Let’s NOT have another conference

It’s the time of the post-holiday enthusiastic planning for 2016-17. Someone is bound to suggest “Let’s host a conference to promote [x]!”. I propose that our default response should be “No, let’s NOT.” Don’t get me wrong. I quite like conferences. And I think they have certain very important functions. But.

I think there are too many of them as it is. And I think too many of them are not really worth the time, effort, or expense. I think too often they are the first suggestion, AND remain the only (often unquestioned) idea for moving forward. So everyone and their cat now hosts a conference on their pet topic.

Just as an example, if we take e.g. children’s health. The Royal College of Paediatrics has a conference. Its various sub-sections (e.g. childhood disability, community paeds) also have their own annual meetings which effectively operate like small conferences (keynotes, some orals, some posters). All the different allied health professions have their conferences (e.g. physios, OTs) – and each of them have several, often separate sub-section conference (e.g. paeds, neuro, and so on). Charities and third sector organisations (e.g. the Council for Disabled Children) run their annual meetings and often additional conferences too. Then there are the education sector, other public sector annual conferences, various topic-specific conferences (e.g. for different diagnostic groups), and individual Trusts are also increasingly running their own conferences (ours is doing at least three in 2016-17 that I know of so far). Then policy makers have their own conferences (always in London as anywhere else is “too far”). On top, there are all local and regional events, and international gatherings. And of course none of the above includes any methods conferences, which I personally think are a must for anyone serious about research.

In all this, what happened to the ideas such as: putting the patient at the centre; being interdisciplinary; and integrating research, practice and policy? Whose interests are all these conferences serving? And how effective any of these really are since most issues we seek to address cut across sectors, professions, and interest groups?

If I had my way, there would be a lot fewer conferences. They wouldn’t be as siloed as they are at the moment, but broad events covering a wider field and attracting bigger crowds. They would also be less about handing out information, i.e. less about being talked at or staring at a poster, and more about truly engaging with people to advance the field. Some talks, but also genuinely inteactive posters (we recently did some speed dating posters which was fun!), workshops, and sandpits to build new ideas.

What if we had much BIGGER annual meetings, kind of meta-meetings? For any given field, put all the above meetings and events in a single massive conference, with parallel sessions and sub-meetings for the various special interest groups, alongside integrated strands. We would all come together, across sectors, interact, and listen to the joint speakers. We would share ideas, research, practice and policy – all in the same meeting. We would cross-fertilise, and have a wide choice of sessions to attend. And, importantly, we would only need to apply leave and funds to attend one meeting-so we might actually be able to go!!

I can see that there are some practical challenges to executing this meta-meeting idea. E.g. maybe such a meta-meeting would carry a big financial risk, and would be an organisational nightmare. But there are examples of previous, successful meta-meetings. Methodology conferences seem to be particularly good at this – e.g. having a big conference for all intervention methodology research, with strands for qual, stats, pilot studies, etc as well as all kinds of mixed strands. But even these have done little to engage policy makers and practitioners.

I suspect that the real challenge is in negotiating the different interests. Coming together and organising things jointly requires the willingness of the organisers to negotiate around different priorities. It requires everyone to look for the bigger vision and accept that their immediate agenda is secondary to that bigger vision. It requires putting the big topic before one’s own agenda, and accepting that my passion is just a small part in a much bigger story. It also requires acceptance that different types of knowledge and experience make a valuable contribution. It requires faith that people can come together and get along. It also requires that people are willing to give up power and position. It’s the old issue of fish and ponds. The meta-meeting is an appealing idea only if one is confident about being a small fish in a massive pond and can see this as an exciting opportunity rather than a threat to personal position and power.

Some of you might be reading this post and think “What a hypocrite! She has organised four big events in the past 12 months – clearly contributing to this problem!”. It’s true that by chance I have become involved in a number of events for this 12 month period. However, I see each of these events as a step to that meta-meeting event. And even within these four events we have been working extra hard to push the boundaries and make the events as wide as possible. Our first event, in North East England, was for nurses, midwives and AHPs across all clinical specialities and topics – and explicitly sought to combine research talks with sessions on people’s experiences, and had a contribution on the bigger policy context too. Our two events on children’s participation are centred on outcomes from the child’s perspective, and we are working hard to make all disciplines, sectors and walks of life welcome. I’m definitely not saying we are there (I don’t think we are anywhere near), but I think that the success of these events demonstrates that it’s possible to come together for bigger topics, and to integrate various formats that make it attractive for different types of people and interactions.

So, I want to throw you a challenge. Next time someone says “Let’s have a conference!” – take a step back. Please don’t just have another conference. Don’t just think about advancing your own patch. Instead, get in touch with other players in your field, and propose to them that you’d like to join in with their event. Ask to run a parallel stream, maybe with a break-out session for your group. Negotiate that you get to invite one of the keynotes. In return, offer to share some of the financial risk and actively contribute to promote the event. Be excited about how this is an opportunity for your network to expand their reach and knowledge, and seek to genuinely capitalise on the potential for new links.

Don’t just run another conference. Instead, work together to create something big that actually changes the world.

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