The SoCraTes conference starts at 5 o’clock in the evening. I like this, for several reasons:

The participants can arrive at their own pace, it does not matter too much if they do not manage to be punctual, and they can get to know each other informally over a beer or two.

As one of the SoCraTes organizers, I asked myself: Should this be all they do at the first evening, or should there be some kind of official programme? If so, what should it be? The standard “sit in a circle and introduce yourself”? With more than 70 people, this would probably be the most long-winding and boring part of the whole conference. – What about Lightning Talks? This can be a huge success, but it very much depends on the people and their qualities as stand-up comedians. Also, I envisioned that the proposed activity should have something to do with the SoCraTes conferece and should give the participants a head-start into what it means to be part of an unconference.

Bob Marshall’s article on Better Conferences made me wonder what SoCraTes is offering its participants. Especially the problem of unconscious incompetence struck a chord with me.
Did the participants know what they wanted to learn and explore? Open Space, the format of SoCraTes, is ideal for asking questions about topics. How can we enable the participants to ask those questions?

So we decided to run an experiment: a World Café about finding out what we want to learn. I gave a quick intro: I told the participants that I believe they are attending SoCraTes because they want to actively build their knowledge, and they want to be in control of what they learn.
I briefly explained how a World Café works, and that it was set up to allow them to think more about this and to find out, together with the others, what it actually is that they do not know now and want to know when SoCraTes is over.

I only asked them to follow two rules:

  • Ask yourself “What is it that I really want to learn?” Do not stick with tools or frameworks, address the underlying concepts.
  • Just collect the questions, do not try to answer them! The answering can happen in the Open Space.

By looking into the shining eyes of the participants, I knew that there was no need to mention the third rule “Stay on topic”. The participants rushed into the room and quickly gathered around the eight tables we had set up with paper tablecloths and pens, and soon the room was humming with discussions. After three rounds of vivid exchange, discussing and scribbling on the tablecloths, we closed the World Café, and many participants told me that they now had a better idea on what is missing in their repertoire and what they want to learn at SoCraTes.