The Daytripper Explores How an Unconference Works

As companies grapple with workforce transformation, they look not only for modern technology but also for new ways to foster innovation among their teams and empower the next generation of global talent.

One not-so-new method we’ve found works well here at Dell is the unconference.

people standing at registration desk for Dell unconference

The term “unconference” appears to have first surfaced in 1998, but I didn’t attend my first one until Bill Johnston introduced the concept here at Dell around 2010. It’s basically a participant-driven event – attendees themselves not only create the agenda the day of the event, but they also lead the discussions. And as Robin Zander of Responsive Org notes in his recent playbook, if you become uninterested at any point, you are actively encouraged to leave and join another session.

Why do we continue to leverage this format for training at Dell?

“Were at this unique crossroads of capabilities that are exploding into the market,” noted Bryan E. Jones, senior vice president Commercial Marketing North America, and executive champion for our unconferences. “One of the great equalizers of the digital ecosystem is that every single person has a platform.”

We’ve primarily used unconferences at Dell for discussions of social media and social business, but sometimes we’ve focused on a particular topic like small business and entrepreneurship. They’ve mostly been for our own employees to learn and develop our skills, but sometimes we’ve included our partners and livestreamed them for external audiences.

Over the past seven years, we’ve evolved our format so that it is a hybrid of creative elements you’d experience at a typical conference combined with an unconference. We invite keynote speakers and panels of experts to kick-start the event by sharing their insights on a particular topic we hope to explore during the day.

Our most recent unconference included Chet Garner, blogger, podcaster and host of “The Daytripper” on KLRU-TV, Austin PBS. Known best for exploring Texas, his team created this video to share their exploration of our unconference

Also attending last month were social media strategists like Brian Fanzo and Natalie Zfat, and the co-hosts of our Luminaries podcast Mark Schaefer and Douglas Karr. Our keynote speaker was the “2nd Most Likeable Author in the World” Erik Qualman who left us with these takeaways:

But once these experts share their thoughts to help get the ideas flowing, the audience takes over in an unconference. It can be a bit scary to hand over the reins of an event to a crowd, but anarchy doesn’t always mean disorder. As attendees come forward to share the topics they would like to see discussed in breakout sessions, they know they also take on the responsibility to lead those sessions. You don’t have to know all the answers to do this – you simply need to have a desire to instigate the conversation.

“What a great way to tap into the vast resources of knowledge within an organization that might otherwise not have a platform to reach so many people,” past guest Lee Odden said of the unconference format.

Or, as the noted software developer and entrepreneur Dave Winer is oft quoted as saying of unconferences: “the sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of the expertise of the people on stage.”

For all its lack of structure, however, no unconference can happen without some planning and organization. Perhaps I can persuade the expert team behind them here at Dell (pictured post-conference below) to share their tips for that in a future post. Let us know if you’re interested by commenting below!