Last week I attended two conferences, the first was the MRS’s Research 2010 Conference in London, the second was the Merlien ‘Qualitative Research in Web 2.0: The Next Leap’, or #QRWEB to its Twitter friends. The two conferences were both great fun and inspirational, but they could not have been more different.
Research 2010 was large, commercial, loud, fast, and gaudy, a festival of research.
By contrast QRWEB comprised about 50-60 people, of whom 17 were chairing or presenting. The conference had a clear focus, i.e. online qualitative research in a Research 2.0 context, drawing speakers from across Europe and North America. The first day of the conference was devoted to practictioners (i.e. commercial researchers), the second day focused on academic research.
The pace and the depth of the QRWEB conference was very different to Research 2010. Each speaker had 30 minutes to present and 15 minutes for questions. Most speakers ran to time on their 30 minutes, and even the one or two who ran past their 30 minutes did not over-run their 45 minute slot. The small scale of the conference meant that people had the time to get to know each other better, speaking well into the evening, and having animated discussions during the breaks and meals.
Several fascinating differences emerged from the sessions and the discussions.
As a generalisation, clients in North America seem more inclined to see a focus group (online or offline) as the research instrument. European clients seem more willing to see the researcher as the research instrument. The consequences of this tend to result in discussion guides in North America being longer, more detailed, and more closely adhered to.
Differences between academics and practioners included researchers being cash poor and time rich (up to a point). More significantly, an academic project is successful if it generates insightful questions, a commercial project is successful is it generates insightful answers.
The conference covered a wide range of topics from online focus groups, to online bulletin boards, to MROCs, to natural communities, and finally to e-ethnography. With time to explore each topic. The discussion was made richer by the fact that the sessions included both fans of online and people who were yet to make up their mind.
One interesting phenomenon about the two conferences was that although there were nearly ten times as many people at the Research 2010 conference, I made as many new contacts in Berlin as I made in London (BTW, in my case contacts are people I want to share ideas with in the future, or beer, not people I am looking to sell to or buy from).
I think there is definitely a place in the calendar for smaller conferences that bring academics and practictioners together, to facilitate a two-way flow of learning.