Knee-jerk DT & Digital conferencing

It’s a start, but there’s plenty more to be done

Evening all. Today I’ll dive a little into the forced change that is taking place in the Caribbean and show how we still have a long way to go, and I start an analysis on digital conferencing, firstly by looking at what exactly conferences are for and why they exist using a model I’ve developed to help explain this. In another newsletter, I’ll get into the discussion about what digital conferences can and can’t offer and what the future might hold.

I’m a bit behind on the narrated version. I’ll try and get it out tomorrow.


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Knee-jerk digital transformation


Source: Twitter (original tweet not found)

This, now infamous tweet, is prescient in explaining a series of announcements across the Caribbean form businesses that are now miraculously online! Amazing! Yeah, it took a global pandemic to get it started, but hey I’ll take it. Snark aside, I honestly applaud the effort that companies are making to get online and I welcome the, even if forced, change in mindset that is collectively being undertaken by residents in some territories. This shift is only going to let people experience first-hand what other countries have been tasting over the last 15 years or so. I’ve written about it here several times, like in the issue called The New Reality:

I have been very frustrated over the last 16 years that the development of digital solutions has been severely behind the times of other countries. Sixteen years ago, I lived in the UK, and we had been ordering our groceries online and having them delivered to our flat five years before that. Yes, you read that right, over 20 years ago, supermarkets in the UK were providing online ordering and delivery to the door. You’re lucky in the French West Indies to have one pickup point, one you’re required to drive to, and if you’re fortunate you’ll get the time slot you want! Have they not heard of Jobs to be Done?

But that there is the problem, this is not the future, it’s the past. Or if I’m very understanding and sympathetic, this is our present. The Coronavirus pandemic has forced to pull up to what has been around in the world for over a decade— and I do mean forced because without it we would still be in exactly the same situation as before. Why did it take a global pandemic to move the needle in the mindset of the businesses in the Caribbean? The answer is a lot more complicated than you might think.

Some put it down to laziness. Personally, I disagree with that, as this is not a binary situation where the opposite of doing something is doing nothing. That’s rubbish! Take this question, for example. The opposite of light is what? Many would say “darkness”. The answer is, in fact, the absence of light. The opposite of doing something is not doing anything, but the absence of doing something, which leaves space for you to do something else. That admittedly sounds a bit like gibberish, but explains the principle that us doing something rather than nothing is not necessarily the best thing!

In these times, under the stresses and short-term urgencies, that something else is often unstructured, un-strategised and built up with successive layers of gaffer tape, that many businesses in the region are not able to adequately “digitise” and only offer a faux semblance. Oh, I’m not criticising that at all. In these times, by any means necessary is the mantra. Structural and architectural realities of ageing IT systems are going to force companies, at one point or another, to massively rethink and retool their business to be in a position to offer what the population has just become accustomed to. How do you think people are going to go back to roaming around shops, sometimes kilometres away from home, to find that the product they’re looking for is out of stock, when for the last few weeks or so they’ve been able to look up online, order and reserve a pickup? Or in some cases wait for the postman to deliver it to the home. The more we’re in this lockdown world, the more companies are going to adjust their offers to cater to this “New Reality”. Which in turn means that customers are going to adapt to this new normal and expect the same thing, even after lockdown has ended. By resetting expectations, expectations are being reset.

On a practical level, I couldn’t begin to tell you how many businesses in the region are ready for a real transformation or have started and not just from the fact that I can’t travel around to see them. There are many reasons, often structural ones. The reliance on cash, as I’ve highlighted before, the fact that the audience is captive and can’t go anywhere else easily, and many other reasons that are counterproductive to digital business. But I can make educated guesses from what I see in my Island, Martinique. Many companies have started to offer basic online services in the hope that even a small amount of income will keep them afloat. 

There is much to be done around the region, but at least it’s a start down the right track. Although often, critical and perhaps cynical, I am quietly optimistic that the talent and creativity will deliver some innovative results in coming months. Maybe this was the push that was needed to get the region kickstarted. As I discussed with on a recent podcast, Michele Marius asked me about this chicken and egg situation, how do we get the business to become digital if the public isn’t digital? Because the public is not digital, then companies see no need. Covid-19 has produced an egg. It’s now up to us the nurture it, so it hatches into the bird we want. Let me know if you want any help.

Digital conferencing

Most industries have, over the years, developed a strong culture of continued-interest tools. Industry magazines were probably the first and today you can find (mostly online) magazines specific to a particular industry that is deeply technical, highly specialised and accurately targeted. In fact, this blueprint was subsequently used by hobbyist magazines to imbue a feeling of uniqueness and inclusion for fans of a particular craft and often crossed-over producing hybrid industry/hobbyist magazines.

Take Nuts and Volts Magazine, the about page shows this:


Now In Our 40th Year!

The first issue of Nuts & Volts was published in 1980. It was originally designed as a newsprint, all advertising publication that was mostly given away. Over the next few years, the magazine continued to grow in readership and advertising, however, not much changed until February 1992 when NV was changed to a tabloid format and started to make the shift to a more content-oriented publication. New editorial features were added along with monthly columns and projects for electronics DIYers. Since then, it has grown into one of the most popular and relevant magazines for the electronics hobbyist in the nation. Beginning with the January 2003 issue, Nuts & Volts was reformatted from a tabloid size back to a standard magazine size. NV now averages about 100 pages and is printed on high-quality paper in full color.

Nuts & Volts is the leading magazine for those seriously interested in electronics. There now remain only a handful of magazines written for the electronics community with Nuts & Volts being the highest readership, longest running electronics publication left in the US today. And we still have readers and advertisers that have been with us since the early 80s.

Nuts & Volts is written for the hands-on hobbyist, design engineer, technician, and experimenter. The diversity of subjects appeals to all levels of experience and spans such topics as amateur robotics, circuit design, lasers, computer control, home automation, data acquisition, new technology, DIY projects, electronic theory, analog, and myriad microcontrollers.

So I started to think about this from a perspective of the tech industry, something dear to my heart. More specifically, how this relates to what has become standard in the industry; Tech Conferences. I’ve been attending conferences for many years, starting with the public conferences in the early ’90s in London, where I got to try on a working VR system that while quite rudimentary, gave me insight into a future industry that may finally have its moment in the next few years. I took part in coding sessions on Microsoft’s new Visual Fox Pro before it was available for sale, played with the outstanding for the time, OS/2 and saw the future of smartwatches with the too-early-for-its-own-good Spot watch. I’ll always remember what one of the demonstrators said about VR —highly influenced by William Gibson, I might add:

In the future the only way to tell if it’s real or not will be to vigorously shake your head to see if there’s any lag.

That quote struck me for both its prescience and simultaneous myopia. For the ’90s it was a reasonable thing to think, but I fundamentally know that technology would no doubt render the lag imperceptible at some point in the future. A future that is still not here, I might add.

But getting back to conferences, I thought I’d have a stab at trying to predict the future of conferences since a global pandemic has rendered the 2020 season dead or virtually dead. But as you’ll see new opportunities have emerged, with some companies more or less able to take advantage of them.

To ask a basic question to get started, what do we get out of a conference?

The Cowen Hierarchy of Conference Needs

At its most basic level on a scale similar to the Maslow hierarchy of needs, I’ll half-jokingly call it the “Cowen Hierarchy of Conference Needs”, we get access to sessions and presentations on subjects that interest us, hands-on experience using lab computers (depending on the conference of course). We get bombarded with both technical and marketing information. In fact, most conferences are so adept at information sharing that by the end of the second or third day your brain is generally fried if you haven’t paced yourself intelligently. I call this the Information layer. It’s dominated by both technical and marketing information. This is the layer that most people come for and is correctly, the layer that is targeting by the host to provide the most value for attendees. If you attend a conference and only stick to this level you will find value for you or your business. Companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, spend a lot of energy and money ensuring that this is the case.

The danger for the attendee at this level is fatigue. Information overload is a real thing and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of content, the typically fast-paced nature of it and the feeling that if you are not 100% on the ball all day, you’ll miss something important. This is intentional on the part of the organisers. They typically have too much to share in a short space of time and many conference-goers are interested in several subjects or have a mandate from their companies to récolte as much as possible to justify the investment made. So these conferences are organised to dive in quickly and easily. I have developed strategies over the years how to cope and how to get the best out of the conference. If you’re interested, I’d be happy to share. Let me know.

If we look at the next layer in my model, we move into the Social aspect. A conference that groups several hundred or tens of thousands of people in the same area naturally creates opportunities for social interaction. Like the presentations and sessions these need to be curated and managed. Many conferences allow the creation of one-to-one meetings between attendees, to take part in Q&A panels and in some cases become part of the companies programs designed for product feedback. Social is often promoted as a way to get to know your contemporaries and promote collaboration between people.

Moving up the model to the next layer, I call it Strategic Understanding. At this level, you will likely have a good understanding of the future directions and strategic implications of the host over the next couple of years or so. Getting to this level is not generally something you’ll attain if you go to one conference every ten years. By attending successive years, you build habits, piece information together from different years and even create friendships with people you only see at that specific conference. When you get to this level, you start to see the real value of the conference and how you can best take advantage of its opportunities.

At the top level, called Business Opportunities, we clearly see the opportunities for partnering and doing business. It doesn’t happen every year, but when it does arise, its something to bear in mind. I’ve been in this situation a couple of times and each time the “deal” done was very lucrative for both sides.

One last aspect which is not a layer in the model, but a context. Context is all-important to the success of a conference for its attendees. Most conferences (pre-COVID) grouped people in one city for the period of the conference. The mere fact of taking time out of the office — and in some cases flying from a different part of the globe — naturally creates a context in which most attendees will attempt to take maximum advantage of the material on offer.

Meeting people is possibly one of the most valuable things you can do at a conference. How can you do this digitally? When you go to lunch, you grab your food and look for a table with a couple of people on it and say “Hi my name's Matthew. May I sit and eat here?”. The answer is always yes. It’s your window of opportunity to ask a couple of questions of the person and what they do, and similarly share your own field of expertise. How are we going to be able to that, digitally?

Which leads me to my initial thought, can a digital-only conference recreate that? TL;DR, no. I’ll explore that question and other related questions soon.

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