I’m back in the blogosphere, after a five week absence (it feels like five months, and I dare not look at my blog reader). I’ve been on the KM conference trail and at some point early on I decided not to try to combine blogging with meeting and sharing in real space. It’s been an interesting five weeks, and I have to say that daisy-chaining conferences is a wonderful way of getting a closer insight into the dynamics of what makes a good conference tick.
In the chart below you’ll find my own personal assessment of the ten conferences I’ve participated in as a speaker, chair, or facilitator since July this year. I have rated the conferences on three factors which I think are important for a conference’s value:
*Was it informative? Did I learn something new?
*Did it attract a good crowd - by which I mean quality not quantity. Was it diverse, interesting, with people who are keen to learn and share and network?
*Was the energy level managed well? Did the environment and variety of activities keep me engaged and enthusiastic?
I should qualify this by saying that these are my personal assessments in relation to my own learning, networking and energy levels.
My satisfaction with the learning content of the KM conferences was low to middling. I think the KM space is stagnant right now with very little new or innovative thinking or reporting going on. Even the Web 2.0 stuff is still very experimental and tentative – or breathless and shallow. The Ark Group conferences KM Asia and KM Australia have a real problem with mixing up sponsor-vendor pitches with “real” presentations – and the audience frequently voted with their feet. KM World and Enterprise Search Summit did this much better, with sponsors hosting sessions with real people presenting real cases, the sponsor just getting a five minute intro. Marketing and sales people should never ever be allowed to present KM presentations at conferences. They don’t know how.
I learned much more in the more technically focused conferences where you had audiences seeking specific solutions to well defined problems, and speakers willing to address them in more than high level ways – here the IIM conference, Taxonomy Bootcamp, and Enterprise Search Summit stand out.
The conferences that I thought did a great job in pulling together interesting and interested participation were KM Asia, KM India, Taxonomy Bootcamp, and actKM. The key to “interesting” is in the diversity of the participants as well as their curiosity, prior knowledge and experience, and their interest in participating, sharing and networking. I was disappointed in this regard by Intelligence 2007 because although the crowd was well qualified and committed, they were quite homogeneous, evidently all familiar with each other and a touch on the cliquish, inward-looking side. I didn’t detect a great interest in any cross fertilisation between intelligence work and KM work, even though some of the significant problems (eg figuring out evaluation and metrics) are shared.
Energy levels were largely driven by the environment of the conference setting and the variety of activities – including time for structured interactions apart from coffee breaks. I just don’t get the close, airless room without natural light scenario, although almost all “professionally organised” conferences seem to do this. Intelligence 2007 had us in serried rows behind tables facing a black curtained backdrop and speakers intoning at podiums in front of huge powerpoint slides. That was almost the same setting (different location) as the actKM conference last year – and it had the same effect. It sucked all the energy out pf the speakers and the audience – by the end of the first day I was exhausted and depressed.
KM Australia held its conference in a grey, dimly lit concrete boom box of an exhibition hall, and this effectively killed the interaction potential afforded by the cluster seating around tables. KM Asia’s auditorium sloping down to the distant stage fared only marginally better, though they redeemed themselves a bit with a speed debate which got some good participation from the audience.
KM India used a semi-conventional setting but had round tables which supported discussion, a very energetic and participative audience, and they ran every session as a panel session primed by a short presentation from one of the panellists. This format requires strong facilitation to keep it sharp and focused, but it communicated the simple message that that topics to be covered were discussable, not simply stuff to be broadcast to a pliant and listening audience.
Only two conferences, this year’s actKM conference, and our own KM Singapore, held the event in a room with natural light (yes it IS possible to see powerpoint slides in a room with natural light). actKM trumped the lot for its combination of setting, variety of activity and general openness of spirit. Presentation formats would be interleaved with cafe or workshop formats, there was generous networking opportunity, and a great mix of fantastic case studies and thought provoking research. Everything was in a single track and pretty much everybody stayed for pretty much everything, with wide participation all round. If there were a “KM Conference of the Year” award, actKM should definitely get it.
UPDATE 19 November: Some wonderful photos of the KM Singapore conference at Flickr – thanks to Kong Heng Sun, Simon Goh, Naguib Chowdhury, Eric Tsui, TH Lo for contributing photos (that I know of) – and to David Gurteen for giving us the idea of using Flickr as a sharing platform (many people can contribute all using a common tag).
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