Of Conferences, Chatauquas and Boundary Objects

This last week has seen a vigorous, sometimes passionate debate on actKM about the role of KM conferences within the professional community. This document gives a summary of the contributions made 22-28 September 2006.

One of the main insights for me was the view that emerged of a complex ecosystem of conferences, from the big commercial conference trade, which flies keynotes around the world, and brings vendors, thoughtleaders, novices and practitioners together in large diverse groups, to the smaller “indie” conferences, often self-organised by local professional communities, which tend to be richer, deeper, more experimental and collegial, and closer to the ground.

The conference as an event acts as a powerful boundary object, bringing together different communities with a stake in KM – the club of thought leaders get to meet each other, but they also get to meet the other players, powerful vendors, practitioners from organizations investing in KM, lower echelons of speakers who may be working their way up to the club floor.

Something else struck me. Speakers seem to travel much more than participants do, with the possible exception of the really big events such as KMWorld in the USA. They seem to function as the cross-pollinating bees that spread (ideally) not just their own ideas, but the news of what’s happening in one place, to others. And this brought to mind the phenomenon of Chatauquas, travelling cultural shows that toured the American states in the summer seasons from the 1870s to the 1930s, bringing big name speakers, lecturers, educators and performers to small rural townships isolated from big city life.

In their day they were wildly successful, and like today’s conference scene, there were the major circuits and the minor circuits, along with minor fringe shows, criss crossing the lonely geography of middle America.

The Chatauquas declined because the factors behind the demand for speakers to be brought to the community’s doorstep all disappeared. Automobiles and tarred roads made it easier to get to the city, in all seasons. Entertainment, news and cultural options became more widely available through rail, radio and telephone. And audience tastes shifted, from the high oratorical style of the late nineteenth century professional lecturer, to entertainment, diversion and wit.

Now the KM conference scene is not subject to the same forces as Chatauquas were, but I think there are tensions and drivers towards change. In my own experience, for example, smaller commercial conferences were my introduction to the KM scene, and larger commercial conferences, with their keynotes, tracks, vendor presentations, were my – at the time – quite exciting introduction to the larger professional community.

But I have found myself growing weary of that. It feels the same, year on year, and it’s hard to get to the depth of engagement that a growing professional needs. (Thanks Bill for characterising this shift so clearly for me). So I started frequenting the smaller, “indie” conferences (thanks Matt).

But I think there’s a danger here. Instead of acting as boundary objects connecting the different communities, the conference scene feels like it could fragment, at least out on the peripheral circuits where I am.

Here’s how the theory works. The “indie” conferences I like are much lower budget, and often work at break-even, so they can’t afford to import the thought leaders. So we don’t see them so often. Conversely, as experienced practitioners migrate to the “indies” the commercial conferences increasingly cater to the novices, and so their content continues to be conventional, high level, accelerating the exit of the experienced. Their market, understandably, declines (there are only so many novices per year), so they go into defensive mode, restricting access to their visiting speakers and keynotes, to all but the participants in their conferences. So keynotes get increasingly out of touch with the more experienced practitioner groups, unless they deliberately seek them out, at some cost to themselves.

The local professional communities run their own events, but have decreasing access to the internationally connected thought leaders. The vendors start to choose whom they favour for support and sponsorship, the many small deep patches of professional groupings, or fewer mass market gatherings of relative novices. It’s tougher for them to justify investing large sums, so the commercial conference budgets get more stretched. They start to compete rather than collaborate with the local “indie” events. Everybody gets frustrated and confused, and loyalties are divided.

To the side, the academic and research institutions do have budgets to pay for thought leaders at the conferences they sponsor, and there is also an established culture of universities paying for academic participants to travel to attend conferences. So both participants and speakers travel, and there’s guaranteed diversity. They are increasingly interested in attracting working practitioners and some are becoming successful at balancing the academic with the practice, becoming more attractive to the corporate knowledge manager, though the economics still mean that it’s easier to attract subsidised academic participants than corporate practitioners who have to try harder to justify travelling and attending. Are the academic institutions the real threat to commercial conference providers?

Now this bleak scenario is obviously not true in all cases. The major commercial events, particularly in the USA, are protected by being in a large, rich market, with lower travel costs for many keynotes, so they maintain their boundary object status, and they maintain the diversity of participation and encounter that keeps the business alive.

And even in smaller markets, such as Australia, symbiotic relationships between commercial providers and local professional groups have sprung up, where thought leaders are loaned to local groups in exchange for promotion of the commercial mainstream events.

If the KM conference scene really is a complex ecosystem, then the failure of any element of it can have unpredictable, perhaps negative consequences. If the role of the conference really is to perform a boundary object role between different communities (vendors, experienced practitioners, corporate sponsors of KM, novice practitioners, thought leaders), then anything that fractures the communities and sends them into self-serving spheres, will surely drive the profession into stagnation and decline.

At the moment, it seems to me, out at the periphery, the cracks are already showing on the walls. Unless the stable centre recognises this, and unless we find new models for the economics and formats of conferences, and new models for collaboration and interaction between communities, my fear is that these cracks will spread. I hope I’m wrong.

My deepest thanks to the warmth and responsiveness of the actKM community on this topic – including those who disagreed vigorously with me – for enlarging my understanding and being good enough to respond.

5 Comments so far

(another) Green Chameleon

I just have found this blog… nice to see another green chameleon, interested in knowledge…

Posted on October 02, 2006 at 12:07 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick, I grew up just 45 minutes from the original Chatauqua Institution and took it for granted that “ordinary folk” could listen to former Presidents, Nobel Prize Winners, scholars, and performers. I didn’t fully appreciate it until I moved overseas and then realized it was unique.  To me, “Chatauqua” has always been associated with a specific geographical place.  It is interesting that the place also lent its name to describing a traveling cultural show that eventually declined.

The original Chatauqua is still going strong and continues to give ordinary people easy access to a full spectrum of thought leaders. There are few places in the world where a farmer can transition from a John Deere tractor to a talk by Sandra Day O’Connor while avoiding traffic congestion, social exclusion, and urban sprawl.

I’d be interested if there is a metaphor for that in the KM world.

Posted on October 08, 2006 at 12:34 PM | Comment permalink


Hi Larry

Thanks for this ... and I think it’s a wonderful metaphor to propose.

Posted on October 09, 2006 at 11:07 AM | Comment permalink


Thanks Patrick, what a very interesting and succintly and overally excellently put analysis of the scene. Thank you very very much - and thanks to MattM for pointing me to it.

You have put your finger on many of the things bothering me and others I am working with in the UK to both distribute and democratise knowledge gatherings while retaining the strengths that the bigger gatherings have.

This bit in particular:

“...Instead of acting as boundary objects connecting the different communities, the conference scene feels like it could fragment, at least out on the peripheral circuits where I am...”

Absolutely - and, as one of the UK consultants working with and around the UK conference providers, fragmentation is definitely all over the place - realised by an increased uptake in the smaller gatherings (50-100), all continuously driven by ‘competition’ (which brings many issues of un-transparency etc.) - not only will this take the wind out of the big gatherings’ sails, but also mean we get repetition in the conferences…

Posted on December 07, 2006 at 06:20 PM | Comment permalink


Thanks Ed - I’d be interested in any avenues for improvement you spot from your UK vantage point.

Posted on December 10, 2006 at 12:37 PM | Comment permalink

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