explorations:

Radical Ideas or New Directions for AIC? - [a post by @RichardMcCoy] about how the AIC might want to think about structuring their conferences in future. There is also a related post [by @DanielCull] , La otra conservation: Radical Questions for Conservation

So I dug a shallow pool offshore at my personal blog to encourage the gathering of a shoal of fish [unnecessary use of metaphor used to draw attention to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is a member of the Western Museums Association.  Gosh, they must be interesting to have at a conference, kinda makes you wanna go, right? ;) ].

And so I received a few more observations.  Below are excerpts from comments there.  [note: some interesting comments and queries about membership and dues and regional versus state associations are left out of this for later explorations.]

Lydia A. Johnson commented on the issue of the 100% on-line conference:

I respectfully disagree about going 100% virtual for regional associations…I don't think having an annual meeting meets needs very well at all, though. The whole thing needs a lot of shaking up…

The author with Cheryl Hinton, Redmond Barnett and Ellen L. Leigh at a Program Committee meeting for San Diego 2009

The author with Cheryl Hinton, Redmond Barnett and Ellen L. Leigh at a Program Committee meeting for San Diego 2009

To which I responded:

I am not suggesting going 100% virtual. I espouse the annual meeting! Maybe even smaller ones thru meetup.org…And I think we need to celebrate now the innate value - the gathering, the in-person exchange. I suggest happenings.

Conservation Consultant and trained Archaeologist Daniel Cull observed:

I'm not entirely sure that the "conference" as we know it will have a role to play in the near future.  Conferences serve several very important functions such as: Networking and Sharing Information (papers)... increasingly these kinds of things can be undertaken cheaper and more efficiently online... so to my mind this is great not because it means the end of conferences, but, because it means conferences can get rid of "the boring bits" and can become something else, something new... something as yet unknown.

Perhaps... massive 'think tanks', informal data sharing sessions, brainstorming gatherings, mass advocacy days, public outreach days (each one, teach one), and so much more.  We could start to think of conferences not as something that happens in dark conference room of some hotel, but, that is just the gathering point for us to "do" something.

And Lynda Kelly, co-originator of Museum 3.0 wrote:

I have made several comments about whether we need to have conferences over on Museum 3.0… sharing mutual experiences, laughs with copious quantities of good wine cannot be replicated online…  However as Ross Dawson's blog piece points out: "... the role of blogging and Twittering at events [is] something that event organizers must understand and work with effectively to add value to conferences…

And Caroline Davies Posynick of Victoria, British Columbia put forward:

I go to a conference for more than the PowerPoint presentations and information sessions and the ice cream at afternoon breaks. I personally go to conferences in order to connect with other real, live people who love the same work I do, speak the same lingo as me and to generally hang out with kindered spirits (sometimes with spirits!) of the museum world. This face-to-face interaction cannot be replaced with online workshops/chats/facebook/twittering. But what IS cool about the online stuff is it now - as a unit - allows me to keep the conversation going, to not forget a face and name. It even *gasp* allows me to meet and connect with new people in the field, because now we are finding museum professionals' home - a conference that never ends, let's say - online. This new way of meeting makes actual conference attendance that much more valuable because now I have the name, have the face, I know some of that person's ideas and a bit of their point of view . . . and await conference to get the chance to find out about that spirit the other person holds. There is simply no other way to do that but to do so in person, and I need that from my colleagues, new and old. After all, isn't some sort of real connection with others what it is all about?

To which Allyson Lazar submitted:

Personally, I LOVE all this new social media, and I see it as an incredibly useful tool for a) sharing information gleaned from a conference with those not at the conference and b) interacting with/"meeting" people at the conference whom I might not otherwise even know about (for example, exchanging "tweets" with an educator--I am not an educator and so never attend education-oriented sessions) BUT, when all is said and done, I need the actual real-life conference...

And Jeremy Clark responded with:

Well, let's look at a recent tweet from Eric Johnson (twitter.com/edmj):

"Museum 2.0 isn't abt tech; it's abt dropping barriers. A curator lunching w/ visitors is doing better 2.0 than is a static FB page"

…I can think of several conferences for museum professionals that will be conducted this year in almost the exact same fashion as they were 10 (and probably 20) years ago. We love to talk about "added value" -- it's time to add more value to our get-togethers, surpass PowerPoint, and make something new. I heard good things (generally) about this year's Museums and the Web "unconference" sessions. At least a new idea was introduced and given its day in court.

RichardMcCoyStatusTo wrap up this post, I want to bring in a quote and post that Merritt brought to my attention from the mind of Seth Godin:

If you think about the tribes you belong to, most of them are side effects of experiences you had doing something slightly unrelated. We have friends from that summer we worked together on the fishing boat, or a network of people from college or sunday school. There's also that circle of people we connected with on a killer project at work a few years go.  These tribes of people are arguably a more valuable creation than the fish that were caught or the physics that were learned, right?

And yet, most of the time we don't see the obvious opportunity--if you intentionally create the connections, you'll get more of them, and better ones too. If the hallway conversations at a convention are worth more than the sessions, why not have more and better hallways?

What do you have to add?  All of this is really about seeing yourself in the picture and all of us validating each other toward a shared benefit and thereby helping others, right?  It is this that we must encourage.

It's also about having fun and sharing memorable experiences.  We'll have to keep posting about this as we gear up for WMA San Diego '09 in the fall.  What are your comments?




Having just spent the weekend with only 22 of my immediate family members, (the size of a small conference session) I can add this to the mix:
- the beginning: lots of short catch up conversation, getting onto the same page
-the middle: longer discussion around specific issues, ranging in depth from philosophy to how to fix a floating floor (usually undertaken around food)
-the breakout: depending on who has the time, longer, more intimate conversations which add background to the previous discussions and often end in action points
-the end: resolutions to be taken away and acted upon in time for the next meeting. (usually within 8mths)

I'm not kidding when I say that a conference based on this type of interaction (which we are forced to do because of our size: 32 of us when we're all together) and location (we're spread around the country) could be quite valuable.

It's effective, everyone gets a go at raising issues and discussing points of interest and we make arrangements based on who has the capacity to follow up over the next 6 months or so.

So, I'd say yes to reformatting conferences - make them intense, full of discussion and with an outcome which participants follow up on and report on in other forums. They can be places where thoughts become action very quickly - Mia Ridge's 'do one thing differently by the end of the month' after the Museums and the Web conference was a great example.

If we do away with anything at conferences, it would be the parallell session - inordinate numbers of sessions where the quality of presentations is sometimes not as balanced as it could be!!

Regardless, I look forward to the next conference!

As someone who has been attending conferences and annual meetings for many years, I can say that the interaction between meeting your colleagues face to face is one of the most important facets of the meetings. The sessions are just one part of the meeting process. It is the connection and part of the human condition that keeps us social.

The social networking is another part of the continuation of the discussions that occur at these meetings or for those who cannot attend, at least, a sense of some of the topics that were touched upon during sessions.

How many times have you been to a session that you were just "blown away by" and you need to talk about it over lunch or later on in the comfort of the hotel bar. Dialogues continue and create an atmosphere to further the discussion and maybe foster other ideas for future sessions

Conference and meeting planners need to think outside the box as they can become stale, so it is up to us to create that change that will bring that change to make the meetings engage us together as a community where we meet face-to-face as well as use the electronic networks.

Putting the name to the face and maybe just having a good time while learning something new is part of the meeting process as well as making friends for life.

WOW! thanks for all these lengthy, meaningful comments. They may deserve another post themselves to draw them out into the light.

It does seem that most users are clicking through to the comments here. So we may be doing O.K.

Thanks especially for the very specific clicks and references, so we all keep going around seeking and finding.

I might like to add a great post I came across by Kristen Olson about recent conference resources on-line:


click through...

Thanks for summarising these threads James. Many good points here. I really agree with Noelle, Angelina and Ted's points.

In times of financial crisis it's only going to get harder to seek fudning for these kinds of meetings so organisers will need to ensure:
* great & relevant sessions with speakers that know how to present & actually have something new to say
* plenty of time for F2F
* good balance between discussion and presentation time (ie more discussion than presentation IMV)
* 'unconference' sessions that emerge from participants' own ideas coupled with current issues of the day
* a vigorous and mainstreamed backchannel - no longer can the web be seen as a peripheral part of a conference
* a challenge to actually do something on returning from conference and logging that somewhere (e.g. on a blog or Museum 3.0 for example)
* absolute value for money
* a sustainable event

Just my two cents' worth!

Thanks for keeping the discussion going, James! Here are some more thoughts on alternative futures for museum conferences http://tinyurl.com/cccpc8 based on Maker Faire--a chaotic, creative, hands-on exploration of all things inventive and crafty.

Thanks James for the recap on this ongoing conversation on the point of conferencing. I never underestimate the value of face-to-face as a foundation for talking to others online in ways unimaginable even three years ago. Eventually, online might be enough, but I still highly value meeting folks in person.

I also agree with others above that we now have an almost constant conference happening through online discussions, blogging and other exchange venues. Just weeks ago I experienced some sort of AAM and MW2009 through twitter. I compared notes with others who actually went and found that at the very least, I did catch some of the hightlights through online participation.

Late this month I am going to the NAME two day confab in Monterrey that has been designed as an intense workshop model focused on collaboration and creativity. I'll report when I get back on how that model might provide a viable option for professional development (there is no real internet connect from the retreat center at Asilomar). It should be quite an adventure.

The other thought I have is that the scale of conferences matter: I tend to like ones that I somehow think I can get my arms around them. So the regional conferences and specialized retreats are more to my liking.

I haven't been following this discussion and apologize for jumping in in medis res without preparation, but am doing so at the request of James Leventhal, who asked me to post this brief comment I made on a twitter discussion #aic20

"I forget who said it: the communication mode with the highest bandwith is 2 people standing in front of a whiteboard"

This notion, or variants of it, is a core aspect in agile development (and for the record, I really should have written "2 or more"):

Principles behind the Agile Manifesto
"The most efficient and effective method of
conveying information to and within a development
team is face-to-face conversation."

The whiteboard comment probably reached me via the writings of Alistair Cockburn, possibly
_Agile Software Development_:

“Understanding passes from person to person more rapidly when the two people are standing next to each other, as when they are discussing at a whiteboard.”

The whiteboard pseudoquote holds a few factors, all important, and some could be used to argue for and against the value of FTF conferences.

* Small numbers of people (end points for origin and reception of signal)
* Shared focus of attention
* Nonverbal communication


What the agile toolbox contains

Playing the game (#2 - Using whiteboards)

T.C. Nicholas Graham
Communicating Gesture and Gaze in Networked Collaborative Environments
"When people collaborate to design documents on a whiteboard, they spend more time gesturing and pointing than actually drawing. Iconic gestures to help to clarify details, and facial expressions to signify attention and understanding. In order to communicate over large distances, conveying gesture and gaze information is as important as conveying the diagram. Most communications systems only convey intentional behaviors. However, unintentional behaviors such as gesture and gaze are also necessary for accurate communication."

I have to say that it is highly unlikely that I would be as involved in the professional organizations that I am involved with if they came without any 'in-person' contact. Being in the same room with "people that speak my lingo" provides me with energy and enthusiasm that I take back to my workplace and use as inspiration throughout the year.

At the same time, I am gaining a LOT from my professional connections on social networking channels. I am learning new things (new vocabulary for sure--"back channel"?) and connecting with museum people in very meaningful ways.

I am also really excited to see what we can do to shake up the annual conference, to make it something else, something new...I think this is especially salient for me as I deal with the New Economy: budget cuts and layoffs resulting in a heavier workload and little-to-no travel budget for getting to the conference.

Thanks James for perpetuating a dialog on such a relevant topic. I am working toward the goal of founding a Jewish art museum of MN, (JAMM). As a start-up museum, it is a challenge for me personally to financially budget a conference, such as the recent AAM Annual Conference in Philly, although I am aware that there is scholarship money available. Last year I did fly in for Denver to attend one small meeting in particular geared to start-up museums. It was very valuable. However being there for the day, I also attended 2 other meetings that were less than exciting- including one which included doing salsa dancing and singing songs (Really!! Hardly worth the money that I am still paying off on my credit card!!!) It would be really wonderful if in my short experience, at just one annual conference, that I wasn't left with the impression that the groups are so "hit or miss" and think that ideally if one were able to really choose very specific topics that were most relevant, or have the opportunity to experience really quality, professional meetings that would be great. I understand that in a perfect world this could happen.... but perhaps the perfect world doesn't really physically exist. Thats where computers come in! It may be possible, I believe, in the future to go to a virtual base and select video streams or interactive conferences that are highly specific and available at any time. This would greatly provide a continual dialog, reference and network base. This year, I longed to attend Philly, but knew that it would be a great expense, offer "hit or miss" topics and leave me with a wish to further belong, yet feel like I was a lost voice in a huge crowd. I chose not to attend. Instead, I used the same hours on my computer. I created important connections, mostly through Twitter, that I am working towards developing relevant collaborations for my and their professional interests. I feel that the collaborations will ultimately reach a broader public and be more effective in the success of it's mission. I especially enjoy networking online because I am able to access like-minded professionals "virtually" 24/7. I would not abolish conferences completely, instead re-examine the format of them...regional conferences, topic specific lectures and online video databases and online dated and timed lectures/discussions may be a new way to proceed in these new times. I did end up with one thing from Denver (other than financial stress) I met a bunch of random people who gave me their business cards- they still sit on my desk.... Useful? You decide...

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