Thursday, August 16, 2007

An environmentally-friendly conference...

Just received an e-mail calling for submissions to an academic conference with a difference - delegates are to meet online only. Below is excerpted from the invitation:
The Fit Project at the Open University is proud to be hosting the 1st International e-Conference on Fit. It will take place online (the environmentally-friendly way of getting colleagues together) on the 20th-22nd November 2007 and it is completely free. (original emphasis)
I'm sure this is not the first e-conference to be held in virtual space, but it is the first in the management field that I'm aware of, with the discipline not related to information management or e-commerce or some such. No, this is a "traditional" HR conference that has chosen to be conducted online, for expressly environmental reasons. (Though of course, with the organisers being from Open University, they are used to long-distance/virtual delivery of materials).

To be honest, my first reaction was a bit negative, for I'm kinda sadden by the prospect that, if this is the way for all academic conferences in the future, there won't be any more visits to other interesting places in the world that allow me to combine work and pleasure (see for example here and here) and let me experience another culture first hand, and I won't be able to meet my overseas PhD friends in real life and catch up with them with drinks in a real bar and have memorable meals at wonderful restaurants around the world...

At the same time though, I am really glad that we academics are walking the talk and changing the way we do business in a more environmentally-friendly direction. By doing our own little bit to reduce excessive air travel (the big conferences attract a few thousand delegates each, most of whom would travel by return flights, and many of these in turn would involve long-distance flights; so the carbon-footprint of academic conferences is actually quite big when one comes to think of it, especially when one considers also that a typical academic will usually attend at least a couple of these conferences per year), we are no longer simply concerned with the hypothesis of green living, but its actual practice (which is particularly pertinent to the debate I was having with Raymond Poon over on his blog).

Looking at the conference site in more details, the papers are restricted to 4 A4 pages "for ease of online viewing", but there are still going to be keynote speakers and workshops, as well as a conference presentation schedule. This makes me curious as to what technology they would use to achieve these, especially when the registration is free and the conference aims to be inclusive: live podcasts? Youtube clips? online discussion forums and chat rooms? IMs and Yahoo groups? Facebook even? While it's extremely common practice for academic conferences and workshops to have online registration and to hold papers and abstracts on their conference site for delegates' review before the conference (in fact, the internet is essential for the conference paper reviewing process when reviewers come from all four corners of the world), and some have also taken to providing online messaging system during the conference itself to facilitate delegate networking, I have yet to come across a non-TM/IM conference to run itself completely online. How will the delegates interact with each other when meeting only in virtual space? Would they produce more learned debates because of the text-based format? How will the organisers plan their conference schedule to accommodate the different time zones? Will there be space for delegates to socialise with one another beyond presentations and workshops? Would they still develop the same kind of conference camaraderie when not meeting face to face? Will there be a virtual conference dinner, perhaps via Facebook apps? (Oh I forgot, the registration is free, so there won't be any din-dins, virtual or not).

Although my field is not HR, the format of the conference is intriguing enough for me to consider signing up, just to "see" what happens.

[update: on an even closer read, the conference organisers have already answered many of my above questions:
We hope that the e-conference will be more than the presentation and discussion of research-oriented papers. There will be a cafe zone where delegates can catch-up, renew acquaintances and, hopefully, form new friendships. There will also be a surgery where you can submit your in-progress papers for friendly critique. There will be a teaching zone which provides ideas for people who want to communicate fit-related ideas to students. And there will be a noticeboard where you can publicise any fit-related matters.
Hmm, sounds interesting, I wonder what the cafe zone would actually be like? Would academics don online avatars to chat in this virtual cafe? Ermm... probably not on second thoughts, I don't think we're that creative yet]

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