The one where it must evolve

If you read this blog or follow me on Twitter you will I’m sure be aware that I am at the CIPD annual conference in Manchester. It’s the first time for some time that I’ve been to this event and like many who’ve been on hiatus I’m suprised by how much quieter it is both in terms of exhibitors and visitors.

Neil Morrison wrote a post at the end of day 1 making the self same point and whilst not wanting to rehash his post, I have reflected on it and some of my own experiences so want to share what I believe would be a good next step in conference evolution. I should say at this point that I don’t think is an issue facing just the CIPD, I think it’s a challenge to conference organisers everywhere.


Neil makes the comment “Some will argue that the unconference format is the way forward, but I’m really not that convinced”, I am not wholly convinced on the idea of pure unconference (if you don’t know what I mean read this) but my belief is that the next step is what you could call conference/unconference.

Let’s take a moment and reflect on where we are. The modern conference in principle looks something like this:

The conference keynotes and conference sessions are the big down “broadcast” arrow, the horizontal arrow represents the inter-delegate conversation (larger that it would have been thanks to things such as Twitter) but the up arrow remains small – the only real “up” being the brief Q&A sessions that are always a rush as the session draws to a close.

Personally, I like some broadcast. I like hearing what other people are doing. I like hearing what other people have made work and landed in their organisations. That may be just be me…. I think the idea of using that broadcast mechanism to stimulate debate and interaction in an unconference format (more free form and drive by the participants) would be far more productive for attendees and also allow the presenters (broadcasters) to get some meaningful feedback on their work. Also, some (limited) case study does make it easier when influencing internally in my experience – an idea endorsed with “big shiny company X does this” tends to get more traction than “we came up with an idea on a fag pack at a conference”.


Neil also makes the point, “With a three-day ticket costing over £1000 people will think twice about the value an event like this can give them compared to other uses for limited funds.” I agree with him in that a) it’s a lot of money and b) it’s a difficult time. My thinking (and here’s where it may sound a bit hairbrained) is that you need to make the cost of attendance minimal (administration only). I realise that the conference is a major revenue stream for the CIPD (and others like them) BUT I am not suggesting kissing off the revenue….

Imagine you increased the number (and quality) of the visitors by 10. Firstly, your conference/unconference sessions would be buzzing, the venue would be alive with energy and most importantly (and this is where it could make sense) the exhibition hall would be awash with visitors and the stands would be overflowing. Your exhibitors would be buzzing and both the number of exhibitors and the prices you could justifiable charge them would increase.

Now I understand the quality piece may be tricky. That would require some strategic inviting and ensuring the “Who’s Who” of HR were here, which would mean that it would be THE PLACE to come, network and meet the people who are moving and shaking at the top of our profession.

I was just about to press publish and realised that I am here as a guest of the CIPD and this post may feel like biting the hands that feeds etc but this is NOT a criticism of the operation or organisation of a massive event. This is a desire to see an increase in sharing, improvement and networking which can only develop our profession.

So there you have it….my solution to all conference woes. What next? Was going to work on the solution to the eurozone crisis but it’s time for a beer so that’ll have to wait!



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6 responses to “The one where it must evolve

  1. Interesting to me how SHRM in America faces the same challenges. They monetize the hell out of their conferences because it’s the #1 source of revenue for the association. I suspect the same is true for CIPD.

    It’s a big risk to rethink the conference model. There is a micro-economy built into the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the expo floor and the tweet-ups; however, the first person to crack the code and create an association/institute that leverages digital media whilst integrating a mix of both professional events and “unconference-like” meetings will make a small fortune.

    CIPD could do that.

  2. We’re mixing in an unconference into the HR Directors Summit in Birmingham in January ( – there will be four unconference sessions running in tandem with the conference break-outs, and then a plenary in the main conference (that we’ll still be running along unconference lines – so an ‘unplenary’ perhaps?) where we’ll be feeding back on the themes from the unconference discussions and trying to get more inputs on these. And we’ll be asking for inputs over Twitter too. This is all happening on the second day of the programme. On the first day we’ll consult with delegates to put together the grid identifying the topics and sponsors of these topics who will lead the various conversations around them. Could be a model for conferences in the future?

  3. I think its a good point and Laurie hits the nail on the head from a commercial point of view. Re unconferences, as i said over on Neils blog, i think its not appropriate to compare them. An unconference isn’t actually a conference in any way really – its a discussion forum and a format that has been around for a long time. Its just not mainstream. I dont think its necesary right to bastardise it to make it more conferency on the basis that we dont get what we expect in conference terms from it.

    I think the way forward is to challenge the conventions of the current model, and blend in appropriate complimentary alternatives like more discussion forums (unconference formats but keep them conversational and not psuedo speaker sessions). You mention lower costs and more attendees which are both valid, but thats not a change to convention. You also mention that would deliver lots of footfall to the exhibition – well why not throw out the exhibition? Seems to me the achiles heel of this model is the combination of the two and as a result, the conference always suffers, especially where the events are not so grand as the annual conference.

    Look outside of this market for inspiration. For example, think software. For many years big and expensive was the name of the game in software – enterprise all round. complexity and cost. Now the enterprise players are being canibalised by small, nimble, less featured solutions that are more real time, less cluttered and more importantly are harnessing collaboration and co creation. These principles of simplicity, nimbleness and reduction in complexity and reliance on thereof, are the key to the future of events imho.

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