Social distancing and travel restrictions in the COVID times have profoundly affected not only the way we work but also how conferences are held. Unsurprisingly, events were either cancelled or moved online. An unmapped territory for organisers and participants alike, especially challenging for such mammoth conferences as the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (AOM).
Headquartered in the US and rotating meeting locations around major cities in North America, the pre-COVID 2020 event was earmarked for Vancouver. It usually takes place around the first weekend in August. The usual number of participants ranges between 10,000 and 12,000. This year put a light dent into the (special anniversary) 80th annual meeting, attracting only around 7,000 online—some people not able to join the digital world. Even that required a massive effort to organise hundreds of sessions with presenters and participants from all around the world.
I was really curious to see how the event will be handled. I have been co-organising a symposium Intuition in Organisations for over a decade, which gave me a good measure for comparison. Sessions of different formats (professional development workshops, panel forums, traditional presentations grouped around particular themes) were divided into a synchronous and an asynchronous stream. The former stream was either happening live or with a pre-recorded mockup session, in both cases with a live chat during scheduled time. The latter stream consisted of pre-recorded presentations and uploaded files with an asynchronous chat (people could post questions and/or respond whenever it suited them, and the chat remained open for the whole month). This gave participants a sense of belonging by getting at least a tiny taste of live attendance (the sense of being there as the session progressed and people asked questions) without crashing the system due to a massive simultaneous attendance in numerous sessions. But it also got around glaring time differences so people in other parts of the world could log on and listen to the recordings (most live sessions were also recorded for later viewing). The conference officially opened on August 7, chats remained live till August 31, and recordings and files will be available until October 31.
Most participants viewed more sessions than they would have done if they attended the conference live. Due to its size, the event has to be split across several big hotels and/or a convention center, so it is not always feasible to transfer quickly enough between venues to make it to the next desirable session. There are also multiple scheduling overlaps, which were addressed this year by choosing which session to attend live (if this option was available) and which one(s) to save for later viewing via uploaded recording. My PhD students were also telling me that the recorded sessions gave them an opportunity to pause and write notes or back-track if they did not catch or understand something. This made the sessions also more accessible for participants for whom English is not their first language and who struggle to understand accents in fast-moving live sessions. Additionally, it gave them the option to view and analyze conversations accumulated in the chat. Not sure if it’s an advantage or disadvantage, but I viewed many more sessions than I could have during the physical event, it occupied a lot more of my time, I would estimate about a week if I put the sessions back to back. More knowledge gained but more time commitment required.
It also appeared to me that the conference had a higher number of international participants who for various reasons (budget, timing, visa) usually do not attend the physical event.
Most long-term participants commented that they missed human contact and impromptu conversations that often occur unplanned in a corridor or on an escalator – sometimes leading to interesting collaboration that would otherwise never happen. Overall, even though the online set-up allowed for connecting quickly with other participants in a session, even organising an impromptu conversation in a separate virtual room, a genuine human connection and the extent of networking were not on the same level. Overall, the digital format seemed to facilitate better content than context.
For those of us in Australia, there was also the terror of distance. Most live sessions, accessible to participants in Americas and Europe, were scheduled for our middle of the night, which required the use of an alarm clock – but that did not trigger automatically the peak of our mental capacity. And there was much more work involved – with the preparation of recordings, for some of us also steep upskilling, handling uploads, etc. As organiser, I spent an estimated triple of my usual time on preparation as I felt also responsible for giving clear guidance to our symposium presenters and providing technical and emotional support to those struggling with technology. Then, there was the effect of COVID; our Chinese presenter, for example, was stuck in isolation during the recording and upload phase due to virus flare-up (as I found out later) so I ended up preparing her slides and recording her presentation in addition to my other duties.
Our intuition symposium
I am proud of the Intuition Symposium we created for this year’s conference. As usual, we had 6 presentations, which is a lot to handle even in physical settings and requires a well-choreographed format. We achieved a consistency of format and length – showcasing new frontiers in intuition research to set the tone to the beginning of our 2nd decade. Presenters spanned 5 continents, hailing from the US, UK, Australia, China, Hong Kong, Sweden and Brazil, among these our own (Griffith – BSI) PhD student Nicole Yeung for whom this was the first AOM conference, as well as for the Brazilian PhD student Suzi Diaz for who I act as associate supervisor. We had a good mix of experienced and early-career intuition researchers (our global community of practice comprises around 150 researchers and practitioners, not all of them, of course, can attend the AOM conference, we keep them informed via our LinkedIn group). Such consistent quality makes our symposium a popular annual feature (we have to go through a rigorous review and selection process, like any other conference submission). As you can hear/see in the Introduction video below that I recorded (after speedily learning how to do it) with my colleague and co-organiser Cinla Akinci from St Andrews University in the UK, the session covered a wide range of topics that are (in line with the recently published 3rd intuition handbook) of relevance to organisations and management practice. We have barely sent a thank-you summary to our symposium presenters – and next month will be already time to start preparing the submission for 2021, reaching a consensus about the topic as the first step.
If the COVID situation passes, the next AOM conference will happen again in physical settings. That is the consensus I hear from many participants. Sitting down over a cup of coffee to discuss a new, exciting project, still seems to have a bigger attraction than being glued to a computer screen. But I would guess and hope (budget and resources permitting), that the next conference will be a hybrid, retaining some features from this year. Hopefully the sessions will be recorded for viewing by ‘remote participants’ who cannot fly to Philadelphia (the scheduled location for 2021). If possible, they could also log in into live sessions. And recordings could remain viewable for an extended period of time like this year. It looks like future AOM conferences will become a mélange of the well-proven old features and the newly discovered experimentation. Let’s wait and see what the future has in store for us.
Dr Marta Sinclair is a Senior Lecturer in Management in the Department of Business Strategy and Innovation.