On July 9th, 2009, my Strategic Communications team here at Booz Allen held an unconference as an alternative to the traditional All-Hands meeting. Big thanks go out to Chris Hemrick, who led the planning, development, and execution of this event. In collaboration with Chris and a few other team members, we pitched the idea to our leadership as a low-cost, low-resource opportunity to network, collaborate on some of the tough issues facing our team, learn from other members of the team, and have an opportunity to get involved with the rest of the team beyond their individual project teams.
So, how did we do it? And more importantly, was it successful?
After receiving approval to move forward, we established our “home base” – a wiki page on our Enterprise 2.0 platform – hello.bah.com. From here, we coordinated all our planning and outreach efforts. We established the hashtag that we would use when blogging or Yammering about the Uconference. We also determined the agenda for the day: 4:30 – 8:30 on a Thursday night with three sets of two concurrent sessions followed by one full wrap-up session and some networking time. Sessions were to be restricted to one slide, and session leaders were only given 5 minutes to give the topic introduction.
About a month before the Unconference, we sent an email out to the team asking for people to propose potential topics via the wiki. Sessions were then voted on by the rest of the members of the team. However, because this was such a new concept to a majority of the team, we didn’t receive as many topic suggestions as we had hoped for. As such, we had to reduce the number of total sessions from 6 to just 4.
One of the important things for us was also virtual participation. Our team is spread out all over the DC area, and all over the country. We needed a way for these folks to participate too. However, unlike Government 2.0 Camp or South by Southwest, a majority of our participants aren’t used to live-Tweeting. While tuning in to hashtags like #gov20camp or #sxsw can give virtual attendees a reasonable feel for the content of the conference, that only works when hundreds of people are actively using the service, giving individual perspectives and updates. However, this doesn’t really work when only a few people are doing it. To address this, we decided to use both Yammer and Adobe Connect, allowing chatting and live audio/video. We also created topic-specific wiki pages and blogs and each session was to have a blogger and note-taker who would help continue the conversation after the actual event.
We also decided on a location. After a pre-conference walk-through, we chose Bailey’s Pub & Grille in Arlington because it was 1) big enough for 100+ people and had space for breakout rooms, 2) metro-accessible and centrally located, 3) had free Wi-Fi and 4) was informal (it’s a bar!) enough to give the vibe that this was something different.
Upon arriving at Bailey’s to get all set up, we had the projectors running, chatter had started on both Adobe Connect and Yammer, the first of about 100 people began to file in, and I had a cold draft of Heineken that was calling my name. Everything was falling into place. After about 20 minutes of getting settled in, we kicked off with a quick introduction about why we were doing this, what we wanted to accomplish, some expectation setting (people are going to get up and freely walk around, attendees were encouraged to be honest in their discussions, etc.), and some logistics, we were off and running.
However, not all went as smoothly as we had planned (that wouldn’t be any fun, would it?), logistically or strategically. First, we quickly discovered that the webcam microphones we were using weren’t sufficient enough to capture the full discussion – virtual attendees were only hearing the discussion leader, not necessarily the entire conversation. Video also proved problematic as the lighting was very dark and the webcams we were using weren’t able to capture everyone around the room who spoke. This, combined with the fact that Yammer went down right in the middle of the first discussion, really hampered the virtual attendees’ ability to participate. They were restricted to video/audio of the discussion leader and live chat with person running the Adobe Connect session. While this wasn’t ideal, all of these problems are easily fixable with higher quality microphones and video equipment.
The other challenge that we experienced was that the sessions themselves didn’t exactly go as we had planned. As I mentioned earlier, we had to trim the number of sessions to two sets of two concurrent sessions. But, we didn’t cut the total amount of time, so each session ended up being an hour long – this ended up being about 20-30 minutes too long. This meant that the discussion ended up going in circles and off-topic a few times during the second half of the sessions. We also found out that the effectiveness of the sessions depended largely on the topic at hand – there was one session focused on how we use social media with our clients that resulted in a lot of good discussion and learning. However, the session I led was focused on the best way to divide and utilize our time. This led to a lot of good discussion as well, but also some bickering, disagreements, not to mention some maybe too-candid comments.
During the entire Unconference, Tracy Johnson was walking around with a Flip camera asking people for their thoughts on the Unconference. Here’s what they said:
We sent out a survey asking all attendees what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what they’d suggest doing next year. We also briefed our leadership team the following day with our own post-event report. Attendees seemed to say that they appreciated something different, that they liked the informal nature of the unconference, and that they would definitely participate again. The members of the leadership team, suspicious of the idea at first, were excited to hear some of the ideas and discussion to come out of the event and agreed that it was something that should be done again.
I loved having the unconference – it was a welcome change from the normal stand and talk through slides meeting, and gave us an opportunity to get together with our colleagues AND talk about how to improve our team’s operations. The concept of an internal unconference, though, isn’t for everyone. Before you consider an internal unconference at your organization, consider your answers to the following questions:
- Will there be a need for virtual participation?
- Does your organization have an internal microblogging service (Twitter is most likely too public for most)?
- Is your leadership willing to listen to criticism and new ideas, and most importantly, to DO something about the ideas and opinions that are discussed?
- How geographically separated is your team? Can they all gather at one location?
- Are new ideas and open discussion typically valued or discouraged?
- Are a majority of your team introverts or extroverts?
- Do you have a budget to cover A/V equipment, location reservation, food/drinks, nametags, etc.?
- Do you have a space from where the conversation can continue after the event (wiki page, forum, blog, etc.)?
- Will leadership participate and encourage their staff to do the same?