Global Concerns Global Concerns - XIX

I would like to continue the discussion begun in the previous issue, which speculated on the evolution of conferences, and address the question of the nature of future conferences in light of new technologies. Email correspondence surely has already affected the way we communicate at least among pairs of people. In the basic operation of professional societies, tasks which formerly needed at least a telephone conference call can now be done with a flurry of email communication at a cost independent of the location of the participants and more or less independent of the number of conferees and the time of day. Certainly there are significant changes in the way we communicate with each other. But what does this have to say about conferences?

I am struck by the fact that technical conferences, at least in the control field, use more or less the same lecture format they used 50 years ago. On the other hand, new forms of electronic communication have, early in their evolution, established "chat rooms" as an important part of their offerings. While meetings set up to encourage chatting have remained lecture oriented, discussion groups have quickly become an important part of electronic communication. I have always found the informal "chatting" part of our technical meetings to be the most valuable. Since each of us must miss between 50% and 95% of the technical papers at any conference with parallel sessions, finding time for "chatting" is difficult.

What we need is a new paradigm for technical conferences. Having spent many years in technical activities somewhat foreign to control, I have participated in and observed a number of other successful models of technical meetings, some combination of which may be ideal for the control field. Let me review a number of these types.

Meeting styles:

At a recent technical meeting in our field, I recently found myself in a meeting room with about 50 people most of whom I did not know well but most of whom I was convinced would have been very interesting discussion partners. We had all gathered in this particular room because we all had common technical interests. However, the session consisted of six 20 minute papers with 2 minutes of discussion between them and consequently those 50 experts had very little time to talk with each other, except as might occur on a ad hoc basis around the coffee pot later in the day. Is this the optimal use of our time? I don't think so.

If the powers that be (who is that really, except ourselves?) continue to require that we each have accepted papers at the conference and require that we actually present them, let's have a paper presentation time, say from 0800 to 0820 in our hotel rooms. Each of us will stand before the mirror and present our papers and then get on to the discussion sessions in the assigned rooms! I exaggerate, but only to make the point that the formal requirements for attendance and the real reason why it makes sense to attend a conference are quite different.

My suggestion for the optimal conference format is to use any or all of these formats and let the audience reaction provide guidance for later meetings. Invited sessions can be used for the new formats if the program committees will give session organizers enough flexibility to try different formats. Conference organizers will probably have to be a bit more flexible about what is allowed to appear in conference proceedings. It is not unreasonable to ask each member of a Panel style session to prepare one or two page summaries of their prepared remarks. Focus style session participants will not be making formal or maybe not even informal presentations but they could be asked to provide one or two page summaries of their current thinking about the topic of the session. These would be published in the conference proceedings in the same manner as regular conference papers. A procedure for "acceptance" of these short contributions will be needed to provide the "acceptance letter" so important to local administrators for travel approval. If we keep in mind that the goal of any successful conference is to provide a venue for serious intellectual exploration of predefined topics and an opportunity for attendees to learn from and contribute to the knowledge of their colleagues on a world-wide basis, any of these models can be made to work.

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