Best Practices in Online Conferencing: the Bar-camp

Best Practices for Online bar-camps

The Institute for Competitive Intelligence strives for excellence in everything we do. This includes finding new and innovative formats for networking events for our online conferences. Since 2015, we’ve organized five on-site and four online unconference/bar-camp sessions. In 2021, we introduced a new online bar-camp format. In this article, I’ll outline the cornerstones for how to create an engaging and lively event that challenges the mindsets of the attendees and supports knowledge sharing in its best way.

What is knowledge sharing?

Knowledge sharing isn’t training, it’s group learning
Knowledge sharing isn’t training or textbook knowledge. It’s about sharing practical experiences in a complex, fast-changing world. No one has perfect knowledge, skills, or abilities. Therefore it’s important to exchange experiences and knowledge to prevent the individual from making the same errors or following approaches that the group already identified as misleading.

Knowledge sharing isn’t only about exchanging ideas, it’s about exchanging solutions
Writing down ideas or brainstorming is a perfect solution to foster creativity, but these ideas often remain very abstract. Knowledge sharing tries to externalize these ideas to an applicable plan that solves a problem at hand.

Knowledge sharing is a continuous process to create new knowledge
If we externalize tacit knowledge to a best practice guide that everybody can read, understand, and execute right away, then we might consider the job of knowledge sharing to be done. However, in a complex and fast-changing world, knowledge is never static. Rules and constraints change constantly with new innovations. So knowledge sharing needs to be a continuous learning and innovation process.

What is a Bar-camp?

A bar-camp is an event where the attendees set the agenda. In other words, everyone can propose a topic they want to work on. The attendees vote for their favorite topics. There are no presenters, everyone can and should contribute their experience towards the topic or work group. In principle, the work group can also set up the session format as they see fit. This format strives to create engagement and active participation in spite of knowledge consumption, and supports all of the above facets of knowledge sharing.

Restrictions and Constraints of Online Conferences

We’re all familiar with video conferencing systems like Teams, Webex, and Zoom. At least we think we are. But do we really know how to make the best use of them? Things like when we can or should speak, or when we should turn on our microphone or video are often not clearly defined. How do we take minutes or document the session? How do we vote? How do we set up a topic? And how is all of this done within the video conferencing system at hand?
These questions prove that online conferences don’t come as naturally to us as on-site events. Certainly, during on-site events, all of these questions have their equivalent and must also be answered before we start a session. For big on-site events, audio and video equipment are also required to make sure everyone can see and hear the speakers. But most of us are used to these settings, so live events in general are easier to handle.

General Obligations of the Organizer

Makes sure the attendees meet the technical requirements
E.g. the ICI offers technical self-tests, technical test sessions, and a technical guide as a PDF in advance.

Makes sure the attendees are familiar with the technical platform
E.g. the ICI offers a technical guide and short introductory videos before the session, as well as a short technical wrap-up for new attendees at the beginning of each session. Additionally, each session has a dedicated technical assistant who ensures the session runs smoothly from the organizer’s side.

Makes sure each attendee is aware of the session rules
There are session guidelines for each session type as part of the technical guidelines. The rules are also repeated shortly before each session, and the session host keeps track of these rules during the session.

How to Organize an Online Bar-camp

Due to the above constraints of online conferences, an online bar-camp needs some additional preparation.

  • Whiteboard tool
    For the documentation and organization of a live bar-camp, you usually have whiteboards, pens, and paper. You need to have a powerful whiteboard tool to do the same online.
  • The session must be moderated by an experienced moderator who knows the conference system and the whiteboard tool well. The moderator guides the attendees through the process and especially helps with documentation using the whiteboard tool.
  • We do not recommend recording bar-camp sessions. Documenting the process of knowledge creation isn’t the target and prevents knowledge from flowing freely during the session.
  • There must be a way to join a group. In ICI bar-camps, you just join a breakout group. Each breakout group has an assigned topic or table in the whiteboard tool. The moderator guides the attendees to the right table and explains the process.
  • Rules need to be established on how to propose a topic and how to vote for a topic. In our ICI bar-camp, we set up a number of “tables” for each sub-topic. Attendees can assign a new topic for that table and the new topic is announced via broadcast to all attendees.
    In our 2021 bar-camp, we made use of a whiteboard tool to document the outcomes of the sessions. The main advantage is the immediate documentation of the results. Alternatively, the results can be summarized in the plenum or in a follow-up session, or the moderators can provide the summary as a document or video. We strongly recommend creating a formal summary, even and in spite of the less formal format. Knowledge externalization is an essential part of the knowledge-sharing process that adds value for all attendees.
  • Knowledge sharing as a continuous process is the most difficult task to achieve as a conference organizer.
    In principle, we deal with a group of attendees that meets for the conference and dissipates afterwards. However, online conferences don’t need to be one-off events that are simply forgotten afterwards. Therefore, our conferences consist of a conference day and several additional events, supported by a learning platform that helps with forming a group and serves as a repository for recorded presentations, notes, results, and continuous knowledge sharing and learning.
    In 2022, we even took this one step further. You can book two conferences including two conference days and eight additional events that are spread out over a complete year.
    If you organize a bar-camp in a company, you have the same problem. We do not recommend setting up the bar-camp as a one-time event. Embed it into your knowledge-sharing process as a regular format, improve it, and leverage on the attendees’ learning curve for the new format.
  • Get help from experts
    When organizing a bar-camp or unconference session from scratch, it’s crucial to get help from knowledge management experts who are familiar with the concept, as well as experts for using the whiteboard tool. Otherwise, there are many traps you might run into at your first event.
    Luckily the ICI has an knowledge management expert within its own faculty. Jonathan Gordon Till is Principal at Oxford Business Intelligence and specializes in knowledge management strategy, particularly with reference to knowledge retention and transfer during corporate change. He’s been helping us to develop and improve our unconference and bar-camp formats since 2015.

barcampExample: Tables for Different Topics

It's clear that the above best practices are only the most important cornerstones of how to organize an online bar-camp. Over time, we’ve gradually improved our online events. We’ve even created two formats. The first is the ICI-Talks session with completely free topics, the second is the bar-camp, which covers a general topic and allows attendees to propose sub-topics or related topics in the process. Both ranked very high in our evaluations – even higher than their on-site equivalents.
We hope we’ve aroused your curiosity in the new online format and perhaps inspired you to try to organize your own bar-camp or unconference online event in the future.

If you happen to be in interested in Competitive and Market Intelligence Research, please consider our online bar-camp: Best Practices in Competitive & Market Intelligence (Re)search 2022, to be held on May 13, 2022

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