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The Wisdom of the Crowd

Great minds think alike, apparently. But I’ve seen first-hand evidence that a great many minds all working on the same task can produce far more solutions, and better decisions, than any single member or handful – even when that handful includes genuine experts on the subject. This revelation was brilliantly demonstrated at the recent Inside Internal Comms Conference organised by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

The event, which took place on 7 November at The Oval Cricket Ground, was teeming with inspiring speakers and great new ideas. A lot of these didn’t require any technological input, but at the same time, the potential was there for many of them to incorporate and benefit from technology.

Just to set the scene for this inspirational event, I’d like to introduce Max McKeown – @maxmckeown – who wowed the audience with a giant pen, which he used to scribble on great white canvasses positioned around the stage. His message revolved around the past, present and future – each section occupying a third of the space, to form the shape of a bow tie. The Past (stage left) appeared convergent, the Future (stage right), divergent, while the Present was depicted in the central narrow band. Thankfully, Max spared the two projector screens, but by the end of his session he had managed to cover 12 square metres of canvas with his spectacular infographic. I have no doubt that members of the audience will retain a vivid memory of his entertaining and visually impactful session.

But back to the conference’s main theme – that of crowdsourcing –  a subject very close to my own heart. Throughout the event we saw how technology and other techniques can capture the wisdom of a crowd and produce a rich and varied mix of responses, which collectively solve problems, reveal insights and generate understanding. And this doesn’t have to be restricted to a crowd gathered together in the same space; thanks to technology contributors can be scattered all over the world.

Here at Crystal we’ve been able to help clients unleash this powerful process using interactive technology – in fact, you could say that it’s our core purpose. But it doesn’t always require technology to produce brilliant insights, as can be seen from this story.

Earlier this year, Managing Director Chris Elmitt, was asked to facilitate at an event organised by Rapport Events for their client, a Japanese pharmaceutical company. The event included a fascinating team-building exercise, which was led by Alan Chambers, the polar adventurer. He split the delegates into table teams, and challenged the teams to decide between them which, out of 75 options, would be the 50 items that he had selected to take with him on his very first polar expedition. Each of the 75 items was displayed on a playing card, so it was quick and easy for the table teams to pick their Top 50.

The teams had a huge incentive to win, because the reward for those who came up with the nearest match to his actual travel pack contents would get to sign a flag and have it taken by Alan to the South Pole. As souvenir photos go, that would be some trophy!

Being a former teacher and student of human nature, Chris played his part in ensuring a level playing field in what turned out to be quite an involved process. So once the teams had picked their Top 50 cards, Chris collected the remaining 25 from each table (just to be sure there were no after-the-event swaps). This gave Chris a heap of 750 cards, which he manually sorted. Intriguingly, Chris discovered how many polar bear repellent sprays were discarded in the heap; and how many teams had deemed a hat (for temperatures of  -50 degrees) or a toothbrush surplus to requirements!

The sorting process produced about 40 piles of cards, from which Chris identified the 25 most discarded cards. This, naturally, revealed the 50 cards that had been most selected across the board.

So where does crowdsourcing come into all this? The Top 50 that had been selected collectively by the entire group created by far and away the closest match to the actual items taken by Alan on his expedition. No single group – not even the tables that included mountaineers, experienced skiers and outdoor pursuits fanatics came up with a higher score. This is all the more fascinating considering that the entire audience was a total mix of backgrounds and experiences – including some less gung-ho individuals who might define Kew Gardens as The Great Outdoors.

From this we can say that it is possible for crowds to produce the best solutions and the best decisions. And in the events industry, an audience provides a ready-made crowd, offering the potential to generate new ideas, solve problems and identify key issues.

So even without the creativity of Rapport or the example of Alan Chambers we have the technological wherewithal to enable them to collectively produce wisdom.

iPad mini: size matters

Less than one year ago the iPad mini entered the hand-held device market – to mixed reviews. Some of the journalists who had been so excited about the original iPad have found it harder to embrace the smaller version. Either they took issue with the cost, saying that £269 was too high a price in comparison with the Samsung/ Google Nexus tablet; or they had problems with the touch screen keyboard, which they found too small for anything other than browsing.

We at Crystal had no such qualms, and our confidence in the product has proved well-founded. We have invested rapidly in the iPad mini since February and now boast a fleet of over 650 devices – to meet a level of unprecedented demand. So how is it that the iPad mini has fought-off the dissenters and gained so many fans in the events industry?

One of the key advantages has to be portability. Just imagine an event with an audience of 600, occupying a plenary theatre, five breakout rooms and roughly a mile of corridor – all of which translates to 40 WiFi access points. We ran one such event, and issued iPad 2s to each attendee. The event app comprised over 100 pages and was customised for 30 separate country profiles. It had the ability to receive 10 different session evaluations, 20 parallel voting sessions and five Q&A sessions. It took Crystal 35 days to develop, programme and project-manage the app, which, even by our standards, represented a hefty challenge. And at the end of all of this, we had the soul-destroying experience of witnessing 30 delegates handing-in their iPads before the end of the conference, on the grounds that they were “too heavy”.

It seems that in spite of the fact that many of us are delighted to own a full-size iPad, when it comes to attending a conference, which entails a fair amount of walking around, we don’t want to be encumbered by something of that size, and we don’t have anything to put it in.

You can see this theory borne out by rail travellers using iPads. People use their full-size device when seated at tables, but having the mini extends usability for standing in corridors, crouching down or even sitting on the floor.

And then there’s desirability. In today’s status-conscious world we’re keen to get our hands on the latest technology. We can’t know what the must-have craze will be in 18 months time, but we do know that our clients are currently very ‘into’ iPad minis, even if another equally efficient Android device is less expensive and could do the job just as well.

Functionality is definitely a key factor. Anyone who knows their way around an iPad will find themselves on familiar territory with the iPad mini, which features the exact-same screen resolution, identical processor and even the same battery life as its big brother, the iPad 2. So we’ve been able to transfer all the apps that were previously used to run on full-sized iPads, onto minis, with no difficulty at all.

But what about the keyboard? The presumed drawback with the iPad mini would be the reduction in screen size, but we have already been supporting audience interactivity at events using iPhone and Android phones, as well as the iPod Touch and the Blackberry Curve for the last two years, and we’ve been impressed by the amount of information that has been communicated through these devices. It’s been possible to collect as much as 40 pages of inputted text from a group of, say, 100 delegates.

Now, given that the keyboard of the iPad mini in landscape orientation is the same as that of the iPad 2 keyboard in portrait, our delegates will have no problem in expressing themselves and collaborating on the smaller devices.

The final consideration has to be deployment. iPads have become popular tools even for large events – clients certainly grasped their benefits very quickly – and have ordered them in considerable quantities. But there’s no getting away from the fact that shipping, charging and distributing these devices takes a lot of effort and space. It’s not that long ago that a keypad operator could arrive at an event carrying 300 keypads in a suitcase, together with a laptop in which all the voting software was installed, but iPads are a far cry from all that in terms of spatial requirements. Enter the iPad mini, immediately cutting the space requirement by a half and reducing the amount of on-site support needed. When you factor-in the reduced cost of shipping and the attendant carbon savings, it’s a clear winner.

So we believe, and our clients seem to agree, that Small is Beautiful, and the iPad mini manages tick all the boxes as a highly sophisticated and user-friendly piece of kit. For the moment at least.

Inside the Mind of the Delegate

We’re all inclined to assume that everyone thinks the way we do. But the reality is that even in a group of people who seemingly have a lot in common – neighbours, classmates or even family members – there will be a wide divergence of opinions and attitudes on the same topic. Each of us sees the world from our own very personal perspective.

Not surprisingly, in the workplace the same set of circumstances will elicit differing reactions within a group of colleagues. And having supported many hundreds of conferences and meetings, we at Crystal have found this to be particularly evident amongst attending delegates. This person dreads being randomly ‘picked-on’ by the facilitator, while that one is itching to get their hands on the roving mic. One person ‘loves’ the grazing food stations; another laments the lack of restaurant seating. Which is how a set of post event questionnaires can include evaluations of ‘informative and educational’ as well as ‘dry and tedious’ for one and the same conference. Such responses stem from each individual’s personality blueprint, and will influence their overall engagement with the event.

So – understanding and accommodating such a wide range of personality drivers is not only critical to engaging fully with every member of your audience, but on a strategic level it’s key to proving your event’s value and ensuring its ongoing viability.

I recently had the opportunity to demonstrate this at The Summer Eventia – the annual conference for professionals working in the events industry: a busman’s holiday for meeting organisers and their partner organisations.

Our audience members were segmented into four recognised personality profiles, and I asked them to put themselves into the mindset of their allotted type (I should stress here that gender is immaterial; the names were selected randomly). So Group One took on the mantle of ‘Karen Conscientious’ – a diligent worker, a great organiser who enjoys preparation, process and detail. This person will become stressed when overworked, being unwilling to compromise on quality and struggling to achieve too many tasks well.

Our second group became the ‘Tommy Teamsters’ – representing a big picture thinker who loves to lead a harmonious team. Detail doesn’t interest this person; they don’t like surprises or impulsive decision-making; they seek consensus, and are anxious to keep the ship moving forward on an even keel.

Then came the ‘Mary Mavericks’ – a personality profile displaying energy, passion and drive. The Marys of this world make things happen; they’re adventurous, fun to be around and have little patience with the steady, considered logic of their cautious analytical colleagues.

Our final group embodied ‘Dan Driven’ – the leader of the gang. This person is a decision-maker and problem-solver who seizes and enjoys responsibility, but often displays insensitivity and selfishness. They are supremely confident in trusting their instincts and less likely to ask for advice or input.

It soon became clear that whatever the overall objective of the event – whether to manage change, for example, to inform, to generate new ideas or to introduce new ways of working – the task of devising a conference agenda that will engage multiple personality types is quite a challenge.

In the session, our groups were tasked with planning a typical conference agenda. They quickly realised that while a surprise outdoor team-building exercise would delight the adventurous Marys and the quick-witted Dans, it could take the Karens of this world out of their comfort zones. Similarly, a lengthy and detailed SWOT analysis could irritate the more impulsive and decisive delegates.

The solution to this conundrum is not about reducing the agenda to a safe ‘one size fits all’ programme – but instead an opportunity to anticipate the reactions and responses of varying personality types and to build-in content that will speak to their individual drivers.

In a recent blog I talked about the wisdom of crowds, and the realisation that a collective response from a group of individual contributors is invariably more valuable and insightful than any single response – even from an expert. In the same way, a creatively-designed agenda will not only ensure engagement from the greatest number of delegates, but will maximise their collaborative powers and involve them all in reaching valuable outcomes that meet the event’s original objectives.

We have found that interaction as an event feature is far more likely to have a net positive impact on delegates than any other aspect of an event, and there are numerous ways of incorporating interactivity into the programme.

So if this has set you thinking about your own next event’s agenda, read our white paper Inside the Mind of the Delegate which can be downloaded by completing the form here.

The Collective Genius

Having taught different groups for most of my adult life, including many conference and meeting audiences, I find it fascinating to watch inspiring leaders teach people to master new skills or glean insights that they hadn’t previously possessed. It’s so valuable to be able to take away knowledge or good practice from an event that you will be able to carry forward into your working life.

And there’s a broader perspective to this thinking. It’s actually possible to help an entire group of people to improve their performance. I had the opportunity to demonstrate this at a recent Masterclass organised jointly by the QEII Conference Centre and leading events agency, Zibrant.

The event was attended by 30 events industry professionals and it focused on ways in which conference attendees can be engaged – not just during an event, but before and afterwards as well.

Details of speakers and the range of content presented at the Masterclass can be found on the event app here:

My own session dealt with on-the-day audience engagement, and I was keen to share a model for use in the event planning stage – which showed how to design an agenda that incorporates various forms of engagement. (To see this, just click the icon in the app for ‘Content’).

From years of audience observation, we have discovered that most agendas can be split into the following objectives – each of which can be addressed in an active or a passive way:

• Sharing (imparting or receiving) information
• Teaching or learning a skill
• Establishing a change in delegate attitudes or behaviours
• Collaborating to produce new ideas

We have shown some examples of achieving these objectives on the Crystal app.

The delegates attending the Masterclass were tasked with working on the last of the listed objectives – collaborating to produce new ideas. The plan was firstly to get delegates into the mindset of generating ideas, and then to see if the creative thought process could be improved upon when people worked collectively in a group. To make the exercise fun and entertaining, the group was asked to brainstorm to identify ‘101 different uses for a paperclip.’

We gave each of the delegates one of Crystal’s iPad minis – enabling them to contribute their ideas anonymously. All participants could see the list of suggestions growing in real time, both on their individual devices and on the main screen. In just under two minutes the group had collectively passed the 100-mark.

In addition to the more predictable suggestions, we logged some quite extraordinary ideas. For example, it’s possible to make a compass with just some water, a piece of silk and a paperclip!

The sparks really began to fly with the next stage of the experiment. We began with a group review of the process, looking at how the session had worked, and coming up with some new approaches for Round Two. For this session the group was asked to brainstorm ‘101 excuses for being late’.

This time the delegates reached their target in just over 45 seconds, which was half the time they had taken to complete the earlier task.

From start to finish, the exercise took only six minutes. Although the delegates’ problem-solving abilities weren’t exactly tested to their limits, we certainly demonstrated that large group processes can be designed to not only gather the wisdom of the crowd but also to maximise it.

Is free WiFi in our best interests?

There is been an evolution in thinking about Wi-Fi access in venues over the last few years. As the need for connectivity increased, event organisers came to see this as a priority. And progressively, venue-bookers began to stipulate that Wi-Fi should be provided at no cost as part of the deal. Some went as far as to say that if free WiFi wasn’t included when responding to an RFP, that proposal wouldn’t be considered. My own thinking at that time was: “Absolutely right. The future has got to be “free WiFi for all.”

But more recently it has begun to dawn on me that while the best things in life may be free, when it comes to WiFi, ‘free’ may not be the best or wisest solution for large group events.

Going back a step or two, let’s first look at the way many venues sell WiFi and see if there’s scope for improvement there. We have found it to be incredibly tedious – almost designed to frustrate and discourage. First step: turn on computer and attempt WiFi connection. A window opens instructing you to collect the magic code from reception. Next step: wait for lift, descend to reception and stand in queue behind the couple checking-in, the man who’s lost his key and the woman asking directions to the restaurant. Step three: return to computer, key-in 16 digit code and finally get online. Only to have to repeat the whole process all over again the next morning. When you think that you can buy all your Christmas presents on Amazon from the comfort of your armchair in just a few clicks, at midnight, you have to wonder why the massed brains of the hotel industry couldn’t come up with a more efficient process for their business (and indeed leisure) customers to purchase WiFi.

So let’s make the provision of Wi-Fi more streamlined, but let’s also have a think about whether it’s in our individual and collective best interests to get it provided absolutely free.

A few scenarios will help you decide on your WiFi charging priorities:

Imagine you are managing a conference and it emerges early on in the proceedings that a technical problem at the venue results in WiFi being unavailable until the next day. Are you a) severely inconvenienced because the delegates are likely to give poor feedback at the disrupted communication, or b) not particularly worried because WiFi access wasn’t required as part of the programme?

Are your delegates using WiFi for a): uploading event content to the web, and receiving important details about the event, its agenda, sponsors and speakers? Or b): purely personal use outside of the event programme?

What will your WiFi consumption look like? a) delegates using three or more devices each to connect to the internet, or b) delegates using one or fewer devices throughout the event?

Are you expecting your delegates to be accessing WiFi a) throughout the venue? Or b) only in designated areas, such as the lobby? In terms of volume access, do you envisage a) 100% of your delegates needing to connect to the internet all the time, or b) fewer than 50% of delegates connecting for less than half of the time?

Is it probable that a) there will be lots of groups at the venue all having to share the venue’s WiFi resource or b) the venue will be providing a dedicated resource exclusively for your delegates?

You can see where I’m going with this… anybody who answered a) to the above questions is going to need ample WiFi resource with no risk of downtime. In which case it’s much too important a component of the event to ‘hope for the best’ – and clearly a reasonable budget will need to be allocated to ensure sufficient and unbroken access. Based on my own experience, I can confidently say that it’s highly unlikely that a venue could satisfy 100% of its users 100% of the time with free WiFi. Of course, if your answers were mainly b)s you can sleep easy in the knowledge that the free WiFi provision will meet your needs.

Realistically, the future is likely to see increasing demand for WiFi, and the smart solution is to have a conversation with your venue early on in the planning stage, to discover firstly how much capacity is available and secondly what it would cost to meet your WiFi requirements. Many venues still work on the assumption that only a few delegates will need internet access, and certainly not all of them at the same time, which would constitute pretty heavy usage. Based on the outcome of that conversation your options may be to upgrade the venue’s Wi-Fi provision; to change the agenda so that it relies less on WiFi; or to consider moving the event to a better-resourced venue.

It’s quite possible that a third party provider could meet the venue’s WiFi shortfall – but issues of this kind really should be addressed at the planning stage – if you leave it until the last minute your options are severely restricted and you are likely to be obliged to pay through the nose to solve the problem.

As you can imagine, internet connectivity has been high on Crystal’s own list of priorities for many years, and we suffered the pains of patchy WiFi long enough to take this issue very seriously. To us, the inclusion of sufficient Wi-Fi resource should sit right at the top of the meeting planner’s check-list, alongside other key priorities such as car parking, easy airport access and natural daylight meeting space.