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#88 Un-Conferences Can Be…

by Steven Cerri on August 17, 2009

What is an Un-Conference and can it help?

Hello everyone!

The Un-Conference

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend an “un-conference” for freelancers. While I am not a freelancer, I thought it would be interesting to attend an un-conference and see how they work. For those of you who have not attended an “un-conference”, they work this way.

A group of people arrive at an event. (In this case we arrived between 8 AM and 9 AM.) The leader(s) introduced the day and the general, overarching topic for the day. In this case the un-conference topic was “Ideas to help people who freelance”. The event was titled “Freelance Bootcamp”.

The event leaders then passed around blank tablets of paper and people wrote a topic they were either interested in learning more about or a topic they believed they were qualified to teach others about, and they signed their name on the paper.

All these papers/topical ideas were gathered and the leader then read each topic out loud. Participants, by a show of hands, indicated their interest in that topic. If a topic had 10 or more interested people (out of 200+ participants), then it was selected as a topic. The originator of the topic indicated whether they wanted to teach the topic, moderate a discussion, or have someone else lead the session.

Each selected topic was scheduled for a duration of 1 hour. In a day lasting from approximately 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM with an a short lunch, about 5 hours can be devoted to sessions. If 8 separate locations/break-out rooms are allocated at the venue, then 40 different topical sessions can be presented. People can move around during a presentation period if they choose, but generally speaking, people will select a topic of interest and stay for the hour. We had 40 different session topics spread over 8 different locations. Therefore, a participant was able to attend and/or present 5 different sessions.

So there you have it. That is the structure of our un-conference.

The Un-Conference and the Internet

There was something about the un-conference that brought me back to the birth of the internet. Here is what I mean.

When the internet was gearing up to hit the big time, the general consensus was that the internet would allow people to share “expertise”. We would have access to “people who were experts” in specific disciplines and we would have more access to them than we had in the past because the internet would make that access easier.

Expertise would be much more available.

The Promise Not Realized

As most people have learned by now, the internet allows us to have more access to experts and also more access to mediocrity. And it is not always easy to tell the difference.

When searching the internet for expertise, it is up to the seeker to validate and verify the validity of the expert. People who really do not know what they are talking about can come across as an expert.

However, there are certain situations in which a person may not want expertise but the opinion of someone who is an average person with average competence on a subject.

For example in the case of restaurant reviews. We may not want the opinion of a professional food critic but rather that of an average patron.

The Un-Conference

Un-conferences function pretty much the same way.

Un-conferences allow us to have access to experts, if they are there, and also access to people who are not experts, and they will definitely be there.

Now I want to be clear. This was my first un-conference, so this is a sample of one. I want to compliment all the people who put it together. They worked very hard and they did a great job. By any account the un-conference was an overwhelming success.

However, and here is the caveat. It depends upon what one expects to get from an un-conference.

I could have taught many of the sessions that ultimately got selected. (Sorry if that sounds not-so-humble, but that is the way I see it.) Remember, I’ve been in this business for many years.

I decided not to facilitate any sessions except one. And I chose not to teach it but rather to facilitate it in order to bring out the level of expertise of the group members. My goal was to learn about un-conferences and the people in them.

The Expertise

The bottom line is that in this un-conference, the expertise rose to only a certain level. And there it stopped. And the expertise was at a relatively low level in comparison to what I was looking for.

So why am I bringing this out in my blog. Because there were two important take-aways from this event. I think they are generally self-evident, but they were definitely reinforced by attending this un-conference.

The first is that “expertise is really expertise”. You know it when you see it, hear it, and get it. You cannot expect people who are not experts in an area or are not experts in transmitting their knowledge to be able to teach others expert information.

For some people who were just starting out in the “freelance world”, probably much of the information they received was useful. It gave them a sense that they were not alone. It gave them an indication of some of the early hurdles that free-lancers face.

But those who had been in the business for a while, were not going to learn too much. They were more likely to run a session. But that did not necessarily guarantee that they were experts who could give “expert information” in an “expert way”.

Second, it is very difficult, bordering on impossible, to get anything really useful in 1 hour. People, especially the younger generations think that the world can be placed in bite-sized segments. “Just give me the nugget”. “The top 10 things….” And yet I met many people there who, it was clear, had been told the nuggets but had not implemented them.

The Conclusion

Un-conferences are good for networking and hearing what others are doing and not doing. This is important, especially if you are just starting out in a certain business, industry, or technology.

An un-conference will expose you to the first-level of information.

But “un-conferences” are not places for training, facilitation, and coaching. They are rarely places to find expertise that can be translated to others. They may not be places to find experts to tap later, either (remember this is a sample of one only).

They are great places where people can learn and hear what others are doing and find “contacts” that they can access, usually for a fee, at a later date to help them be more successful. These “contacts” may be experts or merely people who have been in the business longer which does not necessarily mean “expert”.

They are also places to find people who are just starting out in whatever endeavor they are undertaking.

My Next Step

I will definitely seek out another un-conference just to validate or refute my sample of one. And the next time I will facilitate more sessions. And I would urge anyone who wants to know what others are doing in a specific field to attend an un-conference. They can be fun. You probably will not find a high level of expertise there. But if it is, you will probably only get a taste of it and then you can exchange business cards and access it later.

The bottom line is, if you want high-level expertise seek out known experts.

Apologies to anyone at the un-conference I attended who might think I am dissing the un-conference. I am not. It was a good event, as far as it went. I believe it did the job it was intended to do. Not everything in life fulfills its purpose well. I am convinced that this Freelance Boot Camp un-conference did indeed fulfill its purpose well.

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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