Earlier this week I had the opportunity to attend the Unified Communications Expo at Olympia in London, and to take part in the “Collaboration Diner“, which was sponsored by IBM, and hosted by IBM partner Collaboration Matters. It was an unusual session, not least because of the setting, which was a mocked-up 1940′s style diner—complete with bar, neon sign and actors in character—in a modern twist on Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks painting. The format was similar to a roundtable, with participants including thought leaders, practitioners and conference delegates discussing a range of social-related issues inspired by the Cluetrain Manifesto, a set of theses that was presented back in 1999 by Chris Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger and Rick Levine (and which proved to be an astonishingly accurate vision of the way companies have to engage with customers, employees and partners – even though it was perhaps a decade early).
Both sessions I attended (one in person and one as an external tweeter) were lively discussions, with plenty of provocative questions and challenging responses. The most talked-about topic was the role of marketing in this new, connected world, and the way organisations need to approach social media predominantly as a way to listen to customers and in turn engage with them better, rather than to see it as a new way to push messages and branding into the market. We looked at the MacDonalds Twitter disaster which saw the company’s attempt to “spin” some good PR using the #mcdstories hashtag get completely out of (their) control with consumers taking the concept and running with it—except in the opposite direction, sharing plenty of terrible experiences at the fast food retailer’s outlets. We also talked about the way social can impact an organisation’s culture, and how trust is central to this. Overall, I thought the Collaboration Diner worked well as a format, and the diner setting certainly helped get people’s attention, even if there were plenty of confused delegates who came looking to buy coffee, and I think probably a number of others who were put off by the staged nature of the set and the actors.
In the broader conference, there was a noticeable split between the sessions and the exhibition floor, with the speaker sessions largely focused on collaboration/social and the exhibitors largely unified communications oriented. But it was well-attended and generally well-managed, and I think we can expect to see this event getting much larger over the next couple of years. I’ll certainly be going back next year.