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Beyond the Name Tag – Connecting people and knowledge at conferences

Artikel vom 19.09.2014

Der Beitrag fasst die Themen des Vortrags „Die Vernetzung in Veranstaltungsräumen“ zusammen, den Dr. Lukas Zenk im Rahmen der Tagung „Dynamiken räumlicher Netzwerkstrukturen“ am 12. und 13. Juni 2014 im Schader-Forum Darmstadt hielt. Von Lukas Zenk, Michael Smuc und Florian Windhager


Conference Overview

The International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) estimates that over 20,000  conferences and congresses are held worldwide each year and are attended by around five million people. In 2011 alone, the total costs of such events were estimated to be in excess of 13 billion US dollars. According to the ICCA, the spreading of new knowledge and innovations, particularly in the fields of medicine and technology, is the main reason for the organization of conferences (cf. ICCA 2013).

As knowledge-intensive social events, conferences open up a space in which people and organizations can share and generate knowledge, intensify their existing cooperation activities and establish new contacts. By bringing together people from different organizations and countries, such events serve as catalysts for innovation, which can be created, above all, through the recombination of existing knowledge (Burt 2004).


Although conferences like to (pro-)claim such ambitious goals, and vast sums are invested worldwide in their organization, how much value they actually create and the most effective way to design them generally remain matters for discussion. While the actual proceedings might be well organized, the communicative elements are to a large extent often left to redundancy and change: participants socialize with people they already know or meet in more random social configurations (Ingram & Morris 2007). Aside from these interactions, participants have to rely on their own devices, on introductions by third parties or on the basal “information technique” of reading name badges to identify potential cooperation partners. Not infrequently, the effort required to initiate such interactions can lead to valuable communication and innovation potential remaining unused (Granovetter 2005).

Conferences last on average only four days, during which time the social interaction between participants is highly concentrated (in contrast to a working day in an organization). Instead of communicating with familiar co-workers in a formalized structure, conference participants are confronted with a marketlike situation in which they have to organize their time between presentations and look for potential communication partners. Although making new contacts is a common goal for conference participants, Ingram and Morris (2007) showed that these communications expectations were by no means met, even at dedicated networking events. When left to their own devices, conference participants tend to speak to people they already know or to people who are obviously like themselves (McPherson & Smith-Lovin 2001).

Given the above, the applied research project “Event Network Advancement” (ENA)1 has set itself the goal of studying the effectiveness of conferences and developing integrative methods and technologies to improve the situation (Zenk, Windhager & Smuc 2013).

Enabling Spaces

The design of spaces

Conferences usually take place at a specific place to which most participants travel for several days. The layout of the venue itself can promote or hinder certain social interactions (Peschl & Fundneider 2012): a traditional conference room setting with theatre-style seating might be good for listening to presentations, but it makes an interactive discussion between participants more difficult.

This simple example alone illustrates how the layout of physical spaces can encourage or impede the creation of new knowledge. In their “enabling spaces” approach, Peschl and Fundneider (2013) examine how spaces can facilitate innovation on multiple levels. With focus on the knowledge space, they study how individual or collective knowledge is changing and developing through interactions with other participants or knowledge artefacts (e.g. slides, posters, papers, etc.). Hence, the dynamics of this knowledge space (sharing of knowledge and ideas) are strongly dependent on constellations in the social space, whose structure is based on social formats (traditional presentations, poster sessions, coffee breaks, etc.) and individual interactions. The options in these spaces are generally also regulated by the conference schedule, which uses time “tracks” to guide participants through the different spaces.

So while a participant is trying to find out who he might want to talk to in the social space, the World Café he wanted to attend could be taking place at the same time in another physical space while the poster he wanted to hear was being presented in a knowledge space. To reduce these often intense cognitive perception, assessment and decision challenges during an event, the ENA project is developing a web-based tool (“Virtual Event Explorer”) to provide personal visualization support to conference participants. The Event Explorer gives them access to information about the schedule and the other participants prior to the event, helps them to maintain an overview of what’s going on during the event and provides them with online access to documentation and contact details after the event (see Figure 1, in Figures aside).

Core conference processes

While the Event Explorer works as an “Enabling Technology” that facilitates navigation through knowledge-intensive spaces – and should thus allow an improved focus on innovative ideas and conversations – the ENA project is also looking at new possibilities for integrated conference design. To optimize the overall design of a conference, one has to define the goals pursued by its organizers and participants. To determine the goals and motives for attending a conference, the ENA team surveyed participants at a range of different conferences. The data obtained was used to define so-called core processes, which explicate a conference’s central functions and which can be enhanced by using different designs for the physical, communication or knowledge spaces. By focussing on specific core processes, the event organizers can be provided with recommendations for the design of the different spaces and social formats that best meet the expectations of the participants.

Enabling Technologies

Multimodal network analysis

The Virtual Event Explorer serves as a participant’s personal interface to information on the event. Participants can access this information at any time and can use the tool to visualize the different spaces in line with their own particular interests. In the ENA project, it has been assumed that participants attend conferences because they are interested in particular topics. Information on these topics of interest can be collected prior to the conference and linked to presentations, spaces and other participants by means of multimodal network analysis2. In Figure 2 (see Figures aside), the black circle (A1) represents an actor who participates at a conference and who is interested in three topics (T1, T2, T3). The two other actors (A2, A3) shown are interested in similar topics. The relevant presentations (P1, P3) are being held in a specific room (R1).

To simplify these complex links, network analysis methods (cf. Borgatti et al. 2009; Zenk & Behrend 2010) are used to transform individual links into a personalized knowledge map, a network overview, a schedule and a floor plan in the Event Explorer. Specially developed matching algorithms are used to provide a participating actor (A1) with the best recommendations (see Figure 3, in Figures aside).

Interactive visualizations

These analyses formed the basis for the development of four interactive visualizations for the Event Explorer to help participants navigate through the different conference spaces.

In Figure 4 (see Figures aside), the conference topics are used to illustrate its knowledge space by the means of a so-called treemap. The bigger the box, the greater the number of people who are interested in that topic. Information on the presentations and people linked to a selected topic are shown on the right of the screen.

Based on the information provided by participants, matching algorithms are used to identify people with similar interests (see Figure 5, in Figures aside). In this way, participants not only receive a list of recommended persons with similar interests, they are also provided with a topographic overview of the social network which shows their own position. Recommended persons and the list of interests are shown on the right of the screen.

Since most conferences include presentations, these are also annotated with their corresponding topics (see Figure 6, in Figures aside) and participants receive recommendations not only on people to talk to, but also on which presentations match their interests. Assigning colors to presentations (the darker the shade, the better the match), the tool allows participants to process a complex schedule of presentations at one glance. Additional information can also be displayed on each presentation as required (on the right of the screen).

At larger conferences, presentations are often held concurrently in different rooms. Presentations address particular topics, and these can be linked with the interests of the participants. Corresponding colors can be used on the floor plan to show each participant the location of those presentations that are most likely to be of interest to them at a particular time (see Figure 7, in Figures aside).

Through its interactive visualizations, the Event Explorer provides participants with personalized recommendations that allow them to maintain an overview of what’s going on in knowledge-intensive conference spaces and thus also to concentrate better on new thoughts, conversations and ideas. An integrated messaging system provides them with a further virtual communication option.

Case Study

To test the proposed concepts, a prototype of the tool was developed and used for the first time in April 2013 at the “Wissensmanagement-Tage”3 (“Knowledge Management Days”) at the Danube University Krems in Austria. The almost 200 conference participants indicated the topics that interested them via an online questionnaire (based on a list of topics defined by the organizers). One week before the conference, the participants were given personalized access to the web-based tool to allow them to find out in advance about the other conference participants as well as the topics, presentations and spaces on offer.

To combine the virtual space with the physical space, participants could access the Event Explorer not only via their own devices (e.g. laptops or tablets) but also via a smartboard that was set up at the conference venue (see Figure 8, in Figures aside). A multi-touch function allowed participants to explore the interactive visualizations on site. To ensure the efficient display of personal recommendations, a small RFID tag was attached to each participant’s name badge. Participants could then use their badges to log in with one simple movement and display their own recommendations as required.

To evaluate the first version of the tool, a total of 23 people were surveyed in detail during the conference. The vast majority of the participants were either satisfied or mainly satisfied with the Event Explorer. Based on the verbal feedback received, the participants also felt that the tool has a lot of potential. Half of those surveyed had used the tool prior to the conference. The network overview, knowledge map and schedule were the elements that were used most frequently during the actual conference.

A range of suggestions for improvement were also documented in the course of the evaluation. Frequent wishes included a link to other social networking applications, the use of photos to make people easier to find and a more network-friendly design of the physical space. Further log file analyses indicated that the Event Explorer was also used after the conference to review the conference itself, the programme, the speakers and the visitors.


With the goal of connecting people and creating new knowledge networks, a conference is a typical situation in which people can find it increasingly difficult to filter out the most interesting options from the vast choice that is presented to them. As a result, the inherent potential offered by conferences is not put to best use, and the hopes for innovative cooperation opportunities often remain unrealized.

Against this background, the “Event Network Advancement” research project is studying the spaces at such events and developing new concepts and enabling technologies to improve conference visits. These concepts and technologies allow the visualization of the most interesting aspects of the respective physical, communication and knowledge spaces to enable participants to maximize the potential of their attendance at a conference prior to, during and after the event.

The use and evaluation of the first version of the Event Explorer in a pilot project has confirmed the general need for such technologies and provided numerous suggestions on how to improve and enhance such a tool. By incorporating such “Enabling Technologies” into the integrated designs of “Enabling Event Spaces”, the ENA project is working to develop more innovationfriendly knowledge communication ecosystems in a development that will not only be of direct benefit to conference participants and organizers but will also benefit innovation dynamics on a macroeconomic level in the medium term.


The applied research project “Event Network Advancement” (ENA) is being funded by the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) from 2012 to 2015. The ENA project is a cooperation between the Danube University Krems and the University of Vienna (research partners) and skilled Events and Media GmbH und Innovation Service Network GmbH (corporate partners).

Beitrag veröffentlicht in: Zenk, L.; Smuc, M. & Windhager, F. (2014). Beyond the name tag. Connecting people and knowledge at conferences. WiMa '13: Proceedings of the Wissensmanagement-Tage, Krems, Austria.

Die Autoren: Dr. Lukas Zenk, Michael Smuc und Florian Windhager sind wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter am Zentrum für Kognition, Information und Management an der Donau-Universität Krems.


Borgatti, S.P./Mehra, A./Brass, D./Labianca, G. (2009). Network analysis in the social sciences. Science, 323 (5916), 892 - 895.

Burt, R. S. (2004). Structural holes and good ideas. American Journal of Sociology, 110, 349-399.

Granovetter, M. (2005). The Impact of Social Structure on Economic Outcomes. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19(1), 33-50.

ICCA - International Congress and Convention Association. The International Association Meetings Market 2012. Abstract for international associations, press, universities, students and consultants (2012, 2013)

Ingram, P./Morris, M.W. (2007). Do people mix at mixers? Structure, homophily, and the “Life of the Party”. Administrative Science Quarterly, 52(4), 558-585.

McPherson, J. M./Smith-Lovin, L./Cook, J. M. (2001). Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 415-444.

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Peschl, M.F./Fundneider, T. (2013, in press). Designing (and) enabling interfaces for collaborative knowledge creation and innovation. From managing to enabling innovation as socio-epistemological technology. Computers and Human Behavior 2013.

Zenk, L./Behrend, F. D. (2010). Soziale Netzwerkanalyse in Organisationen. Versteckte Risiken und Potentiale erkennen. In R. Pircher (Ed.), Wissensmanagement, Wissenstransfer, Wissensnetzwerke: Konzepte, Methoden, Erfahrungen: Konzepte, Methoden und Erfahrungen (pp. 211-232). Erlangen, Germany: Publicis Corporate Publishing.

Zenk, L./Windhager, F./Smuc, M. (2014). Gut vernetzt bei Veranstaltungen: Technik und Lösungen. In Doris Weßels (Ed.), Zukunft der Wissens- und Projektarbeit. Neue Organisationsformen in vernetzten Welten (pp. 195-211). Düsseldorf: Symposion.

1 [02.12.2013]

2 Multimodal networks consist of different types of linked elements.

3 [22.10.2013]


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