On procurement conferences and unconferences

Yesterday I had the pleasure of taking part on my second ever procurement unconference. For those not aware of how unconferences work, these are events where the agenda is not defined in advance but only on the day by the participants who pitch sessions they would like to chair and work on. It is chaotic, but fun and thought provoking.

The opportunity cost of taking part in the Procurement Unconference meant of course I could not be elsewhere at the same time. In this case at another procurement conference happening about an hour and half away from London. The fact two very different events on procurement ocurred in the same day got me reflecting about my choice of one over the other. And frankly, there was never any dispute about which I would pick.

In the last few years I dialled back my participation in conferences - not for altruistic reasons like Albert - but mostly for personal, selfish reasons such as health (alluded multiple times here) or a preference to dedicate my time to other matters (like taking a certain three year old to the playground).

I'm now down to mostly two conferences a year. This year it was Opatija in Croatia in May and (hopefully) Rome next month where, for the first time I can remember I will be attending a conference without any engagement whatsoever in the programme. For once, I expect to enjoy a conference as a simple participant.

Circling back to the binary choice between those two events, as mentioned earlier, there was no real choice. I never applied to the conference nor had any interest on taking part on it, to the point I sent a message to a friend simply stating: "FOMO of Conference X? 0" . Why?

My reservation towards larger events (procurement or otherwise) has grown stronger over the years. I still feel there is a need for *some* events but certainly not the number and the scope we have consistenly seen over the last decade or so. I am fairly at ease speaking about this precisely because of my involvement in setting up and running Procurement Week between 2012 and 2015. They are an analog dissemination method in an increasingly digital world.

Larger conferences still have their place though. They are usually the only time in the year when we can see in person friends and colleagues. They may be the only opportunity to chase down that author/speaker you want to talk to for whatever reason. Plus, networking. In essence, that's it in my view. Social, not content as the main reason for a large conference.

As for the content, I find it a sub-optimal avenue to expose good content. If it is already published, people moan it is not original. If it is original, then a conference is not the place to share it (certainly if you are in the UK and want to survive the REF...). Honestly, aren't we beyond working in private in our ivory tower to then go to the unwashed masses and present our work for their adulation? I know that some strive in this environment, but usually not in my age group and certainly not in the younger crowd.

If I want to get my message out there, I will hit a lot more people with a blogpost or a podcast than I can ever achieve with a 15 minute talk at a 200 pax conference with 2 or 3 parallel tracks. It really is sub-optimal communication vehicle.

But I have a have long moved from reservations to a more stringent personal position regarding a specific type of conference which seems out of place in this day and age and that is "pay to play" conferences, those where speakers are expected to not only pay their way but also pay for the privilege of speaking. We're no longer in the 1990s where access to speaking outlets were few and far between. I reserve a special circle in my conference hell for those conferences "where all speakers pay"* but then you find out some are never asked to pay.

On this I have simply become unable to compromise and wish to make this commitment publicly.

I do have a preference for non-commercial events, but recognise that there is still scope for commercial conferences to be run and that we would be worse off if all of them disappeared. But if they are running on commercial terms, then they need to run on *full* commercial terms. And that means *paying* speakers instead of seeing them as another source of revenue. No speakers, no conference.

Back to the unconference then. What do I think it is special about these type of events? For one they are smaller and self-selecting. Only the people that want to participate are there and reallistically there is not room for passengers just to simply sit and take in information without contributing. Now, if the event only attracts participants not interested in participating, the end result is predictable though.

Then, the agenda reflects the interests of the people taking part on the event and enough scope for you to literally vote with your feet and join another session. It makes for a more engaging day where your brain is teased and prodded and you have to think about issues or problems you would not have had otherwise.

And that, for me, is much more enjoyable and rewarding to be talking and learning than taking part in a succession of 15 minute monologues.

Plus, at least yesterday, the lunch was so much better than at any pay to play conference I ever attended. It just goes to show that with the righ attitude it is possible to run a great event where people are well treated and all that without shaking their pockets.

*Yes, more than one procurement conference is run on this basis.

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