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Left Out of the HAIL Storm

Exclusivity, inclusivity, and diversity at small and invite-only professional convenings.

March 22, 2018
 
 

This week, I’m spending two days at a small, invite-only gathering of postsecondary learning innovation leaders.  This is the 3rd iteration of the HAIL Storm, with HAIL standing for Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners.

There are about 35 of us meeting this week at CSU Channel Islands.  You can see the objectives and the participant list for HAIL Storm here and here.

Those of us privileged enough (in all senses of the word) to attend a small and invite-only professional convening should ask ourselves the following 3 questions:

Q1:  Do the advantages gained in accelerating community trust and meaningful collaboration opportunities from an invite-only gathering outweigh the downsides to our larger community of excluding those not invited to the event?

Q2:  Can a small invite-only convening also be diverse, and what dimensions of diversity should be prioritized?

Q3:  How should the participants of an invite-only convening be selected?

To the great credit of the volunteer organizers of HAIL Storm (as this is a grassroots conference with no professional staff), a serious effort has gone into crafting a diverse list of attendees.  This diversity is largely along dimensions of institutional type (community colleges, publics, and privates).  There is a strong desire to diversify the demographics of attendees, a goal that the HAIL Storm organizers are the first to admit has not been fully realized.

The HAIL Storm organizers also deserve recognition for securing two travel scholarships, and HireEducation deserves public recognition and thanks for providing this funding.

My take on small, invite-only professional gatherings is that they can be extraordinarily productive for the attendees.  There is something magical that happens when a small group of people who work on the same sorts of things at diverse institutions get together to talk about their jobs.  A purpose built two-day intensive gathering, one in which the people and the activities are carefully curated, ends up being very different from the experience at a traditional conference.

At HAIL Storm, the conversations between those seeking to leverage learning innovation to catalyze organization change are intense.  HAIL Storm provides time and space to get to know our colleagues as individuals, and to bond socially over informal discussions (including meals).  The building of a professional network around shared challenges and experiences is the goal of the event, rather than a side benefit of a conference built around talks and presentations.

Still, the challenges of exclusivity vs. inclusivity at invite-only convenings must be addressed head-on.

There are many many more people leading higher education innovation initiatives who are not at HAIL Storm than are at HAIL Storm.  The community of applied and alternative academics who are work at the intersection of learning R&D and organizational change is much larger than is present at HAIL Storm.  The fact that invite-only convenings exclude more people than they include, and that those included are disproportionately privileged, is a bug of the invite-only event.

The answer, I think, is not to stop doing invite-only convenings.  Nor is the answer to make these convenings much larger, as over a certain number of participants it is very difficult to bring everyone into meaningful dialogue.

Rather, the answer is to have more small and invite-only events.  The best way to bring more people to the table is to create more tables.

The reality is that while putting on an event like HAIL Storm might be an enormous amount of work for the organizers, the costs are relatively low.  A small event can be hosted by a university.  No need to pay for a conference venue.  The costs can be limited to some food and some beverages, and nothing needs to be fancy.

What needs to happen, I think, is that we need to involve the foundation and corporate world’s in underwriting these intimate academic convenings.  How to appropriately bring foundations and companies into the conversation as funders is a difficult question.

We also need to figure out how the organizers of grassroots academic event can collaborate with our established academic professional associations.  I’m not sure how this might work - as professional associations have mandates to inclusively serve all their constituents and stakeholders - but we should be working together to figure this out.  The risk for incumbent professional associations is that small, invite-only convenings will cannibalize attendance at established annual meetings and regional conferences.

If you were going to create a convening based on your work and your challenges, what would that event look like?

What sorts of people in what sorts of roles would you want to invite?

Do you feel that no existing professional meeting quite meets your needs to find colleagues at other institutions who are doing the same sort of work that you do?

Are you, like me, craving smaller and more intimate professional gatherings?

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