Unconference: Less is more…


That is my word for this years #ConnectingHR #Unconference.  Last years was organic which was a very powerful word for me at the time.  This year, reflection is no less powerful.  At the end of the event, I was asked directly, in front of everyone, what I wanted personally for the community; for connectingHR.  I managed a few lame words, but inside I really wanted to reflect before I answered that question.  And now I have, so here are my thoughts…

I guess the thing about an unconference is how different it is from a normal conference.  And you could be forgiven for thinking it’s all simply about the venue and the trappings that go with it.  But for me, the difference is more fundamental.  Those who have not been to one before often marvel at the rawness of the venue, the lack of structure, the openness of the agenda, the conversation, the freedom.  Yet, as I observed on Thursday, whilst they really appreciate the difference and all the benefits it can bring, some still expect the outcomes to be the same as a normal conference.

The point of an unconference is conversation.  You get out what you put in.  The structure dictates that.  With say 10 or so people in a group conversation you are limited in terms of what can be covered.  That’s 4.5 mins air time per person in a 45 minute session, assuming you can get a word in!  It’s not designed to be a forum for delivering a detailed  case study.  As Tony Allinson puts it so beautifully in his summing up post:

The Unconference itself was, I realised, not a point event but a transient gathering, a benevolent swarm forming part of an ongoing dialogue

Participating in an unconference isnt always as easy as the surroundings and structure might lead you to believe either  – as Rob Jones points out in his excellent summary of his experience of Thursday.  Yes, it’s a very supportive, peer to peer and adult environment.  But there is no one leading the way.  No prescribed hour of content.  No expert taking the stand.  It’s you basically.  And a buch of others just like you.  And there can be tricky moments.  If the conversation comes to an end, the silence can be deafening, and for some, extremely uncomfortable.    Similarly, there can be a need to reach or justify a group closure – what did we get from it?  What actions are we going to take?

These moments are significant.  They represent our need to seek justification and and our fear of not having it.  It’s almost like we forget we are at an unconference, and the old expectations come flooding back.

For me, though, as uncomfortable as these moments can be, they are exactly what an unconference is about.  The reflection, the fear, the lack of an answer, the lack of a detailed plan – these are all about value and should be embraced, not feared.  This is the white space – the place we have yet to explore, the place we haven’t considered or even feared.  Exploring the white space is where the value is.  But there is no quick fix here.  To get the most from an unconference you need to explore, question and reflect, outside of the unconference environment.

Inevitably, given these issues, there is a temptation to meddle with the model.  “More structure” “Fixed subjects” “Case studies”.  But I think too much structure and change would be a mistake – I can get those at any conference.  The value is in the experience as it is.  Perhaps instead, we should just became a bit more comfortable with the fact that sometimes great conversation, meeting new contacts, having your thoughts provoked, stepping out of your comfort zone and simply having a bit of time away from the corporate day job is outcome enough.  If we need more detail on anything we hear lets not wait for another conference, or build complexity into our own.  Lets follow up with individuals directly, outside and beyond the unconference.  Lets live up to the name of this emerging group of individuals – ConnectingHR!

What you get out is what you put in, but more deeply than that, its an individually driven experience.  As HR professionals we seem to spend an awful lot of time trying to justify our existence and contribution.  Is this reaction perhaps a need to justify time out of the office?

What next?

Bigger isn’t always better.  Along with the desire to add structure, there is also sense that we need a new ‘thing’ every year to keep it interesting.  On reflection, I disagree.  I introduced the artists this time because Tim has been a friend for a number of years, really gets what we do, and I thought it would be interesting to record it visually.  I had no idea it would have such an impact and touch so many people.  So now some are already asking me “what are you going to do next year to follow that!”  The answer is nothing.  I think we should have those guys back, definitely.  But getting sucked into the need for a wow factor is just one step back towards a normal conference.  Everything that made it great, was pretty much totally spontaneous.

Does that mean that for those who have attended all of the events so far, the experience at future unconferences will become less fulfilling?  Possibly.  Who knows, perhaps even I may not attend in the future! (Unlikely).  But the point is, this isn’t about delivering to the same group of people.  For me, the important thing is to get more NEW people though the connectingHR door and grow the community, for the benefit of those in it.  The unconference is a refreshing and stimulating way of doing that.

International connectivity is also an ambition we have for the community.  Having met the HRevolution crowd in the US I think there would be tremendous value in connecting with them.  I also know there are some great HR folk in the southern hemisphere so we will be looking into the possibility of holding an event there too.


Im still reflecting so I’m likely to add more, but for now:

  • Doug shaw has all the human qualities in a person that I would like to see in my children as they grow up.  He is extremely kind, talented, Passionate, inclusive and honest.
  • Sometimes it’s ok not to have all the answers. The opportunity to chat and think is enough. I know that for me, it’s a powerful catalyst to future action.
  • Not everyone is comfortable with the uncomfortable like I may be and I recognise we might need to introduce strategies to help them with that.
  • #CHRU might be a great way to bring together HR and other functions, if Tony Allinson’s experience is anything to go by
  • We could all benefit from more time to connect and reflect
  • I am a richer person for being part of this community, and possibly a better one too


  1. You are welcome Doug. Meant what i said in the pub the other night! I really enjoyed doing #chru with you guys this year. It was nice to spread the load a bit but it just felt like being part of a great crew.


  2. Gareth, I totally agree about not forcing ourselves into loads of traditional outputs. The value for me is all in the event and meeting people and the conversations. At the start of the event on Thursday I was at a table with 4 or 5 people, and we were doing that bit where we were asked to say why we had come and what we wanted to get out of the event. I for one, brought up ‘serious stuff’ that I was hoping to discuss. As did the others. Then we got to Jon, (Jon Ingham), who said with a grin, ‘I just wanna chat’. Much laughter. And I realised he was right. The serious topics WOULD come up, but the main thing was to meet lots of these terrific, interesting people.

    I do think that we put ourselves under lots of pressure to take action, to create outputs. Its what we do all the time in our day jobs. I’m ever so busy Monday-Friday, and I hardly ever go to conferences or external events. I’ve given up all the formal events because I just can’t stand the lack of participation. So #chru is my treat day. And the thing that is precious is the space to chat and think, and listen. And, as you say, reflect.

    After the last event in October, I think that there were maybe 20 or more occasions when 2 or more people who’d met at the event got together for coffee, lunch or a drink. And a ton of interactions on twitter, blogs, etc…answering questions, offering help and support. For me, that’s the output. That’s the action. That’s the value.


  3. Hey Flora. Couldn’t have put it better myself. The follow up you talk about is key for me. So much has happened since last October in a very positive way. Like you, I have met many people in follow up, been referred and connected with others and had so many others to call on in my hour of need. And not just from the unconference. The tweetups deliver for me too.

    The fact that, despite your manic schedule, #CHRU remains on it is a testament i think to how powerful this simple formula is.

    Thanks for commenting!


  4. I am glad you wrote this one Gareth. I say “Take it easy, let the spirit of connecting do the job.” Learning outcome doesn’t need to be anything else than how you feel about yourself after having such a great time sharing common interests in making HR better. It is the time when we are alone, trying to reflect which can make difference, not the forced list of “What did we all learn today”. What I’ve learned I want to identify myself when I feel time is right to do so. On the train while travelling back home, or with a glass of wine few days later.
    Thank you


  5. thanks for this summary Gareth. I’m sorry I missed this one. The next one will be protected in the calendar!

    I’m a big fan of the ‘Conversation’ (with a nod to Jon Ingham here), so much potential can be released when their is no agenda – no Talking-Head and no pressure to sell/buy/network in the conventional sense.

    You may know that I lead the IoD Surrey People Forum base in Guildford bi-monthly and I have this ‘No agenda / talking head / selling’ ethos for that group. We also ask anyone who has information, collateral/resource – even if only a weblink based upon the conversations to promise to share it with everyone who attends the forum. Again – self promotion material is not acceptable. That way everyone contributes and benefits specifically beyond the event itself.

    Yep, unconference conversations can resonate with value!


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