Dimension 2. From a one-shot event to a multi-year event
Having both attended and organized the Wikimedia Conference several times before 2015, the WMDE organizing team felt that the conference never fully reached its potential. Because the conference grant was awarded on an annual basis, the Wikimedia affiliates would every year discuss the logistics of the next conference anew, instead of focusing on jointly developing the program. WMCON was a
siloed event, with no connections to other events. We observed that people had great ideas and discussions, but that these were not followed up afterwards and consequently just withered.
With the three-year conference agreement between the WMF and WMDE, one of the biggest barriers for good pre- and post-conference engagement work was lifted. The Program and Engagement Coordinator of the Wikimedia Conference, Cornelius Kibelka, established new structures for good follow-up work. This includes the following three areas of action,
Creating greater participant commitment by improving the quality of the conference program and documentation
In the Wikimedia Movement, event organizers often tend to focus on the logistics of a conference. This is understandable: logistics are essential but challenging and often determine whether an event is successful or not. We think, however, that a great program is equally important. How do you get the most out of three days? How do you get the best people to talk about the most desired topics? And how to integrate new speakers that have not spoken at a conference before; non-native English speakers, from smaller affiliates and/or emerging communities?
There is no “one-fits-all” solution to these questions. Based on experience and surveying the participants of the conference twice per year, Cornelius Kibelka and Nicole Ebber developed measures to improve the quality of the program. Some are still in the process of being further improved year after year, while others might be discarded as they do not fit to the conference anymore. Below, the four main measures that we have been developing over the three last years are described.
Participatory program design
For the 2016 conference, we changed the program design process entirely. Instead of relying on a diverse (volunteer) program team, we decided to combine the compulsory registration process with an in-depth program survey asking for wishes, needs and experiences of all participants. Additionally, we asked how participants wanted to contribute to the conference program.
An internal matching process of wishes/demands and offers, combined with our organizing experience and constant exchange with participants, allowed us to tailor the program to the expressed needs of the participants. Especially for the Capacity Building and Learning track, the outcome of this approach received high ratings by the participants.
Curated program tracks
Before 2016, participants had asked for more clearly divided programmatic tracks to give the conference a more visible structure, better allowing them to decide which sessions to attend. We started to introduce such tracks in 2016: “How to move forward” focused on the WMF Leadership Crisis; “Movement Impact” focused on how to measure and talk about the impact of the Wikimedia movement;
and “Capacity Building & Learning” focused on learning workshops and skill sharing. We continued this approach in 2017 by adding the Movement Partnerships track.
This approach made a lot of sense to us as the organizing team, because it resulted in a more focused program. It also made a lot of sense to us to include more of the excellent expertise available across Wikimedia staff in shaping and curating the tracks. Wikimedia Deutschland’s “Partnerships & Development” team (focusing on external partnerships, and resource development and evaluation),
provided the necessary expertise to shape the 2016 “Movement Impact” track. In 2017, we again relied on this team, while also adding the WMF Global Reach & Partnerships team’s expertise. Other teams involved in shaping our tracks were the WMF Learning & Evaluation team and the Movement Strategy core team and track leads.
New session formats
Another focus of ours in 2015 (and before), was to transform the conference into a working conference, more actively involving the participants. This was a focus because we previously had a majority of one-way presentations instead of in-depth conversations and workshops. At the same time, we wanted the conference to be more inclusive in terms of geographic representation. However, focusing on higher quality, new workshop design, and geographic diversity at the same time was not easy, because the more experienced speakers that we were able to identify mostly came from European chapters or the Wikimedia Foundation. This would have led to the conference being less global than we wanted it to be.
We therefore started to create new session formats to lower the barrier for non-native English speakers to share their opinions and experiences. One way was to have specific plenary sessions where everybody could participate. To create such a session, good facilitation was crucial to include the quieter voices. We had positive experiences with the use of a non-violent communication facilitator in 2016 (session “How to move forward”), and with our Movement Strategy track facilitators in 2017, using Open Space Technology. In these 2017 plenary sessions, at least 24 persons that had never been speakers before spoke at the Wikimedia Conference.
On a smaller scale, we found it necessary to create more opportunities for participants to share their experiences. While you cannot expect that everybody is able to host a 90 min workshop, almost everybody is able to tell a story about something great that they have experienced. In 2017, we created our so-called “Structured Lightning Talks”, where four people had the opportunity to share their
experiences around a major topic (like “GLAM partnerships”) for 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of Q&A. Template slides were prepared in advance (max. 3 slides per person, with specific, prepared questions). With this session 12 persons that had never been speakers before, spoke at the Wikimedia Conference.
Good documentation: hard to come by
Documentation is key for the success of the Wikimedia Movement. Because the “Chatham House Rule” applies at the Wikimedia Conference, good documentation of sessions is important for participants to be able to report back to their affiliates, and for people who have not participated to follow what happened. Good documentation makes it possible to report on the status of a conversation, on
commitments that people have taken, and points of contact; so that every Wikimedian can be on the same page.
With a lot of effort, we made written summaries available for most of the conference sessions in 2015, 2016 and 2017. However, finding volunteers that have enough of an overview of the program topics to take good notes is difficult. Distilling the main messages and outcomes from these notes is even more difficult. And what makes things even more complicated is when speakers do not provide
notes or upload their slides. In 2017, we made the first attempt to hire a professional note-taker and documentation specialist for the movement strategy track, this investment turned out to be an excellent choice.
Establishing links to other conferences
To keep conversations and ideas alive between Wikimedia Conferences, one of our approaches is to build bridges to other conferences. Having people in one space and in face to face conversations is a good way to create follow-ups. Although conferences are an important instrument in the Wikimedia Movement to bring people together face to face, we have the impression that many Wikimedia events
are organized as siloed, single events. The learnings of other Wikimedia events and conferences are not taken into consideration, and there is no outlook to future conferences. Especially at Wikimania the wheel is, to a certain extent, invented again every year, and sessions in the program do not build upon what happened the previous year. We think that, generally, an efficient global conference support for logistics as well as program design is needed here.
How to build those bridges between conferences? One of the ways that has proven to be successful for us is to ask specific people to travel to certain conferences, especially Wikimedia regional conferences, to carry certain topics forward. Over the years, we have established a base of allies and “ambassadors” for the most important topics at the Wikimedia Conference, who follow up and develop them further in between conferences.
A good example of such a bridge can be seen around the “Partnerships” topic. In November 2016, the “Partnerships group” met for two days in Berlin to discuss and work on concrete ideas for creating a stronger network around how to work with Partnerships in the Wikimedia Movement. Julia Kirchner (Wikimedia Deutschland) and Jack Rabah (Wikimedia Foundation) continued this conversation and created
a phenomenal space at WikiIndaba, the African Wikimedia conference, in January 2017 in Accra, Ghana, to talk about experiences on partnerships from different African Wikimedia communities, and to create a common understanding of the existence of similar and shared problems. At the same time, both hosts gathered input for the upcoming “Movement Partnerships” track at the Wikimedia Conference 2017.
In addition, the “WMCON Follow-Up Day” at Wikimania 2015, 2016 and 2017 was useful to continue working on Wikimedia Conference topics. However, it remains a challenge to build bridges to other Wikimedia events, mostly because these conference have a limited program scope (like at WikiArabia 2016 and 2017, and IberoConf 2017), or they focus heavily on sharing experiences and capacity building within the regional context, and hence the WMCON topics do not fit into the program.
Supporting WMCON participants in following up on key topics
Besides focusing on the conference itself, in terms of program quality and the links to other conferences, we also support people that are dedicated to continue working on the major themes of the Wikimedia Conference. This work has been rather uphill. However, the first real results of the follow-up work are starting to show.
The main idea has been to provide tools and support (limited by our resources) to the “Thematic Ambassadors” that engage themselves in the major topics, identified in 2015, of the Wikimedia Conference. Among these topics the following are both the most interesting and promising ones in terms of activities and outcomes:
- Partnerships in the Wikimedia Movement
- Volunteer Supporters Network
- Boards Training
- International Communication (within the Wikimedia Movement)
- Public Policy in the EU
- Movement strategy (was: Movement Roles/Chapters Dialogue)
We regularly assist the people carrying these topics and provide them support. One highlight: Since 2014, the German-speaking Wikimedia Chapters Wikimedia Deutschland, Wikimedia Österreich and Wikimedia CH work regularly together, as they serve and support the same language community. With support from the Program and Engagement Coordinator, the working group of these three chapters moved towards a so-called “Volunteer Supporters Network”, a Community of Practice of (staff) Volunteer Supporters of different Wikimedia organizations. The network had sessions at all three Wikimedia Conferences and the WMCON Follow-Up Days at Wikimania. The network already produced some learning patterns and will meet for the first time for a specific work meeting in November 2017, with
around a dozen volunteer supporters from (mostly) European Wikimedia Chapters to discuss challenges and conflicts as well as impact of volunteer support. Within the movement, the network now starts to be approached by others asking for inspiration and advice on volunteer support, one of the core topics of all Wikimedia organizations and groups.
Likewise, the group of Wikimedians engaging in exchange and mutual support and strategic discussions around partnerships has been a constant at most global and regional conferences for several years now.
Despite what we consider as the success of the partnerships track, we had to realize that engaging WMCON participants between conferences generally is not easy. We rarely find people interested in volunteering on topics relating to international collaboration among Wikimedia affiliates. Our hypothesis is that especially one-time participants (see “Dimension 1”) are not really interested in engaging afterwards; they are power editors/volunteers in their communities and care about these with a lot of love and passion, but rarely put emphasis on an international perspective.
Additionally, there are currently around 100 Wikimedia affiliate staff members (excluding WMDE and WMF), and they might not have the time or resources to focus on international collaboration. We experienced that most of those who attend the Wikimedia Conference are highly interested in working together with people from other affiliates and engaging in international collaboration. However, international collaboration per se is rarely part of affiliates’ budgets, or is even cut from grant proposals. Therefore our educated guess is that affiliate staff members in order to collaborate with others would need to take the time away from their local projects and therefore simply cannot allocate the time to work together. In order to breathe life into the strategic direction, the Wikimedia movement will have to invest tangible resources money and people‘s time - in international collaboration and in enabling collaboration between its entities. Only then will we move
from being a movement sharing ideas towards a movement working together on a joint purpose.