Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Extracting Learning from a Conference You Are Not Attending

I would love it if my job allowed me to attend any conference i want without limitations, but the daily requirements of work and budget constraints make that impossible. That doesn't mean I can't gain knowledge from a conference simply because I am not physically unable to attend. While there may not (yet) be a way to get all the value of a conference without actually attending it, there are plenty of ways to extract substantial learning from a conference remotely.

For me, the best tool for extracting learning from a conference remotely is Twitter. If you're an active user of Twitter you may be familiar with the concept of a backchannel.

The backchannel consists of Twitter users that are actively posting tweets during an event. The backchannel tweets could consist of key learning points or some sort of real-time feedback on the sessions' value.

Here are the three most common techniques that I use to leverage Twitter and the backchannel to extract learning from a conference I was not able to attend in person.

Viewing the Live Tweet Stream

Most conferences today now have a hash tag associated with them. A hash tag is a specific text string preceded by a number sign that Twitter users can search on. For example, the Hash Tag for the current Learning 2010 conference is #l2010. This enables anyone who wants to contribute to or follow the tweets of attendees of that conference to find them all by searching #l2010.

Following the hash tag live is probably the most engaging option for learning from a conference you were unable to attend. By following the live stream, you have the opportunity to interact with attendees of the conference. See a tweet the you have a question or want to know more about? Reply to the poster in real time.

As an example, yesterday I saw a number of tweets related to performance support tools that I found interesting. I replied to one of the posters asking who the speaker of the session was, which he quickly replied back with. Less than 5 minutes later, I had searched the speaker and downloaded a detailed white paper from his website.

While live following of the Twitter feed is the best option if you want to interact with people attending the conference, it is also the most time consuming. It's not always an option to sit at your desk for hours reading and responding to tweets.

Don't have time or patience to review a tweet stream? Try one of these two time-saving options.

Reviewing an Archive of a Hash Tag
If you do not have the time to review tweets as they happen, you can review the stream of tweets later on via one of the many archive options. One of the tools I often use is TweetDeck, which enables me to follow a number of Social Media feeds and searches simultaneously.

By setting up a search option for the conference hash tag, I can go in periodically and review the tweets that have come through in a single sitting. This is my preferred method of reviewing conference tweets; I will allocate 5 - 10 minutes every hour or so to review the tweets that came in since my last review.

Many conferences will now archive their entire tweet stream, enabling users to review the tweets of the entire conference well after the conference has ended. The challenge with these archives is that they are usually text-based and are no longer integrated with Twitter, making it impossible to reply, retweet, or in any way interact with the stream.

Perform an Advanced Search for the Hash Tag and the Word BLOG.

Some people find limited value in the the 140 character format of Twitter. They prefer deeper context and greater detail in their learning. Even people who swear by the value of Twitter will, at times, wish they could dive deeper into the meaning and value of a tweet.

For me, that's where blogs come in to fill the gap. More and more, blogs are becoming an integrated part of a conference tweet stream. Conference attendees tweet their thoughts as they happen during the conference, and often post reflective summaries on their blog after the fact.

These blog entries usually go into much greater detail than the 140 character limit of Twitter allows, and provide an excellent complement to the live stream. The integration of blogs with the tweet stream comes from bloggers posting updates with the hash tag indicating that a blog entry has been posted regarding the conference.

All you need to do is go to http://search.twitter.com/ and perform and advanced search on both the hash tag and the word 'blog'. As an example, the below image shows three blog entries I found regarding the current Learning 2010 conference.

Of course, given the choice I'd still much rather attend conferences in person. The personal connections made at events like this are usually one of the best takeaways. That said, it's no longer as simple as 'if you don't go, you get none of the value'. Now, there are options that enable you to extract some of the key learnings remotely.

If you have another technique that you use, please add a comment with the details. Thanks!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. Thanks for these great tips. Being a conference lurker is quite a new phenomenon and a new one for me. What do you think about the etiquette of monitoring or participating if you haven't paid or attended? I can can see how Twitter really can be a learning tool in this way. It's like scraping off a thin layer of learning. But what's wild is that there are so many conferences you can't go to them all, but with Twitter you can see who in your network is and put your ear to the ground.

  2. That's a great question. I think 5 or 10 years ago the answer would be - 'it's completely unethical and a theft of intellectual property'. Now, it's more about the sharing. I equate it very similar to how I feel about cell phone in ILT sessions. There was a time, not too long ago, that my 'housekeeping' would address, in short, 'don't let your phone be a distraction to our learning'. That message has changed 180, where I now address how they can use their phones to enhance the learning.
    As for copyrights, I think the ownis for protecting them is on the speaker at conferences. These days, you've got to expect a backchannel as a given factor in conferences.