Conferences: Between Onsite and Virtual

An obvious unavoidable result of the Coronavirus is that conferences are cancelled.  The obvious solutions are either delaying the onsite conference to better times or move to virtual conferencing.  This is what happened to the TOCICO annual conference, which was planned for June 22-24 in Paris, and has been cancelled.  Instead, TOCICO is going to organize a virtual conference based on the best available technology.  A virtual conference is not able to fully replace an onsite one, certainly not when the conference is planned for a great city like Paris.  But, it can offer other benefits.

The Coronavirus only accelerated a basic need to find a proper solution for large scale conferences so people can join without having to travel and without the associated costs of running such big events.  This need is especially critical for international conferences.

Technology for good video communications exists for a number of years and it becomes better and better.  Yet, there are certain deficiencies with video distance communication, which are not technological.  The most serious negative outcome of replacing an onsite conference with a virtual one is the lack of face-to-face communication.  There are several aspects that make face-to-face more valuable than using distance communication technologies.

  • The emotional value of meeting a person is much higher in face-to-face meeting. When all the senses are activated, plus the sense of an occasion of meeting a meaningful figure who lives far away, the overall experience is considerably stronger.  This emotional pleasure is best achieved in the mingling that takes place at breaks and dinners during an onsite conference.
  • Even when the communication is based on just rational exchange of knowledge, which is typical to presentations, it seems that the quality of the knowledge transfer is more effective in live contact.
    • Even in such rational flow of ideas, based on logic, there are emotional controls that establish trust or the lack of it. These control mechanisms seem to work more effectively in onsite conferences.  During a live presentation a human being is not just judging the content of what is said, but also the reaction of the crowd, which cannot be fully replicated in any distance communication technology.
  • The ability of a listener to concentrate seems better when no external disturbances are competing on the limited attention capacity. Listening to the computer or the smartphone at home/office is unavoidably exposed to many distractions.

What new benefits can be generated by a virtual conference?

The most obvious benefit of a virtual conference is that its cost is far lower, both for the participants and for the organizers.  This is on top, of course, of the special impact of the current health crisis, where people from all over the world are stuck at home.

On the face of it a virtual conference can easily accommodate more presentations, giving a wider choice to the participants.  But, the negative (branch) of offering too wide choice is overall less impact and somewhat reduced quality of the conference as a whole.  In an actual conference there is a need to offer a full program for every track throughout the whole day.  A virtual conference can spread truly good and effective presentations in more days, say just three net hours of presentations a day.  By lowering the daily load of new knowledge, covering more material in a longer period of time, this limitation of virtual conferencing is vastly reduced.

A truly special benefit of a virtual conference is the option to listen to the recordings of presentations that were missed, either because of parallel interesting presentations, or because the need to rest, still within the sense of occasion of the conference.  This option is one of several that are not possible in a live conference.

Higher quality of the presentations is the key advantage of virtual conferences!

First, the choice of speakers is wider, because the speakers are not required to come physically to the conference location. Secondly the presentations can be pre-recorded, so the quality of the picture and sound can be carefully monitored.  It also allows making more than one take of the presentation and choosing the better one.

Pre-recording the presentations gives an opportunity to add subtitles in English to the presentation, and based on them create subtitles in several other languages that the participants can choose.  From my personal perspective of non-English speaking country I can test to the importance of captions in English.  It is easier for me to watch movies in English on TV with captions in English, even though I understand 95% of the spoken text.  It also serves to overcome the difficulty of understanding different accents.  Creating the captions in English provides the option to translate the English subtitles to different languages and this opens the door for people with limited knowledge in English to participate.

While the presentations themselves are pre-recorded, it is possible to conduct live Q&A sessions.  This combination of recordings and live sessions has the potential to achieve an overall superior quality of delivering content and capture the audience reaction to the ideas.  One of the ideas we like to examine is to have two of three Q&A sessions within every presentation, making the content more approachable.

A considerable difficulty of an international virtual conference is the adherence to different time zones.  When the audience is spread all over the world, many people face a practical difficulty to attend the live sessions of Q&A.   A partial solution to this difficulty is asking the speakers to carry two sets of Q&A sessions with 10-12 hours apart to better fit the time zone of participants at the other side of the globe.

There are several software packages that manage virtual conferences.  On top of handling the presentations they provide chat rooms, so more intimate meetings with key presenters are made possible, compensating to a certain degree the ability to directly approach them during a break.

My own conclusion is that while I still would like to attend a live conference in an attractive location, virtual conferences, with the best speakers, can provide huge value and are so much more affordable.  Eventually this is a direction for the future.   It is not just that the technology that allows us to do something similar to an onsite conference from afar; we can capitalize the new virtues of the new technology to achieve new benefits.

Eleven years ago I’ve initiated the delivery of webinars for TOCICO.  This was a new and very excited experience for me.  Members of TOCICO have now more than 120 past webinars to watch at any time.  I personally look forward to experience my first virtual conference as a major vehicle to spread the most updated powerful knowledge of the Theory of Constraint (TOC), at an affordable price to whoever that is curious enough to know about.  I sincerely believe this is an opportunity for readers of The Goal to learn what TOC can do for their organizations.

Published by

Eli Schragenheim

My love for challenges makes my life interesting. I'm concerned when I see organizations ignore uncertainty and I cannot understand people blindly following their leader.

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