Open Space Conferences Show Why Smaller Can Be Better

Big conferences take you to Las Vegas, feed you well and feature keynotes in lavish ballrooms. Smaller events may lack the glamour but offer much more camaraderie. The end result is a much more productive use of your time, a more valuable group of new colleagues and a more robust to-do list.

By Matthew Heusser
Wed, January 02, 2013

CIO — A typical for-profit conference costs $400 a day and takes you to a getaway vacation city like Las Vegas, Orlando or San Francisco. The staff creates the program months in advance; attendees can expect good food, snack breaks twice a day and plenty of PowerPoint presentations.

While that type of conference serves a purpose, those characteristics were not the things that drew me to BarCampGR (Grand Rapids, Mich.), Test Coach Camp (San Jose, Calif.) or Open Agile-Testing Pacific Northwest (Portland, Ore.). Instead, what drew me was the opposite—all three events are open-space conferences.

The History of the Open Conference Model

When Harrison Owen was organizing the third annual symposium on Organization Transformation in 1985, he reviewed the comments from previous events and noticed something odd. No matter how much effort the planners put into the program, people still found the most value in hallway conversations.

Owen wondered if would be possible to build a conference entirely out of hallway conversations. The result was something known today as Open Space Technologies.

Think of Open Space Technologies as a framework that lets a group of people create the event schedule in real time, focusing entirely on what the actual attendees want to hear, share and talk about—the problems they want to solve and the ideas they have to solve them. (In practice, there may be a board with schedules, a unifying thread and some managers on hand to decide who does what when.)

To really understand the open space format, you need to experience it, or at least have it described in practice. I went to the three different open space conferences listed above to capture the story.

BarCampGR: Session Suggestions on a (Virtual) Wall

BarCampGR was the broadest of the three events. Mobile application development was popular, with a double-length session called "Objective-C Eye For the .NET Guy" and a talk on developing native Android UI applications. There were also presentations on distributed version control, hacking GIS systems, decoupling team active record and about how "Real-Time Systems Keep You ALIVE!" In addition to hardcore technical topics, there were sessions on using a slow cooker to smoke ribs, publishing an ebook, learning macroeconomic theory and removing malware.

BarCampGR schedule
The Saturday morning status board for BarCampGR 2012.

The great story of the conference wasn't the talks, though, but how it was organized. When I attended BarCampGR for the first time, in 2008, the schedule (Friday night to Saturday night) was built on a big board where people who wanted to present showed up and wrote in what they wanted to speak about. Organizers put up a new board every few hours, with three in all.

By 2012, the organizers had something better in mind. Prior to the event, they create a Reddit page for attendees to submit ideas. Anyone could browse the selection, vote ideas up or down or leave comments. This way, by the time the conference started, submitters know if a particular event will be popular enough to propose and will have feedback to make the talk better.

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