Once upon a time, the early blogging community used to run some great community events, where people shared ideas in the open, supported each others’ efforts to promote new ways of working, and some deep connections and friendships were forged that continue to this day. Later, the more commercial E2.0 and Social Business networks and events built on some of this cultural DNA, and early adopters supported each other in trying to help companies understand the potential of social technology. But recently, we are struggling to find examples of good, open, sharing events that create the same feeling.

The #digitaltransformation community is attracting the attention of big corporates and brands as they start to feel the force of changing market dynamics and realise they need to change. Chief Digital Officer roles are springing up left, right and centre and programme managers are being tasked with running Digital Transformation programmes in just about every business sector. And these organisations are turning to communities like this for help.

One of the ways this community tries to provide help is by putting on conferences, unconferences, meet-ups and summits dedicated to Enterprise Social, Digital Technology, Enterprise Digital Technology, Future of Work and all the spaces and cliches in between. But recently, we have been slightly underwhelmed by some of these events, and feedback from in-house practitioners suggests they are also not getting what they need from them.


Are we serving the needs of practitioners?

If we are to build and grow strong networks of practitioners around events, then we need to think about their needs, and start from there. The most recent event we attended was the Enterprise Digital Summit in London last week, but in all honesty our concerns relate to a number of events we have taken part in over the past few years. In this case:

  • Poor organisation, such as cancelling part of the event that people had paid to attend
  • Pointless panels as a way of getting more people on stage
  • Too many sponsors (or in this case the local organisers) on-stage despite weak content
  • Too little actual conversation with the people that matter – those leading change inside their organisations
  • A consultant-heavy audience of individuals looking for work
  • Too much content stuck in the ‘why’ of Digital Transformation rather than the ‘what’ and the ‘how’

To be fair, some of these issues are products of the brutal economics of event organisation, and we have always enjoyed the more established Paris edition of the E2.0 / Enterprise Digital Summit over the years, which are generally very well- run. But given that organisations pay good money and people spend valuable time sending internal practictioners to these events, and they are looking to our community for real, tangible help to shift how they work, it is worth thinking about how we can make their experience better.

So how can we refresh the content presented, which often hasn’t changed in the last three, five, or even ten years? How can we move on from the ‘why’ to provide practical value around the ‘how’? And how can we serve the needs of the delegates rather than provide advertising soapboxes for consultancies or thought-leaders with a new book to promote?

Digital Transformation is not KM, nor E2.0 nor Change Management, and it is not a category of software products. We can’t just throw up some theory or models onto the screen and think we have provided insight. Nobody is yet an expert in how to transform organisations to meet the needs of digital markets and customers. We are all learning, and we are learning together with internal practitioners – in fact, they have as much to teach consultants as consultants have to teach them.


How can we create more value for practitioners?

Part of the answer lies in walking our talk and applying 21st century thinking by understanding the needs of the delegates, and facilitating two-way conversations and connections between internal practitioners, providing an environment in which they can discover solutions to their problems.

Face-to-face events are not the only way of offering value and connecting interested parties within this community. Some of the most vibrant and helpful practitioner communities have recognised this and are creating platformed environments for deeper sharing of insights and knowledge, such as the Responsive Org Slack group and ESNAnon, and we are trying this ourselves with our practitioner-only community Shift*Groups.

Physical meetups can still be great. But we need to think about the form these events take, and make sure they meet the real needs of practitioners. Not just talking about ‘why’, but ‘how’ and ‘what might go wrong?’. Not just selling tech, but showing how new technologies can unlock value, and what has worked and what hasn’t in other organisations. Perhaps more opportunities to make connections with like-minds that can provide support, advice and guidance. And lastly, of course, some genuinely inspiring new thinking to help encourage people and organisations to continue their digital journey. Sometimes a traditional conference format works for this (especially at scale). Sometimes a summit is best, where peers share ideas rather than listen to keynotes. Sometimes a purely networking event or ‘unconference’ is the way to go, with community-contributed and community-selected content.

Often, the best bits of physical events are the connections and conversations that happen in between the structure. The theories and the lightbulb moments that come from deeper discussions that use all the experience we have in the room, not just those who have a speakers ticket. Let’s build in more space and create the environment and stimulus to make this magic happen, and maybe try to recreate the genuine spirit of collaboration and ‘all being on the same side’ that we miss from the early days of the blogging and E2.0 communities.


Good events create strong networks

We are not conference organisers, but we know all this is *much* easier said than done, so we are not trying to criticise those who ‘do’ – indeed, we are very grateful for the communities and networks that have developed around European events like Reboot, Lift, the Next Web, Le Web and the Kongress Media events, and some of the best stateside examples such as Emerging Technology, SXSW and the early E2.0 Conferences.

But rather than just complain behind closed doors about what isn’t working, we need to practice what we preach, understand our audiences’ needs and help get it right. This year, we have been talking to some of the new emerging firms that are working on a practical level to help build agile and responsive organisations, and between us we hope to pull together a small-scale, non-commercial peer-to-peer summit for practitioners, where we can discuss how to accelerate the development of this new field and discuss what good practice looks like. This is something the O’Reilly group has always done pretty well – pulling together early practitioners in an emerging tech-related field to create events, and looking back, the 2002 Social Software Summit was a good example of a small but influential event that helped chart a course for the early blogging scene. Perhaps we can do something similar with other organisations that are working to popularise and help build new, agile organisations, in the same spirit of open collaboration and mutual support. If you have any ideas, let us know.

But we will also reflect on our own participation in industry events and try to make sure we are helping, rather than perpetuating the problems we mentioned above, and contributing positively to the development of the community around our work and that of our colleagues in other organisations.