Informality, ideas and inspiration: a new style of conference
How does a conference that is centered around informal interactions rather than formal presentations help the exchange of exciting ideas and new collaborations between participants?
The Oxford Residence Week for Entrepreneurship Scholars – a yearly gathering of leading figures in the field of entrepreneurship research – does conferences differently.
The initiative was launched in 2012 by Green Templeton College Associate Fellow Professor Saul Estrin (London School of Economics) and Mirjam van Praag (Copenhagen Business School and University of Amsterdam).
For an insight into why the event is so successful for participants, we asked the conference’s co-organizer Mirjam and regular participant Laura Rosendahl-Huber (Max Planck Institute, Munich) to share their experiences.
Mirjam van Praag
Co-organizer of the Oxford Residence Week for Entrepreneurship Scholars
How did you and Saul decide to establish the Residence Week in this format?
The main objective of this conference is to help researchers to interact more, to share research ideas and perhaps set up new projects together.
We were fed up with conferences where time is used inefficiently. You meet people only superficially and attend short sessions that fail to deliver a full understanding of the research.
It seems our concept has caught on: people were, and still are, enthusiastic about it, since it makes building research partnerships easier. We felt that in most traditional conferences time is inefficiently used: you attend short presentations that fail to deliver a full understanding of the research, and meet people only superficially. That said, we don’t entirely forego a more formal setting: in recent years our Wednesdays have been shaped by seminars at the Saïd Business School, with the help of Associate Professor Nir Vulkan.
What are the main challenges in managing the gathering every year?
Perhaps you’d better ask Dorothy Cooke, Green Templeton College Emeritus Fellow, who has helped organize the event every year. Usually, challenges to organizing a conference are financial, but we are very fortunate to have the support of the Templeton Education and Charity Trust.
The key is bringing together the most appropriate mix of people and topics to get a dynamic combination of famous researchers and promising young scholars, people from management and economics, from Europe and the US, returning and new scholars. We do this by invitation and much consideration goes into this part of the event.
What are your favourite aspects, and how has your experience changed over time?
I love getting together with people from all over the world who are interested in similar topics and share ideas with each other. Oxford and especially our venue, Green Templeton’s annex at 13 Norham Gardens, make for an inspirational environment, which, coupled with the early summer, allows us to relax and come back home with new ideas and some progress. The event has evolved exactly like Saul and I envisioned it: the atmosphere is exciting, and even now I feel like an innocent student, just curious to know more about my field and to talk to people.
Participant, Oxford Residence Week for Entrepreneurship Scholars
Laura, what was your initial contact with the Residence Week?
I was one of Mirjam’s PhD students when I was first invited to the event. It was a great experience: the informal setting of the small breaks and lunch – like a picnic in the garden – made it quite easy to connect with people. The evenings also provided plenty of opportunities for conversation with small groups meeting for dinner.
For the third conference in 2014, you took on an organizing role; did that change things?
At that point I was further along in my PhD which made it easier for me to talk about my research, and to have conversations at a different level. This year – my third time in Oxford and one year after completing my PhD – I noticed even more that the informal setting makes it stress-free to reconnect with other previous participants.
I am pursuing two projects as a result of this year’s event, one with Alexander Kritikos, who I had met here before, and one with Tim Folta, whom I met this year while getting coffee. We started talking, and continued the conversation in the garden – there aren’t too many conferences where you can do that.
What do you think makes the event special?
It comes from the size of the group and our research overlap; the group is small enough to know everybody yet big and diverse enough to get valuable input from different perspectives. The afternoon presentations afford the unique opportunity of presenting early stage work and the friendly and informal atmosphere gives us an opportunity to get more valuable comments than you can expect at larger conferences, when the papers presented are usually more advanced.
But it was also interesting to give a more traditional and formal presentation for a larger audience at the Saïd Business School, which provided a more formal add-on to the Residence Week.
How has the event evolved and how has it assisted your career development?
The Residence Week has become a fixed event in the summer for entrepreneurship scholars, as shown by the large number of scholars who return year after year, and by the number of people who are disappointed if they are not invited one year.
The concept has stayed true to its original ideal and the atmosphere is still very much the same as when I was there the first time. I can see that it has helped me grow my network inside the entrepreneurship community and helped find great joint research projects. The mix of junior and more senior scholars is also really practical: people get to know you and your work – very important for an academic career!