They are becoming a rage in the IT world. What are they about? How did they begin? Sudhir Syalhas the story
Voice your views In an unconference, everyone participates, contributes and learns
A new style of conferences is sweeping the IT world promoting an open spirit, a willingness to learn, to share, to participate and voice your opinion. Will this be the way all conferences will be conducted in future?
Over the last two years, a new brand of technology conferences, ironically titled ‘Unconferences’, has captured the imagination of the IT Diaspora across the country. Some say it’s an imitation of the West, others say it is relevant to a particular topic where a lack of awareness means people pitch in and learn from one another. The overriding reason, however, is an urge to be heard, to voice an opinion, and unconferences perhaps provide the perfect opportunity to fulfil that desire.
What are they about?
The central philosophy of an unconference can be summed up by the maxim “The audience is more intelligent than the speaker.” This means a member of the audience has as much of a licence to voice his views as the speaker. Another law which holds good throughout an unconference event is ‘The law of 2 feet’. The law of 2 feet states that “If at any point you find yourself in a position where you are neither learning nor contributing, you move yourself to one where you think you would.” This means everyone participates, contributes and learns from one another.
The activity of an unconference event is initially centred around the ‘Paper Wiki’; this is where those presenting take up a time slot and mention their topic of presentation. From then on, ‘the law of 2 feet’ holds good and attendees attend the sessions they are most interested in.
How did they begin?
The history of unconferences can be traced back to the Open Space technology (technology in this context means tool) events originating in the mid 1980s where participants would come together, break off into smaller groups and discuss topics related to technology. A spin-off of this was the inaugural ‘Foo camp’ in 2003, which later gave way to the inaugural Barcamp, a technology unconference in Palo Alto in August 2005. Barcamps have since become a rage across the world providing passionate technologists, entrepreneurs and innovators an open forum for discussion.
Unconferences in India
India has seen a sudden surge in unconferences, with technologists, entrepreneurs, researchers and corporates showing immense interest and as many as 10 barcamps held in the last two years. The first barcamp in India was held in Delhi on April 3, 2006, and the event has since moved to Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Pune.
As Kesava Reddy, a platform architect at digital strait and one of the organisers of Barcamp Bangalore 3, tells us, “Barcamps in India serve as a perfect networking ground for any young entrepreneur or innovator. The number of stories of individuals who have come to a barcamp with an idea to present and have walked out with the interest of a potential investor are endless.”
Apart from barcamps, there have been a number of other unconferences in India which have kindled immense interest. Amongst them have been events such as ‘Mobile Mondays’, an event where mobile technologists come together and discuss new mobile technology developments and a ‘Blogcamp’ where bloggers come together to discuss the new developments in their field.
Another project which is in the pipeline is an unconference book, a project which is being initiated by ‘The Knowledge Foundation’ (a group of technology enthusiasts), the book which would be co-authored by over a 100 writers from across the world on wiki ( www.unconference.info) would be a layman’s guide to an unconference and is set for release mid September this year. Apart from these in the coming years, many see the unconference format moving on to non-tech areas of interest such as food and fashion.
Corporates have also identified the movement and have started incorporating an unconference-like structure into their events. Take, for instance, Cognizant whose corporate knowledge management team organised the first ever corporate unconference for their employees in March this year. About the event, Sukumar Rajagopal, Chief Knowledge Officer, Cognizant, tells us, “Over the two days of the unconference, we had over 260 employees attending from various solution centres and corporate functions of the company. Employees networked, shared ideas, experiences and learning, making for rich interaction over the two-day event.”
Corporates such as Tata Consultancy Services have also taken an interest in such events, sponsoring and associating themselves with barcamps across India. Most corporates recognise such events being central to the innovative ecosystem developing in the country.
Though the unstructured format of the events and often frenzied execution means that in some cases enough importance is not given to content; many would still agree that for collaborative and pure learning, unconferences could still very well be the answer.
As Navjot Pawera, a web evangelist from Opera Software Chandigarh and someone who has been involved with unconferences across the country, tells us, “If innovation and entrepreneurial spirit is what the Indian IT industry needs right now, then unconferences provide the perfect seeding ground for just that. Seeing the energy, enthusiasm and participation levels at them, you can’t help but think that one day – perhaps all regular conferences will be held this way.”
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