June 3, 2016 katharina.janus

Health Affairs publishes blog series on the 5th Forum: Learning from each other

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of several posts related to the Center for Healthcare Management’s 5th Forum: Learning from each other – Scaling ideas up to the next level, to be held in Berlin, Germany on June 9 and 10, 2016. Please contact the center for more information or to request your personal invitation.

Got Content? An Innovative Forum Provides Food For Thought
By Katharina Janus


Form follows function. Structure follows strategy. These long-used management mantras imply that content, such as strategy, function, and vision come first, and the medium that conveys the message—the “packaging”—comes second. They should be chosen carefully, so as to serve the purpose of communicating content as effectively as possible. At the majority of today’s conferences, however, the form of information dominates its function. Driven by convenience, this approach can even prevent new knowledge and content from being generated, evaluated, and further developed.

A New Approach

“We are all conferenced out — we need something new,” Larry Brown told me more than five years ago. Brown is a professor at Columbia University and a board member of the Center for Healthcare Management, which I direct. Tom Rundall, a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, added to Brown’s plea, specifying the issue-at-hand:

Nearly all the conferences I have attended over the past 35 years used the traditional approach where the enlightened “few” teach the “many” who are less enlightened. The Care-Tank [the Center’s think-tank] approach is quite different and promises to produce a different, richer type of learning for everyone involved. It’s about time conference proceedings were modernized.

Here’s how I’ve tried to do just that at the Center’s Forums:

First, our goal was to create a new, very interactive format. We call it a Knowledge Party, like a dinner party with content — meaning actionable knowledge that guests can take home and apply in their respective settings. That means that at our Forum you won’t spot a single PowerPoint on the agenda — they aren’t allowed. Instead, we’ve placed a high premium on face-to-face conversations.

Slides have made life easier, but if convenience continues to control content, the lazy mind rules the world. The ease and user-friendliness of the medium has changed the entire conferencing landscape — and with it, the way content is generated, disseminated, and, evaluated. But, while new technologies such as PowerPoint may have been intended to facilitate content communication, they have in fact, reduced face-to-face interactions considerably. Fortunately, there is hope: nowadays leading global experts refrain from using slides because they believe that the medium is distracting in a way that undermines the dialogue that is essential to knowledge generation.

Why is this so difficult and yet so important?

Today, the wealth of available information is growing at an exponential rate. At the beginning of the 20th century there were roughly 10,000 scientific journals; this number has increased to more than 150,000 after the millennium. It is expected that the number of scientific publications doubles every 16 years on average; in mathematics and the natural sciences, the number doubles every 10 years. There were as many articles published between 2006 and 2010, as there were in the entire scientific history preceding that period. This intensity and volume of information lends itself to a standardized format for presentation such as slides, which have helped to structure information, and make it more available. But it has also set an unfortunate standard for one-way communication. Got content? Yes, plenty. But is it valuable and digestible?

At the same time we have also seen an increasing specialization among professionals who are the major proprietors of today’s knowledge. In medicine the increasing specialization of physicians is an indicator of rising complexity. For example, between 1998 and 2008 the number of subspecialties has doubled. This trend continues as technology advances. This flood of information combined with the increasing complexity driven by specialization, requires even more collaboration to breakdown content silos and to connect the dots, supporting two-way communication.

So, when bringing together a group of academics and practitioners, such a dialogue demands a format far more flexible than a traditional conference. Domain expertise is essential to cope with the flood of information in order to turn it into valuable content. These are the main ingredients I began contemplating as I started organizing the Center’s Forums five years ago.

Convening instead of conferencing

Like at a dinner party, the first step is to find a hospitable space in which to set our gathering. We had to “set the stage” well. We borrow ideas from the world-café approach and modified the process to achieve actionable results in roundtable discussions. The next step is to bring the right people to the table, each of whom offer their own expertise, but also their own questions and need for advice. All participants must also share certain essential characteristics, such as mutual respect, interest in others’ perspectives, and most importantly a willingness to listen to one another, not just to respond, but to truly understand — not just to present information to others, but to contribute to a dialogue.

Now in its fifth year, the 2016 Forum will focus on planning for the future of the global healthcare industry. And as always, we have big questions to answer: What will healthcare look like in 2026? What can we do to improve how we organize, pay for, and deliver care?

Allowing for spontaneous reaction and adjustments to such questions in a highly interactive forum requires even more work and better preparation than a traditional conference: Forum organizers and roundtable moderators must approach this work as “gardeners” striving to enable and facilitate dialogue by creating fertile ground for new ideas to thrive. When we work with panelists on the stage, our moderator’s role is more that of a “bee” cross-pollinating among thought leaders.

The entire Forum’s design is based on a storyboard that explicitly considers and works with these role changes. We use real-time visualization (such as flip-chart drawings and iPad sketches) to complement reports written by table moderators, and make breakthrough ideas tangible and available to all participants. This year, we’ll introduce our “ideas corner” where participants’ ideas and on-the-spot interviews conducted by Health Affairs Editor-in-Chief Alan Weil will be captured using an electronic-paper format. These efforts will generate a cloud of ideas that grows over two days and is projected on the stage. At the end of the second day, Alan and I will condense “the cloud” into take-away messages for participants to take home.

For a detailed overview of topics and speakers please see the agenda.