So you think you own me?

The previous post You’ve got to deliver what the audience really  wants has provoked discussion in a number of forums and the responses have made for interesting reading, not least because of the seeming inability to move on from old arguments.

So let’s look at the topic from a different angle, by considering two industries closely related to producing live events; so closely related in fact that you would consider them siblings; i.e. publishing and broadcasting.

In both of these industries, the key players are referred to as Media Owners. Because they own the medium through which the content is broadcast. And for years this is exactly what they have done; decided when, where and what information and entertainment their audiences or readerships were going to consume.  They have made and broken many a star, politician or company profit, simply through the editorial decisions they have taken which have influenced the masses.

Conference and exhibition organisers, be they commercial operations, industry bodies or associations, continue to believe that they must operate in a similar way.  Developing programmes of content that they perceive the audience wants, choosing speakers and selecting participating exhibitors (via an economic filter it is true) and presenting a finished product to the visitors at a time, date and venue over which the latter has no control.

Then along came the Internet and social media and the shift in power from owner to audience was seismic.

Because the concept of expertise ownership by a few large corporations doesn’t fit any more.  You can’t tell me what I should be watching, what information I need, or who I should be networking with.  You can’t stop me finding organisations who can’t afford to exhibit at your event or who haven’t got a charismatic speaker, because if their Search and SM strategies are good I can do this on my own.  And, you can’t stop me telling people, a lot of people, about the experience your organisation offers me, within minutes if I so choose.

So let’s bin the argument about virtual not replacing face-to-face; because we all know it won’t.  Let’s stop finding fault with virtual technologies, because frankly some of them are pretty amazing.  And let’s stop pretending that we still own audiences and industries because of the events we produce because we don’t. Let’s embrace the new to enhance the old rather than dismissing it as a fad that has nothing to do with us.

What we need to be doing, with or without the help of virtual technologies, is to work out how we build and maintain relationships with our communities; how we facilitate communication and collaboration between individuals both through a single live day and an online presence; and how we use the unfettered enthusiasm of our audiences to create a profitable business model for the future.

hellen @missioncontrol

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Better service and cost reduction are not mutually exclusive…

Sometimes, if you say something often enough you can convince yourself it is the truth.  Like accepting there is only one way of doing things, and it costs X.

Ingrained in a workforce or population’s psyche, these points of view become corrosive, strangling innovation and stifling original though. It takes a brave person to become the tall poppy and disrupt the status quo.

It shouldn’t be this difficult.  Cultures change, needs evolve and skills develop.  Humanity’s greatest asset is its ability to adapt to challenges and circumstances, to create something new and build an exciting future.

But knocking your house down with the goal of constructing a brand new habitat is hugely unsettling, not least because for a time you are displaced from your home environment, surrounded by strange things and feeling anchorless.  Your plans get buffetted from all sides: critiqued by other individuals; slowed by delivery days; and affected by the great unknown – the weather. 

Some people don’t stay the course, moving back to something more familiar, throw in the towel in a fit of pique or simply become exhausted by the effort of dragging so many others with them on their epic adventure. However, if no one had ever taken the plunge, we would probably all still be living in tree-houses. 

And so it is with our current working practises. We already have the technology to deliver collaborative, two-way communication between large and small workforces.  We can deliver cost-effective, instantaneous training to government organisations that will reduce travel and accommodation budgets to practically nothing.  This budget cut will do nothing to affect service delivery, in fact the efficient dissemination of information and intelligence and the network of collaboration could make it better than ever.

It’s time we got connected.

Driving through the efficiency agenda

Clear road aheadWe’re going on an efficiency drive…

Just the phrase is guaranteed to send shivers down the spine of any employee or organisation.  And with justification as this has become the thinly-veiled way of saying “we need to make budgetary savings and the easiest way to do this is by cutting our largest expense” – i.e. the labour-force.

While fiscal pressures may mean that production needs to be cut back to match a shrinking order book, and consequently less manpower is required, but shouldn’t this be a last resort rather than a first?  If an organisation sheds valuable intellectual capital and/or the means to re-engineer its operation too quickly, can it ever recover its place in the market or reputation for delivery of excellence.

The dictionary definition of efficiency is that it is the state or quality of being efficient,  and interestingly the definition of this word suggests that efficiency is achieved more by interrogating systems and working patterns than simply slicing numbers off the bottom line.

ef·fi·cient/iˈfiSHənt/Adjective

(esp. of a system or machine) Achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.
(of a person) Working in a well-organized and competent way.

Organisations that top the efficiency leagues come in all shapes and sizes, but a common denominator between them is that they also tend to top the best places to work lists as well.  Their employees feel involved and able to contribute to discussion and decision-making processes: the organisation benefits by being able to tap into a wealth of knowledge and experience that can deliver custom-fit best practice… and efficiency.

By moving from a top-down decision-making to a collaborative process, board-rooms can exploit the experience of all areas of their operation, allowing innovation to spring up from every quarter and be properly dissected and discussed.  The difficulty for large organisations (small ones really don’t have any excuse unless they have multiple office sites) is how to action this process effectively.

Large scale meetings don’t really fit the bill because: a) they are expensive; and b) only the people with the loudest voices get to contribute unless they are very carefully designed.  Enter the virtual business solution… companies like Cisco, HP, Kaiser Permanente and GE have been using this technology for some time now to enable effective communication that reduces time out of the office, carbon footprint and the timelag in disseminating a message to a large number of people while increasing knowledge, motivation and challenging the efficacy of existing working practices.

If ever there was an efficent way to drive the efficiency agenda – this is it.

Overcoming human nature to deliver success

If the human brain performs best in situations of conflict and the human psyche thrives on competition, how do we reconcile this with the human race’s dependence on cooperation for survival?

Even organisations where we would expect individuals to work together for a singular common aim, such as healthcare, have been permeated by competitive tendencies, whether this be the personality of the major decision maker or in the tendering for the provision of services.  Will this human instinct to incentivise by prize ultimately lead to our demise?

Or could there be a better way?

If you were to take a look at The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies 2011  list, and spent some time drilling down into the narrative for some of the organisations, you will find some common themes:

  • Inspirational leadership
  • Employees who feel valued and that they have a voice
  • A common ownership of purpose
  • Excitement in the direction the organisation is taking
  • A sense that ‘doing it right’ is as important as the drive for profit

All of these boil down to just two key factors: listening and ownership.

But if you have 20,000 employees/associates/partners, how can you possibly deliver this?  How can you pick out the important bits from a multitude of conversations?  How can you ensure that people having the same conversation in different geographical locations are brought together?

Once upon a time it would have been nearly impossible.  Virtual technologies have changed the status quo.

Are virtual events too predictable? Three reasons to embrace randomness, unpredictability and the unexpected

Following on from yesterday’s post about taking a non-determinist approach, we are grateful to Ike Singh Kehal from Virtual Events Hub  for giving us permission to republish his very interesting blog post from 31st March.

Consistency is the best foundation for the unexpected

Over the last several years, virtual event companies have created reliable frameworks and systems to help their clients drive more leads and maximize event ROI. Unlike virtual worlds, such as Second Life, virtual event platform providers aimed to develop consistent and controllable experiences that their Enterprise customers could trust. This consistency of experience was critical to the development of the virtual events industry and without it online events might have been a non-starter.

At the same time, while consistency is a worthy goal, I sometimes think that it is holding us back from optimizing our online experiences for attendees.  Humans are not information consumption machines. They need to be entertained. They delight in the unexpected. And, they choose their friends emotionally, not rationally. For all of these reasons, virtual events will increasingly need to embrace randomness, unpredictability, and the unexpected if they are to win the hearts of attendees and not just the minds of event organizers.

Three reasons to embrace randomness, unpredictability, and the unexpected

Random reinforcement in game dynamics – Over the last 18 months, virtual event providers have started to embrace game dynamics as a way to encourage attendees to engage with event content and connect with each other.  But, for the most part, the dynamics that providers have focused on have been fairly linear: do X –> get 10 points –> win prizes. The problem with this approach is that, as anyone who took Psychology 101 will remember, fixed-ratio schedules (where a reward is given after a set number of actions), are not particularly good at driving behavior. A better approach would be to introduce a level of randomness into the system to keep customers engaged.  For example, in addition to earning points for set activities, attendees might occasionally encounter unexpected prizes that are not announced up front. Small unexpected prizes would drive individual satisfaction and engagement, while larger prizes would drive buzz within the attendee community.

Unpredictability in content and experiences – Every event manager knows that people love surprises. As a result, it is somewhat surprising that virtual events rarely embrace unpredictability in terms of content and other experiences. Why not organize a surprise session on a previously unannounced hot topic? Why not invite the most active attendees to a VIP chat session with an industry expert of company executive? What impact would random acts of kindness (small unexpected gifts) have on driving attendee satisfaction.  For more on the topic of why we need to make virtual events more fun, check out my previous article Bring On the Virtual Bar.

Unexpected relationship building – many companies are investing heavily in Social CRM as a way to connect attendees at virtual events. These systems identify other attendees that you might want to talk to, based on your profile. Over the next year, the trick will be to develop systems that merge the science of social CRM with the art of relationship building. In other words, we need to match people based on their interests, but, we need to make the process of meeting feel as organic and “real” as possible. For example, rather than just giving attendees a list of people with similar interests, we should use games and game dynamics to get people to work together to solve problems and interact with event content. Studies show that people tend to feel closer to people that they work with to solve problems and we should definitely leverage this to the benefit of attendees and event organizers alike.

Do you expect the unexpected?

 Over the last several years, the virtual events industry has been built on a platform of consistency. However, in order for virtual events to reach their full potential, we need to build experiences that give event organizers the control that they need and attendees with the surprises that they crave. Doing so will require event organizers to embrace randomness in game dynamics, unpredictability in content, and unexpected relationship building.

“There’s no such thing as a black swan…”

File:Cygnus atratus Running.jpgOnce upon a time, when hand to hand combat was the norm and eating vegetables a sign of poverty, people believed that there was no such thing as a black swan.  That was until Cygnus atratus was discovered by the English naturalist John Latham in 1790.

In 2007 Nassim Nicholas Taleb published Black Swan The Impact of the Highly Improbable  in which he expounded his Black Swan Theory on how random events are much more common than we think, have huge impact, are impossible to predict and yet we spend huge amounts of time (which could be better spent) trying to rationalise them.

It is this process of attempted rationalisation that is most damaging.  Drowning in an overflowing and ever increasing sea of information and data, individuals and organisations spend so much time trying to second-guess what might happen and what the affects might be that they become glued to the past and present rather than being able to adapt and deal with the future.

Taleb advocates “stochastic tinkering” as a method of scientific discovery rather than research which is dictated by top down thinking.   This non-determinist approach fits well with the virtual business solution.  Starting with a question, which might not be the correct one, the participants in a virtual event or virtual communication space can use provided content and information to begin their own collaborative process, where randomisation can be embraced and included in the process without the fear that this will result in a poor (or the predicted ‘wrong’) outcome.

Revolutions need revolutionary thinking

A mill town in the North of England

At the height of the Industrial Revolution, which began in the UK in the 18th Century, the greatest need was not for more raw materials, investment or manpower, but for the effective and speedy transfer of knowledge.

The key to success was collaboration and cooperation.

Back in the time of the Victorians some of this important knowledge transfer happened in exactly the way it does today: by the fluidity of employment where an individual takes their skills and contacts to a new organisation, which hopefully is open to their ideas.  Study tours were also a big part of the process, one which today we have replaced with specialist business media and exhibitions, though it is unlikely these activities are approached with the metholodical zeal shown by our ancestors.

Where we have diverged from the Revolutionaries of 200 years ago is in the formation of open collaboration, often with direct business rivals. The network of informal philosophical societies, like the Lunar Society of Birmingham, in which members met to discuss ‘natural philosophy’ (i.e. science) and often its application to manufacturing flourished from 1765 to 1809, and it has been said of them, “They were, if you like, the revolutionary committee of that most far reaching of all the eighteenth century revolutions, the Industrial Revolution”.

It was this collaboration that enabled the leading industrialists of the day to continually make progress, adapting ideas created, tested and developed by others to make their own processes better rather than trying to create solutions by spinning solely in their own orbits.  By knowing what others had trialled and tested, it meant that much going over new ground was avoided, mistakes remained unrepeated and progess rapidly made.

Collaboration and effective networks have never been more important in our changing economies, but how to build and sustain them in a culture of information overload?  By creating virtual spaces that facilitate networking across boundaries, where information can be shared, action plans created and outcomes measured, again and again…