Top tips for running a small workshop

Posted by s.hettrick on 20 April 2015 - 3:44pm

By Stephen Eglen, Software Sustainability Institute Fellow and senior lecturer University of Cambridge.

Late last year, I ran a workshop with the International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility (INCF) in Cambridge. It was regarded by all attendees as a success and it was suggested that we archive some tips for organising a small workshop. Here are those tips.

1. Get help with admin

We were incredibly lucky in that all the administration for the event was taken care of by the INCF, and in particular its program officer, Mathew Abrams. Everyone's travel plans were coordinated, and everyone stayed at the same (beautiful) college. Good admin is a fundamental part of a successful event, but it takes a lot of time to do well, so take any help you can get to ensure that your admin is done well.

2. Assemble a diverse audience

Rather than have the same people talking to each other, make sure there is plenty of new blood with people offering different perspectives. Although most attendees were neuroscientists at my workshop, an archeologist provided insightful advice and comments from his discipline. We also had a representative from the Wellcome Trust, and two editors (from Nature and PLOS).

3. Let everyone say their piece

Day one of the workshop was devoted to introductions. Everyone was invited to present a 15-20 minute talk, with plenty of time for discussion. Workshop run more smoothly, and collaborations are set up more efficiently, when everyone knows each other's work and aspirations.

4. Keep it small and keep it short​

We had sixteen attendees. Everyone could fit around a large conference-style table and discuss freely. Part of the allure of a small workshop is that it can be focussed on the specific interest of a the attendees. Constraining the discussion in this way means that the workshop doesn't have to last long. Everyone's busy, so in my experience two days is long enough for most people.

5. Keep it flexible

In advance of the workshop, we had prepared topics for discussion on day two. However, at the start of day two, we invited everyone to spend 15 minutes to list their top five items for discussion. These were then presented to their group. From this a consensus emerged of specific questions to tackle in the group. Flexibility ensures that the attendees can tailor the workshop to their needs and that keeps them engaged.

6. Keep it specific

Rather than try to solve all the problems around data sharing, we found it useful to discuss smaller, specific questions. It's better to spend your time solving one problem, than discuss a wide range of problems but come to no conclusion.

7. Involve everybody

With larger workshop, it is easier for people to disappear. With a small workshop most people will be actively contributing ideas. Despite this fact, you need a good chairperson to ensure that everyone's view is heard (and keep time).

8. Use (robust) technology

We had a communal Google document that everyone could read and edit, which served as an ongoing summary of the workshop, and a way for people to share notes, URLS and so forth. This was also on display via a data projector. Collaborative tools like Google docs, Etherpad, Gitter and suchlike are invaluable, because they make it easy to share information quickly. Plus creating a record of the discussions on the day is much easier than trying to write notes once the event has finished.