Reporting from the Conference Trail

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).

5 Comments so far


It is interesting to note that this year’s actKM conference was put together by a group of 4-5 people who are all volunteers with full time jobs - unlike last year’s not so good conference where it cost us muchly to use a conference organiser etc.
We are looking to use even more innovation next year (our 10 year anniversary) and the feedback so far from this year is that everyone wants to be there next year as well.
The mixture of presentations and activities is certainly a winner - I am looking to use some more technologcal innovation next year

Nerida Hart
Deputy Convenor

Posted on November 19, 2007 at 05:10 AM | Comment permalink

Raj Datta

Hi Patrick,

It was great having you at KM India and hearing your views. 

I like your 3 dimensional assessment.  I think the energy part is usually missed on part of conference organizers as a key ingredient. I also think that energy levels and social networking reinforce each other.  Looking at your graph, with the exception of KM Australia and KM Asia, it looks like you had similar ratings for these 2 dimensions for other conferences.  So in essence, if a conference is participative and encourages people to network and speak their minds, I think energy levels go up.  Conference organizers should take it as a priority to personally introduce people and help start conversations. In short they should think of themselves as party hosts, in addition to administrative organizers.

In contrast to conferences, I think unconferences have more of this spirit and people get so much energy from networking, making intros, and getting to know each other.  This energy then is likely to spill over into their normal routines, and create more knowledge and value.


Posted on November 22, 2007 at 07:58 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

I like the party host idea! I agree that the networking element contributes a great deal to energy - but it’s also affected by the type of environment, whether there are variety of activities, and the participative energy that people themselves bring to the conference. In my observation keen and focused audience can to a degree compensate for other de-energising factors.

Posted on November 23, 2007 at 09:56 AM | Comment permalink

Steven Oesterreich

Where I agree with all that has been said, as organisers we have tried for not just 80-100 people but for over 300 people(a large eclectic group) and finding a satisfactory venue that will accommodate what we would like to present has become a major challenge.

For Australia, we would like to have:

1) Cabaret seating to allow for interaction
2) Natural Lighting
3) Central City location
4) A comfortable area that encourages networking - we have tried numerous different activities in this regards and are always trying something new. KM Arena worked for Australia - but not in Asia.

We used SCEC this time - as it is the only venue that is large enough to allow cabaret seating(from survey’s we found this as a want from delegates) - but the event suffered in other area’s, as noted above.

Sponsors - I am in 100% agreement - that Sales or Marketing should not be doing any presentations - we have gradually each year set stricter and stricter limitations on what sponsors can present (Case Studies with clients are what we request- FAST did a good job on this at KM Asia) and there will be a marked improvement in this area for the upcoming events.

As a company - we make a very minimal profit, sometimes we run at a small loss on our Large KM Events - we view the events as more a branding exercise and it allows us to bring names we normally could never afford with our normal conferences - as there a quite a few more associated large costs in bringing people over to Asia.  Also, we have not raised the price of the event in Australia for over 5 years and will not this year, so it is more accessible.

As you know - we are always open to new ideas for these events and we’ll take everything on board. We have implemented numerous suggestions made via our survey, as will do so again next year - your above posts will have us re-evaluating the process again.

All the best,


Posted on December 10, 2007 at 08:24 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Thanks for dropping by Steven and for being so open. I think one of Ark Group’s strengths is its ability to attract a very good, diverse audience, and that makes the potential for a very good conference. And as Dave Snowden has pointed out in the past, companies like Ark Group play a very important priming role for the KM community by cross-fertilising thought leaders around the world.

I got the feeling this year that the devil was in the details for the Ark Group events in Australia and Asia - ie you got many of the basic things right, but small things got in the way. For example, the Arena worked well in Australia because (a) it was slap bang in the middle of everything and highly visible and (b) Dave Snowden settled in there early on and became a “strange attractor”. In Singapore the Arena was tucked away at the back and there were no priming attractors that I noticed. However I thought the exhibition area generally worked very well from the networking point of view.

In terms of the cluster seating in Sydney, I think two factors inhibited its effective exploitation - one was the venue itself which was very anonymising in terms of light and acoustics, not conducive to a cross-table conversation; second, that kind of layout needs proactive facilitation to exploit it effectively. David Gurteen has described to me a very effective conference process which I’ve seen used in workshops very well where a presenter speaks for about 20 mins, then groups discuss the topic for about 10 mins around their tables, and then the conference floor is opened up for questions. I suppose that means a process for the chair of the track, as not all presenters will be comfortable or familiar with that kind of facilitation style.

At KM World I saw a friendlier (to the audience) way of getting sponsors the visibility they need. A session would be “hosted” by the sponsor, who would have 5-10 mins to give an introduction, and then they’d hand over to the practitioner to present a case study of an implementation of their product. In KM World they had obviously given the case presenter a free hand to be completely honest, including the challenges of implementation - and that also contributed greatly to the credibility and reception they got.

The last factor I think is having some variety of activities - the speed debate worked much better than I expected in Singapore, I think if every half day of the conference you had some kind of interactive activity like that, the energy and enjoyment levels would go up tremendously.

So I don’t think it’s a back to the drawing board issue, because your business model won’t support that. It’s more a matter of “strategic tweaks”. Good luck!

Posted on December 10, 2007 at 09:45 AM | Comment permalink

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