Category Archives: Collaboration

It’s time to disrupt the conference model

As originally published on Medium:

Enough of the conference pablum. Where’s the real meal?

Conference season is well upon us, and my advice is always this; choose wisely.

Seems that every industry, and every vertical is awash in the great calling of its pundits and practitioners to gather and….? Well, that’s just it. Do what, exactly? What is the intent of all of these conferences?

Wikipedia’s definition is that a “conference is a meeting of people who “confer” about a topic” and a business conference is “organized to discuss business-related matters”. Seem too ambiguous to you? Me too.

I’ve had it with conferences that have no real purpose or intent. There’s just too much talk, and truly, not enough action, especially for this action oriented culture. It’s time to put our collective feet down until conference organizers show us that there is going to be some tangible outcome from attending their thousand dollar shindig, rather than just:

  • hanging around with industry people that we mostly know already
  • hearing from speakers that are often irrelevant, we often know more than, or whose video we could view at our leisure because their exact same speech has been delivered umpteen times so far, and
  • being loaded down with a bunch of swag that will be immediately recycled, or handed over to our children for their imminent destruction

Even though I’m a huge proponent of the power of connecting with people IRL, and supporting the social in social media, my biggest lament about conferences is that they have become watered down, networking opportunities that serve no real value, besides perhaps the odd fan/icon photo op.

Far too often, these conferences are led by a fraternity of creators that keep inviting their closest circle of friends, or those that they’d like to be friends with, as keynotes (read: heavy male contingent on the speaker’s lists, even in female dominated industries). In their attempts to be everything to everyone, they end up really only being valuable to a small percentage of attendees, and often the speakers’ book publishers.

It’s even worse if the food is bad, the WiFi is sketchy and there are no charging stations, forcing those of us waiting for our Everpurse to arrive to stalk the seats by the walls or the back nearest the electrical outlets.

So, rather than entirely boycott, I’m choosing to engage, here. There needs to be a new approach to conferences.

I have a solution that I believe will actually provide real value and ensure that conferences do more than just provide an opportunity to over indulge in food, spirits and ego-stroking.

Let’s try this on for size, at least as a start. Instead of trying to be all things to everybody, why don’t conference organizers start creatingstreams in the following way:

  • FNG’s: this isn’t separating the wheat from the chaff. This is separating total newbies from seasoned practitioners, so we’re not all just a bunch of bobble heads in the room nodding approval at the most rudimentary elements of “how to do your job”. You want to keep people off their smartphones and laptops and truly engaged? Stop throwing us all in the same mix. Oh, and really, this is the ONLY place that you should ever be discussing “how to get in the industry” stuff. Otherwise, you’re just boring us to tears.
  • Practitioners: the meatier part of any conference should focus on developing the “middle managers” to the next level. After all, isn’t that the whole purpose of a good leader? Elevate the conversation, friends. Give us the thought leaders, show us the cutting edge technology, ENGAGE US for chrissake. Stop feeding us conference industry pablum! Go ahead, speak in acronyms, we get you!
  • Thought Leaders: let these events be a true gathering place for our industry elites. Let them gather, meet, and discuss the most pressing or topical issues. Ask them to actually tackle one real, tangible problem. Then, invite them to share those ideas and solutions with the masses. Let’s break down silos and hierarchical fronts. People are happy to do the work, as long as we give them a starting place. That’s what our thought leaders are for.
  • Purposeful Networking: help those that don’t know how to help themselves yet. Put investors in front of startups, newbies in front of practitioners, strategists beside creatives, creatives beside operations specialists. Bring the people together in the most purposeful way, instead of crossing your fingers that your hashtag will trend.

Conferences should be a place where we learn, network and connect, and then move forward in our chosen industries.

Oh, and if I have one last request, it’s this; no one, and I do mean NO ONE is allowed to ask any speaker, “what’s the one piece of advice that you’d give to (insert beginner in your industry here)”. No, no, no, no! I realized that I was even guilty of this recently when conducting an interview with a highly regarded, highly successful CEO. Reality is, it’s lazy interviewing and shows you haven’t done your homework. Shame on us if we hear that again…

and then let’s celebrate what we’ve actually learned and created with that over indulgence in food and spirits, because if we’ve done things right, then in fact, we’ve earned that right.

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A Sunday afternoon to remember…

Eleven years ago, when I was still living in Toronto, I had a very different relationship with food than I do now. I was a decent cook (nowhere near my mother’s calibre though), could follow a recipe, get a bit creative, enjoyed hosting dinner parties, and ensured that my family ate relatively well.

Then I moved to Stratford, and everything changed.

The first thing was the accessibility of fresh, local food from the Stratford’s Farmer’s Market. I was so used to shopping in grocery stores that seeing beautiful, natural, sometimes dirt encrusted vegetables were almost a novelty to me. I had of course been to the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto a number of times, but I lived uptown with no vehicle, and at that time, farmer’s markets weren’t nearly as prevalent in the urban centres as they are now. Through the Stratford Farmer’s Market, I learned how to talk to my farmers, ask questions, and forge relationships, because now they were my farmers; I supported them, they supported my family. Community.

Then I was introduced to Community Supported Agriculture models through Monforte Dairy and I decided to support these artisans directly with my dollars, supporting their businesses and my palate, and I became part of that community.

Soon after came the introduction of the Slow Food Market and the vendors with their delicious wares, and then my membership in Your Local Market Co-op, and further CSA support for Simple. Fish & Chips and Revel Caffé. And they became part of my community as well. Friends, restauranteurs, business partners, farmers, purveyors, educators. My shopping habits have changed so much that now my groceries are about 50% local, 50% grocery store. Way better than the 10% average the Ontario Agriculture movement asks of Ontarians.

Then these worlds coalesced with the birth of the Savour Stratford Culinary Festival. Hands down, bar none, my favourite weekend in Stratford. On principle, it’s the only event that I refuse to volunteer for in Stratford. My husband and my children all know, that is my weekend. I am off duty to eat, drink and be merry. Oh, and how I have done that, each and every year since its inception.

Now, my love affair with great food, good drink and passionate creators of great food experiences continues, grows and changes, just like all good romances. Now, it’s going through another renaissance through the experience of learning from some of the most creative, passionate chefs in South Western Ontario with the GE Café Chef Series, Celebrating Ontario’s Terroir.

In early January, I was invited by the Stratford Tourism Alliance team to participate in the inaugural event of the GE Chef Series, hosted by the Local Community Food Centre and Chef Aaron Linley of bijou restaurant. Knowing the exceptional experiences curated by the Savour Stratford team, I anticipated another immensely successful event and I was not disappointed.

The day began with an overview of the dinner party menu by Chef, who answered questions on the fly about sourcing food, talking to your butcher, and procuring artisanal items. This is the kind of knowledge that you can only really get by being with face to face with a Chef, especially one that celebrates the producers and artisans available in Perth County like Aaron does.

Chef Aaron Linley of bijou restaurant

It’s quite the experience, being surrounded by friends and strangers, all brought together by a desire to learn and immerse oneself in great food. For me, this kind of gathering is the essence of community.

After reviewing the menu, and teaching us some of the methods we would be using, we were split into teams to focus on each course of the meal. We were learning from Chef, as well as many others that were brought to the Local CFC that day not only about the equipment, but the way to properly prep our dishes, from timing to presentation.

Prep

On the menu for the day was:

Bacon laced scallions with romesco sauce and local goat cheese

 Course 1

Rainbow Trout ‘en papillote’ with cabbage, tomato and lime

Ancho Chili and cider marinated Quail with duck fat potatoes and Moroccan eggplant salad

Course 2 & 3

Green apple tart tartin with sour cream ice cream and caramel

 Course 4

Finally, it was time to eat and enjoy the fruits of our labour. Chef sat with us, and we all enjoyed each course as it was matched with a beautiful wines from Lailey Vineyard.

What more can I say about a perfect Sunday afternoon that blends community, knowledge and delicious food?

KSD & Chef Linley

Aaron Linley, the Chef/Owner of bijou restaurant in Stratford is a wonderful teacher, and the whole flow and presentation of the day was a production in grace by the team at the Local Community Food Centre and Stratford Tourism Alliance.

I’m not only grateful for the opportunity to have participated in the first of the series, but for the knowledge and insights shared by Chef. A Sunday afternoon to remember, indeed…


Have you hugged your community manager today?

originally posted on the MaRSdd blog, January 28, 2013

 

“Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.” — Rollo May

This Monday, January 28, is the fourth annual Community Manager Appreciation Day. I didn’t make this up. Really. It’s a thing.

Started by Jeremiah Owyang, #CMAD is intended to be a day on which organizations and brands recognize the impact that their community managers have on the success of their businesses, as well as the impact that they have on their community of stakeholders.

According to Owyang, there are four tenets of the community manager.

Community managers:

  • are community advocates;
  • are brand evangelists;
  • have savvy communications skills and shape editorial; and
  • gather community input for future products and services.

While some of those words make me cringe a little, semantics aside, having the right person in this role for your startup is going to be critical to your success.

Why? Because your community actually gets the word out about you, your company, your product and the potential impact of your solution. Your community is your greatest brand ambassador, your greatest advocate. And your community is engaged, informed and hopefully inspired through your community manager.

Word of warning though: this is no job for an intern or the high school kid who lives down the street.

The number one trait that inspires a community, whether online or in real life, is authenticity, so the best people to build a startup’s community are the founders themselves. They are the most knowledgeable, most passionate and most responsive. It’s usually people’s response to a founder that warrants the follow or the like, especially in the early days.

As the company grows, investsments rise and the constraints on the founders become more overwhelming, that’s the time to hire smartly and invest in talent that will help you make those important critical first impressions.

I’m often asked to work my “social media magic” when it comes to supporting events, programs, projects and campaigns within MaRS. The reality is that there’s very little “magic” to it. It’s a difficult role to encapsulate in one sentence, but basically, I help get the story out about MaRS, our clients and our ecosystem.

Community manager skillset

In practical terms, to succeed in this role requires many skills, including marketing and communications, brand management, strategic planning, sales, project management, customer management, professional and staff development, business planning, analysis and operations management. These are all practical skills that come from years of work experience.

There are also softer skills that are required to succeed in this role, including motivation, leadership, conflict resolution, authenticity, emotional intelligence, collaboration and, most importantly, a good sense of humour. These are also skills that one acquires through experience, not necessarily in terms of years, but by actually doing.

You can see that you need a pretty robust resumé not only to be able to succeed in this type of role, but also to properly support the dialogue between an organization and all of its disparate stakeholders, whether users, customers, investors or partners.

Whether you call it your tribe, chosen kin, audience, association, city, neighbourhood or company, being a part of a community is a fundamental part of the human condition. Surely this won’t come as a shock to many, but I am big on community. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been in the field of communications for the last 14 years. I thrive on engaging with a greater collective of people to exchange information and ideas.

This world of online communications continues to change and grow, seemingly almost exponentially, every year. Ten years ago my current role didn’t exist. While sysops roles existed in the ’90s, the role of “community manager” as it is understood today is only about five years old, and even in that timeframe the role itself has come a long way.

So take a moment today to consider how and why you engage online with the brands, companies and groups that you do, and if you’re not able to hug your community manager today, at least send ’em a virtual hug to celebrate all that they do. (Chocolates work too!)

You can learn more from the community of community managers in this collection of advice shared byMarketwire and The Community Manager.


Beware the echo chamber

This first appeared on the MaRS blog October 19, 2012.

There’s a black hole that we’re in danger of being sucked into, and it’s more treacherous than Felix Baumgartner’s space jump. The danger I’m talking about is the echo chamber.

Usually when I reference the “echo chamber,” I’m talking about social media. I’m in complete agreement with many of the contemporary thought leaders and pundits who have written and spoken at great length on the issue (see Eli PariserElizabeth LesserClay Johnson and Rebecca MacKinnon). They all warn us of the dangers of filtering out a variety of voices and listening to only one point of view. Social media and a curated web experience are enablers of this, but it’s not just social media that is responsible for that closed perspective. It’s us. And I want no part in it.

“echo chamber” used by permission @gapingvoid

While attending the Techtoberfest event at Communitech last week, I realized a number of things.

  1. I am so proud to have surrounded myself with friends and colleagues who are passionate about what they do and what they bring to the world.
  2. I know some incredibly talented people who work incredibly hard to build an ecosystem that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship, and to drive prosperity in Ontario.
  3. We’re all in danger of stagnating if we don’t pay close attention—and fast.

Out of Techtoberfest’s 15 breakout sessions, only two were facilitated by women.

Out of a total of 19 companies that pitched, only one team had women on the stage. One.

I sat in one of those breakout sessions, titled “Y Entrepreneurship,” and while it certainly intended to be a take on the Y generation, it could have been more representative of the gender in the audience. Besides my colleague and myself, the only other women I saw in the room were part of the hard-working team thatactually work for Communitech to make these events happen.

One of the facilitators asked the audience to participate in the conversation regarding “Why entrepreneurship?”—and he encouraged us all to participate. He asked about six audience members (who he all knew by name) why they were drawn to entrepreneurship. Those six people were all male, all (seemingly) in their 20s and all Caucasian. All of the panellists were also Caucasian and male. I took the opportunity to share an observation.

Do you see the danger?

The point I made to our facilitator was thus: literature exists ad naseam stating that businesses that have women in roles of leadership perform better. They have more longevity and they realize more financial success. Whether we’re talking about entrepreneurs, the whole startup ecosystem in Ontario or each one of us as individuals, the threat is the same. When you don’t have the diversity of views and experience that come from people of different ages, different races and different genders, you’re living in that echo chamber of “Aren’t we great? Aren’t we great? Aren’t we great?.” You may be great, but without a broader scope of input and ideas, you’re about to stagnate. Thankfully, there were a lot of nodding heads in the room in support of this discussion.

There are definitely two parts to this. I tweeted my observation about the lack of women represented, and author, speaker and columnist Julia Moulden and I had a great dialogue online about the need for women to be invited into the discussion, but also about how many women don’t ask to participate or don’t say “yes” to opportunities to speak.

From that, we’ve started a new hashtag campaign. It’s time for women to stop wondering if they have something important to say or share. It’s time for them to take the mic and #BeAYesWoman.

This experience is certainly not limited to the Kitchener-Waterloo area. I see it in Toronto and, quite literally, in every startup community—both online and in real life. The startup community needs to include more women as speakers, it needs to draw more women into the entrepreneurship fold and it needs more women as leaders in their businesses if they want to succeed.

If there is anyone who can realize this, it’s the community of people I’ve met at our fellow Regional Innovation Centres and universities, and in our extended startup communities. We’re the ones changing things because we’re talking about it, we’re calling it out and we’re reaching out to do something about it, too. But this will not change through and by women alone. And it shouldn’t—because that would just be an echo chamber of a different kind.

We need everyone involved in this conversation. Everyone calling for change. Everyone striving for something more for each and every Ontarian.


Community, commitment and crowd funding

Originally posted on the MaRS blog on September 25, 2012.

If I were to tell you that a successful female business owner who grew her core business product by 200% in her first year, and whose overall business experienced growth of 136% in that first year, went to her bank for a $20,000 leaseholder loan and was told that she needed to have her husband act as a co-signer, you’d probably think this was a story from 1955. Sadly, this true tale took place less than six months ago.

Continue reading


When we all win, we all win.

A new blog series I’ve started at MaRS.

When we all win, we all win.


What will it take?

Last night, Stratford’s Avonova group hosted a panel discussing “Doing Tech in Stratford: Why or Why not?” The guest panelists spoke to the merits and challenges of establishing a technology business or career in Stratford, Ontario versus other centres like Kitchener-Waterloo, London or Toronto.

Our panelists were:

  • Gary Wreford, VP, Central Processing Technology, Scotiabank, heads the bank’s worldwide IT services from Stratford.
  • Tim Ellis, Chief Operating Officer of Waterloo’s Accelerator Centre, a world-renowned, award-winning centre for cultivation of technology entrepreneurship, and
  • Jason Clarke, a Web and Social Media Content Creator (videographer) for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and recent émigré from London, Ontario where he founded the Short Film Showcase.

Moderated by yours truly, our panelists brought their very diverse perspectives to the conversation, yet overwhelmingly they agreed on the following most salient points:

Strengths:

  • Strength of our brand: Stratford’s brand is very strong and evokes awareness of creativity, culture and arts. This distinguishes the city from other centres (i.e. K-W is noted for being a high tech hub and London is noted for its impact on the Life Sciences).
  • Creative & Content: Stratford is in a unique position to highlight its talent base and its ability to generate world-renowned content. We should focus on what makes us different from other centres and not try to duplicate what’s going on elsewhere.
  • University of Waterloo Stratford Campus and the Stratford Institute: the presence of these two institutions fares incredibly well for Stratford, bringing a global focus to our city and shoring up our image as a world-class city where anything is possible.
  • Relationships: Stratford’s champions range from our Governor-General, corporate leaders (OpenText, RIM), and provincial and federal political representatives. Those relationships are not only based on goodwill, but on well versed strategic planning and investment in ideas that will put us on the global stage in yet another realm.
  • History: We have a history of being innovative; the Stratford Shakespeare Festival started in a tent…and grew. The same is expected of our push to be considered one of Canada’s premier digital media hubs for innovation and entrepreneurialism.
  • Leadership: Our municipal leadership is responsible for putting Stratford in the enviable position that it is in currently. Our ability to present smart leadership to our closest communities and the world at large will continue to bring opportunities to the city.
  • Our Digital Renaissance and Infrastructure: We have the technology in place to support new businesses; that’s the easy part. Pushing forward on our bid for the world’s most Intelligent Community continues to put Stratford on the global map and reinforces our commitment to the ideals of what constitutes an intelligent city.

Opportunities:

  • Attracting and Keeping Talent: Stratford needs to find a way to keep the 25-35 year old demographic here, rather than watching the brain drain to our larger centres. Providing life experiences (“there’s nothing to do”) and social outlets is paramount here.
  • Ambassadors: “Stratford is a friendly town, but it’s hard to make a friend.” Finding ways to connect new residents to the city life and enable social connections is essential to ensuring that new residents don’t feel ostracized and isolated.
  • Incubator Centre: creation of an Incubator Centre will support entrepreneurs, instill loyalty and set the foundation for future innovation and business opportunities that stay here in Stratford.

Many of our audience members shared their stories as to why they chose Stratford and what has kept them here, growing their businesses and establishing family roots here. The clear message from last night was that our success will come from looking at the city experience holistically. Providing support and opportunities for businesses directly related to technology, as well as providing outlets for socializing and community engagement will take a concerted effort. Achieving this state will come from the collaborative effort of all parts of our city, and not just city leaders.

Our sincerest thanks to Gary, Tim and Jason, for sharing their perspectives and ideas with our audience. 


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