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Moderators Matter — First, why conferences matter

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The following post is an excerpt from the introduction of the book I’m writing — Moderator’s Matter: How to have conference sessions that don’t suck. The book is still in the works, but I thought I would share some of the sections as they are in progress. Before detailing why moderators matter, it is important to go over why conferences matter.

1401380_345802582265330_4259989527037390321_oSummits — meetings — conferences — assemblies — conventions — briefings — training — events — even a congress — we have many terms for these moments in time when people come together.

Conferences should be truly magical places. In these days of increased competition and near constant demand for innovation, conference harkens back to the age of Socratic debates. These gatherings are supposed to be a special place where different viewpoints from a variety of people come together in a true form of democratic ideas where each person is made better through conversations with others.

Too often, the reality is, unfortunately, starkly different. In many cases, conferences are more about a party — and the sessions too often are filler. Inevitably, in post-event comment forms, attendees will say how valuable the networking is — yet they often discount the actual conference content, if they acknowledge it at all.

Harry Potter Dementors

Photo: Warner Brothers

Even worse are the sessions where the room feels as if the energy is being soaked up by a Black Hole. It almost feels as if one of Harry Potter’s infamous Dementors — those dark, malevolent prison guards — may well be is actually sucking all life and joy out of the barely lit room.

Anybody who has attended a conference has had this all too familiar feeling: You are in this cavernous hall, many often underground. There are no windows — and seemly no doors, although paradoxically there is the sound of an occasional door slamming closed when a person (or people) leave the room. Typically there is a stage — generally raised above the rest of the crowd — that sits awash in light, while the audience sits in the dark. That would seem to be a metaphor. Too often that metaphor seems lost. There is a panel of people — too often lacking much diversity — and then, there is a moderator.

Too often the moderator tells the audience that it will be an “interactive discussion” on this important topic — and yet, more often than not, there is a talking head followed by another talking head — and maybe a few more talking heads — inevitably leaving time for a question or two at the very end. We have also had to live through the sessions where a speaker literally reads the text on a series of PowerPoint slides.

“A badly run conference is not only a lost opportunity, but is a waste of money and time,” Duncan Green wrote in The Guardian in June 2016. “How did something as truly awful as panel discussions become the default format? They end up being a parade of people reading out papers, or they include terrible PowerPoints crammed with too many words and illegible graphics.”

Too often panel moderators are an afterthought. Too often it is a post given to a sponsor to give them some visibility with little or no training in either moderating or public speaking or, in some dismal instances, even in the subject matter. Too often we treat the moderators as a role that doesn’t matter.

But… moderators do matter.

I have been working on a book titled Moderators Matter that is dedicated to how to be the best moderator you can be. But even before we discuss why moderators matter, it is important to discuss why conferences matter.

WHY CONFERENCES MATTER

29248096347_b5fa801643_zIt is all too easy to think of conferences as dinosaurs whose age has passed — to think of them as old school — a model where there is largely one-way communication in an era that is increasingly collaborative. But I believe conferences matter — and that moderators are an essential part of making them matter.

No matter what business or industry you are in today, your world is changing — and it is changing faster than ever before. There are plenty of organizations that didn’t foresee the coming changes and quickly found themselves a historical footnote. When was the last time you went to a Blockbuster? (How much did we spend on those late fees, for goodness sake?) Or do you even remember MySpace or Friendster — two early social media pioneers that were quickly overtaken by Facebook. And the list goes on — Blackberry… Eastman Kodak… Sears… Sony… and there are others. The Harvard Business Review notes that it took decades for the telephone to reach 50 percent of households, beginning before 1900. By contrast, with the cellphone, it took five years or less to accomplish the same penetration in 1990.

The purpose of a conference is to bring together people with different ideas, different thoughts, different viewpoints, and out of those differences, our own ideas get fertilized and, when a session really works well, they become even better. Just about anything you read about innovation, they talk about the importance of serendipity: That moment that you talk to somebody unexpected, somebody who you may have never known about… or somebody who is tackling a similar challenge but in a different way… it is that moment that turns into something valuable. Steve Jobs literally built serendipity into design. At the Pixar and Apple offices, rather than putting bathrooms and mailboxes and cafes off to the side, Jobs put them in the center of the space.

“Although some were more than a little annoyed to have to traipse to the lobby every time they needed the loo — something remarkable started to happen,” writes The Independent’s Archie Bland. “Pixar’s employees started to bump into each other. They shot the breeze. Sometimes, the chatter would yield something useful, and one of the participants would head back to her desk with a new idea.”

This should — and can — and has been the role of the conference.

Continental CongressAnd it is easy to underestimate the power of ideas — and the power that comes from these kinds of gatherings. Tony Rogers, who has literally written the book on conferences and conventions, notes that some of the most significant moments in world history were decided not on the battlefield, but in conference halls. And Rogers quotes a 2010 article in Conference and Meetings World magazine that sites a number of history changing conferences:

  • The first Continental Congress, held in September and October 1774 in Philadelphia, which was held to protest the “Intolerable Acts,” passed by the British government in response to the Boston Tea Party of 1774;
  • The Quebec Conference, held in Quebec City, Canada in October 1864, which lead to the creation of the Dominion of Canada;
  • The Paris meeting, held at the Palace of Versailles, France from January 1919 to January 2020, which led to the Treaty of Versailles and defined the structure of post-war Europe;
  • The Yalta Conference held in Livadia, Ukraine in February 1945, which was the second of two major wartime meetings between the leaders of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, the United States, Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Russia, Joseph Stalin. The Yalda Conference followed the Tehran Conference of 1943.

Your events may not feel as weighty as the ones I mention here, but I humbling argue that conferences — the important meeting of the minds — are essential in this time of change.

WHAT CAN YOU DO

Unfortunately, there are too many conferences with sessions that do not live up to these collaborative bastions of innovation. But you, the conference attendee, can make a difference. A few suggestions:

  • Be choosy: Time matters — and where you spend your time says almost as much about you as anything else. So make sure you spend your time with conference organizers who value your time. Look at the agenda to see if it is addressing the issues that matter, and if it isn’t, suggest to the conference organizations some that might. (I can generally tell how much conference organizers value content by how they select their moderators. Too often, they are selected because they are sponsors and not because of their skill.)
  • Speak up: Fill out evaluation forms whenever you can. If the conference content was weak, say so — and let them know that it matters.
  • Offer suggestions. What would make the event more impactful, interesting or educational? Even if it is a crazy idea, offer it up. You might spur some other idea that you didn’t anticipate.

The short version: Don’t miss opportunities; don’t waste time. In short — care.

Next time: Why moderators matter.

Written by cdorobek

October 20, 2018 at 7:48 AM

04.20.2012 DorobekINSIDER Issue of the Week: GSA watcher assess the impact of the conference scandal, and your weekend reading list

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Welcome to GovLoop Insights Issue of the Week with Chris Dorobek… where each week, our goal is to find an issue — a person — an idea — then helped define the past 7-days… and we work to find an issue that will also will have an impact on the days, weeks and months ahead. And, as always, we focus on six words: helping you do your job better.

It wasn’t a great week for public servants. There were congressional hearings into the General Services Administration Public Building Service 2010 Western Region conference — and plenty of lawmakers heaping aghast horror… then there were the stories of the Secret Service agents who were accused partying with prostitutes just before a Presidential visit to Latin America… and then there were the gruesome photos out of Afghanistan of soldiers posing — seemingly gleefully — with the body parts of Afghan rebels. Not a week highlighting the best and the brightest.

ImageWe can’t solve the problems here, but we’ll try see how the best and the brightest can rebuild in order to do their jobs better. Our issue of the week looks at GSA… that conferences… what happens now… and what it means for contractors…Larry Allen has been following GSA for decades. He is the President of Allen Federal Business Partners. He said told Chris Dorobek this is a difficult situation because it really knocks GSA on its heels — again…


WEEKEND READS:

  • It is sometimes remarkable how quickly we forget painful situations — and I sometimes feel that way about the 2008 economic crash. Sometimes it feels like we are looking to move on — and time does move so quickly — that we haven’t taken a step back and looked at what caused the near cataclismic crash… what we learned… and what we can do to prevent it from happening again. This week, BusinessWeek magazine has a story about the Securities and Exchange Commission that essentially talks about how the SEC got its groove back. The story chronicles the recent series of enforcement actions by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and it argues that there is a new era at the agency. They are working hard, even though they are outmanned and outgunned.
  • The Pulitzer Prize awards were handed out this week, but Atlantic Media also handed out its Michael Kelly award for a writer who went above and beyond. The story they selected is from The New Yorker — it’s headlined the “The Invisible Army.” Reporter Sarah Stillman tells the story of ten Fijian beauticians who were recruited for lucrative jobs in a posh Dubai salon, only to end up in Iraq giving manicures and massages to U.S. soldiers. It tells of their mistreatment, and talk about the scandal of thousands of foreign workers on U.S. military bases reduced to something like indentured servitude. It is a remarkable story that I missed at the time and was pleased to read this week.
  • Finally, how do you get agencies to be innovative, whether it be some gov 2.0 application — or some different kind of procurement process? Craig Thomler writes this week about convincing risk advisers management to yes to social media initiatives — but I think it applies to more than just social media. My take: focus on doing the job better… and keep pressing.

The producers of GovLoop Insights’ DorobekINSIDER are Emily Jarvis and Stephen Peteritas.

Written by jarvisdorobek

April 20, 2012 at 11:22 AM

Posted in Events, GSA, Uncategorized

04.04.2012 DorobekINSIDER: Charting the future of government tech with Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel

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Federal CIO VanRoekel speaks at FOSE

Federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel kicked off the FOSE conference. And he did a pretty amazing presentation — going through the history of technology.

He had one of those overhead projectors — yes, really. Apparently they found one in a White House closet.

Then used ASCII. Then PowerPoint. And then an iPad… to show the evolution of tech.

VanRoekel says the aim of his office is to cut down the amount of money agencies spend on technology operations and maintenance so that they can plow that money back into new initiatives.

Since 2009 the federal tech budget has flattened out to roughly $80 billion. So now agencies need to innovate without expanding their budgets. VanRoekel outlined how they can achieve that goal. 

  1. Root out duplication and implement Share First
  2. Strengthen the role of the CIO
  3. Data center consolidation — goal is to go down by 40%
  4. Cloud — implement FedRamp across government this year

VanRoekel says agencies also need to focus on the mission — Focus on Service Delivery

  1. Maximize investments — growing profit is easier than growing costs
  2. Address the productivity gap
  3. Improve business and citizen interactions
  4. Cybersecurity needs to be incorporated into everything tech

Government cannot work in a silo. VanRoekel compared the data overload to the music industry. 

  • “Right now government couples data and presentations together. But they need to break it up and find relatedness across platforms. Think of government data like the music industry. You used to buy a whole album from the store. Now you go on iTunes and you can buy one song at a time, not the whole package.”
  • “And with iTunes Genius and Pandora similar content is sent directly to you. Government needs to do that with data.”

— Emily Jarvis

Written by jarvisdorobek

April 4, 2012 at 11:09 AM

DorobekINSIDER: GovLoop issue of the week: CES, CES Government, and mobile

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GovLoop InsightsWelcome to the GovLoop Insights Issue of the Week with Chris Dorobek.

Each week, our goal is to where each week, our goal is to find an issue — a person — an idea — then helped define the past 7-days… and we work to find an issue that will also will have an impact on the days, weeks and months ahead. And, as always, we focus on six words: helping you do your job better.

This week, we’re going to get geeky… we’re going to embrace our inner nerd. This week was the annual gadget-a-thon known as CES — the Consumer Electronics Show out in Las Vegas. I got to attend for the first time this year — both to CES and CES Government. One of the key speakers was Steve VanRoekel, the federal chief information officer. And later on, we’ll have highlights of his speech, and talk about what it means for you.

Also later on, we’ll have our weekend reading list — the weekends are a good time to rejuvenate — but also some time to take a step back and ponder. And we’ll have some reading that may guide you as you work to think outside of the box.

But after the break, we’ll have our look at the week that was for the second week of January 2012… plus the full Week in Review…

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DorobekINSIDER: GovLoop Insights issues of 2011: Tech that is fundamentally changing government

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GovLoop Insights

NOTE: Updated to clean up formatting

Hey there — I’m Christopher Dorobek — the DorobekINSIDER — welcome to GovLoop Insights Issue of the Week with Chris Dorobek… where each week, our goal is to find an issue — a person — an idea — then helped define the past 7-days… and we work to find an issue that will also will have an impact on the days, weeks and months ahead. And, as always, we focus on six words: helping you do your job better.

And for the month of December, we have been taking taking a break from the issue of the week — and we are taking a look at the issues that defined government for the year. And next week, we’ll talk about the issue of the year — I don’t think anybody will be surprised, but… we’ll talk about it next week.

 

Over the past few weeks, we spoke about cyber-security — and dealing with big data… How do you deal with all the information that you now have access to?

And then last week, we spoke about how transparency and open government can really help you get your job done — talking to Earl Devaney, who is retiring from government after more than 40 years… for the past two years, he has been the chairman of the Recovery, Accountability and Transparency Board.

This week, we are going to talk to one of the concepts that is really changing… well, it’s changing so much in technology, but it is also having a huge impact on government… and I’m going to bring you some highlights of one of the best speeches that you probably didn’t hear.

But we’re going to start off this week, as we have so many week’s this year, talking about… yes, the budget. And it was a roller coaster week — one of many this year. After it seemed likely that there could be a government shutdown, House and Senate negotiators this week signed off on a more than $1 trillion, year-end spending bill and it made its way through the House on Friday.

The bill is more than 1,200 pages and Politico reports that it covers a remarkable breath of topics — domestic spending… the Pentagon and foreign aid — plus tens of billions more related to the war in Afghanistan.

The funding bill sets government spending for the year at $1.043 trillion, a level agreed to in an August deal that raised the nation’s legal borrowing limit. The figure represents a 1.5 percent drop in spending from the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

That doesn’t count $115 billion for overseas military operations, a $43 billion dip since this past year as the war in Iraq winds down. It also doesn’t include $8.1 billion in emergency disaster-relief spending.

The measure covers spending for three-fourths of the government. A number of agencies were covered in the November deal including the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, State, and Transportation, as well as NASA and some smaller agencies. This deal covers the all other agencies.

And as a result of this deal, most domestic programs will see cuts as part of the effort to reduce the deficit.

The measure omits funding for the Internal Revenue Service to prepare for the 2014 implementation of the federal health-care law. But it increases funding for border agents and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It includes $8.4 billion for the EPA — a $233 million drop from last year. And provides $550 million for Obama’s signature Race to the Top education program, a cut of more than 20 percent.

And it includes an increase for the e-government fund.

The other big event, which seemed to get less attention, is the end of the war in Iraq after nine years. The flag of American forces in Iraq has been lowered in Baghdad, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told troops the mission had been worth the cost in blood and dollars. I’ll leave that debate to others.

About 4,000 US soldiers now remain in Iraq, but they are due to leave in the next two weeks. At the peak of the operation, US forces there numbered 170,000.

With that, we turn to one of 2011’s big issues — even if you don’t work in technology, you’ve heard of cloud. Last week, we spoke with Earl Devaney of the Recovery Board about how cloud computing allowed the Recovery Board to be much more agile then it could otherwise.

In November, I got to moderate a program focusing on cloud computing. [By way of transparency: I was paid to emcee the event.]  It was one of the most interesting presentations I had heard all year.

John Rucker

VA's John Rucker

I go to a lot of events and hear a lot of speakers. Many of them are very good — and many of them seek to peer into the future. But one of the best futurists I heard all year was John Rucker. He isn’t a professional speaker. In fact, he even jokes that he looks like a fed. And he is a fed. Rucker is the acting lead for the Department of Veterans Affairs data center consolidation initiative. And he gave a revealing look at the future of technology — and of cloud computing in the government.

After the break… I have his full speech — and his slides as well. But I wanted to bring you two highlights of his speech.

I noted that VA has long been seen as one of the most hapless agencies for government IT. VA CIO Roger Baker and VA CTO Peter Levin have made enormous strides to change that — and Rucker called him the best CIO he has seen in his more than 30 years of government service.

But he noted the cloud is going to have a big impact on the future of government technology…

John Rucker of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

He also said the cloud isn’t for everything…

John Rucker… he is the acting lead for the Department of Veterans Affairs data center consolidation initiative.

As I say, the speech doesn’t have flash — but I think it is one of the most far sighted assessments of government technology that I’ve heard.

It’s GovLoop — I’d love to hear what you think. Do you agree with his assessment? Or is cloud just a lot of hype?

Again, after the break, hear the speech in full… and the DorobekINSIDER must read list…

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Written by cdorobek

December 21, 2011 at 2:45 PM

DorobekINSIDER: ELC 2011: UNsessioning about YOUR role in government innovation

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Innovation — we all know it’s important, particularly in these rapidly changing times. We also know that it is hard. At the 2011 Executive Leadership Conference, hosted by the American Council on Technology and the Industry Advisory Council, we are going to try to help. And even if you are not at ELC 2011, there is still a way for you to participate — even if you aren’t here in Williamsburg.

ACT-IACToday, as part of ELC’s technology innovation track – the last panel of the day – and we are trying an ELC innovation about innovation. We are holding an UN-session. For the past several years, there have been un-conferences. Un-conferences — and, by extension, our un-session — is very open. There is a topic, but there are no set list of speakers. It is wisdom of the crowds in the conference format — it enables open, collaborative learning using a format that “creates space for peer-to-peer learning, collaboration and creativity.”

I’m thrilled to be working with Kathy Conrad, the principal deputy associate administrator of GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

The UN-session is the final panel of the ELC’s technology innovation track. And our goal is to walk out of the UNsession with… homework, for lack of a better term. We want to come up with tools that people can take — and try — in their organization that encourage and enable innovation. And we are then continuing the sharing after ELC ends — I’ve created a section on GovLoop, the social network for government, where I hope people will share their lessons… what worked, what didn’t. (Hear Conrad talk about some of her thoughts on the GovLoop Insights Issue of the Week podcast from this past week.)

One of my new favorite books is Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries — and I think it is a book about innovation. It’s about making it a part of your live and your thinking. (A preview: The DorobekINSIDER book club will be coming back next year — and, if we can work out schedules, this will be our book. More to come. Stay tuned.)

Read our thoughts — and our notes for the un-session — after the break.

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Written by cdorobek

October 24, 2011 at 11:31 AM

DorobekINSIDER: Pre-panel prep: Building a bridge between IT and acquisition

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Communication is difficult — any of us who have been married have learned this lesson the hard way — and we do it over and over again. And in organizations, it can be intensely difficult.I get to moderate a panel next week that looks at the issue of communication between agency IT and acquisition organizations. And improving that relationship cover four of Federal CIO Vivek Kundra’s 25 point IT management reform plan (PDF):
Align the Acquisition Process with the Technology Cycle
13. Design and develop a cadre of specialized IT acquisition professionals
14. Identify IT acquisition best practices and adopt government-wide
15. Issue contracting guidance and templates to support modular development
16. Reduce barriers to entry for small innovative technology companies
On Tuesday, April 26, I get to moderate a fantastic panel of luminaries to talk about the issues and challenges of bringing IT and acquisition. (More information about the 1105 Government Information Group’s Federal IT Acquisition Summit here.)

The panel:

  • Linda Cureton, Chief Information Officer, NASA Headquarters
  • Simon Szykman, Chief Information Officer, Department of Commerce
  • David Wennergren, Assistant Deputy Chief Management Officer, Department of Defense
  • Roger Baker, Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology, Department of Veteran Affairs
Read our discussion points… and add your thoughts… after the break…
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Written by cdorobek

April 21, 2011 at 5:39 PM