Well it has been a crazy week and a bit, but now things are settling down I have had a chance to think about the Research Conference.
My overall feeling was that it was well worth being there, both enjoyable and useful. It was certainly not a complete success, but most of the things that were problems were either things that can easily be addressed or were steps on the road to something better.
The worst thing about the conference was the food, closely followed by the layout of the rooms being used by the conference (3 levels, with a narrow set of stairs connecting them).
Key thoughts triggered by the Conference were:
The Number of Delegates
This year’s conference was much smaller than the MRS Conference used to be, which was initially a disappointment, but how many people do we really need? Once the number of attendees passes about 300, it becomes very difficult to meet more than about 80 people. More people is good for the people on the platform, it is good for the finances, and for anybody exhibiting, but it is not a major issue for attendees. Whilst it would be good for the numbers to increase, to generate a sense of momentum, it is not a key issue.
Timekeeping and Short Sessions
One problem with this year’s conference was the very poor timekeeping; nearly all the speakers appeared to over-run their time slots. Some of the people with 12 minutes over-ran by more than 50%. This resulted in very little question time. Conference organisers and session chairs need to remember the people on the platform have not paid to be there, they can be bullied, but the audience have paid, when they are prevented from asking questions they are being short changed.
This year the Conference had too many short presentations, which resulted in a lack of depth in too many of the presentations. It is great to have some short sessions, such as the Ideas Rush, but there needs to be a mixture, with 5s, 10s, 20s, and 30s.
So, what were the highlights? Well the first one for me were the eight speakers in the Ideas Rush session. They were some of the best prepared and thought through presentations of the conference.
I thought some of the topics which cropped up were interesting such as the use of bots in research and the need to get young people more involved were good. I thought the amount of prominence given to semiotics was good, and was a direct rebuttal to the notion that something has to be social media or mobile to be fashionable.
I particularly liked the theatre of the Big Thnkers session, we need to push these boundaries further, and create more contrast between the theatrical and the pedagogic, and facilitate both.
The Less Successful Parts (IMHO)
The second keynote speaker was shockingly poor in my opinion. Perhaps because I disagreed with so much of what he had to say, but I felt it was poorly grounded and came across as a very articulate version of a pub opinionst. He appeared to criticise the Government for being alarmist over fears about swine flu but went on to make a prediction of a fire and numerous deaths on the Central Line during the next 18 months.
The Question Time format did not work, IMHO. I think the reason was the choice of chairman, which before the session I had thought was a good choice. The chair was Stephen Sackur, journalist from BBC World. However, on the TV Sackur is more knowledgeable than the audience, but less knowledgeable than the experts. His job is to make the experts explain themselves in ways the viewers can understand. However, in this debate Sackur knew less about the topics that almost anybody in the room. The audience did not need him to dumb the panel down, they needed him to press the panel on issues like how will we make money in a social media future? What are the limits to self-regulation? Have the recent cuts in recruiting to MR created a problem for 2011?
The best thing at the conference, was a side session on Empowering Young People, led by four people aged 17 to 21 from the Edge Learning Forum – more sessions like this please.
Armando Iannucci was great, reminding us that we need to be more engaging, better tellers of stories, and that we need to get out of our box more.
Daren Cornish was massively motivating with his description of what he has been able to do with Social Media within his organisation.
Mark Earls' session and Rachel Lawes' session on semiotics were both great as showing that there is new thinking going on that is not related to technology, new thinking that is focusing on people and how we communicate.
I will be there next year, the Conference seems to be on a journey and is getting less like all the other conferences. I attend about 15 event s a year and this is now firmly in my top three.