Round Table Sessions


As I mentioned previously, I recently attended the Gartner Open Source Summit. While there I participated in a new type of session Gartner has started moderating called a round table session, and I think it's a really cool idea.

When you attend a Gartner conference, you are eligible to sign up for one-on-one sessions with the Gartner analysts. This is a nice perk, since you usually have to pay for their time. However, the analysts found that often attendees only had one or two topics, and they would then just sit and stare at each other. Also, they would field the same topic from many different attendees. So they now host round table sessions where a maximum of 10 attendees sit down with two or three analysts and discuss a set of topics.

This type of session facilitates more discussion for the same reason a happy hour with 10 people is a whole lot louder than a happy hour with two. A few topics are pre-selected by sending out feelers before the conference, so that's how you decide which ones to attend. Once there, you have a general idea what you want to get out of it, but the conversation brings out many more ideas from all of the participants.

That's how Gartner does it. How should we do it (YAPC or OSCON)? Here's my sketch:

At the end of a day, the last session is a 1 hour block across the whole schedule. Each speaker who gets a talk accepted agrees to do a session on a topic related to their presentation. In some cases, you could have two speakers with similar topics work together. Attendees then sign up for the session with a strict limit of 10 attendees for the session. They bring their issues/questions/problems/ideas, etc. and discuss.

If you aren't interested or don't get a slot, this could also be a great time for BOFs. At OSCON, you could just go to the vendor floor.

Basically, this is a planned hallway session where you are guaranteed an "expert." I think it would prompt great dialogue. Plus, this formalizes those "after the session" conversations that start, but get rushed because the next session is starting.

A few details: you need one of the speakers to act as a moderator to control the session, move it along, keep it on track, etc. You also need a designated note-taker to make sure there are some notes for the meeting. Maybe track the final notes in the conference wiki?

Some questions I got when I presented it to our conferences group:

Q: Isn't this just a BOF?

A: Sort of, but with a few key differences. One, you're guaranteed an "expert" speaker. With a BOF, you don't know who will show up. There is more of an agenda, and less "what do you guys want to talk about?" The topics can be solicited ahead of time to make sure the sessions are of interest to people. Also, beginners will attend based on the list of topics where they may not attend a Birds of a Feather. If you have a beginning interest in a topic, you wouldn't necessarily show up at a BOF meeting about it.

Q: Why limit the number of people?

A: It keeps the group manageable. You want everyone to be able to get in a word or two and speak to the expert. You want enough people to facilitate discussion, but not so many that you can't get a word in edgewise.

Q: At YAPC there is enough free time to just meet the speakers on your own. Why have a session?

A: We've consistently seen that over 50% of the attendees at YAPCs are there for their first time. People at a conference for the first time are often intimidated and won't necessarily approach a speaker in the hall, especially if there is already a crowd. A designated session with pre-selected topics provides a much less intimidating forum to allow someone to ask some questions or participate in a discussion.

What are your thoughts? Would you attend such a session? Would it help you walk away with something more from the conference? Is it one more selling point for attending?


nice idea. but i wondering how many YAPC speakers are capable of moderate a panel like this?

but i would go for YAPC with or without it. ;-)

Good point. Maybe the conference organizers need to provide a designated facilitator. That person would probably be a volunteer, which means we'd probably need some sort of written guide for them. More things to document...

A similar sort of idea is used at the World Science Fiction convention (WorldCon) - an one hour round table limited to about 10 people get to talk with a SF personage. I got to spend an hour with Larry Niven and with Jim Gardner (not so famous, but he went to U of Waterloo and works for the same company as a friend of mine, so I have a connection with him), my wife had an hour with Harry Harrison.

Such an event is a mixture of gushing fan praise, with serious discussion (but that depends upon the particular individuals that sigh up). Panel discussions are also common at WorldCon, but those are open attendance sessions. (When you have a 4-day 20-track conference, you need a lot of different session to fill in the time slots.) The open attendance for these was critical. For one example among many I saw, during one panel discussion the talk went incidentally into rocket characteristics and an audience member who had been on the Saturn design team was able to comment authoritatively.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim Brandt published on December 22, 2005 5:32 PM.

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