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What is the point of a conference?

Lots of folks, not least of all organisers like us, took conferences for granted–until early 2020.

Perhaps you had a favourite you’d go to each year, to catch up with folks you knew from all over, hear some speakers, get a sense of where your field was at, get some swag, go to a reception, and then head back to work, hopefully inspired and equipped with new ideas.

Formats were similar wherever you went–a bunch of talks broken up by breaks and lunch. Probably a reception. Maybe a dinner.

Of course, all that changed in a matter of days in early 2020.

In response, many conferences moved online (many others went on hold, or just went away–take it from me conferences are hard and risky at the very best of times).

But like so many things that become part of our mental landscape, conferences, and their formats were things we took for granted and barely thought twice about–like whether we need to get out of our pyjamas and into an office in order to live our best lives.

But if in-person events are going to return, I think we need to rethink why we might go to them, and start by asking ourselves a very important question:

What is the point of a conference?

At Web Directions we’ve actually spent a lot of the last 2 and a half years thinking about the point of conferences, asking ourselves repeatedly “what job do they do? Why do folks attend them?” All to help ensure that as we moved our events online they continued to do those jobs for our attendees as well as possible. And now as we plan the return of our first in-person event in what will be 3 years, we want to ensure we do those jobs as well as possible.

Hang on, what do you mean by “job”?

Jobs theory, or Jobs to Be Done (JTBD), is a way of thinking about the value you bring to your customers, and how you meet their needs. It’s not uncontroversial (Jared Spool whom we admire a great deal calls it “an Occasionally Useful UX Gimmick“) but I’ve long found it helpful in shifting the frame of reference when I’m thinking about how what we do can be of value to others.

So, in the language of jobs theory, what job do attendees hire a conference to do for them? We see conferences doing two crucial, and distinct, jobs for their attendees–in a nutshell Education, and Connection.

Education

Education seems the obvious job a conference gets hired to do. People go to a conference to learn right? What more need to be said? Well, to learn what exactly?

Think about a common form of learning–a workshop. A workshop assumes a certain level of knowledge and skill in a particular area (the technical term here is “competence”, the ability to do something). And over the hours or perhaps days of the workshop, a student develops that competence until they attain greater mastery.

They’ve filled a gap in their competence, they’ve learned how to do something they previously couldn’t. But importantly, they’ve filled a known gap in their competence.

But we don’t go to a conference to fill those gaps in our competence–it’s not the job we hire a conference to do (or if we do we’ll find it doesn’t do that job). You don’t expect to sit through a 20 or 40 minutes presentation and magically have acquired competence in whatever the speaker presented.

But not all learning is about developing competence. Our jobs aren’t all about doing. Often, especially as we get more experienced, and more senior in our roles, our job is about deciding what needs to be done, and how to do it. Ultimately, it may not be we who are doing the doing–it might be someone we manage. It might be a third party we outsource the task to. But the critical part is to know what needs to be done, and the approach that needs to be taken.

Those of us who work in web and digital fields across engineering, design and product roles know that the technologies and practices integral to our careers change constantly. New technologies are always emerging, making some we’ve long relied on obsolete. Other technologies emerge, but never really take off. And investing time and effort (and money) in a technology or practice that doesn’t stand the test of time can be as costly as not investing in valuable new technologies or approaches that give their users an edge.

Unknown unknowns

…there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones

United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

During the leadup to the second Gulf War in 2002, then US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld gave this famous, or perhaps infamous, quote in an interview. Now, I marched against the war, and am very far from being a fan of Rumsfeld, but I often come back to this quote, and the key idea of unknown unknowns.

The term doesn’t originate with Rumsfeld, but rather in the 1950s in psychology and was widely used at NASA and the Defence department.

To me, the job a conference does for its attendees in terms of education is primarily to help them identify their unknown unknowns. What developments in technologies and practices in their field should they be aware of? Are these relevant to them? Should I be investing in them now? If so, you can then decide to look more deeply into it, and its relevance to your work.

Shaping our conference programs

We’ve used this insight into the particular kind of educational need attendees have to shape our conferences for quite some years now. At the heart of that is the conference program–something very far from a random assortment of quirky-looking presentations with catchy titles by well-known presenters. The aim is to capture what we, and our expert curators, feel our audience needs to know now. It is editorial and opinionated, not faddish and certainly not random. We work with world-leading experts to help shape every conference and every track.

Why? Because we realised a long time ago that keeping track of unknown unknowns is hard. As I like to say “it’s a full-time job–so make it ours, not yours”.

In short, even if attendees aren’t aware of it (and the interesting thing about jobs to be done is often the customer isn’t consciously aware of what job they are hiring a product to do) attendees hire a conference to help them address their professional unknown unknowns.

Connection

But that’s not the only job attendees hire a conference to do. Feeling a sense of community and connection in our careers is important. Sharing our knowledge and learning from our professional peers is too. And conferences are a crucial way in which people can make, and develop those connections with their peers, and their professional community.

It may be someone you once worked with, or someone whom you see each year at a particular conference. Someone you stay connected with online, or someone brand new you meet in a conference session, or while having a coffee, waiting in the lunch queue or at a reception–the “Hallway Track” as it’s sometimes called.

There’s a serendipity to meeting new people, and a bandwidth with face-to-face communication that is basically impossible, despite so many efforts, to properly replicate online.

And while attendees may not be able to articulate that this is a job they are hiring a conference to do, the frequent comments you hear about making these connections at online conferences being hard, and how much folks miss “the hallway track” at conferences suggests how important it actually is.

Conference as catalysts

As with the job of addressing those unknown unknowns, when it comes to organising our conferences, their format, and associated activities, from coffee to food, and much more, we’re very mindful of the importance of making and fostering these connections.

We’re not all egregious, confident outgoing people (even many of us who may look like that aren’t necessarily so despite appearances), and so we’re very mindful that a bit more structure and support to help foster connection and communication can be very valuable.

One way we think about this is that our events are catalysts, for creating reactions between people. How can we help those reactions to take place–for people to find like-minded attendees? To naturally strike up conversations, to connect with someone new. We think a lot about that.

Doing your job

We have missed the community, connection, serendipity and inspiration of our in-person events. After all, they’ve been central to what we do for nearly two decades.

So if all this makes sense, we hope you might hire us to do the job, of keeping you connected, and inspired, and managing those unknown unknowns, of keeping your knowledge up to date in fields that are constantly changing.

We promise Web Directions Summit in Sydney in early December will be something special, and that it will do those jobs for you.

We really hope to see you there.

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Three days of talks, two of them in the engineering room. Web Directions you have broken my brain.

Cheryl Gledhill Product Manager, BlueChilli