They cost millions to put on and convene the best and brightest of a community - how can you channel that collective strength for collective impact and, in the end, how can you tell?
I just returned from 7th World Water Forum in Korea, where numbers of attendees were reported at 41,000 people. I also worked at the 6th World Water Forum in 2012, with 35,000 people. That’s a lot of talent in one place.
Is there an Expectation of Learning and Impact?
It is interesting to think about the cost-benefit for individuals and organizations for participation in such an event. If you were on the Learning Team for such an event (do these events have learning teams – maybe that is Suggestion #1!), what might be some of the ways to first, identify desired learning (organizational and individual level), foster that learning through design and format, help record outcomes for monitoring and sharing, and see what changes people are making based on their learning and participation?
I’ve seen and worked with some different approaches and, taken together, they make for an interesting thought exercise and potentially an opportunity. Here are a few ideas for consideration.
1) Use a Facilitation Team to ensure interactive learning in Conference Sessions
Conference don’t have to be panel after panel of 9 speakers giving their ideas from a podium of behind a table and a short Q&A (IF the speakers don’t go over their time) for those bold enough to stand up in front of hundreds, or lucky enough to get the attention of the person with the roving microphone.
Interactive learning is possible even for very large groups, and even in theatre set up (although round tables are MUCH better – this can work for 400-600 people in a ballroom, at least it has for us in the preparatory meetings for the 6th and 7th World Water Forum.) I have written a blog post about facilitating large groups (When Numbers Soar: Facilitating Large Groups) and it is certainly possible with good design and professional and confident execution. It might take a moment to flip your audience from passive half-listening/texting observers to active contributors, but once you have their attention the opportunity engage and crowdsource ideas, suggestions, solutions, etc. from such a large group is incredible.
A good facilitation team can also help create consistency and support reflective practice throughout the event, when these questions and practices are built consistently into the agenda of events. With the whole facilitation team introducing this in all parallel events.
2) Introduce a Conference Activity Handbook
At another large conference I facilitated recently, we created an Activity Handbook that was put into each conference pack, and had a couple of different purposes. First, it guided participants through the conference, each session had an entry that engaged the participant in some way, from a place to write their goals for the event (Session 1), to places to record answers to specific technical questions, a self-assessment that started one session, a quiz to warm up on another, an action planning template for the final Session (to record follow-up to the conference of people, ideas) etc.
The resulting Handbook once completed, was a take-home artifact from the conference that reminded the participant of his or her learning, thoughts, ideas, and actions. It also included other key information – contact information, URLs of resources, etc. all in one place. But unlike any Conference brochure, this participants interacted with daily and became a living record of THEIR event.
Even in a larger event where people are moving around to different activities all the time, such an Activity Handbook could be helpful to guide people through their experience and structure reflection. If there are facilitators, they could start and end their sessions with a reflection question recorded in the workbook (“Open your Activity Handbook to page 16 and take a minute to reflect on what you want to learn today – make a few notes for yourself and I will give you a couple of minutes to share this with the person sitting next to you”,or “What was the most important key message from the sessions you attended today”, “What is one thing you might do to follow up on something you learned today?” etc.)
If people need an added incentive to complete their Activity Handbook, offer a completion gift to those who complete their book, such as a mug or water bottle with the conference logo, available in the exhibition area at Stand X – ask people to come towards the end and show their completed booklet for this gift. (There was such a gift at the recent World Water Forum, although you only needed to answer a few questions to get it, but almost all people I spoke to found their way to the exhibition hall stand with their voucher to collect it). As people get these items in their conference bags anyways, why not give them a little homework to get it?
3) Ask Organizers to Develop and Participants to Contribute to Next Action Plans
One of the features of the World Water Forum process was the expected output of an Implementation Roadmap (IR) from the different thematic streams of the conference (every conference seems to have an organizing principle of some sort – often thematic). The organizers’ reporting templates from the different thematic sessions were made consistent with this and individual session organizers were asked to collect ideas from participants in their sessions that could be integrated into a thematic IR.
The idea of this Implementation Roadmap was to capture in one place all the ideas and actions that stakeholders attending identified and felt are helping achieve some desired change in their subject area, so that they can be executed after the conference and this execution monitored. Each IR had one or more coordinating organizations who volunteered for this role (because it is central to their work), and participants in their sessions could indicate how these Implementation Roadmaps could improve, if they wanted to be involved in follow up, and what they could contribute.
Of course this only works if there is engagement and good coordination prior to the conference, real interactivity in the sessions (see Facilitation above) and if there are resources made available (time, energy and potentially funds) for this follow-up. The organizers must take this seriously and support it. More information on the IR process can be found on the 7th World Water Forum website. As this event is each 3 years, Coordinating organizations can be asked to report on progress and results from their Implementation Roadmap work. Central coordination over the interim period to keep momentum is an important additional role for the main organizer. Without this, probably only a small percentage of these would produce results, based on the sheer will and investment of the thematic coordinators.
4) Follow Selected Individuals for a Conference Impact Study
We did a Curriculum Impact Study at LEAD International when I was the Director of Capacity Development there and this was a really interesting and effective way to see how a learning experience impacted individuals participating in the programme. This could be an interesting addition to a large conference M&E and learning process, and help answer the questions – what changed? and was it worth it?
In the LEAD process, we identified a select cross-section of participants (different countries and different sectors – we had 18 in total), and invited them to participate in our study. This process took some time, so they had to be aware of that and committed (in the case of a conference, could they get a reduction on their conference fee by participating?) We started prior to the formal learning events, and went on for a designated period afterwards.
The study started and ended with an interview that we administered. The initial Orientation Interview included key questions that established a base-line of the individual and their organization, and identified an issue or issues that they and their organization would be dealing with over the next two years where they might apply their learning, etc. After the initial interview (also to explain the process), the exercise was journal-based (there were three Journals) with key reflection questions at periodic points that were triggered by dates, reminders, and email. The journals were collected and analysed (and returned) and case studies following the learning and learning application process of the individuals were written (not using the original names and organizational names).
This impact study provided a more detailed way to understand the impact of the programme on their professional and personal lives. Based on your overall goal of a conference (such as more conservation impact on the ground), such a study could help understand what participants do to prepare, engage during and integrate into their practice afterwards. It also helps identify places where the organizers can support participants more – maybe the preparation needs to be more directed and different, maybe the sessions need to be more interactive and engaging – as people spent most of their time in the exhibition hall (or maybe more needs to be programmed there), or more support in identifying or using the learning, etc. This kind of impact study of individual’s experience with your mega event can give insight into this.
5) Design a More Deliberate Learning Programme
All of the above need good design, preparation, coordination, guidance, consistency across a complex event with many moving parts. Lessons? This needs coordination, guidance, and consistency, and a central team with an overview of the learning goals and enough advance time to prepare the different elements so that the experience is reinforced throughout the conference.
Of course, this also costs money, but then you just invested millions to get everyone there. Doesn’t it make sense to invest a little more to make sure you get as much impact out of the conference as possible?