Can 200 people work out what they are interested in, find others with shared concerns, form groups, and decide what to do next - all in 35 minutes? I now know the answer. Yes, knowledge sharing by milling about does work.... if you have a few props from the toy store,
As I wrote earlier under that heading, my colleague Drew Mackie and I were offered the chance of trying this collective speed-dating at a conference on nonprofit governance last Friday. A Government Minster, scheduled to keynote, had pulled out at short notice - probably to spend more time helping plan this week's Labour conference. An understandable emergency call, though inconvenient. However, instead of substituting another exhortation from the lectern, conference organiser Christine Morrison bravely asked us to mobilise the collective wisdom of the conference participants. Well, do as best we could, after lunch, in the slot usually reserved for rest and reflection.
In the event the participants were magnificent. Here's how it went.
The chair of the Foundation for Good Governance, Sally Taylor, first gave the exercise a bit more credibility than it deserved with a concise yet stirring explanation of the benefits of communities of practice.
Drew and I explained, more prosaically, that the idea was to help people carry on the conversations that they had started over lunch, with the bonus of finding more people with shared interests and then keeping in touch.
We gave everyone a sticky label and asked them first to write on it three governance issues that interested them. We then asked people to get up, wander about and find at least four other people who shared their top priority. Their task was to form a core group, recruit others, share contact details, and plan some next steps. Could that possibly be done in the time? It was Drew's idea for the flags that did it (and Christine's trip to the toy store to find the materials). Within fifteen minutes banners were raised (well coloured cards on super-strong drinking straws), pulling together groups around Effective Chairing, Strategic Planning, Training, Finance, Communications and other topics of concern to members of Boards and management committees.
Another 20 minutes and the groups had added to the flags their names, some issues they wanted to follow up, and ideas for next steps. They included sharing ideas, skills, models within the group; collectively buying external expertise; and of course using online systems to support that. Since time was short, details were sketchy - but the Foundation will follow up after de-cyphering the flags, discussing practicalities, and emailing everyone interested.
I think that there's a fair chance that the buzz from face-to-face encounters - however brief - and the initial ideas may be the basis for further networking and problem-solving. Maybe it will be communities of practice, perhaps developed with other umbrella organisations. Maybe it will be an online system for 'asking the experts' modelled on - maybe linked with - the system offered by Ruralnet. The main lesson for me was that there is enormous scope for self-organised knowledge sharing even when time is short... or at least surprising people with their own capabilities. Maybe we won't get straight to communities of practice, but I'll bet many people would respond well to the idea of more time for an open space conference in future.
I wish the Minister had been able to see the way everyone joined in and organised themselves so effectively. Maybe it would provide some inspiration for Party Conference. No, maybe not.
More conferences photos