Virtual conferences change the game

One of the reasons why I give presentations at conferences so often is because I submit proposals for presentations so often. One of the reasons why I submit presentation proposals to conferences so often is because speaking at an event helps you make the most of it. Speaking also gives you a very good excuse for going to a conference, which is important when managers decide who gets to go.

I just realized that virtual conferences are going to change the game a lot. And I love that.

See, with virtual presentations, you don’t need to build as strong a case for going to a conference. You don’t need to wait for a conference to share your ideas, and you don’t need the votes of a program selection committee to present something and invite people to attend. You don’t need to be a speaker or an organizer in order to reach lots of people attending the same event or interested in the same area. Yes, you’ll network much more effectively as a speaker than as an attendee simply because people will come to you with questions and ideas, but even if you’re not a speaker, you can build an audience by sharing your notes or interacting with others.

Virtual conferences level the playing field. Anyone can be a speaker. Anyone can interact. Anyone can create and share scalable value.

What do virtual conferences bring, then? Awareness of sessions that are out there. Energy and momentum. A critical mass of people thinking about things. What can we do to take advantage of that? How can we make the most of virtual conferences’ unique strengths?

Virtual conferences have their own challenges, of course. How do you interact with others? How do you engage people? How do you enjoy the serendipitous connections of hallway conversations? We’ll figure out how to do things like that well, someday.

There’s something pretty powerful in this if we can help people learn how to do it effectively. That’s going to be one of my goals, then. I know something about presenting remotely. People tell me I’m an engaging and dynamic speaker, and I love figuring out how we can all get even better. I am going to help a thousand flowers bloom. =D I am going to coach my colleagues on how to make the most of these opportunities. And then–who knows–maybe the world, through our examples!

What does that mean, concretely?

April would be a great month to experiment with. I’d like to set up two webinars on remote presentation, and offer people coaching and consultation as well. It’ll be in addition to my full project workload, but it’s play, so I shouldn’t go crazy. The webinar materials will also be reusable, so they’ll keep creating value for other people. Hmm… I feel a Crazy Idea coming on…

Leadership going virtual: how we can help managers

…It is important to note that by simply participating, managers transfer their status into the new paradigm; while not participating creates a real discrepancy.

Cecille Demailly, Toward Enterprise 2.0: Making the Change in the Corporation, as cited in Bill Ives’ blog post

Sarah Siegel’s reflections on virtual leadership made me think about the changes that IBM is going through. We’re moving further apart from each other (more remote/mobile workers, more geographically-spread management functions), and at the same time, moving closer to each other through social networking tools. Front-line managers might still see many of their team members face to face, but dotted-line relationships across countries are becoming more and more widespread, and middle managers work in an increasingly virtual world.

Many people struggle to translate management and leadership skills to the virtual world. They feel the loss of contact as we move away from offices and co-located teams, but they don’t have a lot of guidance on what excellent leadership looks like in this new globally-integrated world. There are no recipes or clear best practices in standard management and communication books, in the MBA courses they might have taken, and in the business magazines. Their own managers might also be dealing with the growing pains of the organization.

So some managers participate, and many don’t. The ones who participate are figuring out what works, and they may make mistakes along the way. The ones who don’t participate (out of fear? lack of time? lack of confidence?) might end up finding it even harder to get started, and then people feel confused and isolated because they aren’t getting leadership and direction from the people who are supposed to lead them.

I think managers really do want to help people work more effectively. It’s hard with all the external pressures and the pace of change, tools that are constantly evolving and practices that need to be adapted for the times, and greater challenges from both inside and outside IBM. Communities like the one Sarah Siegel organizes for IBM managers are vital, because managers need to be able to connect with other managers and learn from each other.

There are no clear answers yet. Organizations around the world are still figuring things out. Many of the principles remain the same, but translating them online when you can’t see body language and you can’t make eye contact is difficult for many people.

People need to learn how to not only work around the challenges of a virtual world, but also take advantage of its strengths. And there are strengths. Virtual teams are not just shadows of what we can do face-to-face. Going online brings new capabilities that we can explore.

We need to help managers figure this out. Along the way, we’ll end up helping ourselves and other people, so it’s worth the effort.

I remember growing up and realizing that even though I’m the youngest of three children, my parents were learning all sorts of new things about parenting while raising me. That helped make it easier for me to understand them instead of getting frustrated or upset. It’s like that with managers, too. Managers are learning about working with us just as we’re learning to work with them and with IBM.

So, how can we help? Here are some ways:

  • We can explore and model behaviour. For example, I believe that a culture of knowledge-sharing can make a real difference to IBM. If I experiment with that and model the behaviour, I can help managers and non-managers see what it’s like, what the benefits are, and how to get started. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
  • We can give feedback. I think my manager finds it amusing that I think a lot about what brings out the best in me and I suggest that to him. Managers can’t read minds. Make it easy. If your manager is receptive to the idea, give suggestions and share what you think.
  • We can coach. When the pain of ineffective methods is strong enough to drive change (think about all the frustration over endless reply-to-all conversations), people will look for better ways to do things. Coach people on how to use tools and how to change practices. It’ll take time and they’ll probably get frustrated along the way, but you can help them keep their eyes on the goal (and remember how painful the old ways were!).
  • We can help people see the big picture. Resource actions can sap morale. Impersonal communications can make you feel that the company has drifted from its values. Even if people are afraid, you can work on making sense of the situation, focusing on the positive, and looking for ways to keep moving forward. Vision isn’t just the CEO’s job. What you say and how you act can influence how other people feel about their work and how well they can focus on making things better instead of getting lost in the stress.

There are a lot of individual contributors within IBM. If we see leadership as something everyone in the organization does instead of being limited to those who have the “manager” bit in their Bluepages record, if we remember that leadership competencies are something we can express no matter where we are in the organizational chart and we take responsibility for helping make IBM and the world better, and if we help as many people as we can, we’ll not only get through these growing pains, but we’ll make a company worth working with even more.

Thanks to Rawn Shah for sharing a link to Bill’s blog post through Lotus Connections Profiles, and to Sarah for prompting me to write more about this!

Old notes on staffing a virtual conference booth

It’s fantastic how a blog archive lets me pull up lessons learned from a virtual conference I helped at two years ago. Some of these tips from my internal blog post are platform-specific, but others might be useful.

Staffing the Social Networking booth at the Innovation in Action event. Here are quick tips:

  • Set up text shortcuts. You’ll need to type in a lot of text rapidly. The built-in Text Entries are not available when you’re sending an initial message or inviting someone to a chat, so type in some boilerplate text into Notepad and then copy and paste it. Messages you send from the booth will be marked as from your booth name, so include your name and e-mail address in your message. Advanced tip: use AutoHotkey to create a text macro. Install it from AutoHotkeyInstaller.exe, create a file like shortcuts.ahk (customize this of course), then double-click shortcuts.ahk to make it part of your system. Example shortcuts.ahk:
    ::!hello::Welcome to the IBM social networking booth. I’m Sacha Chua ([email removed]), a consultant who helps organizations figure out what Web 2.0 is, how it fits with their strategy, how to implement it, and how to make the most of it. Please feel free to ask me questions by sending a note or inviting me to chat. What can I help you with?
    ::!tapscott::Hello and welcome to the IBM social networking booth. I’m Sacha Chua ([email removed]), an IBM consultant who helps organizations figure out what Web 2.0 is, how it fits with their strategy, how to implement it, and how to make the most of it. What did you think of Don Tapscott’s keynote? Please feel free to start a chat if you want to talk about it or if you have any questions about social networking.

    After that, you’ll be able to type !hello into anywhere and have it expanded. To update, edit shortcuts.ahk and then double-click it again.

  • Check people’s visitor histories. The visitor history will tell you about any messages sent from or to this booth, if the visitor has been to this booth before, and so on. Great way to make sure you don’t send a message twice.
  • Send people messages and invite them to chat with you. You can initiate only one chat at a time, and you have to wait for the person to accept or reject the invitation before inviting another person. You can send as many messages as you want, though, and you can have as many open chats as you want.
  • Send yourself follow-up requests after conversations. Your goal in each conversation is to find out what people are interested and give yourself an excuse to follow up. After you get that, use the [i] button on the right (your chat partner’s profile) to display the profile, then use the Followup button to send yourself a copy of the person’s visitor history. WARNING: There’s some delay when selecting names from the list, so double-check that you’re sending the right person’s information.
  • Pull in experts. Need help answering a question? Tell the visitor you’re bringing someone in, then click on the expert’s profile, choose Invite to chat, and choose the chat session you want the expert to join.

Non-obvious things:

  • Your name will not be associated with any messages (from or to), so don’t count on being able to quickly see replies from people or find out what you sent someone.
  • The sorting buttons on the lists sort only the displayed entries, not all the entries. Entries will always be arranged chronologically, although in-page sorting may be different. Don’t count on being able to use this to see all the messages sent by visitors. Just leave it on Date.
  • If someone leaves your booth while you’re trying to check their visitor history, their info box disappears.
  • As people enter and leave the booth, odd things happen to the page. Be prepared to have to find people again.
  • Things get much quieter when people are listening to sessions. Eat or rest during those times.