Virtual Experimental Conference Delivers Real-World Results

May 2020
Topics: Public Health, Collaborations, Innovation, Disease Outbreaks, Knowledge Management, Acquisition Management.
When coronavirus cancelled a major conference, a MITRE team's innovative online-only event was so successful, they helped produce a COVID-19 response conference only two weeks later. The team's experiment in adaptability yielded lessons and connections.
Woman in a video conference

Not long after the COVID-19 virus began to spread across the U.S., organizers of large conferences started cancelling major gatherings. One such event was South by Southwest (SXSW), originally set to take place in late March. Many who planned to attend withdrew their travel plans and turned their attention elsewhere.

Not the MITRE Acquisition Disruptors (MAD) team.

“We wanted to stay in the fight to keep our community together,” says Debra Zides, a program management innovation expert. “We decided to find the silver lining in this painful situation and see if the innovation ecosystem was agile enough to shine a light on itself."

Their silver lining: “Innovation Resiliency 2020,” a virtual collaboration event that came together less than two weeks after SXSW's cancellation. It went so well that the team ran a sequel to address COVID-19 on April 2.

An Idea Takes Root Quickly

Dan Ward, an author and innovation catalyst, echoed these sentiments. “When we found out that we couldn’t go to Austin, the one thing we couldn’t do was just have a regular week,” he says. “We were looking forward to team building and learning more new ideas.”

Team members reached out to their LinkedIn contacts to see if anyone was planning a virtual experience to help fill some of the void left by the SXSW cancellation. When they didn’t find anything, they began assembling Innovation Resiliency 2020. The MAD team wanted to answer the question, “How might we get exposed to new people and new ideas in a time of physical distancing?”

The goal was to partner with government, industry, and academia to create an environment enabling a “lightly curated” virtual conference using existing online platforms.

Prescott Paulin of the Defense Innovation Network (DIN) immediately reached out to the MAD team and offered to co-sponsor and leverage the DIN virtual conference platform for part of the event. Other organizations, including Public Spend Forum and NatSecGirlSquad, joined the effort to help host and promote the event, which took place just 12 days later, on March 19.

The effort went far beyond preserving some of the SXSW experience. The MAD team viewed it as an experiment. They collected user stories, feedback, and lessons-learned that could help design playbooks for future occasions requiring a pivot from physical to virtual collaboration. The experiment results are also valuable to organizations needing to initiate a new online-only conference for other reasons.

Ultimately, Innovation Resiliency 2020 featured 30 presentations, some of which ran concurrently, covering industries including defense, healthcare, gaming, and others. Besides MITRE participants, presenters came from organizations such as Google, the Department of Defense (DoD), and the Female Founders Lab.

Total attendance couldn’t be tracked without a single required registration mechanism, but the audiences for each session ranged from as few as five to more than 50.

Deploying Technology and Data Analytics to Improve Aviation Safety 1987-2016

Dan Ward used Facebook Live to talk to virtual conference-goers about his latest book, LIFT. (Image courtesy of Jen Choi.)

Lessons from a New Kind of Conference

A post-event survey conducted via SurveyMonkey found that 89 percent of respondents rated the conference as “excellent,” with the remaining 11 percent choosing “very good.” In one case, the conference helped connect one DoD organization with another to learn more about how to incorporate virtual reality into its culture, Zides says.

Some presenters noted they encountered a learning curve associated with the online platforms like YouTube, Facebook Live, Zoom, and others, says Lorna Tedder, a contracting/procurement innovation expert.

Another lesson? Some platforms proved better than others for hosting larger audiences and facilitating interaction, Zides says.

The team also found that assigning moderators made it easier to call on audience members raising their hands-on video or typing in chat windows for questions while the presenters focused on their talks.

Sometimes "Good Enough" Is More than Enough

The team didn’t expect to find their conference could fully replace the traditional face-to-face conference experience. But organizing an event without the costs of travel and hotels has other advantages, Zides says.

As an example, morning of the event emails between the MAD team and other innovators resulted in the individuals getting on the schedule by the afternoon. The agility of these no-notice invites enables organizers to tailor conference content and formats to meet the real-time needs of participants.

Another thing: When shifting to virtual conferencing on short notice, organizations need to accept “good enough” solutions, Zides adds. "For example, with a year to plan, our team could have set up a more polished website for the event, but we decided what we built was sufficient."

For this experiment, MITRE relied on content volunteered by the innovators in the ecosystem who believed they had an important story to share with participants. A future conference could feature an agenda based on a combination of a call for topics, as well as a curated series of topics based on our understanding of the ecosystem, Zides says.

Back in Action to Combat COVID-19

Not content to call their work "one and done," the MAD team quickly jumped back into action. Just two weeks after their initial virtual event, MITRE, the Defense Innovation Network, and Public Spend Forum co-sponsored a free event for government, industry, academia, and healthcare organizations to address the COVID-19 pandemic on April 2-3.

More than 1,000 people attended the sessions, including Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), who talked about funding relief and forgivable loans for businesses hurt by COVID-19. John Wilczynski, executive director of America Makes, a public-private partnership that works to accelerate U.S. additive manufacturing and 3D printing capabilities, discussed sourcing, design, and manufacturing for COVID-19-related materials. And Dr. N. Adam Brown, president of emergency medicine at Envision Physician Services, gave a physician’s insight into the medical equipment needed to fight the virus.

Other presenters included Stacy Swider, director of the SBIR Center of Excellence at University of Massachusetts Lowell Research Institute, who highlighted contracting and grant vehicles that can help with COVID-19 solutions. Additionally, Emily Jerger and Kym Wehrle discussed the future of supply chain risk management in light of COVID-19.

A significant number of connections developed among companies with innovative solutions for the COVID-19 response and organizations who need them, Zides says. And a post-event survey found that more than 63 percent of respondents want to see virtual summits on the topic take place on a monthly basis.

Zides sums up the team’s experience. "Regardless of the topic, the number-one takeaway for us is that the innovation ecosystem is a global community that recognizes the best way to defeat a threat is by coming together quickly and focusing our combined energies to pivot and solve the problem."

What happens next? With two events completed, the MAD team hopes to share the lessons learned with the community and learn from others’ experiences. If your organization is interested, please contact the team via the Acquisition in the Digital Age.

by Jeremy Singer

Explore more at MITRE Focal Point: COVID-19.

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