Unconferences and BPM?

Scott Francis
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I’m not aware of a BPM conference labeling itself an “un”conference prior to bpmCamp 2010 @ Stanford, in january of this year, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t one that I’m unaware of.  Our first attempt was a big success, based on feedback from attendees at the event.  I was asked recently by one customer if we could have the next conference focus on more “customer-oriented topics” – to which I responded “of course! which ones?!” because after all, it is a crowdsourced agenda. I should have also asked him if the big industry conferences are more “customer focused” on agenda than bpmCamp?  I find it doubtful. At any rate, Forrester has announced their own “unconference”.  This has caused some criticism from those who’ve been to unconferences (and from those who simply don’t think an analyst firm can do this).  Although I’m a little skeptical of Forrester’s particular approach, I’m glad that they’re trying to incorporate more attendee-input into their conferences. I’ve previously advocated for conferences to do a better job of this.  It feels like Forrester is dipping a toe in.  I’d encourage them to jump in further. I’m also just not a purist.  So I try not to attack restaurants for not being “authentic” rather than just for not being “good”.  I try not to attack conferences for not being “pure” – but I will criticize if I don’t think they’re valuable or effective (there is something odd about testing the pureness of the un- in unconference).  I do think that in-person communication and being able to step away from the daily grind is critical to how people synthesize new information and recharge the batteries. And I think crowdsourcing topics and presenters can greatly increase the value of a conference. Typically, unconferences seem to be free, and have very little agenda planned up front (one coming up in Austin has a featured speaker and a panel discussion to kick off and end the conference, but the middle is unplanned so far as I know)- the idea being that you want to let the wisdom of crowds shape the event.  Being free, and local, makes this a palatable approach.  But for conferences with people traveling from all over the country (or the world), some kind of agenda is necessary to help them make value decisions.  And for conferences that aren’t free – typically some agenda is necessary to help justify the event to the boss, or to the education division. While I wouldn’t describe SXSW-interactive as an “unconference”, the organizers work harder than any conference I’ve attended before to shape the agenda around what attendees want.  Topics are proposed by the hundreds, if not thousands, and then voted up or down by all the possible attendees.  It seems like barely controlled anarchy at the conference – topics are all over the map.  But there’s a certain beauty to the organization – because the conference shapes itself over time, and renews itself.  It has grown from a conference largely focused on blogging, to one that includes a distinct mobile agenda, and a distinct startup agenda.  This year, looking at topic ideas, geolocation is high on the list.  By allowing the agenda to change, SXSWi stays relevant to a changing technical and business landscape. And it stays relevant to Austin. While I can’t hope for bpmCamp to compete with SXSW-interactive, or the broader interest ‘camps like ProductCamp, I did feel that bpmCamp needed an identity a bit different from the typical conference in the BPM space, to make it clear that attendees can drive the agenda.  It isn’t perfect, but we’ll keep iterating on the concept and try to develop it.  That’s why we adopted some of the techniques of unconferences, while charging a modest fee to cover costs, and allowing some of the topics to be prepared before-hand by some of the experts in our field.  Let’s face it, some topics deserve preparation time.  As BPM goes more mainstream, the kind of events that can be supported by reasonable populations of people will increase, and we can broaden the focus.

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