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Unconferences: Why not let 2018 be the year you find a new way to connect, learn and share in your business

Unconferences have been popular in the tech sector since the late 90’s. They have the opportunity to create
a new standard for peer-to peer learning and networking.


Jennie Marshall | 4 January 2018

I’ve recently completed a piece of work for a client who was looking for new innovative ways to share learning amongst specialist networks. As part of my research in to this, I came across a new concept – unconferencing. Traditionally conferences have value to offer, especially when the presenters have specialised knowledge to share. Yet at a traditional conference, the best moments of the day often happen during breaks when you connect with other attendees and presenters.

The unconference format, with no set agenda and an open approach to sessions, is designed to capitalise on and expand those moments! Genius! Unconferences have been popular in the tech sector since the late 90’s and have the potential to redefine how businesses participate in conferences. When focused on business topics, an unconference creates a new standard for peer-to-peer learning and networking.

Here is an overview of how unconferences work, along with some tips for getting the most out of an unconference as an attendee.

Sessions by participants, for participants

In a typical unconference, the day begins with a short overview of how the unconference will run followed by a session where participants suggest and vote on the sessions they want to attend.

For example, at a business unconference a HR Specialist who has knowledge about neuroscience might offer to run a session on Emotional Intelligence. In this case the HR Specialist offers to be the session presenter. If enough attendees vote for the session it will be selected to run. Then at the scheduled time, people who are interested show up and participate.

The presenter may begin the session with a short presentation, but normally things will then shift into an open-concept learning session, where participants ask questions and shape the discussion based on their interests and needs. This is a forum for discussion, not self-promotion.

You do not need to be an expert to suggest a session, nor do you need to run the session.

For example, someone interested in trying to understand Twitter jargon might propose a session called: "What the Heck Does # Mean on Twitter? Please help me understand Twitter's confusing jargon!" That person could then facilitate a discussion where participants would talk about the ins and outs of Twitter and deciphering its unique lingo. Of course, you could expect that a session like this would be of interest to people who want to learn about the topic as well as attendees who are experts and run social media bases in the business (of their own businesses).

An attendee can also suggest a session yet leave the presenter section blank, indicating that they would like to discuss a topic but may not feel comfortable leading that session. If that happens, another attendee interested in the same session might step in and volunteer to run the session.

The exact format of the unconference is decided by the organisers. For example, I helped to organise a learning event with my client and the local business partners have chosen to invite event champions who will support the event and also be ready to facilitate sessions that are voted in yet do not have a facilitator assigned. Other organisers may decide to set topics and presenters in advance, so that many of the agenda items are ready to be voted on when attendees arrive. This can work well if you know who the attendees will be in advance, for example if a department decided to hold an unconference for their staff.

An open-ended approach to learning

There has been a lot of buzz about the potential of crowdsourcing, where a disparate group of people contribute to a question or problem to help the organiser find an answer. You see crowdsourcing in many places, from reviews of businesses to financing new start-ups via crowdfunding platforms.

The idea of crowdsourcing is to unlock knowledge trapped in a crowd of people.

An unconference meshes nicely with this concept in the off-line world. At an unconference attendees are both the presenter and the learner. Sessions invite the people who attend to share their knowledge and also create a conversation that can draw out and build on the initial discussion.

For example, a business unconference with people outside of your business might have a session on ‘how do we create loyalty amongst our customers, to our brand’. Depending on the number of attendees at the unconference, when the session begins you might have ten to twenty people show up to discuss that question or challenge. That is ten to twenty business owners who have all been testing and refining different customer loyalty options in their own businesses who can then share what is working, what is not and add their own questions or concerns to the discussion.

The rules governing an unconference

Harrison Owen developed the Open Space Technology concepts that underpin an unconference. His user guide sets out four principles and one rule:

  • The people who come to the event are the right people. The most important thing is to have people who care; the people who commit and show up are the right people for the day.
  • The time it starts is the right time. This principle reminds attendees that unconferences are designed to bring out spirit and creativity, two things that do not run on a clock.
  • What happens is the only thing that could have happened. Accept what happens during the day and instead of looking backwards, look forward to what is next.
  • When things end, they are done. There is no need to continue to discuss a topic or work on an issue if it has reached it's natural conclusion, just because there is more time left in a session.

The only rule at an unconference is the 'Law of Two Feet':

"If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else." [Source: Wikipedia]

In other words, at an unconference you should not stay at a session if you find yourself losing interest or becoming bored. Participants are expected to take control and maximise their own learning by changing sessions when their attention wanes.

The advantage of un-conventional networking

The unconference environment is designed to shift participation from the usual one-way push of information to mutual sharing and collaboration. It is a major step forward from traditional business networking events, where you shake hands and exchange short ‘elevator pitch’ stories about your business or role with someone who may, or may not, be a good connection for you. Networking gurus will tell you that the best forms of networking take place when you let others know what you need — for example you might need help finding a good salesperson — and help others find what they need. The unconference format takes this a step further, adding in more in-depth learning opportunities at the event and also creating an environment where participants can share their expertise. Throughout the day attendees will move around the room, meeting new people while learning about the topics that matter to them most.

Unconference preparation tips

These tips will help you make the most of your day at an unconference.

  • Engage before the event. Some unconferences will do a pre-event survey or host a wiki page on their learning platforms where registered participants can suggest topics and begin the discussion before the day begins. Find out what kind of facilities are available if you plan to run a session. For example, find out if you will be limited to flipcharts and markers or can you expect something more sophisticated, like laptops and projectors for doing short presentations.
  • Plan ahead if you want to run a session. Whether you want to run a session as a topic expert or ask a question you hope others will answer, you will want to do some pre-event prep work and be ready to frame your topic to get attention.
  • Arrive ready to participate. Whether or not you plan to run a session, remember that unconferences encourage creativity and idea generation, which often come from very organic, unstructured discussions. Be ready to go with the flow. Bring business cards. While there is a lot of great technology that can connect us today, there is no substitute for a business card at an in-person networking event.
  • Extend your reach with social media. Unconferences can provide a great forum to extend your interaction into the social sphere, by posting interesting ideas and comments on relevant social media sites. Consider tweeting at the event or posting to your Facebook page or LinkedIn account if that is your preference. Sharing content at an event like this can be a great way to pick up new followers on Twitter, or Facebook likes for yourself and your business.
  • Leave your sales pitch at home. While participants are encouraged to suggest and host sessions, this is not the right forum to pitch a blatant ad for your business. Remember the only unconference rule is the Law of Two Feet. The unconference format rewards sharing and knowledge, not unwanted self-promotion.

We do a wide range of business skills training courses including ones to help develop your communication skills and developing business relationships.

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QA Training | Jennie-marshal

Jennie Marshall

Learning Programme Director (Enterprise and Outsource Services)

Jennie Marshall is an award winning learning professional (Winner of the 2016 Learning Performance Institute, Learning Professional of the Year Bronze Award), who joined QA in 2010 as a Learning Consultant in the Leadership, Management and Business Skills team. She has gone on to progress through various positions to her current role of Learning Programme Director where she now designs, develops and manages the delivery of end to end learning programmes. She is an experienced and dedicated learning professional, with expertise including management, leadership and talent, and training and facilitation developed within a variety of environments. Jennie has a proven track record of delivering blended, multi modal learning programmes using Learning Management System platforms and in a more traditional face to face setting, is at home with small and large audiences. She is a proven developer of people and is accredited in the use of a variety of tools including Strength Deployment Inventory®, Emergenetics®, Hogan®, Prism® and Worldsview™ as well as being an NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) Master Practitioner and Kirkpatrick Certified Professional (Bronze).
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