Apr 22 2008

Reflecting on the LLP Conference

At the end of January I led an effort in CPsquare to hold a conference that we titled, “Long Live the Platform.” It was a great experience. Sue Wolff took the lead in writing a report that describes the method of organizing the conference, the sustaining motivations driving participant roles, and some of the memorable learning gained by the CPsquare community. As part of the process Lynn M. Tveskov interviewed me about what went on behind the scenes.  I got into telling her the story, even going a bit overboard.  After she wrote up our notes, I came up with a more analytical description of what I did as a conference organizer:

We have organized quite a few community field trips in the Foundations Workshop. They take a lot of coordination but can provide invaluable context for considering all kinds of issues, including the use of technology. In the early days, when they were set up as a solo activity, participants were given an URL and sent off to visit and report back. That approach was generally unsuccessful. The field trips organized for the LLP Conference built on recent experience in the Foundations workshop where we made a field trip as social a process as we knew how to do. Our field trips allowed conference participants to pull up a chair “virtually” and have an interactive and social visit with an insider from a community. Questions could cover technology, community goals, facilitation, membership, community orientation, etc. – all those elements that are woven (and sometimes blurred) together in a successful community.

CPsquare, like every community of practice has its energy peaks and valleys. The previous fall had been a period of somewhat low energy. The LLP Conference was a real energizer for CPsquare. The Conference became an example of the value that the CPsquare community can generate. In the LLP Conference we hit a very productive balance between old CPsquare members, guests, and members who joined the community because of the LLP Conference. This combination provided enough diversity, coherence, social history and collective development of a joint repertoire. People were able talk effectively about the issues that mattered to them. Several months later, people still find value browsing through the conference discussions.

Organizing the conference required balancing several conflicting goals:

Planning: “hurry it up” vs. wait for it to mature. The idea of this conference had been brewing in the community for months. At a certain point it was necessary to name a date, try to pull all the threads together and run with it, hoping that volunteers would rally round a proposed agenda. I then pushed a conference planning process, a statement of benefits to members and guests, a new procedure for member registration, distinct levels of participation, platforms and speakers. It was overly ambitious but in the end it worked for most people.

Timing: concentrate the schedule vs. spread it out. The original thinking was to spread out the platform visits across 6 months or a year. It was clear that concentrating all the visits into 3 weeks would limit depth, but it enabled comparisons between platforms and enough feverish intensity to make participation exciting. A very concentrated event forced everyone to prioritize their time, although many people felt like they missed out on conversations they wished they’d jointed.

Scheduling: plan it in advance vs. plan as you go. Given that there was a lot of uncertainty in the conference agenda and inquiry process and not really enough time to plan it all out, I was not able to plan the conference out completely in advance. After the target date was set, a high-potential platform spokesman seemed to evaporate, not responding to emails or phone calls. The schedule for the third week was not really worked out till the middle of the second week. This required an act of faith from participants, but it also let us figure out what was working and what was worth emphasizing.

Staffing: recruiting volunteers vs. just making it happen. Although the LLP Conference was designed as a community event staffed by volunteers, there was plenty of work that I could not delegate (or could not figure out how to fast enough). Volunteers participated in the event’s discussions, helped design it, and signed up to present. But recruiting volunteers could not really be delegated (nobody else knew quite as much about who to ask or what to ask them for). There are many other administrative tasks that could not easily be delegated to volunteers such as guest registration, access control, platform management, teleconference logistics, etc., etc.

Protocol: role flexibility vs. role adherence. The conference roles were intended to involve the community, spread out the work, insure that technical, leadership and other perspectives were woven together in the conversations, and build distinct levels of participation into the conference structure (e.g., from casual observers who were just taking a look to people who were ready to spend a lot of time because they were facing an impending technical or community design decision). The roles and work plan could only be a goal since some slots could not be filled and in some cases individuals had to and were able to span several roles.

Focus: presenting individual perspectives vs. developing a negotiated understanding. Tapping the expertise of people who know a lot about a particular platform (e.g., leveraging the knowledge of a vendor, a programmer, or a technology steward) would produce interesting presentations but it would not necessarily help us develop a deeper understanding of the issues. We had found that “other people’s perspectives” on community platforms could be quite intractable and incomprehensible – “my platform is better than yours and I have no idea why you still like yours.” CPsquare is full of people who disagree on many, many issues, including the platform we use for our own discussions. This led to our focus on specific cases, personal experience, and platforms as seen through the eyes of a specific community (not an abstract or “general” community). That was followed by a free-wheeling conversation about the evidence we gathered together. This was quite ambitious, risky, and labor intensive, but it seemed essential to try.

The LLP Conference was a great experience for me. I learned a lot about organizing a collective inquiry as well as about the platforms and communities that we visited.

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