The second “unconference” organised by ConnectingHR took place in London on 5 May 2011. Unlike conventional conferences, this event had no formal agenda and was marketed solely through social media and word of mouth. The theme was “HR and the social world” and delegates created their own agenda on the day. So, what does this new approach offer that existing HR events do not?
The unconference took place at the Spring Gardens in Vauxhall and attracted about 65 delegates. Participants included HR and learning and development professionals as well as social media and digital marketing experts, HR consultants and one or two conference organisers looking to see how the event worked. Unlike other HR conferences, there were no sponsors present. The fee was £85, less than one-fifth of what a delegate would typically pay for a traditional conference. This reflects the lower marketing and administrative costs of the event, which was promoted through social media such as Twitter, HR blogs and a ConnectingHR members’ online forum, as well as through mentions in online or print publications, including Personnel Today.
The format also sets the event apart from other conferences. At the beginning of the day, delegates discussed the key topics that they wanted to explore and these became the themes of free-flowing discussion groups.
ConnectingHR was set up by Gareth Jones, a recruitment professional whose job title is chief inmate of BrubakerHR, a consultancy advising on using social media to boost business performance, and John Ingham, an independent consultant on HR and social media with a background in HR consulting and research.
“We have called the conference ‘HR and the social world’ because we think that social media and the socialisation of the workplace are two of the biggest changes underway in HR and business,” Ingham said at the event.
Gareth Jones explained the aim of the event on his blog: “For me, the important thing is to get more new people though the ConnectingHR door and grow the community, for the benefit of those in it. The unconference is a refreshing and stimulating way of doing that.”
The themes that delegates chose to discuss included: strategic social media; the role of HR; performance organisation; organisational development; and whether or not CEOs should spend time in HR.
Conventional conferences publish an agenda in advance and delegates receive a delegate list and pack that includes speaker biographies and slides. Speakers – experts (consultants and academics) and practitioners (presenting case studies) – deliver presentations to a largely passive audience, although there are usually question-and-answer sessions and breakout group discussions.
The pros and cons of the unconference approach compared with the traditional one are listed below. Comments on this are welcome.
Advantages of the unconference approach:
- The approach encourages participation and collaboration.
- Delegates have a chance to put their key issues on the agenda.
- The informal approach means that delegates are less inhibited about participating.
- The approach is fun, energising and dynamic.
- It can inspire “thinking outside the box” – ie lateral or creative thinking.
- Discussion can go beyond the agenda of established (and arguably conservative) bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
- Social media might attract delegates with a more open-minded approach to HR.
- The emphasis on discussion and collaboration encourages more authentic interaction between delegates compared with the self-promotion that characterises conventional networking events.
- It encourages HR professionals to look beyond legal compliance, policy and procedure and take a wider view of the HR role.
- Delegates aren’t obliged to hear sales pitches from speakers or sponsors.
Limitations of the unconference approach:
- There is a lack of in-depth content and original research.
- Unintentionally, the social media community could create a clique of its own.
- Loosely structured discussions risk repetition, superficiality, straying off the subject and can be dominated by a small number of vocal individuals.
- A high proportion of delegates are independent consultants, who could exploit the event to promote their own businesses.
- HR people who are not users of social media could be excluded.
- There is little practical step-by-step advice.
- Delegates don’t receive a pack of slides and a delegate list.
For the organisers, the event in Vauxhall is only the beginning. “International connectivity is also an ambition we have for the community,” says Jones. “Having met the HRevolution crowd in the US, I think there would be tremendous value in connecting with them. I also know there are some great HR folk in the southern hemisphere, so we will be looking into the possibility of holding an event there too.”
Audio: ConnectingHR founders John Ingham and Gareth Jones discuss the key themes of the unconference and how social media is driving more face-to-face communication among HR people.
You can follow the Connecting HR conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #ConnectingHR.
See and hear what participants have to say about the unconference: