What is an unconference?

So what is an unconference? Well it is an unstructured event that has been created by a handful of people who are interested in a specific area of business and inviting others to join them, often at weekends. There is no agenda before the event itself and the only planning is the date, time, venue and wifi/food. This compares to the well structured, heavily agenda driven conference which are held in work time and have a costs associated to attend.

So why should you attend? I started with my first unconference in 2010 – HyperWM, with trepidation as there was no agenda, just an idea of the topics that might be discussed, and I did not know anyone else that attended these events. It was a shock. The atmosphere was laid back, people were welcoming, your opinions were welcome – even if you were challenging a view. WOW.


Stickies, CityCamp Coventry

So I started finding out more about unconferences, they are growing in number and in variety of business areas. I attended some more of various types – each type of unconference brings its own experiences, issues and learning : Talk about Local, HyperWM, CityCamps, Barcamps; Brewcamps, hackathons, LocalGovCamps, GovCamps, CommsCamp, LibraryCamp, MuseumCamp etc etc

I find myself now going on average to one event per month, since I started in 2010. So, you may ask, what do I get out of them? Before my first event, I, like so many others would sit in my own world of work and home thinking that the issues that I faced were mine alone and that no one else was in the same boat or even had got themselves out of the issues. At work to increase your knowledge you could attend official conferences or training but these cost (a lot in many cases) and in the public sector this is not really something you can easily suggest with tight budgets.

I built my knowledge up from unconferences, at every event including the most recent, so that I am now able to provide guidance and advice on many topics. As well as the knowledge gained at the events, I also started building a network of people, most of whom like to share so if there is a topic that I am not familiar with I can but a shout out across the network and get a reply very quickly with helpful advice – this is invaluable. These events are often welcoming so that everyone feels that they can contribute equally to the conversation if they want – if they don’t and just want to observe/learn then this is also great.

I have personally found that I have been able to attend many events that normally would not be considered within my day job – but these have not only broadened by knowledge of these areas – Library and Museum Camp being just two, but also the way people within different business areas resolve similar problems can often be brought into my work sphere.

As you can see I am now rather an advocate for unconference type events, so much so that I run a number of these now – all in my spare time. The main one in the West Midlands region is CityCamp Coventry which was started last year (2012) with the support of Coventry City Council and Coventry University. While many of the unconferences out there are open for many to attend they do aim to attracked people working within that business area either from public sector or public and private sector. CityCamps are about bringing the community into the mix and allowing them the open space to suggest ideas to other community members and some of the key organisations covering that area. How else would you get an idea about sharing orchard fruit from those gardens that their owners can no long pick, and give the fruit free to those that need it or to make jams to sell and plough the money back into charities? This was taken up as one of the ideas by Coventry City Council with the promise that if open city space was identified they would look at planting community fruit trees there.

So should there be more? As with everything there will be a saturation point, but I think we are far from that. What I am finding is that there are many more events now being created – these generally spawn from someone attending a few and then thinking there is a niche within their business area/location to run one – this is GREAT. I am still expanding the number that I want to run with colleagues in different fields because this is the essence of unconferences, helping other people to realise their potential.

Are these events for everyone? From the point of view of organising them, that depends on the topic for the event but in general yes as the wider the audience the more diverse the point of view and the richer the conversation. However, those attending must give something back to the event. It is not a problem for someone to attend and prefer to sit back and listen, take stock and contemplate what they hear – this may be all that they are comfortable doing. Then there are those that actively take part and help run sessions or prompt questions. However, if you do not listen or take part within sessions then you will not get much out of it and these are the people who IMO should not attend, as they will be negative about the event.

So the goal? Well this is to get organisations to understand that even without an agenda or that you have paid lots of money to send someone to attend, your people will build networks, share good practice and above all have fun doing it. So please, if one of your staff approaches you about an unconference, listen to them, let them attend and then bring that enthusiasm and knowledge back into your team/organisation – you will be surprised.

by Sasha Taylor,

Founder of CityCamp Coventry and BlueLightCamp

Picture credit

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