Why I won’t be rushing to attend KM conferences

This is a rant. I don’t rant much on the blog these days as I’d rather be doing stuff I like than railing against things I don’t. But once in a while the provocation gets the better of me.

When I read David Gurteen’s post, What is a Conversational Conference, I thought David was doing a good job of seeing the glass as half full. He quoted this blurb from KM Australia 2013:

What is a conversational event?

This congress will follow an interactive conversational format. Each speaker will present a case study for 25 minutes and conclude their presentation with a question to the audience.

The remaining 15-20 minutes of each session will be given to the audience to discuss the speakers talk and the question at their tables before going into a traditional Q&A.

This conversational format is intended to create an informal, relaxed atmosphere in which you, the conference participants, can get to know each other, learn from each other and build relationships.

Where to begin?

So basically they tweak the tired, standard conference format and insert a few minutes of highly controlled conversation. How much power does this give participants? No much. They are expected to answer a question set by the speaker; they must answer it with the people they are sitting next to. Not much freedom offered there. And then we hurry back to the weary old Q and A format.

I don’t know, but I wonder if they’re also going to sit people at those awful 8-person tables, where you can barely hear those sitting opposite you, but feel constrained to pretend that you can. Tables that so fill the room you are actively discouraged from moving around and deciding who to mix with? I wonder if the room will be semi-dark and gloomy, all the for benefit of some probably dead ugly slides that have print too small to read?

And this is the cutting edge of Knowledge Management? These are the folks who are supposed to be exploring the exciting frontiers of possibility? The ones who are here to revolutionise how organisations learn and relate?

This is their idea of a good time?

I’d rather watch paint dry.

Have any of these knowledge managers noticed this thing called the internet and the rise of peer-to-peer networks? Have they reflected that if you want to absorb a chunk of content, you can watch a youtube presentation at your own pace in your own time, so that when you actually meet people in the flesh you can actually talk?

Come to that, have they actually been to a coffee shop? Where they don’t have enormous tables and generally have daylight? And where people have loud animated conversations, amazingly without someone handing them a little card explaining (well, stipulating) what a conversation is, and what it would be wise for them to talk about, and who they should be talking about it with?

Dave Snowden tackles the same subject and offers an alternative approach. It’s not entirely my cup of tea but it’s an imaginative attempt to offer something different. I’d want to suggest something a bit more radical but that’s for another post.

11 thoughts on “Why I won’t be rushing to attend KM conferences

  1. David Gurteen

    Hi Johnnie

    thanks for your rant – no really 🙂

    I am in almost total agreement with both you and Snowden

    I have been trying to get traditional conference organisers to change their ways for the last 10 years but with little or no success

    they are too risk adverse

    there must be literally millions of people both students and business people being put to sleep in death by power point lectures every day

    my goal is help conference organisers and speakers/lectures take a small baby step in the right direction

    I want them to make bog standard lecture style talks more conversational by moving from

    presentation + no time for q&A TO presentation + reflection + conversation + q&a

    this is so simple to do but has a significant impact

    when they see how well this works and the engagement and energy it generates in the room I am hoping they will become more adventurous and pick up on all the other formats that you and Dave talk about and indeed I have many times in the past including here from 2006


    and as you know I am also an ardent tweeter of all your great posts on the subject

    why? I am trying to get the word out there more broadly and encourage change but as you know it is a slow hard slog 🙂

    best wishes David

  2. Johnnie Moore

    Sally: I’m inclined to agree although there are lots of other ways any of which could add a lot more life

    David: Yes indeed. I am happy to play bad cop to your patient good cop 🙂

  3. Chris Corrigan

    Is it time to dust off our unconfencing podcast from 2005? Or maybe do a new one? What if a small group of us took conferences that were really happening and had a conversation about how to do them differently?

  4. Lee Ryan

    There are some conferences that are experimenting beyond the tired ppt/ ppt/ppt panel format ( but sadly many industries get locked into a predictable format that is neither designed for brains or bodies). The Lift Conference actually commissioned a design agency to figure out what works https://www.slideshare.net/frogdesign/lift-conference-design-research . David Rock explores the conference model from the pov of a neuroscientist https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-brain-work/201104/rethinking-how-we-conference. My favourite creativity conference has a self organising sharing of ideas in the evening called night flites open space style. There’s only a starting outline for suggestions to go into. There’s a real energy about ideas posted up, spaces added for additional ideas, people racing around at night, and all sorts of ahas and conversations.

    Here’s to longer breaks, more movement, more improvisation applied, more mixing up, and getting outdoors. If there are to be keynotes – why can’t they have the elegance of the Gettysburg Address. It’s hard to see why they should be longer than a Ted talk. I think how panels are done can be completely reworked ( eg 6 panels at 6 bars, choose the conversation or bar you want to be part of). And yes – all those terrible round tables for 8 are not conducive to anything…

  5. Mark Braggins

    Nice video Vicky. I’ve attended quite a few unconferences and always find them stimulating. The unconference format is great both for sharing and learning.

  6. Marc Hudson

    I read that (the thing you quoted) and thought it was ironic!! Look, these things are a massive energy suck, and a morale destroyer. You sit there thinking “oh my god, why have we all come all this way to watch a youtube video in the flesh?” And squeeze bits of networking into the corners/corridors, but without really having a sense of who you should network with usefully. And this is why I love open space. And here (self-promotion alert) is a thing called “Activist Skills and Knowledge”


    and a technique that I’ve developed called “The Novice Line”.



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