Shaking evaluation conferences with un-conference events.

Evaluation conferences are a great way of learning and networking. I really think so, anyway. And yet, I believe they could and should be even better. I’m not sure exactly how, but I’m quite convinced that by adopting some of the so-called “open spaces technologies” or facilitation styles, traditional conferences would improve. I’m actually starting to think that this is the only way to prevent them from eventually disappearing as a strategic place to learn and do networking.

Unconferences” are just one example of new forms of open-space events that are arising to provide participants with fresh new learning and networking experiences. These types of events avoid one or more aspects of a conventional conference, such as sponsored presentations and top-down organization. Attendance is usually free, hosting is usually sponsored and the agenda is usually created on the fly by attendees. As chaotic as this may sound, these types of events are shaking up the conference industry.

The value of traditional Conferences.

Traditional conferences generate a large number of collateral benefits, including keeping professional associations running.  They are also great occasions to learn: listening to great evaluation presentations that have gone through a peer review evaluation process can be illuminating and useful. Especially if you’re good at dealing with those commonly tight programs full of interesting and overlapped sessions (Ann K. Emmery counselling has become crucial in this matter).

Accordingly I fully endorse David Notkin's suggestions on the usefulness of attending academic conferences:

  • To see the people who have written papers you have read
  • To see what's current in Public Policy and Evaluation research
  • To start to build relationships with other stakeholders in the field
  • To tell people what you are doing and to find out what they are doing, and
  • To find out that you are at least as smart and good as many of those evaluators.

Having said that, I believe that Notkin’s points could be easily achieved by providing more interactive and flexible ways of exchanging knowledge.

It is time to recognise that conference programmes are not exclusively shaped by great stories of evaluation; that learning has to do with much more than listening to others presenting their papers.

Introducing unconferences and open space technologies

Maybe the time has come for the EES biennial conferences to explore new ways of embracing and promoting out-loud and really participant-driven spaces, not just as marginal coffee-break activities but as a core aspect of the event. It would mean a “great leap forward” in the way conferences are designed and operated to facilitate learning and networking.

So what I’m suggesting here is that a hybrid type of conference would be of great value: Complementing a conventional paper presentation event, based on pre-set strands topics and a peer review evaluation process, with emergent and fully participant-driven events based on an “open space” approach.

Outside the conventional ways, many options can be explored.  Generally speaking, creating an egalitarian moment in time where people from all backgrounds and professional roles can simply share and learn, could look as simple as that: attendees write topics they're interested in on cards, suggest a time and a space, someone gathers and organizes them all, and people break into discussion groups.

No single speaker at the front of the room giving a talk is expected and, according to the “open spaces” foundational words, all participants are given both the right and the responsibility to maximize their own learning and contribution, permanently.

Many have done this before (like the 2012 Environmental Evaluators Network Unconference) and very useful thoughts arose within the AEA Unconference Open Space Technologies Working Group.

And given that it has been agreed within the EES Board to explore and debate the potential of Open Space Technologies, Dublin 2014 offers a great opportunity for all who are interested to meet and start drafting up a bottom-up process of designing and implementing an evaluation unconference event (i.e. at the EES Biennial conference 2016).

Why bother?

Because not everything that deserves to be shared in an evaluation conference fits into the current mindset.

Many of us may want or need to talk about topics without having thought deeply enough about them to be ready to go through a rigorous peer review process. There are lots of useful ideas, reflections, concerns and doubts that can bring about a beneficial debate, even if they are not ready or suitable to be presented in a conventional way.

Allowing open spaces to operate in a kind of complementary “un-conference program” during the conference, and letting people join them for free, would probably contribute to:

  • Tighter quality control for the ‘traditional’ aspects of the conference  (those considered “not rigorous enough” during the review process can always claim a time and space at the open space)
  • Foster the most productive moments that often occur in the corridor between sessions, just because at un-conferences it's all corridor.
  • Bring some people to join the conference and engage with the evaluation community, that otherwise would not have come due to the usually exclusive conferences fees.
  • Move the discipline and its constitutional events towards a better adaptation to a new stage, where bottom up approaches to learning and networking are becoming crucial.

So, let’s keep the ball rolling:

  • What do you think? Does all this make sense to you?
  • Have you experienced or heard of any activities that could help shake and improve the current EES Conference model?
  • What do you think are its most important strengths and weakness? 

I’d love to hear your views on this, and see how far we get in shaping the future of evaluation conferences. And please, let me know whether you would be interested in discussing this further face to face in Dublin!

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