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Chris G. Williams Beware: I mix tech and personal interests here.
At the beginning of the MVP Summit, we had these talks called Open Spaces. The idea behind this was a free exchange of ideas with little or no agenda... just a topic. It's been done other places with varying degrees of success, but unfortunately the sessions I attended would have to be classified as a failure.

Why?

The first problem was the lack of moderation. We had a facilitator, but honestly he lacked a strong enough personality to reign the group in. It eventually got to the point where an MVP stepped up and started running the session. If I didn't know the guy, I would have thought it was arranged.

The second problem, and this isn't Microsoft's fault, is that our topic comes with a room full of egos. The topic was User Group Community and the room was mostly full of User Group Leaders. It's understood that there's a certain amount of ego involved in running a user group. It's not for the timid or the shy. You have to be willing to get up in front of people and considering yourself a leader certainly helps.

The problem is, there's a lot of folks who are convinced that they way they do things is the only possible way it should be done. Now, it may certainly be the only way that could work for "their personal group dynamic, in their town, at that time" but I can assure you as someone who has started and led 3 different user groups in 3 different states, there is NO "one-size-fits-all" solution for running a user group.

So we had a few folks that had very different opinions about what constitutes best practices. That's GREAT!! That's what open spaces are all about.  Unfortunately, some of these folks lacked certain social graces, like knowing how to take turns, waiting for others to finish speaking, you know... things our society considers polite...  and that is when the trouble started.

(Before you start warming up my inbox, yes I understand that this was a Global Summit, and yes there are cultures other than our own present, but the major repeat offenders in this case were all of the local culture and most definitely should have known better. Most of our foreign guests were actually quite polite and patiently waited for their turn to speak... a turn which sadly often never arrived.)

Without fail, every time the conversation would fork in an interesting direction, one of these egos would just start shouting over everyone else and inevitably steer the "discussion" back to their own agenda and their own experiences.

Examples of things that should never occur or be discussed at an event like this:
  • legal advice (even if you're in the same state as the person you are "advising," if you aren't a lawyer please refrain from dispensing legal advice. It doesn't matter if you're right. It doesn't matter if your brother is a  lawyer. Just don't do it.)
  • unethical fund-raising (to the guy who sells his user group members contact information. Shame on you.)
  • discouraging new speakers (seriously? were you born with the gift of public speaking? I sure wasn't.)
  • elitism / exclusivity (yes there are groups out there that actively discourage novices from joining. If you want to form an experts only group, that's fine but don't complain about lack of INETA or community support.)
This session was held twice, to accommodate folks who wanted to attend a different session during one of the two time slots. I sat through both sessions, and while the second session was definitely more on track than the first, it could have been a lot better.

Don't get the wrong impression. Some good points were made, even by some of the egos, but ultimately I think the message was lost in the medium. Posted on Friday, April 18, 2008 1:24 PM General Interest | Back to top


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