An Academic Reflects on the Stream Experience

I am an academic who studies conferences, as well as other events, such as art fairs and film festivals, where creative professionals congregate, exchange ideas, and form relationships. These gatherings are ubiquitous in a wide variety of areas of business and the professions. They have proliferated over the past decades to the point where they are now a permanent part of most professionals' diary.

Quantity, however, does not foster innovation. Quite the opposite: the more conferences proliferate the more they seem to resemble each other. Their planning, programming, and structure all point in the same direction: Make it efficient, avoid surprises, and ensure that all goes smoothly.

Stream, hosted by WPP, has a different philosophy, one that makes the unexpected a virtue rather than a problem, and believes that people sometimes want to be surprised. For this reason it calls itself an (un)conference, and for this reason it is certainly uniquely interesting for me as a researcher.

To some extent it should not be surprising that I was surprised when I and my colleague, Sara Lara Marquez, participated in the recent Stream which took place in Antalya, Turkey, but I was surprised. It is one thing to read about Stream before arriving, it is another to experience it once you are there.

You know before arriving that there is no set program prior to the event, as you would find in most conferences, and that participants propose sessions on the first evening of the Stream, which they then convene and run. You get a sense of the open-ended and self-organizing nature of Stream, and this is what you find. But you also find much more.

During my three days at Stream I came into contact and spoke with people of wide backgrounds and interests. Some came from governments, some came from large corporations, and others had their own start-ups. Some had a technical focus, others were more passionate about creative content, and almost everybody was preoccupied with what comes next.

Stream is about exchanging ideas, and forming relationships, but above all it is active exploration in variety of forms. Some people explore geographies, others explore branches of knowledge, and yet others explore themselves. Exploration is unpredictable, which is exactly what the Stream is all about. You may know where to start, but you do not know where you are going to end.

I saw this in every session I attended. Conveners frame the session, and make an opening statement. Individuals jump in giving their views and telling their stories. Sometimes conveners try to maintain focus on some key issues, but mostly they let emergence take over. The results are kaleidoscopic: opinions combine and clash; stories build on stories, and personal reflections elicit more personal reflections.

Inevitably, I was curious whether what I saw was what Stream participants experienced. What was striking about comments that I and Sara Lara heard when meeting people formally was the difference between comments one hears in conventional conferences and Stream.

When you ask people about their experience in conventional conference the emphasis of the comments is much more on meeting pre-set agendas and value for time spent. All too often, this means that participants are critically evaluating the benefits against expectations. There is greater detachment from the actual experience, even when the verdict is positive. In Stream I found that participants were more likely to focus on what they found exciting or novel. People often spoke of specific experiences in terms of how it changed and challenged them. The tenor of their comments was less calculative and more reflective, often even emotional.

The participants in Stream are back at work, resuming their daily routines. Sara and I are likewise are back in London, trying to find out more about Stream. Contacting participants for their reflections post-event is one task. We are very interested in how participants see Stream after some time has elapsed. To what extent has Stream changed their views of their work? Have they made useful connections? What have they learned from the experience?

Another task is trying to place Stream in a broader perspective as a new form of what Allen Meyer from the University of Oregon and I call "field configuring events": "Settings in which people from diverse organizations and with diverse purposes assemble periodically, or on a one-time basis, to announce new products, develop industry standards, construct social networks, recognize accomplishments, share and interpret information, and transact business."

Stream, of course, is not a single field event, but a multi-field event. As such it may be ideally suited for the 21st century, as we move towards wider integration of fields, professions, and disciplines and seek to break down many of the barriers that keep creative professionals trapped in their niches and silos.