Saturday 26 May 2012


For Near Neighbours evaluation event. 'Stories of Encounters' we asked everyone to look closely into a stranger's eyes.  It was part of a grouping game, initially dividing everyone into three groups of people based on eye colour.  We then made three groups of people based on fashion, music, and the last one done in silence - food.  Basically it was an exploration of prejudice - prejudice we all have, often based on visual clues.  It  brought up some interesting insights into why and how we form groups:

Reflected in comments throughout
Flash mob - Gathering of the Unions, 1832 over 100,000, no mobile in sight
the day, we all form groups based on who we feel comfortable with, and where we feel welcome.

In forming and developing networks (like I've been trying to do for Hall Green Arts Forum), particularly where people identify themselves by their different beliefs, that spirit of welcoming, and of feeling comfortable can make a network - Teachmeet Brum and Social Media Surgeries are excellent recent examples locally of how to run a network to meet up, share ideas and learn from each other:

TeachMeet is an organised but informal meeting (in the style of an unconference) for teachers to share good practice, practical innovations and personal insights in teaching with technology. (Wikipedia)

Podnosh recently won a 'Big Society Award' from David Cameron for their innovative approach to supporting local community and voluntary sector organisations in using social media using locally based surgeries.

How comfortable you feel or welcome you are is mostly determined by the spirit of the group and of individuals in it, but I'd say it helps if the format can reflect and support that.  Both Teachmeet and Podnosh use digital stuff very effectively, but I think they also make good choices in the format to attract new people and develop the network.  They avoid some of the pitfalls of using traditional meetings and conference format for networking:
  • Agendas give the chair control over what is discussed (and no one else) and there's never enough time for the interesting 'Any Other Business' bit at the end.
  • Presenting from the front - traditional meetings and conferences can actively encourage competitive spirit between people to dominate the limited time the chair (or speaker) allows them.
  • Traditional meeting and conference format reinforce heirarchy - a top down approach to knowledge.
  • The closed door - a meeting behind an anonymous door is never going to attract new people.  Add to that the awkward late arrival, uncomfortable search for a chair, and then you sit on someone's handbag.
It's not to say there is never a place for traditional meetings or conferences, but I think their role in attracting people and developing a network is pretty limited.  Does Seth Godin's analogy about parking meters apply here?  Were meetings and conferences more essential for disseminating information in the past?  I go to conferences and meetings as much to meet people as to listen to the presentations, but meetings and conferences just aren't designed for that, so I make the most of the coffee breaks and lunchtime to catch people I want to talk to.

New technology might be influencing, but is not making change.  Emails, texts, blogs, facebook, youtube are ways to share information quickly, but I don't think the purpose of meetings and conferences has completely changed - it doesn't require new tech for a networking event.  Many conferences include workshops, effective use of postit notes, extended debate, and aspects of Open Space technology, which predates the social media revolution by some 20 years.

I've got to thank Nick Booth and Steve Philp, not just for introducing me to social media, but to opening up the possibility of making meetings better (and to apologise for nicking their ideas).  Look out for Hall Green's Art Surgeries - next one is Picnic in the Park, Friday 22nd June, and 'Artsmeet' sometime soon!

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