PARADIGM SHIFT IN CONFERENCE DESIGN-IDEAS AND DOUBTS
Our goal to organize a collective process of exchanging, debating, reflecting, and learning for the whole crowd of about 90 participants of different cultural backgrounds asked for a radical change in designing the program of the conference. Within the schedule of the conference we tried to provide much time for collective reflection, for exchange in the plenary and for the collective development of a draft white paper on the future of management learning.
The challenge to compose a good program usually requires from the organizer to present a theme and to build all elements of the conference around this theme. All speeches, presentations, workshops shall contribute to the theme, focusing on special aspects of it. There shall be a great variety of topics that highlight the overall theme from a special perspective. There are not only the different elements like key note speeches, paper sessions, opening and closing ceremonies, social events that have to be put together, a design must be composed that supports to focus on new challenging topics, brings in a great variety of insights and inputs to the global issue and allows the participants to follow their special interests and find their track through the whole event.
This is true for any conference to be successful. We, however, added two new principles to the program: First we wanted to create a process of collective learning by introducing elements of reflection and discussion several times during the conference in settings that allow and encourage a step by step progress of the collective debate. And second we planned to stimulate this process by setting up as an objective a written product: the draft of a white paper, where we wanted protocol the results of the collective discussion process. The white paper outfitted with the insight and creativity of a "think tank" of 90 experts would stimulate the international debate and the conference would have a larger impact on the ongoing debate on new leadership learning.
This concept meant to be a great shift with challenging consequences for the design and the participants: In addition to individual learning of the participants there should a continuous process of collective learning take place. This fits very well to the new paradigm of leadership as it moves from the individual leader to how responsible leadership has to be embedded in the organizations. To experience a collective learning with such a large group would be a big asset to all of us at the conference. At the same time it is a big challenge for the design and even more so for the participants. They would have to step into this process and take different active roles. In order to produce a draft of the white paper the challenge would be even higher: The whole group of participants would have to become a large working group producing a definite output.
Conference designs have to consider the density of all sorts of communications taking place: new and complex issues, many people, most of them not familiar with each other, a great diversity of participants coming from different countries, cultural backgrounds, organizations and professions. A design must follow the flow of developing and deepening and it must provide a balance of phases of listening, working in small groups and debating in large plenary sessions. Besides enough breaks for recreation and informal contacts there should be opportunities to absorb new information, to work on tasks, to participate in creative activities and to reflect together. People must be guided through such a program, which is so unusually process-oriented, and at the same time there must be enough free space for the participants to organize their individual day, selecting the sessions one wants to attend on each day of the conference.
Considering all the complexity of our conference we also had some doubts and anxieties, whether our concept would really work. Our head was full of questions we could not really answer: Would the people coming with expectations of a traditional conference accept and take on the active role we gave them? Would the reflecting in smaller groups work? Would the concept of continuously participating through the whole conference be accepted or would a number of participants be motivated to take some time for shopping or sightseeing in the middle of Vienna city. Can so many issues presented in key notes, workshops and paper sessions be pulled together and summarized in profound and convincing statements?