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An unconference by any other name... a hybrid model that works

An unconference by any other name... a hybrid model that works

Q: How do you know you're attending an unconference?

A: You're not bored!

If you've never been to an unconference, please first go and read my post What's an "unconference" and why am I so excited about it! (I'll wait). If you have been to one before, you probably have some great stories to tell of unexpected connections between people, being part of a community that shares great ideas, and coming home energized and ready to do still more sharing and connecting. If you did NOT have this experience, you may have been participating in one of the dreaded pseudo-unconferences that have been popping up.

I'm not going to name names, because I know everyone is trying to do their best. As we've seen unconferences grow in the tech world, many groups want to take this energy home and apply it to other events. This is great, but it's important to understand the fundamental structure that makes the seemingly-chaotic unconference work.

NCTech4Good (NCT4G) is a wonderful one-day conference that helps the staff and volunteers or small organization learn how to use technology more effectively in their work. They tried adding on an unconference the day after their main event, but people didn't want to give a whole second day (it happened to be a beautiful Saturday to boot), especially with the agenda being so unknown. Organizers of NCT4G wanted to incorporate the openness and engagement of an unconference with the predictability of a conference with sessions selected and advertised in advance.

I have seen so many hybrid unconferences fail. I wasn't sure this could work, but I worked with the organizers to develop a compromise that actually meets both needs incredibly well. We took a leap of faith and piloted this model last year, and this Friday we'll be doing it again! Here's how it works:

Before the event:

  • Organizers solicit session proposals, invite public voting, and, then hand-curate HALF of the day's sessions leaving half of the rooms free.
  • Speakers whose sessions are not selected are invited to attend and pitch their session at the beginning of the day.
  • All of the selected sessions are added to the conference wiki, and registrants are invited to share their own ideas for sessions as well.

Kickin #unconference grid at @NCtech4good #unconference. #nct4g At the event:

  • The classic "unconference grid" (see right) is pre-populated with cards from sessions that were already picked by the organizers. The grid lets us see which sessions are in which rooms and at what times.
  • Anyone who is interested in convening a session as well as everyone who is already on the grid stands up in front of the group and gives a 30-60 second pitch for their topic. This needn't be an organized presentation, although Powerpoints are welcome and projectors are available, but can be any form of panel, talk, conversation, demo, Q & A, or even a code sprint!
  • Cards for new sessions are added to The Grid, and then we work out any conflicts or special requirements, and Voila! We have a schedule.

As you can tell, I am very skeptical of the whole idea of messing with unconference process, and I wasn't completely sure it would work last year. But it was a resounding success and everyone came away satisfied. This year we'll be doing the same and I expect it to go even better. If you are in central North Carolina, I hope to see you there!

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