The Research in Management Learning and Education (RMLE) Unconference was held on 1st February 2013 at Bond University on Australia's Gold Coast.

The unconference was free, but delegates had to submit a QIC in advance explaining their current management education interests. These QIC submissions were double blind refereed. We attracted 37 participants drawn from across five countries on four continents, including faculty from fifteen different Australian universities. The conference was a full-on, intense experience for one day.

The idea of hosting a management education conference in Australia formed in a series of discussions between Ken Brown, Editor of Academy of Management Learning & Education, Jon Billsberry, Editor of the Journal of Management Education, and Amy Kenworthy and George Hrivnak from the Centre of Applied Research in Learning, Engagement, Andragogy & Pedagogy (LEAP) at Bond University. These discussions took place in February 2012 when Ken visited Melbourne and the Gold Coast, but it was only in November 2012 that we all decided to go for it. There is a large community of management educators in Australia and New Zealand, but few forums for them to come together without travelling halfway around the globe. It seemed important to us that we should help facilitate the development of management education research in Australia and New Zealand.

In choosing a venue, we were keen not to emphasise the role of one of the two journals as this is genuinely a joint venture between the two journals and a university research centre, LEAP. As such, Amy Kenworthy and George Hrivnak, generously agreed to host the conference at Bond University. Amazingly, from the decision to make it happen to the day of the actual conference was only two months! Amy and George worked incredibly hard to put it all together and this was made possible by their suggestion, which Ken and Jon enthusiastically agreed with, to make the conference an unconference.

Broadly speaking, an 'Unconference' is a new form of conference in which the participants determine the content. It's a relatively new idea, but there are multiple variants around already. We decided that because it was our first experience of the format and because people needed to 'get going', we allocated people to one of five groups for the first session. We formed these groups based on similarities of topic in attendees' abstracts. The five groups, clustered by topic prompt, were:

  • A shift toward transformational student learning processes
  • Student engagement with the external world
  • Cross-cultural and multicultural issues
  • Challenging assumptions and the status quo
  • Technology-based challenges and innovations

Each group had a facilitator, who was either an Associate Editor or Editorial Board member of one of the journals. This was 'light touch facilitation' mainly to trigger introductions and for people to talk briefly about their interests. From this, discussion flowed and after an hour, each group gave a two-minute summary of what they had talked about and how they intended to move forward during the day. From there, the only predetermined events concerned meals, breaks, and post-unconference drinks; participants were free to use the day anyway they wished.

The First RMLE Unconference

As the day progressed, some participants moved to different groups, some groups split and changed, some groups morphed together, and others continued on broadly as they started. This was the case with the group looking at a shift toward transformational student learning processes, which became a group discussing threshold concepts. An analysis of this group's dynamics exposes some of the strengths of the unconference format (or lack of format). The composition of this group remained fairly unchanged during the day; one person left the group and another joined after the first session. The six members probably spent about four hours discussing threshold concepts and the group contained people who were well informed on the idea. It proved to be an opportunity to get to know people well and to discover subtle differences in perspective on the subject. By the end of the day, the group members were unable to form a united research agenda and instead decided to compose a portmanteau style paper looking at the problems and opportunities that threshold concepts offer for management. It was fascinating that the conference format gave one a real sense of participants' perspectives on a topic they know a lot about and when people found others sharing similar views, it was possible to carve out time to talk about future research collaborations. The experiences in other groups were quite different. One group committed to preparing a grant proposal; one group discussed a collaborative data collection project; one group targeted future conferences for joint submissions; one group started an email discussion thread; others made no group-wide commitments at all. The flexibility of the format naturally allows for quite distinct outcomes to emerge across participants and groups.

We discussed the unconference process and outcomes several days later, and several thoughts came to mind. To begin, it is clear that the format works particularly well when you bring together people who are both well informed about a topic and passionate about it. When participant contributors are either experts or newly yet deeply engaged in the literature, they can get to the crux of the matter readily to talk about cutting-edge ideas. However, our fear is that the format would work poorly if the event were populated by a majority of people new to their respective interest areas. Such discussions would be likely to drift with a focus more on bringing people up to speed rather than developing paths forward for creating innovative research projects. That work is best left to traditional conference formats. With the unconference, and the short one-day intensive participant-driven format we used, there really is no time to do anything besides jump straight into rich, complex, and engaging discussions.

Organizing the Unconference was a lot of fun

Check out more about the Unconference on Twitter: #RMLE