The Ins and Outs of Unconferences

by Katherine Kimball Adelberg, Head Editor, INALJ Michigan

The Ins and Outs of Unconferences

Katherine Kimball AdelbergHave you ever attended an unconference? Neither had I, until I hosted one in March. It was an incredible experience; this was the first time I’ve ever seen participants in a training session stay late! I’m now an unconference convert.

What is an unconference?

An unconference is designed to recreate the informal conversations that happen between presentations at large conferences. Often those conversations are more memorable than the regular sessions. In an unconference, the schedule is not determined beforehand; instead, attendees arrive ready to participate and facilitate topics of discussion that interest them most.

An unconference is created with a theme in mind. Once participants arrive, they’re given Post-its and asked to record topics on that theme they would be interested in discussing with the group. Everyone’s Post-its are collected in a central place, and participants vote on the topics they’d like to discuss. Proposals receiving the most votes are selected for further discussion. Volunteers are then selected from the participants to facilitate a topic. Everyone then breaks into smaller groups with members migrating from group to group wherever their interest takes them. To wrap up, the groups reconvene and share their insights.

My unconference did not go quite like this. We got through the voting process and had a good sense of what topics were most interesting for the group. However, at this point, several people said they didn’t want to split into smaller groups; instead, they wanted to hear everyone’s input. We put it to a vote, and wound up staying together as one group.

What is it good for?

Taking a snapshot! This format is a fantastic way for managers or trainers to get a sense of what topics are on everyone’s minds. The environment fosters a free exchange of ideas and provides great networking opportunities. Our participants ranged from system administrators to circulation clerks. That diversity led to interesting discussions that would not have been possible in a more structured format. Though some participants were more knowledgeable than others, the “anonymous” method of proposing topics via Post-it meant that everyone’s voices were heard, even if some were more talkative than others. I was amazed at the diversity of topics proposed. As the curator of a monthly webinar series, I found this invaluable in determining future topics.

Preparing for the unconference:

    1. Find a space. You’ll want a flexible space large enough to accommodate the possibility of rearranging into smaller groups.
    2. Ensure that enough bandwidth and electrical outlets will be available for participants. Though the focus is on discussion, participants will be taking notes on their devices.
    3. Determine a theme to tie everything together. It could range from extremely focused (training patrons, for example), to general (like technology).
    4. Determine a budget. This was easy for me, as my budget was $0. I drove my own car, my employer already had the Post-it’s, and the host library provided refreshments.
    5. Publicize the event and recruit participants! Information about the format should be included: you want attendees to arrive ready to participate. I also made sure to invite people that I knew would be interested in participating. I also encouraged them to think about leading discussion topics. As it turned out, everyone arrived with several topics in mind and we stayed together as a group.

Should I host an unconference at my library?

Yes! My fears about this format were unfounded. Instead of worrying about whether we’d be able to spark a great discussion, I should have been worrying about whether I had scheduled enough time for the event!