Guest Spot: The unconference - a method to unleash the collective brilliance of people in public service

By Helen Bevan

This week OneTeamGov welcomes a guest article from Helen Bevan on using unconferences for internal learning and development. This is published ahead of the #Reimagine2017 unconference which you can read about here.

Helen Bevan

I am a member of the Horizons team, a group of change leaders within the English National Health Service. We have been helping to design, co-ordinate and facilitate unconferences in the NHS and in health systems in other countries. In this article, I want to share some of our learning as to why the unconference is an approach that has much to offer in the current era of public service.

Unconferences aren’t a new phenomenon. There is around 20 years of experience, expertise and positive outcomes to learn from. To date, most unconferences have been organised by groups of activists and enthusiasts, outside of formal organisational structures. However, there is a growing trend for organisations to use unconference methods for inhouse learning and development. These days, there are very few workshops and events that the Horizons team organises or facilitates that don’t involve some components of an unconference. Why? Because when they are well run, unconferences can be such a powerful group process. Often we mix unconference methods with other forms of workshop facilitation. We design the format to meet the specific objectives that we are seeking to achieve.

A specific unconference example

Currently in the NHS, the delivery of urgent and emergency care is a high strategic priority. People with an acute health problems need to be seen, assessed and treated quickly. Many local health and care systems are challenged to maintain short waiting times for patients. System leaders are creating learning programmes and workshops for those who are locally responsible for delivering urgent and emergency care, in order to deliver the patient-focused goals. The Horizons team has been helping system leaders in one region of England to shift to an unconference style to help tackle these delivery challenges. Below I have contrasted a typical improvement workshop and an unconference-style workshop.

At a time before unconferences

A typical improvement workshop would be organised and designed by leaders in the health and care system. They would have sourced “experts” to give talks and organised some case studies of best practice. This often involved a one-way learning style with questions and answers. The people in the audience would spend much of the workshop absorbing information. They would only network and share with their peers during limited table discussions (on topics pre-determined by the expert speakers) or during the breaks.

The unconference as an alternative format

The unconference format means that people taking part can have the conversations they want to have about the challenges they are facing, with others who face the same challenges. Rather than absorbing information, they are connecting to action. They are networking with others the whole time. The people in the audience bring a huge amount of practical expertise in delivering urgent and emergency care. To quote Dave Winer:

The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of expertise of the people on stage.

Unconferences bring benefits for experts too. They enable people with a lot of content knowledge to have different kinds of conversations with the people who can benefit from their wisdom and to get direct feedback on what they are saying. Unconferences work better when there is a lot of diversity in the room, in terms of views, experience and background. At these workshops there were staff from many different grades and from multiple backgrounds across health and social care. They were at different stages in their planning for winter when the biggest pressure on the urgent and emergency care system comes. They all help each other. Diverse groups of people tend to make better decisions than small groups of experts. Diversity leads to more disruptive thinking, faster change and better outcomes.

One of the most powerful aspects we have seen in these unconference-style workshops is that they create a space participants can connect and share powerful tacit knowledge.

A traditional workshop will focus on spreading explicit knowledge (the codified knowledge on what works best) that is contained in best practice databases and toolkits. The unconference format also uncovers tacit knowledge; what participants have learnt works well in their local context. Sharing tacit knowledge helps people to validate and analyse their skills. It is more likely than explicit knowledge to lead to breakthroughs in thinking and performance.

Post workshop

In terms of immediate post-workshop feedback, the evaluation scores for the unconference-style workshops have been consistently high. Every local delivery board for urgent and emergency care in the region is taking action as a result. All of them have stated that the experience of the workshops will accelerate their winter planning, improve staff well-being, improve the quality of care and patient experience.

Conclusions

I hope that the unconference on 20th October will be the first of many at the heart of government. Unconferences enable the sharing of experiences and ideas in ways that other methods of knowledge-sharing can’t. They build connections and collaborations and amplify creativity. Unconferences support positive change and increase productivity. Everyone taking part in an unconference participates on an equal basis so they can be a powerful leveller, enabling good ideas to flow between levels in a hierarchy, ideas that might otherwise get stuck in the system. Given the sheer scale and complexity of the challenges we face in public service, the unconference is a methodology whose time has truly come.

Please contribute before, during or after the 20th October unconference on Reimaging Public Service using the Twitter hashtag #Reimagine2017

Helen Bevan is Chief Transformation Officer with the NHS Horizons team. You can follow her on Twitter at @HelenBevan. You can follow the NHS Horizons team at @HorizonsNHS