Backchannels – how to make the most of a conference – even if you can’t attend!!

Learning professionals spend most of their time looking after other people’s learning needs, but this week’s #chat2lrn is for you to look after yourselves!

We are delighted to have a guest post from Dave Kelly aka @LnDDave who is going to share with us how to make the most of conference backchannels

With the end of the summer comes the start of another season of learning events like conferences that are held for learning and performance professionals. These events usually do not take place during the summer months, avoiding conflicts with personal vacations. So as the calendar turns from summer to fall, it also marks a time that more learning opportunities pop up on learning and performance professionals’ calendars.

One of the resources conference attendees use to engage in conference learning is participating in the conference’s backchannel. Each event I attend has more and more people participating in the backchannel than the previous event, as more and more people discover the value of the backchannel and participate for themselves. In the next #Chat2lrn Twitter chat, scheduled for August 30th at 8am PDT/11am EDT & 4pm BST, we’ll be exploring how to participate in a backchannel and how it can enhance your conference experience.

So what exactly is a backchannel? 

You may not have heard the term backchannel before, or you may have heard it but not really understand what it is and how it can help enhance your conference learning experience.  Here’s a snapshot of how I define a backchannel, excerpted from my post “What Exactly IS a backchannel?” 

Through social media (usually Twitter), conference attendees can share their thoughts and ideas about the information being shared with others.  It could be as simple as taking the notes I might normally compile for myself and sharing them with the world at large.  What’s more exciting about this sharing is it extends beyond just notes from the presentation. Conference attendees share their own thoughts and experiences about the content.  They share additional resources that add to those shared by the speakers.  In short, through their sharing, they expand the content and become a part of the presentation.

Even more powerful is that this sharing breaks through the walls of the session, sharing the content with anyone that is interested in reading it – even those that are not attending the session.  It is this sharing and expansion of content during a live event that is referred to as ‘The Backchannel’.

Of course, you really can’t fully appreciate the the value of a conference backchannel until you participate and immerse yourself in one. The challenge with that is that many people don’t think about participating in a conference backchannel until they are actually AT the conference. In most cases, it’s too late at that point. The time to consider preparing to participate in a backchannel is weeks ahead of the event itself. It’s at that point that you should create or fine tune your online profile and familiarize yourself with the tools and techniques utilized to participate. It’s like riding a bicycle: I enjoy a bike ride because I can focus on the riding experience without having to focus on the actual mechanics of balance and riding the bike. You want your ability to use a Twitter tool to be almost unconscious so that you can focus on engagement with the backchannel, not on how to use the tool.  For more tips on getting yourself ready to participate in a conference backchannel, check out this post: How to Participate in the mLearn Conference Backchannel (#mLearnCon). It’s written specifically for this year’s mLearn Conference, but the instructions apply to any conference you may be attending.

During our #Chat2lrn discussion, I’ll be sharing some of the tips I’ve learned over the years from following, participating, and curating conference backchannels, and I invite others to participate in the chat and share their tips as well.

We’d also like to crowdsource the questions we pose during this chat. Is there a specific question you would like to see explored during the chat? If so, please share it with us. You can contact me directly via Twitter, on my facebook page, or by posting a tweet using the #chat2lrn hashtag.

Intra-transparency & Openness: Guest Post by Mark Britz

We are delighted to have Mark Britz as our guest blogger this week to prompt our discussion about Intra-transparency & openness.  Think about how transparency and openness, or the lack, might affect your organization, and bring your thinking caps to our chat this Thursday!

Welcome Mark!

Intra-Transparency and Openness

To begin let’s find common ground. Transparency and Openness are two quite popular terms today that often are used interchangeably and, although similar in relationship, are not identical. Here may be one way to think about it.

Transparency is not necessarily permeable. There is a membrane that separates the visible activities from those viewing them (ever see a mitochondria under a microscope?). Transparency should not be confused with invisibility either. With transparency, the membrane surrounding the activities is visible; a structure is clearly in place so the activities do not interact with those outside the membrane. Zoos then are transparent; Observers are free to observe but not to touch, or physically interfere. In organizations, similar membranes can exist, such as hierarchies.

Openness, however, allows a more free association between actions. A more permeable layer exists. With openness, interaction is not only welcome, it’s encouraged. Openness, to continue the zoo analogy, is more like a petting zoo; observers are free to observe but also to touch, stroke, feed and play. Through these interactions, the observers are co-creating the experience for all involved. Openness in organizations means that involvement between different groups takes place.

As noted, transparency and openness are typically discussed in terms of business, politics and government. But these two ideas are ultimately about people and their conscious decision to be transparent and open, as well as their actions and decisions within each action that encourages or defeats transparency and openness.

Most attention today is on transparency and openness at public, or “inter”, levels. And more and more are learning the importance of these ideas for themselves as they individually build Personal Learning Networks outside of the organization. It’s critical that the “intra” exists to invite innovation, flatten inhibiting hierarchies and create thinking, feeling organizations.

Can an organization be transparent and open externally, yet not so internally? Or is the lack of internal openness in the face of external openness unsustainable, as the hypocrisy will ultimately cause the organization to implode? And can the opposite ever be true? Can an organization with a transparent system maintain a closed public-facing persona, or is the membrane between intra in internets too thin?

It would seem, then, that there would need to be a mirroring of sorts as an organization is ultimately an organization of people, and people, being inherently social, are now endowed with tools to amplify, expand and connect their ideas and actions.

Clive Thompson, Wired Magazine stated:

“… The reputation economy creates an incentive to be more open, not less. Since Internet commentary is inescapable, the only way to influence it is to be part of it. Being transparent, opening up, posting interesting material frequently and often is the only way to amass positive links to yourself and thus to directly influence your Googleable reputation.”

-Thompson, Clive (March 2007). “The See-Through CEO”. Wired.

Being truly transparent and open as individuals in an organization is much more than simply posting “interesting material”, a link, or narrating our work using social media tools. Although these tools do make it easier to communicate, that communication is hollow if it is devoid of opinions, challenge and even dissent. Transparency is a good and noble goal, but membranes that only reveal the interworking, allowing flaws to be seen but not corrected, fall short.

Openness is a major progression and, on an individual level, is scary, especially in uncertain economic times. But without openness, trust cannot exist (look at any good marriage). Openness must be welcomed within and across levels. It should not only be encouraged, but modeled and acknowledged. Workers locked in industrial era ideas about work, hierarchies and jobs need to know that it’s safe to reveal their own strengths, weaknesses and opinions to truly move the organization.

Former CEO Margaret Heffernan in a recent TED Talk titled Dare to Disagree stated:

“Most of the biggest catastrophes that we’ve witnessed rarely come from info that is secret or hidden. It comes from info that is freely available – we can’t, don’t want to handle the conflict it provokes. When we create conflict we enable the people around us to do their very best thinking.”

On April 14th, 1912 The SS Titanic, led by Captain E.J. Smith, moving at a reported 22 knots, raced to New York City. Ignoring warnings, foregoing lifeboat drills and maintaining a dangerous (record breaking) pace, she struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic. Hours later, she lay at the bottom of the ocean with over 1,500 tragically lost lives. In hindsight, the information was widely available, yet no one, it seems, challenged the decisions that had been made.

What prevented the crew from influencing decisions? What if transparency, and especially openness, had existed amongst the White Star Line’s layers of leadership?

Today the economy is strained; workers and organizations have an equal stake in the survival game. Never has the ability to connect been easier. Never before has the ability to have conversations become more available; to extend and expand ideas over time and space. Sharing information is not enough, processing ideas is not enough, filtering out the noise is not enough. Transparency and openness are needed, yet can they truly rise above and avoid the fate of becoming nebulous buzz words like engagement or synergy?

“Open information is fantastic, open networks are essential – but the truth won’t set us free until we develop the skills, the habit and the talent and the moral courage to use it.”
“Openness is not the end, it’s the beginning.”

– Margaret Heffernan

Please join us on Thursday 16 August at 16.00 BST/11.00EDT/08.00PDT to discuss intra-transparency & openness in our organizations.  Share your thoughts about how much you agree with Mark, the implications for your organization, and what, if anything, we can do about it.

Looking forward to seeing you there! 

Mark Britz

Mark Britz

Mark describes himself as Manager of Learning Solutions, Social & Informal learning aficionado, eLearning Designer, ISD, Intapreneur, CNY ASTD President and #lrnchat -er. You can find Mark on Twitter at and read his blog at