Conference Design

The Organization Design Forum is holding its 25th anniversary conference in Charlotte, North Carolina from April 29 – May 1. The theme is Reframing Organization Design which is billed as 'a conversation and learning experience that explores the new ideas and practices that will influence how adaptive, innovative and sustainable organizations are designed in the future.'

As we well know, and are told again 'The forces impacting markets today are evolving at an increasing rate: global competition, diversity of customers and cultures, workforces spanning geopolitical boundaries, and technology. The top reasons for reframing organization design are:

  • Organizations are continually pressed to make quicker iterations of strategic thinking and decision-making in response to market forces
  • Workers must join together, often across great distances, to quickly create connections and produce quality work and results
  • Organization design theories and practices of yesterday must be tested against the realities of today so we can build new theories and practices for tomorrow.'

There's a good line-up of presenters and ideas so it's unfortunate that I can't be there in person as I will just have moved back to the UK, with all the turmoil a move across continents entails, but I'm hoping that I can be there via Skype or other medium at least for the Advisory Board Roundtable that's planned and that I was invited to participate in.

From talking with various of the organizers I think it's going to be a worthwhile event – although I do wonder what makes conferences successful or unsuccessful in the eyes of the various stakeholders. One thing that 's already made it worthwhile for me is that it has it set me thinking about conferences generally:

Thought 1: A conference is essentially a pop-up organization design: a team forms to design and deliver the event. Most of the conferences I've been to have been traditionally organized in that there are speakers on pre-determined topics, with a timed agenda, there is a body of people managing the organization of the event, there are administrators, suppliers, and so on. This Organization Design Forum one follows that model.

Yet there are ways of 'reframing' conferences that more closely mirror current organization design discussions around self-organizing and emergence. 'Unconferences', are one example of this self- organizing – take a look at this recruitment one – but they have to be careful not to slip into the traditional mold as this blogger points out in 'The Death of the Unconference'. So what could we learn from both traditional and un conference design that could help with the design of a longer time-frame organization?

Thought 2: Many people would like to come to a conference but it is in a fixed place (usually) and at a fixed point in time. Are there ways of reframing conference design to include people who can't be there in its delivery and outcomes? Social media is the big disruptor of organization design so why aren't we thinking of designing conferences in a different way that make good and innovative use of social media? (Just tweeting comments while listening to a standard presentation isn't quite what I have in mind).

Look at the video, 'Why social network mess can benefit your business', from Euan Semple and you get an idea of how social media is changing organization design. Because a conference is short lived and has a potentially very widely dispersed interest group it would be a great forum to try out some experiments with social media that took conference design in new directions and in ways that could inform other organization design activity.

Thought 3: What is the value of a face to face conference over a virtual one? Many people say the best part about conferences is the networking i.e. meeting face to face. What can we learn about the value of face to face interaction at conferences that could help in designing mobile working and virtual teaming?

One of the ODF conference organizers has been thinking about how to involve people not in the actual room – see thought 2 above – but notes 'the need for human interaction much in the same way as we build any of our relationships. Skype and FaceTime just doesn't give enough of a realistic in the room feeling and also it's easy not to be paying attention to what's going on through these things. People like to see the whites of your eyes from time to time which I think relates to trust and understanding and developing shared meaning between people.'

Nevertheless building trusting and collaborative relationships with minimal face to face time is an increasing challenge for organizations. Reframing a conference design that could test out some methods of doing this that could then be trialled in organizations would be a useful conference outcome. There are some ideas on building trust virtually in this blog How to Build Trust in a Virtual Workplace.

Thought 4: How would we measure the value of conference attendance for participants? The ODF one has a registration fee of $1895 and there is an additional transportation and accommodation cost. How will attendees know that it is worth the investment they make? Could conference attendees be helped in thinking through how to measure this? (And would that make any difference to numbers of on-site participants?)

We know that another of the big issues for organizations is putting a value on knowledge work. e.g. How do we know that an investment in a one-hour meeting is worth the monetary value of the time spent? A conference that helped participants develop measures (qualitative or quantitative) of the value they are gaining from participation that they could take back to their organizations and try out in other meeting or knowlege work settings could help reframe aspects of organization design.

Thought 5: How do we measure the value of conference attendance for the organizers of the conference? I wonder if it's just about having 'paying bums on seats' as a fundraiser, or is it about reputation, being 'the place to go' (like Davos), enabling people to learn new things, a combination of these and/or other factors? For the Organization Design Forum it is about … involve yourself in the Organization Design Forum and/or the European Organization Design Forum – which now has chapters in several countries and you'll find out more on this thought.

Are you going to the Organization Design Forum Conference? Let me know why or why not.

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