Conference versus Anti-Conference

Why I no longer like conferences, yet love barcamps?
All the things that can happen during a barcamp!

Gute Laune in Dornbirn auf einem PM-Camp.
Enjoying ourselves at the Dornbirn PM Campp

I no longer like to attend conferences. Consequently, I only agree to be a speaker on such events in exceptional cases. For instance in the near future at the NurembergDOAG-Konferenz.
🙂 Or else if they pay me really well.

Because how do they choose speakers on conferences? Potential speakers must submit their articles at least six months before the conference, more often even earlier than that. Including a topic, a summary and an abstract. Mostly with a pre-defined number of words and following some stupid kind of word template.

But how am I supposed to know in January what will move me late in the year? How to know the development of affairs during the months until the actual presentation takes place?

After the deadline, the conference committee will meet. They are supposed to select the suitable articles. The jurors in the committee have to consider the event sponsors, countless representatives of interests and industry, diverse amigos, political influence and much more. They will not personally be acquainted with most of the persons who sent articles, which is why they cannot know about the competence of them as speakers. More often than not, they do not even have technological competence.

Young speakers who actually might have something important to contribute have no chance – and this is apparent if you look at the conference program.

Those who were lucky enough to have been selected must submit a manuscript. Again, it has to have a certain length, the word-template is usually even worse than before. The manuscript, too, has to be submitted quite a long time before the actual conference takes place. After all, the proceedings have to be printed.

Well, this is when I think: Why should I present something all the persons in the room have before them in writing? I always talk freely, without power-point or the like. Whenever I speak in a big lecture hall, I ask my graphics expert to design a few slides to emotionally underline what I am going to say. That is it. After all, the exact content of what I am going to say will only be determined on the day of the event – and it will even change during the presentations, because I follow the feedback I receive from my audience.

And then the great day will come. Mostly, a conference will start with a huge introductory affair, including welcoming all and sundry. The ability to remain awake and sitting on your bottom is put to a severe test among the audience. And then, the intense “one-way” noise machines will be turned on.

The speakers will dutifully read their manuscripts as typed in the proceedings. Some will do better, others worse. Interruptions are mostly not encouraged, so there is never a discourse. Someone up front will say something that has been previously prepared and the audience down below are supposed to consume it.

A short time ago, I attended an academic meeting with a dear friend of mine (no less than a rather highly respected professor). It was more or less the same as always. When I told her that the contributions had been surprisingly low-standard, she consoled me with the information that the presentations were actually just of minor importance. The important thing, so she said, is that you meet and exchange ideas with people. And that the evening event, in particular, is the true value of the meeting.

And it is basically true – if we wish to advance ourselves, we have to share our knowledge and communicate amongst each other. But then, why should I listen to presentations all day long if nobody is interested in those? Perhaps it is only so we can tell the tax office something official took place and that we had a legitimate reason to travel and talk over food and wine in the evening…

PM-Camp Berlin 2015, Thema Komplexität by VisualBrainDump
Berlin PMCamp 2015 about: Complexity by VisualBrainDump.

At a barcamp, it is totally different. And as I see it, it is better!

So, what is a barcamp? Of course, you will find an excellent description in Wikipedia. Let me try and approach the definition under a totally different light.

Imagine between fifty and a hundred persons meeting. For instance bloggers, entrepreneurs or experts. Or persons who are prepared to take a special social responsibility, or simply persons who share an interest in something.

Ideally, we are talking persons who enjoy sharing their experience, their competence and also their problems. Persons who communicate at eye-level and who want to participate when it comes to discussing important topics. Persons who want autonomous enlightenment, who dream of honest discourse as professor Habermas used to define it (perhaps persons who are not even aware of him having defined it), all of them thou-ing and thee-ing each other and never interrupting others while they speak. Even if all these factors are true, you still – so is the current state of the art – have to organize this kind of event.

With barcamps, it is very simple. You provide enough lecture halls for the sessions to be held in. A lecture hall has to be big enough for all participants. Inside those lecture halls, you develop the sessions together. Consequently, you have a big board in the middle of the lecture hall. It contains a matrix with the lines marking the time scheduled for the sessions (for instance one line for each hour). The columns mark the lecture halls A, B, C …

Beispiel für eine Sessionplanung bei einem PM-Camp
Example for a session planning at a PM Camp.

And whoever has a problem he feels desperate about will march to the board, pin a card with his topic to the board and makes a room and time reservation for his or her session. Then he introduces himself and gives a short description of what and in which form he wishes to propose the session. And as soon as there are enough cards on the board or when the board is full, you start.

If, on top of this, you also have a nice coffee lounge where food and drinks are always available, success is almost a foregone conclusion. Because there is another rule:

Everybody is free during a barcamp.

Like a bee gathering honey, you can attend as many sessions as possible. On the other hand, you can also float through the rooms like a butterfly (bees and butterflies are the classic metaphors for barcamp behaviour) and remain wherever you feel most comfortable.

As soon as a participant realizes that he is in the wrong session, he should leave it. In a barcamp, this is not impolite. On the contrary, it is your duty if you want the system to work. Consequently, the doors to all lecture halls should be open at all times.

The rule also says: whatever happens is exactly what we wanted to happen. If only a few people attend a session then this is just as good as if all participants attend one session. In the end, there will be a balance.

A new development is that the barcamp organizers try to offer a frame where the sessions can be documented. There is a special barcamp variant, the OpenSpace, where documentation is obligatory and supported, collected and summarized by a so-called OpenSpace-Office.

Party beim PM-Camp in Dornbirn
Party time at the Dornbirn PM-Camp.

Barcamp is this easy. As a general rule, it will be two days. The party at the end of the first day is always a very good thing. During the second day, there are often extremely good spontaneous sessions.

A barcamp is considered a success if all the participants – we also call them share-holders – start their return journey home happy and withe a full heart and spirit.

Even though you should never expect results from a barcamp, surprising things often happen. I know movements and enterprises that grew from an idea during a session. Surprisingly many friendships and beautiful networks are generated. There are always lots of incitements. Barcamps have such a huge impact: they help people to start thinking, judge things differently and become more successful both in private and “professional” or “entrepreneurial” life.

I attended camps such as OpenStartUp or WorkLifeBalance. On those, as well as during five years of PM Camps, I experienced what I described above. PM Camps were about project management, leadership and entrepreneurship. By now, I know that there are more important things. For instance the way how we shape our mobility will be profoundly important for our future. That is why I gladly founded the new barcamp for “Active Motility in Everyday Life” #AktMobCmp .

We will start on January, 4th and 5th, 2016 in Unterhaching.

(Translated by EG)

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