Run a workshop, build a network

Post-it notes detailing impacts of global warming on Vietnam.

Impacts by Jonathan O'Donnell, on Flickr

There are lots of reasons to run a workshop: A new research direction or government policy, a need for some strategic thinking, or a conundrum to tussle over. Whatever the reason, a small workshop can be a stimulating and refreshing way to bring people together. You can take your eyes off the daily grind and take stock of what is going on around you.

However, if you decide to organise a workshop, you don’t necessarily want to take on the organisational grind on top of your daily grind. Keep it simple.

Here are my top five tips for keeping workshop organisation to a minimum:

1. No cost

If possible, avoid charging for the workshop. Don’t make people pay for dinner or a t-shirt. Just make it free.

By doing this, you will avoid tangling with the finance department. You won’t have to issue reciepts or refunds and won’t have to try to reconcile anything at the end. You won’t have people asking for discounts or need to set an early-bird date. You won’t be worrying about breaking even or making a loss. Much easier.

To make your workshop free, you will need to find a free venue and have somewhere handy where people can get good coffee in the morning, lunch at lunchtime and a drink at the end of the day. Funnily enough, most universities have these.

Making it free doesn’t mean not having a registration process. You need to know that someone is coming, and you need to keep your numbers manageable.

2. Know your limits

How many people can you manage? Personally, I find any group over 25 to be a bit unwieldy. I start to lose track of who is who, can’t tell if people are engaging with the discussion or doing their e-mail, and generally get nervous.

Keep in mind that there are logistical limits, too. How many people can fit in the room you have booked? How many people can that nearby restaurant or pub cope with? Whatever your upper limit is, work it out when you book your venue and then stick to it. Don’t be afraid to cut off registrations when you reach your limit.

Having said that, anything group smaller than a dozen probably isn’t going to generate much discussion.

3. Know your audience

If you are hosting a workshop, you will need to advertise it to get people to come. You need to be able to get your message out to people beyond your own personal network.

For the other people who are coming, the biggest costs related to attending a workshop turn out to be nothing related to the cost of attendance. Setting aside two whole days is a huge cost. Traveling to another city and paying for accommodation costs real money. To get bosses to approve their attendance, people will need to be able to provide a good reason. You need to provide them with that reason.

What is the key idea? Why does it excite you? Who do you want to have come? I mean really, really want to have come? Be brave – ring them up and invite them. Explain your idea and see if they bite. If they are the One Key Person, you may need to organise the event around their availability.

If the idea excites you and the key people are excited, too, then you probably have enough to convince people to attend. Write it up, send it out, and ask people to circulate it.

Make your registration page open and let people know that they can see who is coming. I’ve used Google Docs to do this in the past.  I made a form that people filled in, which went straight into a spreadsheet of registrations. As people register, send out regular updates. Ask registrants to spread the word through their networks. Remind them that the workshop will be more fun if their friends attend; ask them to push it out through their networks, too.

4. No program

Consider taking a leaf out of the Unconference (or Open Space Technology or THATCamp) book, and don’t have a program. Or, at least, don’t try to set the program before the workshop. Instead,  at the start of each day, ask people to write their their issues and presentations on a whiteboard or on post-it notes on a wall.  If there are more topics than slots, use a simple voting system, like having people tick the sessions they would attend.  This will make things more fluid and allow new topics to bubble up on the second day.

In a strange way, having no program means that it becomes even more important to be clear about what the value of attending the workshop will be. Imagine someone going in to tell their boss about it, and asking for two days’ leave (plus an airfare and accommodation in your city). Normally, they would have submitted a paper, or would at least have a program to show the key people who would be speaking. Without that, they will have to work twice as hard to convince their boss. And that means that you need to work twice as hard…

As a side note: If your workshop is trying to resolve an issue or reach consensus on an issue, I recommend the KJ-Technique. I’ve used it before and it worked remarkably well. It is a process that allows a group to reach an understanding without being diverted by internal power-plays, arguments over definitions, special cases, or the myriad other distractions of group decision-making.

5. No Internet or Know your Internet

If you can’t provide a clear, trouble-free wireless Internet connection with plenty of power points nearby, let people know when they register. That way, they won’t be disappointed when they can’t tweet, look up interesting sites, or check their e-mail during the workshop.

If, on the other hand, you think that you can provide good wireless connections, do so, and do so early. At least a week before workshop, have someone bring their laptop to the venue, give them the wireless Internet instructions and observe. Watch for problems with the instructions or actual connection. You might need to rewrite the instructions yourself, or contact your local IT support to sort out some problems. It’s always better to check a week before, rather than fail on the day!

Above all, try to relax and enjoy the event. This is the bit that I find the hardest. I’m a frenzied ball of anxiety beforehand and a deflated sorry mess afterwards (no matter how well it goes).

Please note that this post is a edited compilation of three previous posts to other blogs:

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt.

2 Responses to Run a workshop, build a network

  1. Adam says:

    Couldn’t agree more with this. In a previous role I used to be heavily involved in organising one day workshops and other conferences, and I can’t begin to tell you how much easier it is when you don’t have to charge for attendance or faff around with lunch bookings. By not charging you’ll certainly avoid “tangling with your finance department”, but in many cases and in many institutions they’ll thank you for it. I remember a one day conference that we ran that did generate a financial surplus…. until you factor in the additional costs of collecting payment.

    From the point of view of the attender, a “free” event is much easier to sell to whoever approves expenditure on these kinds of things. In a UK-context, I used to advise prospective workshop holders to time the event to try to avoid the need for overnight accommodation by running 10am-4pm, but with much greater distances/travelling time in Australia I’d imagine that’s not really an option.

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Absolutely, Adam! I couldn’t believe how much easier my life became when I took away the requirement to charge money. It was a revelation to me.

      With regard to travel time in Australia, it depends on whether your audience is in your city or not. Within a city, one day is fine. Otherwise, people have to fly in. I’ve flown from Melbourne to Brisbane (1,300 km or 850 miles, as the crow flies) and back in a day. Never again!

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