The first annual Talent Unconference has come and gone. I promised my friends at SimplyHired that I would write a quick post about any insights that I gained from the conference. There were so many valuable experiences, so many rich learning experiences, that it was a bit hard to select just one. Then, during the night, it struck me: it's all about meaningful connections.
The Unconference was the manifestation of a firmly held belief: you have to give before you get. It was not an end in-and-of itself, but rather one more step on a path of trying to inspire a community that can achieve substantial and sustainable ends. We are all part of a "Talent Community", a community that consists of all those who work towards the end of turning human potential into positive social and economic progress. This community includes parents, educators, business people, innovators, recruiters and HR professionals. While we may see our day-to-day tasks as fundamentally different, we are in fact all working toward that goal: "positive social and economic progress."
To date this community has largely been connected through theory and happenstance. While certain factions within the overall community are close (i.e. third party recruiters) there is little if any connection between those factions and other tangential satellite groups (i.e. educators). The Unconference was a small first attempt to coalesce these loose affiliations into a stronger bond. But you can't just put up a blog post one day and hope that people will show up. You don't just pick up the phone and say "Hey, you have never heard of me, but I thought you might want to spend some of your hard-earned money and precious time to come out to California for a day!" Community building doesn't work that way. You have to give before you get.
People spend a lot of time "networking" these days. When people use that verb they really seem to be saying they are "researching." They find out that somebody exists, use a technology (the phone, email, social networking sites, etc.) to connect to that person and exchange pleasnatries and then claim that a "network" exists between the two individuals. The fact that this "network" is just slightly more valuable than bumping into a total stranger in the street (you do have their name after all) is lost on people. The longer your network list, the better off you are.
The fallacy of this approach is that these networks are, by definition, a waste of time: the value of the time you invest in creating these shallow networks is greater than the return you get. You would get more value for your invested time if you had just picked 10 people and focused on building sustainable relationships with them. The sheer "three degrees" power of a small but meaningful network far exceeds any potential "first degree" influence of any large accumulation of names. If I have 10 people who know me and trust me and are willing to go the extra mile to not only introduce me but advocate for me to their 10 friends, and those 10 friends (the second degree of separation) do likewise with their 10 friends, you have the meaningful reach of a 1000 people. If you had instead focused on accumulating 500 names in your social networking database, those names being identifiers of people whom you have never met, nor exchanged any meaningful experiences with, you will in fact have far less than ½ the value of the person with those 10 initial contacts.
I would say that about 40% of the people who showed up at the Unconference made their decision to attend based on the fact that they believed that there was a better-than-even chance that I would make it worth their while. I believe they made this cost / benefit calculation based on the fact that I been around for a while, talking, publishing and trying to help others without a negotiated agenda about what I expected from them at some point in the future. I provided value before I asked for any value back. As I said over a year ago:
But the secret to participating in the creative economy (otherwise known as the network economy, or the economy of the community of practice) is that I have to pay in advance, before I ever get anything in return. And the market that I am paying (now there’s a concept for you – buying from your market) sits in silent witness to my authenticity, commitment and competence. Because each of the participants in my market is seeking the same things I am. Those customers can’t evaluate whether I am worth adding to their market if I am not trustworthy, consistent, and valuable. (In talent markets value gets discounted heavily for lying and flaking out.)
The fact that the Unconference seems to have been worth some people’s time means that they will trust me (I hope) the next time I ask something of them. There will be those who thought the Unconference was a complete drag or hardly worth their time. To those individuals I now have a debt: I can either chose to pay that back by continuing to invest in them and their community in a way that they find meaningful and valuable or I can lose someone from my support network.
This is all perhaps an overly long-winded way of saying that one of the things that was most meaningful about the Unconference was the fact that, as many people said, they “got to put faces to names and voices.” To the extent that the activity of putting names on faces provided a further validation of the potential value contribution of that person, the Unconference increased the aggregate value of the community itself.
Had this been the sum total of the experience than the Unconference would have been no different than thousands of other events that we can chose to attend. Any conference or meeting (any gathering that places people in physical proximity) has the intended side-effect of making connections stronger. But the Unconference idea (if not the implementation itself) has a unique advantage in strengthening networks that a typical conference does not: it places the participants not only in physical proximity but in a group problem solving environment. It doesn’t just put you in the room with the people you have been reading and talking to, it puts you in the problem together. In this way you can experience how the other person views the world. You can develop affinity instead of just affiliation.
I hope that the Unconference becomes the Xerox of the talent world: shamelessly ripped off so that everyone benefits. I hope this not because I am on some altruistic crusade. Far from it. I hope this because I want this new, expanded talent community to grow and strengthen. If it does, then this will serve my own very selfish ends: more human potential used in creating positive social and economic progress (and therefore a better world for my children). This can only happen if we expand the community and strengthen the connections between us. The Taluncon was just one more step on that path.