What does it take to make a ShareFair happen? Don’t ask ‘what’, ask ‘who’!

When walking through the IFAD corridors this warm Italian September week one cannot help but be amazed by the buzzing, vibrant energy that is felt in every part of the building. People chat in corners, engage in up to 15 parallel group sessions, share their thoughts with someone with a video camera or sit in the hallway with their laptop on their lap, communicating one of their many impressions through email, Twitter or a blog. Over 600 participants, 160 projects, 200+ scheduled group or plenary sessions, and one is left with an immediate question: How on earth did they pull this off? After all, there is no professional event management company involved here that pulls the strings. This event is done by the sponsoring organizations themselves, with a surprisingly low budget and mostly with staff who – if they are not helping plan and implement knowledge fairs – have other jobs to do.
I talked to some of the organizers to get a small glimpse of the machinery that made this event happen behind the scenes.

Planning for this ShareFair started already in January 2011, with a one-day facilitated brainstorming workshop where the Rome-based stakeholders ( Bioversity International, CGIAR ICT-KM programme, FAO, IFAD and WFP) got together to determine the general direction and approach they wanted to take with this event, building on the first event that took place at FAO in 2009. After that a Steering Committee was established in February to plan the event.

As there is no general existing budget for Rome ShareFairs, the team members from the different host organizations had to raise funds for the significant logistical and programmatic requirements (which include necessities such as security, ambulance, infrastructure and communication expenses) as well as to fund travel expenses for proposals from participants who otherwise could not come to the fair and share their learnings. Yet, I was surprised to learn that this entire event is realized with notably less than $200,000 (actual and in-kind) accumulated resources overall.
Talking about proposals: roughly 300 proposals were submitted after the Steering Committee publicly announced the ShareFair through their website http://www.sharefair.net in May 2011. The submissions were reviewed and filtered down to about 160, the maximum capacity of content sessions that the IFAD building can accommodate during the three main days of the fair with up to 15 parallel sessions at a given time slot.

These sessions, however, are rarely self runners. If the thematic expert is not by chance also a communication professional, a facilitator is needed to help the presenter avoiding tiring PowerPoint slides and instead turn the presentation into an engaging, participatory learning session using knowledge sharing (http://www.kstoolkit.org/KS+Methods) approaches. But where to get those versed facilitators from? Luckily, Knowledge Management staff in Rome are well connected with the Knowledge Management for Development Network (KM4Dev), a community of KM practitioners working in development. Additionally, a call was placed also within each of the participating organizations for facilitators. By calling on about 50+ volunteer facilitators, the ShareFair organizers were able to provide professional facilitation for almost all project presentations, drawing on a range of creative and participatory facilitation methodologies which were introduced in a pre-conference training day for participants interested in these tools.

The training sessions of this so-called “Training and Learning Day” included not only facilitation techniques, but also introductory sessions into a range of social media tools for knowledge exchange and communication, such as Twitter, Facebook, Photos, Blogs or Podcasts. That those sessions were not just theoretical exercises was demonstrated during the entire week by the social reporting team, a group of about 30+ social media enthusiasts who committed to report live from event sessions and interactions in between sessions through the full range of social media tools. This way, the immediate audience of a few hundred on-site participants could be extended to many thousands of interested practitioners that followed the event online, by reading blogs, viewing video interviews or responding to tweets posted during the event.

Finally, as a participant of the Fair, besides noticing some of the more visible faces of the fair that give announcements and introduce sessions, you will most likely run into one of the many volunteers who are supporting the logistics behind the scene at any given moment: as registration desk volunteers, as information focal points and helpful guides on each floor, behind the technology that provides meeting room infrastructure, WLAN access and live webcast, or as runners who help fixing the many little and bigger emergencies that we mostly don’t even notice as participants.
So again, what does it take to make such a ShareFair happen? It takes all those people, seen and unseen, and I think they deserve a collective tipping of hats for the astounding work they do. Or you just walk up to the next one you see and give that person a ‘thank you’. And if you bring them a cup of coffee they might even reward you with more interesting details on life behind the scenes of the ShareFair!


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