Tomorrow’s World

Remember that programme? Always about future things that are on the horizon and how life is going to be different. I don’t remember the kind of things they actually showed, but I do remember being impressed by the technology. More so though, it was about the possibilities of what tomorrow could bring. And that, is always exciting.

Fast forward to 2012 and advancements are happening all over the world, and in some respects the corporate world has kept up. How so? Well, look at the changes in presentation formats. Standing and presenting has always been a winner. The aids to support have changed. From slide projectors, to overhead projectors, to PowerPoint, and in more recent times Prezi and pecha kucha presentations.

There have also been advancements in meeting management. The stock and trade boardroom table and meeting has moved to having open space meetings, to all hands meetings, to workshops, to facilitated meetings to appreciative inquiry methods. Those innovations in meetings and group dynamics have largely been a result of organisational development type activities as well as improvements in psychology and understanding team and people dynamics.

Then there’s the stock and trade conferences. Suppliers are asked to exhibit, speakers are asked to provide case studies and consultants are asked to be experts. It worked for a while. Until people decided they needed more and created unconference formats, also known as barcamps and open space events. I know of several fields where they use these formats to engage an audience: HR, Recruitment, Learning and Development, User Experience and Technology geeks. They’ve brought themselves together to create a learning format that creates something highly engaging and collaborative.

Last week, I was part of an unconference and a conference, and I’m left thinking why has the traditional conference not changed its approach. Why are they staying to stock and trade when the new developments create so much opportunity for increased engagement and relevance. At the CIPD HRD conference they’ve done some impressive things to try and improve their format. There’s interactive boards on the floors to help attendees see the conversation happening on Twitter. They trialled a 45 minute unconference discussion. They have tweetups. They have Swap Shops where professionals can exchange skills. And they have free short learning presentations that exhibitors can present some theory and then sell their product. And they have journalists and bloggers present to create buzz (of which I was happily part of and very glad to be too).

But here’s what was missing – learning and development. The conference format is one way with a bit of Q&A thrown in to make it feel interactive. Which isn’t really. With a potential discussion between 60-80 people attending a session, four or five get to ask questions. The only learning that happens is the inferences you make from the speaker’s presentation, and what notes they may (and often not) provide.

What needs to happen is interaction with the content. There were many conference sessions I was sitting in where I desperately wanted to discuss the content but there was just no opportunity to do so. I don’t mean I wanted to discuss with the presenter per se, but the content was certainly of enough interest that more could have been facilitated around it.

Here’s some things that could have happened. The presenters are there anyway for their allotted time. Time can be given later to hold a discussion forum with presenters where you discuss the content. The unconference format lends itself well to this kind of discussion. Attendees can engage in the content they are interested in, and equally learn about other discussions that have taken place. Don’t forget attendees have already paid to attend a session. They’re willing to invest their time for proper development of thinking, which doesn’t happen.

The presentation formats are for too rigid. Why does it have to be a formal presentation, and why does it have to be PowerPoint? I saw no-one and heard of no-one talk about other formats, which is such a shame. Imagine the buzz and engagement around the conference in hearing that Bob from Comapnies R Us delivered a Prezi presentation, or Bella from Organisation Brilliance did the best pecha kucha ever. I want to see and hear that! But instead we have to put up with slides, and videos, and graphics, and fairly boring presentations. “We did this, it amounted to this, you need to consider your organisation, good luck.” I’m being unfair to the many good presenters out there, but there’s just not enough.

There needs to be a much better way of making the content on the day available to the many people not present. Bloggers and journalists help this happen organically and there is a lot of value in that. But what about after? Who’s curating the content? Who’s tracking the conversation? Are presenters encouraged to keep up with the conversations after the event? Are presentations available online and available to be accessed by paying with a tweet for example?

And the exhibitors need some kind of briefing and training from the likes of the CIPD. They need to know what the organisers hopes, objectives, goals, vision are. They need to know what they are and not allowed to do with the attendees. Can they pre-arrange meetings? Can they stop looking bored while waiting for footfall? Can they attend sessions because of the money they’ve paid? Can they do more than plug their products? Are they allowed to collaborate with other exhibitors and do more for each other? I suggested while at HRD that Doug should help both the organisers and exhibitors understand how to stop doing dumb things to customers.

There’s a fair amount here. Some of it I reckon can be useful. Some of it is probably just my own musings. What have I missed?

Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

28 thoughts on “Tomorrow’s World”

  1. I used to attend a big KM conference called KM Europe in Amsterdam every year. The final time it ran a group of KM ‘hippies’ (me included) organised a ‘fringe conference’ using a modified unconference format. It worked really well and acted as a nice alternative to the techno KM being pushed on the exhibition floor. Maybe we need a fringe at HRD?

  2. Great post and much of what you have mentioned I would agree with. This was my first CIPD Conference and I have taken so much from it but I also observed many things that I feel could be improved.

    I also felt frustration with not being able to interact with the content, ask more questions, drill down deeper into key themes and issues. We all know that we learn from each other so having some time to break out into smaller groups to discuss how the topics and how they were being applied at a practitioner level would have been hugely beneficial to me.

    I would also add that I want to see a wider spectrum of organisations there. It strikes me that whilst the bigger brand names may pull in interest from attendees, some like me would like to see some organisations that I can relate to. I work for an SME and whilst some of the information shared was really thrilling, I know practically that I cannot return and implement as outlined. I want to see an organisation like mine who faces the challenges that I do. Surely having a greater mix of organisations would entice a new time of attendee to these conferences.

    Finally I feel strongly that anyone standing on a stage or on a panel advocating something must be authentic in this. I was frustrated by to be sold the benefits of Twitter both personally and professionally by someone on a panel discussion only to discover that they do not in fact tweet. That does not make you credible in my eyes.

    I have my own blog post written on this. Maybe I will have it published before the next CIPD Conference…:)


    1. Thanks for taking the time to add your piece, Sinead. I’m really glad you picked up on the SME piece, and you’re completely right. Why focus on the big corporates when there is just as much value and diversity across all types of organisations and sizes.

      Have you started blogging yet? Do it!

  3. Sukh, brilliant post, spot on. And a great point added by Sinead about getting air time with “businesses I can relate to” – personalisation!

    I agree totally with varying the format of the conference sessions and making them more participative. I also think that the whole of the interactive, exhibition side (the free bit) could be worked beautifully as one unconference. The zones as they were this year, turned into conversational areas, based on themes previously flagged or submitted by attendees ahead of the event, in a form of pre engagement.

    One of the core principles of the unconference is the rule of two feet: if the conversation is not for you, or you want to drift in and out of each area to get a broader view, you can. You are free to mingle and drift, or stay put. This again fits very well with the traditional exhibition format – stands can still be incorporated and people still have freedom to wander. It just requires a bit of creative thinking in terms of layout and content.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Sukh. By far the best review I have read on the conference and events like this in general.

    1. Thanks for dropping by Gareth, always nice to get your thoughts.

      The zones on the exhibition floor do allow for some exploration of the ‘fringe topics’ that John kind of alludes too – it’s just a shame they’re a platform to plug product instead. I agree that the opportunity for innovation on the use of the floor, exhibitors, and attendees is there. As you suggest, it requires some creative thought – and there’s certainly no shortage of that in the L&D community.

  4. Apologies for coming in again. Forgot to say, big thumbs up and totally agree with Sukh when he says the CIPD have done some impressive things to improve the format from where it was only a couple of years before. Well done guys 🙂

  5. If the CIPD have ‘done some impressive’ things then why don’t we move that one step further and run next year’s unconference as the HRD Fringe 2013. It could combine the social stuff such as the Tweetups with the rich conversations that characterise an unconference.

    1. I really like the idea of having a Fringe event at HRD. It’d be like a mash-up of an unconference, conference, social stuff. As I said above, the opportunity for collaboration with exhibitors and organisers has high potential.

    2. Hi John. I will say, in the CIPD defence, that the concept of the HR ‘fringe’ – not just for HRD, but for all events including the annual conference – is very much on the radar, and has been since early last year. What changes have been made, have, in no insignificant way, been central to that thinking and debate.

      I think most people involved, including the CIPD themselves would agree that there is some way to go yet. But for me, the change I have witnessed both inside the organisation with the people I interact with on a regular basis and ‘outside’ at events etc has far exceeded my expectations. Well done to all involved. Here’s to next years first full “CIPD unconference”!

  6. Hi all I work for CIPD and attended the event, catching up with Sukh, Gareth, Sinead, Doug and many, many more lovely people over the two days at HRD in Olympia. I’m not a conference organiser, I work in the digital team, so was doing mainly twitter coverage, tweet up and the rather grandly titled ‘blogger liaison’ work while I was there. However, I really enjoyed the event this year, there was a great buzz around the exhibition floor and I sat in on some inspiring sessions. (I surprised myself by getting a tear in my eye during he Locog film for their ‘volunteer hosts’!)

    Generally, I’m a bit of a wimp at these things and find it hard to ask questions when in a big group, in fact my mind tends to go blank, so am all for smaller break out groups in certain sessions if that can be made to work.

    What I do know is that every year we strive to improve, enhance and innovate what we do, to give our delegates and exhibition visitors, not to mention our many exhibitors, speakers and press contacts a really worthwhile reason to invest their time and money into coming along and getting involved.

    There are some fantastic ideas above and I’ll make sure they’re passed on to the relevant team at CIPD to see if they can be incorporated into future events.

    1. Hi Johanna, thanks so much for coming by and taking the time to comment.

      I’m in agreement with you that the two days were impressive and I enjoyed being part of the team that could provide updates to attendees and non-attendees. The value in attending is certainly there, and my post is aimed at only creating greater value in what could be achieved.

      If it helps, I’d be happy to be part of a group that helps the CIPD to really think about what they’re trying to achieve with their conference formats, what innovations could be possible, and how to make it happen.

      1. Hi Sukh

        re your last para there I’m sure there’d be mileage in taking you up on that, so thanks for offering! Will keep you posted. Thanks J

  7. Really great to see this discussed. I think that there are some questions to be explored in relation to the target audience. SMEs don’t have the spending power that larger corporates have, but I think I read somewhere that something like 70% of UK HR people work in SMEs and are those who are active in all things CIPD.. There is a world of difference for someone working with 300 people and the day to day work of someone working in a 10000 person org – how do we balance meeting the needs of both?

    Who comes to the conference and why? Who doesn’t and why? How can it be something that feels more like it’s for members? What about the many and increasing freelancers/independents that subscribe and are also active in relation to their CIPD membership? – Where do they fit in?
    Happy to get involved in developing this.

    1. This is a really good set of considerations that the CIPD, and other bodies need to take account of when planning events like this for their members.

  8. Just like to add an update. I had a call from the CIPD events team today (already planned) and it would seem that they are very interested in involving more SMEs in future conferences. Really pleased to hear this and happy to get involved and help in any way.

    I cannot comment on how the conferences have improved over the last few years as this was my first, but I can say I really enjoyed this one, I want to attend more and I would like to be part of the continous improvement. After all I am a paid member.


    1. It’s great you came back to let us know about this, Sinead, it helps to know that the CIPD are open to feedback like this. Indeed even though SMEs may not be as ‘sexy’ as the big corporates, they play an equally important part in the success of the UK.

  9. New comment via Doug Shaw who is having trouble commenting on WordPress sites…


    Thanks for a useful summary and feedback and I appreciate your shout out for our Stop Doing Dumb Things Unconference. You make some interesting observations and in particular I want to focus on the point about interaction. From my experience it is possible to create a degree of interaction in a traditional conference environment, and it requires some effort. Let me give you some examples:

    I was asked to speak about smart use of social media at the CIPD Olympia event. Before the event I went on to relevant LinkedIn groups and the CIPD Facebook page and Twitter and asked people what they might like to hear about. On the day I walked the floor and asked similar questions, and in the final few minutes before my talk started I was moving among the audience asking them – ‘what would good look like to you?’ So what? Well all this meant I could relate the talk back to other people’s wants and needs. This in turn gave me loads of chances to connect the talk back to real people in the audience. Eye contact and acknowledgement and interaction in abundance. I deliberately choose to use PowerPoint as a visual stimulator which gives me adaptability and a high degree of agility, and allows me to tailor my talk on the fly to some extent. And I believe it gives the audience learning and development. I also use lots of visual cues in management development and again, this is to facilitate interaction and aid fluidity. I’ve been doing this for ages but it wasn’t until Flora Marriott very kindly fed this concept back to me, that I became so highly aware of it – and the benefits it brings. And preparing for such an event is hard work.

    Gareth Jones and I were asked to run the Twitterversity at the CIPD Olympia event. We involved the audience in a similar way as above and in addition we flipped to live demoing Twitter and taking questions and doing a how to on the fly. This seemed to work well and I believe it created learning and development. And preparing for such an event is hard work.

    Yesterday I gave a talk on social media for HR at the Sage UK Customer Conference. Weeks ago I asked Sage to ask their customers what they wanted to hear. In the lunch break before the talk guess what I did? Yep – I asked people – ‘what would good look like for you today?’. And – I got the audience on their feet playing a game which led to a shared learning experience that everyone was involved with. Afterwards a guest said to me ‘that was the best and most useful talk on social media I’ve ever been to’. This morning someone reached out on Twitter and said ‘Met you yesterday at London Film Museum and you were amazing, thank you so much. The hour flew by so quickly, u r so engaging!’ This is lovely feedback, and I believe learning and development took place. And preparing for such an event is hard work.

    So whilst I agree that an unconference is almost bound to be more conversational, I think that the CIPD and Sage gave me and others opportunities to create interaction and learning and development, in a more traditional environment. And to your point about the exhibitors, I agree. In the main they came across as bored and disinterested. I spoke to a few and it seemed that the more engaging and awake ones had a more productive time. And preparing for such an event is hard work.

    Practice, practice, practice.

    Jeez – what a long comment – thanks for bearing with me!


  10. Can see similarities to the ‘water cooler’ effect – where all the ‘real’ discussions and knowledge transfer takes place. Last week was asked to do a 2 hour presentation to a group of 40 coaches in a large corporate org. In my outline I timetabled in 20 minutes at the end to discuss insights, new perspectives and learning gained, how will use back in the workplace… was told that there was no need. They will capture feedback (happy sheets). All I had to do was to present and leave!

    I would like to see more presenters use story telling. You have to be authentic and engage with heart and mind to tell a good story .

    Picking up on Sinead’s point on SMEs – having seen much more of shift in my work from corporate to SMEs I too am amazed by how little this segment is catered for.

    Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get to #HDR12 this year but judging by what’s to come am looking forward to 2013 !

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment here, Vera. You make some really good points about the natural way learning happens at work, and how in the conference format we seem to force it on others.

      Yes, the potential for #HRD13 is quite compelling!

  11. Great post, Sukh. Having attended many unconferences and more formal conferences I agree with what you are saying.

    Amazingly, the traditional conference model still persists although there are emerging events popping up such as L&D Connect that challenge that. Hopefully the traditional way of doing these bigger events will be hugely disrupted at some point soon so we can get more participative gatherings. Sage on stage can be delivered using live online tech. The real value is in the discussion and connections made at a conference.

    I do a lot of curating of events, which I find useful on a personal level and clients like it too. I think this is an important area for L&D – capturing and sharing content that can then spark debate. Think it is worth remembering that events are the start of something.

    I also think that people are trying to innovate but traditional conference venues can make it difficult. I liked what careergro did with their scavenger hunt app, for example (I know, I won the prize so would say that). Seriously, that was smart thinking. We need more of that at events.

    I’m trying something new out for the connectingHR unconference – hopefully you might put pen to paper for that –

    Hope you don’t mind the shameless plug – the aim is to harness people before an event, something we can do more of methinks!

    1. Disruption! That’s how the competition is forced to progress, because the current incumbent gets complacent and before they realise it they’re left behind.

      I love the point about this only being the start of conversations. That’s absolutely right, and much of the application (or not) takes place when attendees go back to their workplaces. That’s why curation of content, interaction with content, and availability of content is so key to the success of future formats.

  12. Applause.

    Well said Sukh. And what a lot of good and practical suggestions. I have been pondering much the same myself since attending the 2nd day of hrd last week.
    Totally agree with Sinead on the SMEs. I work for one and if I hadn’t have been asked to come and do that mini mini unconference, I would not have attended hrd. I get more value from events like ConnectingHr. (It’s actually not the price that’s the issue for me but value). But I do think that one price for all is unfair and also means the audience is not as diverse as it could be.

    I think it would be great to mix things up more. The conference upstairs, exhibition downstairs layout makes it feel very much like two classes.

    Overall, as you so aptly say, it’s very ironic that here’s an event for L&D professionals, but it does not itself adequately put into practice the principles and methods of good learning and development. Let’s walk the talk.

    1. Ooops. I also meant to add that’s it’s brilliant to see Johanna commenting on here. Thank you for your input. I for one really appreciate that.

      1. Thanks Flora, I spotted the link on twitter and got involved that way. So for people who are still wondering what twitter is useful for… 🙂

    2. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Flora, always a pleasure to have you here. You’re bang on with the pricing element. It’s not reflective of the markets they’re trying to cater for, and in many instances do not seem to be flexible for chopping and changing on the day if you decide you want to move around.

      And the second point about two classes is very insightful and so accurate. That’s exactly how attendees are made to feel – purposefully or not. Those in the conference are the elite, and everyone else is cattle class. How very interesting indeed.

      For me these thoughts have been formulating from the last three years of having attended HRD. It’s now that I’ve had exposure to other formats as I talked about in the post, and further reflections that I’ve been able to articulate what more can happen at these events. The very surprising element is the lack of thought of what L&D do so well, executing L&D.

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