Fall 2012 Yale IT Unconference

So, a few thoughts on one aspect of yesterday’s Yale IT unconference.

There was palpably a different feel to it, but it’s not clear whether that was coming from me or from the event. I certainly felt different this time around, in large part because I felt we the organizers knew what we were doing more but also in part because we planned a whole lot less this time. On balance, that is, I had some concerns about whether we had thought of all the right things, but was confident we would meet any challenges we encountered.

At the same time, there seemed to be a different energy to the event, something that could have come from a number of vectors. One is that our first event, in May of this year, came after years of essentially nothing. (One notable exception was the DrupalCamp organized by Nancy Flowers-Mangs, and she was a key part of our spring organizing crew.) Some of the good feelings were due simply to the participants’ realizations that they could connect with other IT professionals on campus. Another was the roughly 60% repeat attendees. Having been to one of our events before, these people surely had high expectations but little of the euphoria at the first event. Finally, as organizers we planned a lot less this time than last, which ended up injecting a little more uncertainty into the event and required a little more work from the participants.

I’m hopeful (partly nakedly and partly based on the conversations I had yesterday) that the energy shift was from a comfort with the event and a beneficial need for participants to do more of the lifting than last time. Predominantly, this lifting was in the session scheduling process, which — not coincidentally — was the primary area of negative feedback for the spring event. While we engaged in much less planning this time than in the spring, the longest discussion was about how to improve the process for getting sessions proposed and scheduled. While we didn’t get nearly as many session proposals this time as last, our hybrid solution for scheduling them seemed to work well.

In some more detail, that solution was this: We solicited session proposals on the registration form, trying to make it clear to people that they didn’t need to be an expert on a topic to propose a session on it. At the final planning meeting before the event (the day before), we mocked up a schedule for the morning sessions, taking some proposals from the registration forms and padding out with two or three from organizers’ own heads. After participants had registered and gotten a little light breakfast, we took votes on the dummy schedule and edited accordingly. I’m pleased to say that we eliminated one or two sessions entirely, added one or two new ones, and merged one or two sessions into the scheduled ones. Later in the day, during our general discussion period, one participant noted that the session scheduling process and indeed the whole morning went better this time than last. Another commenter noted positively at some point that it was made clear to the participants that the schedule was “malleable”. It’s worth noting that in an email sent out two days before the event, everyone had been told that the schedule would be decided upon in the morning of the unconference, so participants may have been slightly prepared.

In short, I’m pleased how the event turned out. It’s encouraging to think that we are making small cultural change happen, encouraging people to be flexible and autonomous, to see their work environment as fungible, to seek out and maintain connections and conversations between and across departments or other work units. Even if those grandiose notions are not what’s really happening, I think that we are at a minimum planting some seeds in fertile ground and starting to see them take root.