On Wi-Fi access, panels and building on your strengths

29 09 2008

Last week, I joined a panel at the Toronto Tech Week, held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, with the theme “Online Social Networks Go To Work”. I got there early in the morning to catch Alan Lepofsky, former IBMer and now at SocialText, speaking on the use of wikis for the Enterprise. It was a good session, I enjoyed his casual style, and he mentioned IBM a few times in his session, as he still does in his blog. As the workplace becomes more dynamic, and employee-for-life is becoming a thing of the past, the new HR approach of treating former employees as alumni makes total sense.

Just before Alan’s session, I tried to get a wi-fi connection, so that I could twitter from it live, but this is what I got instead:

No attendee Wi-Fi access, only exhibitor access, and with a steep price tag. I complained last week that the wi-fi access at the Javits Center in New York was spotty, but for a convention facility who claims to be the #1 in Canada, “inviting, inspiring, innovative, incomparable”, they clearly need to do something about Internet connectivity, as one can easily think about 4 “I”s that are not as flattering as those.

I found my own participation in the panel to be quite flat, but in retrospect, I don’t recall any technical panel I attended lately to be memorable. Bernie Michalik, via Twitter, brought my attention to this gem from Dan Lyons (formerly known as Fake Steve Jobs):

Was at the EmTech conference at MIT today and suffered through a panel led by Robert Scoble with four geeks (Facebook, Six Apart, Plaxo, Twine) talking about the future of the Web. No prepared remarks, just totally random conversation. Basically they all just spewed whatever came into their heads, at top speed, interrupting each other and oblivious to the fact that an audience was sitting there, glazing over. A few people got up and asked questions and the geeks did manage to (sort of) address one or two but then they forgot about the questioners and just started rambling again, talking to each other and forgetting about the audience. It was like watching five college kids with ADHD and an eight-ball of coke trying to hold a conversation.

Jeremiah Owyang, from Forrester Research, wrote a comprehensive post on how to moderate conference panels, but I don’t think it’s even a question of better moderation. Asif Khan, a very articulate facilitator, did a fine job on that. What’s really missing in most Web 2.0 panels are two things:

  • Distinct points of view: Frankly, I feel like watching Beavis & Butt-head when I see a panel composed exclusively of evangelists/early adopters/Enterprise 2.0 vendors. Panelist A says “Social Networking/Crowdsourcing/Long Tail/[place your favourite buzz-2.0 jargon here] is the way to the future” and Panelists B, C and D say “cool”. To have a meaningful discussion going you need to have some disagreement there. Put doubters and visionaries/futurists/dreamers face-to-face and then you can uncover real insights.
  • Flattening of the discussion space: Having so-called Subject Matter Experts on stage and an audience attending passively most of the time is the total opposite of the Web 2.0 Architecture of Participation approach. I don’t think anybody can actually claim to be an SME in Web 2.0 or Social Computing. We are all learning, making mistakes and getting it right from time to time. Furthermore, people in the audience may have more interesting things to say than the panelists. But then you have a logistic problem, similar to the fame conundrum described by Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody: it’s not practical to have everyone in an audience having its slice of airtime. Ironically, what seems to be missing is exactly a two-oh-ish type of moderation, the enablement of crowd participation by other channels. Allow panelists to state their position briefly prior to the event, then allow potential attendees to get questions in advance. I’ve seen people using post-it stickers, emails, Twitter, SixGroups and Crowdvine for that, but all are kind of cumbersome to use. Google Moderator looks like a promising tool to serve this need. I’d like to try it out the next time I facilitate or participate of a panel.

As usual, the intent of this post is not to throw cheap shots at the MTCC or the Toronto Tech Week organization. They both play fundamental roles in positioning Toronto as a premier destination for large and relevant events, and there’s definitely much more to praise than to criticize in what they are offering Toronto. I have high hopes that the Toronto Tech Week will grow to be a major global event a few years from now. To have a more balanced view of what people thought of the event, check out this Twitter search.

In any case, I’m considering giving priority to standard speaking engagements rather than panel participation in the near future, as the latter is definitely not my forté.


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One response

29 09 2008
Alan Lepofsky

Hi Aaron, it was great to meet you. I did not think your performance was flat, you brought valuable experience to the audience. Each panelist had a different perspective, and at times some were a bit to “sales’y”, but overall it was an enjoyable morning.

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