Reviewing the MRS Conference

By Ray Poynter, Managing Director, The Future Place

I thought this year’s MRS Annual Research Conference was a great improvement on previous conferences, possibly the best I have been to.

I think the credit for the improvement goes mostly to co-chairs Nick Coates and Simon Lidington who moved away from the ‘themed conference’ and more towards a festival of research (loosely inspired by memories of Glastonbury – a UK rock festival with New Age tendencies at its fringe). Credit must also go to the session chairs and the people running innovative events such as Marc Brenner’s Idea Rush, and of course the team from MRS.

I was particularly pleased that all three of the teams in the Pecha Kucha session were nominated for awards both singly (Neils for Best Presentation, and Jeff and the duo of Nathan and Monty for Best Newcomer) and collectively for Special Contribution – a just reward for their work and endeavour.
I have read several reviews and my favourite review came in three parts from Sweden’s globetrotting reporter (who also might be described as having New Age tendencies) Henrik Hall.

Henrik’s three part review can be found herehere, and here.

I think that Henrik’s most penetrating criticism was that the conference was too domestic in its ambition. The UK’s premier event should be able to draw a wider range of international visitors and contributors. Some of the events rooted in UK culture could have been better explained, for example Room 101 is a great concept, but not one that is understood by people not familiar with British TV.

I had to smile at Henrik’s back-handed compliment when he described me as “probably the best ‘ordinary’ presenter”, still that is much better than being the worst ordinary presenter!  However, I have to correct Henrik’s assumption that I pioneered the Pecha Kucha session. I may have been instrumental in bring it into the ‘official’ programme of UK Conferences, but Fiona Blades and the Research Liberation Front introduced it to the UK research conference scene in 2007 at their inaugural counter-culture event.

In terms of other coverage, I thought Research Live had some nice coverage, and I look forward to reading the full report in the next Research Magazine.

I was disappointed by some of the reporting by MRWeb, in particular I thought Phillis Vangelder (whose reporting and comments I normally like) was a little too fond of the old ways and not sufficiently open to the new. For example, I thought Mark Earl’s introduction of three external experts was great. Research needs to get back in the habit of looking outside our domain to see what we can learn from, adapt from, and steal from. I am not sure that I agree with Phyllis about the lack of real world applicability, I thought my case study with the Identity and Passport Service, the HSBC paper, and the piece by Continental Research into in-game advertising were all good examples on the first day, and I only saw some of the sessions.

However, Phyllis made exactly the same point as Henrik when she attacked the lack of an international dimension, and they were both right to identify this as the main weakness of the 2009 Conference, and the most important thing to get right in 2010.

My own suggestions for the future?

  1. Make better use of the Monday, people from out of town (be that Glasgow or New York) have to arrive the day before, let’s make them feel welcome, let’s have a social in the evening, and perhaps some ‘fringe’ events during the day.
  2. Improve the international aspect of the session, perhaps do what Australia and Singapore do and invite people who have made a great presentation somewhere else in the world to come and present it in London – let’s not be too proud, and insist everything has to be a ‘first night’ production.
  3. Improve the description of the sessions to make it easier to decide which session to visit. But maybe increase the festival aspect and have three things. If it is going to be a festival, people have to accept that they will miss some great stuff in order to see other great stuff.
  4. Use a venue where people can live-blog and live-twitter, that could mean free wi-fi, but it probably means somewhere with a good mobile phone signal (not too difficult these days surely).
  5. Borrow more organisational and networking ideas from other conferences, for example the countdown screens used by ESOMAR keep speakers to time really well.
  6. Keep pushing the boundaries. Yes, some of this year’s experiments can be nailed down for smoother ongoing use, but let’s keep the innovation flowing.

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