I’ve been a speaker at learning technology events for the last eight years or so. I’ve published a book. I’ve chaired a large learning technology event and got my paws on some planning of the event. I feel like I’ve built enough technology, enough online courses and enough creative online experiences that I’m probably an expert in my field (educational technology). I’ve played a role in my field. Someone who doesn’t accept ‘common sense’ or ‘best practice’ as untouchable, I poke people and ideas to stir up arguments that ultimately help spawn new thinking. I know other people with the same credentials who may play different roles but ultimately this group of people travel from industry conference to industry conference and donate their time to the event management to help them draw thousands of people who want and need the knowledge and skills they possess. I do not say ‘donate’ lightly. At the end of the day, many of them speak with no compensation other than the occasional expenses being paid and if lucky, some stipend for conducting workshops and such.
In the US alone, conferences and events provide education to 10x the amount of students enrolled in universities (250 million compared to 25 million). To some degree conferences have borrowed the same ‘educational model’ as universities with the sage on stage approach. In the modern digital age conferences are bolting on social media components to help attendees engage with conference content and help promote the event to non-attendees. The question I’m asking today though is can conferences service the industry in which they are a part better than what they do? I’m not asking if conferences can be better. Everything can get better.
Not sure everyone would agree but I see conferences as a temporary gathering of a hive mind that can help push an industry forward. The objective of a conference in this light shifts from a summary of whats going on, to how can industry participants make things better for themselves.
If conference organizers, meeting planners, event planners set out to evolve the industry they were a part of, rather than showcase it, would the existing conference model remain the same? Would conference monetization schemes stay the same? I look at at hackathons, birds of a feather session and I see communities of people who pay not to attend a conference but people who pay to BE the conference. It bothers the snot out of me when I hear speakers who feel like they own their ideas and would only share their idea if they felt they could somehow make money. You know why you can’t patent an idea? Because there’s no value in an idea, there’s only value in its execution. So conferences need to stop being a showcase (and here I differentiate an ‘expo’ from a conference) and start being a group of people who want to be a part of change.
Imagine the energy level of thousands of people working to make change. Imagine speakers hired to facilitate that change. Imagine vendors participating along with practitioners. Imagine the value they get! Imagine all that bolt on technology focused on pushing an industry forward rather than looking backward! I believe conferences have tremendous ability to move an industry forward. But like any business, they have to begin with this objective and monetize from there.