14/08/2012

How a Conference can Carry your Vision

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How the networked organization approach made a difference at the LGBTI ALMS 2012 conference.

A week has passed since the LGBTI ALMS 2012 conference, designed as a networked organization event, and it is clear that our approach had extraordinary results.

Lin McDevitt-Pugh delivering networking workshop
IHLIA, the international gay and lesbian archive based in Amsterdam, hosted this conference. We knew what we wanted when we set out to create this conference. We wanted community LGBTI heritage organizations in the room with mainstream heritage institutes, to share their experience and desires and to create new partnerships. We wanted academics to inspire and students to excite the people ‘in the trenches’. We wanted to delve into the amazing day to day of what people are doing, to discover how others can benefit in their day to day worlds. We wanted people to write about the conference on their blogs and websites and share our vision, carry our vision forward.

It all happened. All of it.

Our methods were invented and I will share them.

It began with the vision. It always begins with the vision. As organizers we were clear about what we were up to, what legacy our conference would leave in the world. By 2020 every young LGBTI person will wander into a cultural heritage institute and be at home, because they are part of the history.

Putting together the call for proposals we explored what kinds of contributions, and from whom, would move us toward this vision. We knew who we needed in the room. We chose to focus on Europe and North America and be open to the contribution of people from other parts of the world. We knew we wanted the conversation to be about lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, trans and intersex people. People working on LGBTI cultural heritage in community organizations, in academic organizations and in mainstream institutions. We wanted to see how students, the young wise folk, were bringing together what they were learning with what could be.

We selected a broad group of advisors and they sharpened the focus while ensuring it was including the vast colourful palet of what can be seen as LGBTI heritage work. From ancient Greek art to oral histories of black communities in London, from the writings of poets to those of pamphletists.

Our content committee analaysed the proposals and noted the gaps. There were countries missing, institutes missing, themes missing. We noticed very few people offered to discuss the cultural heritage of trans and bisexual people and no one really was working on intersex. So again we went out to our advisors and our networks and found new people to invite and great speakers to address the missing topics - speakers you would perhaps not normally find on a conference for the world of gay heritage. One was a professor in law relating to trans. He was able to show very graphically how representation of trans was interpreted and how this affects how trans is ‘collected’ in a heritage sense. Was the woman soldier in the 18th century butch, like some say, or trying to get away from a staid situation at home, like others say, or was it actually a woman who liked wearing male-designated clothing? Collection, we heard time an again, was a lot about having an opinion about someone, and often that opinion is pinned down to the paradigms of thinking – the memes – of the day. Those opinions may not be valid in 30 years time, and then what happens to the collection? Will the women dressed as men be findable, with etiquettes plastered on their index cards that make no sense 50 years from now? The legal profession can provide valuable input into methods of making the past visible and accessible.

One quite big gap was in the supplier side of the work of librarians, archivists and people in museums.  I wasn’t surprised we didn’t receive offers of contributions from suppliers. It is an unusual conference for suppliers to be involved in. Yet from the work I do with LGBTI people within corporations I know that there are suppliers to the, lets say, heritage industry that are actually very interesting for the heritage industry to know. Their approach to LGBT in the workplace can offer new insights for heritage workers. In my mind I was thinking that it is quite possible that the director of a museum is concerned that making gay history visible, sponsors may respond negatively. The work of IBM in the field of LGBT at work shows that productivity in the organization increases when there is a practice of valuing people being out at work. I hoped that there could be some cross-fertilization of ideas at the management level as well as the content level. I was happy that IBM agreed to speak at the conference. it brought in a different perspective to the subject at hand.

We had a full program of speakers, some with a 30-minute presentation, most with 10 minutes.

Our format was partially borrowed from a format of speakers I enjoyed at the L-Women at Work conference I spoke at last year. At that conference, people were offered a 6, 12 or 20-minute slot. I liked that I was able to hear every speaker. At so many conferences you have to choose. What I felt could be improved is the way pathways were created to increase interactions between participants. Our team felt we could improve on the format in three ways. A fourth innovation was very particular to the heritage world.

First, we asked the 10-minute speakers to post their contribution on our conference blog so that people could read before they came to the conference what the person would speak about. This is after all the age of connectivity, and there is really no need to arrive uninformed of the content at a conference. By reading the papers beforehand people had a better chance of getting what they had come all the way to Amsterdam to get: new connections, new inspiration, new ideas and a lot of fun. The 30-minute speakers were welcome to post on the blog, but could also keep their contribution as a ‘surprise’.

Secondly, we felt that there could be some organization added to the informal interactions. In a totally unorganized, informal setting, it is possible for people to walk up to a speaker after the presentation and chat, perhaps over coffee. But do you do that? Were they so impressive that you think they wouldn’t want to talk with you? Or would a friend get in first and monopolize the person’s time. There are many reasons not to talk with someone and many people just aren’t used to walking up to a speaker and asking things about the presentation.  We chose to facilitate informal communications by organizing breakout sessions. We placed two speakers from the previous section of the program in a room together and invited people to go to that room and talk more. There was no structure, no further organization. No right way to hold a breakout session. People are adult and could figure out themselves how to make good use of the time available. Feedback on the breakout sessions was very enthusiastic. People really talked with each other and shared ideas.

The third innovation was fun for all of us. We began the conference with a mini networking workshop.  We were aware that most people in the auditorium did not know the other people. About 75 percent of the participants had never been to the previous editions of the conference. In the workshop, my first task was to get everybody on the same page about what ‘networking’ is. We explored what people regard a network to be and then how to translate that to a verb. If a network is connection between people, networking is making connections. The participants were then asked to define for themselves their networking goals and then to share these with their neighbour. If they were sitting alone they were asked to move.  Standing in front of the room watching perfect strangers animatedly talk with each other about why they were here was mind blowing.  I then ran around with the mike, asking volunteers to share what their neighbour’s networking goals were. Suddenly people were engaged with each other and, as one participant later remarked, awake.

The fourth innovation was particularly successful perhaps because it spoke to the passions of the archivists and collectors who had travelled to Amsterdam to be part of this conference. IHLIA’s colleagues at Aletta E-Quality, the 75 year old collection of the history of the Dutch and international women’s movement, invited conference participants to a tour of their library and archives on the day preceding the conference. Aletta E-Quality senior staff member Evelien Rijsbosch later told me how she saw networking unfold, as she led the groups of participants around the superb collection. People who didn’t know each other were talking together, asking questions, debating answers. When she later attended the conference she noticed how people who had come into her institute disparate and alone were now connected.

So what is networking? It is knowing what you want, asking others for their input, and giving generously when others let you know what they need. A conference is a great place to build strong networks. 

Lin McDevitt-Pugh MBA
Lin McDevitt-Pugh is director of NetSHEila and expert in networked organizations. She provides training to schools, universities, public and private companies and employee networks, supporting them to do more, with more fun, by utilizing the circles of people in which they operate. 
For more on the conference, see the conference website.

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