One quote that really struck me as I was transcribing my interview with Rhea Blanken last week was â€œThat blank room is my canvas, and I can paint anything I want with it.â€ What if that blank room was your attendeesâ€™ canvas, and they could paint anything they wanted with it? One way to do that is to hold an unconference.
Michele Martin is a learning expert, as well as the author of the excellent Bamboo Project blog. She recently organized an unconference (using a format called Open Space) and was kind enough to speak with me about the experience.
What led up to the decision to use the open-space format for this particular conference?
This is part of a larger project that Iâ€™m doing with the Department of Human Services for the State of New Jersey. They had done what theyâ€™re calling the Discoverability New Jersey Plan for looking at how theyâ€™re helping individuals with disabilities find and keep employment.
I had done an open-space forum in December for some youth services practitioners in Pennsylvania, so I suggested that we think about doing something along those lines, to engage people in more of a problem-solving, best-practice-sharing kind of conversation, as opposed to the typical conference where you have people doing presentations.
How well did the open-space format work for the goals that they had for the conference?
It worked extremely well. We got great feedback.
The goals were to bring people together to have conversations and start talking about different ideas. For example, we had a session that was on myths and challengesâ€”stories that people are telling themselves. So a group talked about what the general public thinks about people with disabilities, another group talked about what people with disabilities themselves think, parents and families and so forth.
Itâ€™s getting different perspectives and then [asking], how can you address some of those issues?
Several attendees had disabilities themselves. How did you make sure there were no barriers to their participation?
Some people had physical disabilities. We had to give a little extra time to make sure that they could get to the room [for each session] and also think about what rooms we were using and how accessible they were.
Some people had visual disabilities: Some people were completely blind, other people were partially blind. Obviously, since we were having conversations, they could participate in that, but we also had to make sure that we were always summarizing things, rather than just relying on flipcharts.
We are also putting stuff on a wiki. Weâ€™ve had some challenge with that, because weâ€™re getting feedback that not all wiki platforms are accessible with JAWS [screen reading software for visually impaired users]. So weâ€™re looking at ways to share the notes through PDF.
What else did you learn that you could apply to future Open Space events?
One is that itâ€™s an incremental process. We actually used a modified Open Space. In real Open Space, you come together with a larger theme, like â€œindividuals with disabilities seeking employment.â€ Then people take responsibility for coming up with subthemes, pulling people together into their own conversations, scheduling, all of that. Itâ€™s a much more participant-controlled process.
I didnâ€™t think they were ready for that, so we used a modified version. I would always suggest doing that unless you know youâ€™re dealing with a group thatâ€™s really willing to take charge.
Make sure that you give your facilitators good guidelines and information on how to facilitate, how to take notes. That is really critical, so that you get everything back in a good format, and so people know what their role is and what theyâ€™re supposed to do.
The other thing is making sure that you give people clear expectations before they get there. We advertised it as something that was different. We sent out the Open Space guidelines prior to the session and said, â€œDo not come here expecting PowerPoint because you will be sorely disappointed.â€
Even with that, we did get some complaints. Now part of it is that some people are just not going to get a clear picture until they participate. But those multiple stages of prep were something that we found we needed to do.
What are some ways that you think associations can best take advantage of the Open Space concept?
One of the ways to make it work is to think: What are the big questions? What are the big issues of the day, and how can you frame that in a way thatâ€™s going to get people interested, engaged, and talking to each other? Present those questions in a provocative way, because that gets people talking. Working with a planning group to come up with good, engaging questions for the issues that are facing you is a good strategy for getting [an Open Space conference] going.
I think [Open Space is] a good way to share best practices and start moving on some things. Part of what we tried to do was pull that from people, so that when we then put it up on the wiki, people can follow up. Having that follow-up is a way to connect back to the workplace or back to their daily lives.
(Note: Michele has posted more reflections on the Open Space experience on her blog. Association blogger Ben Martin has also posted about planning a successful unconference.)