Horace Dediu’s blog Asymco is absolutely one of my favorite blogs, with its insightful mix of data and theory, and Critical Path, its associated podcast, is always fascinating as well. So when Horace announced his conference Asymconf, and when the date turned out to be a time when I was already planning to be in Europe, I took that as a sign that I should take the train over to Amsterdam to attend: too much of a coincidence to pass up.

Having said that, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to get out of the conference. The blog and podcast focus on a Christensen-style disruption analysis; that’s something I’ve been interested in for a while, maybe I’d learn something about how to apply that analysis in practice? Also, Dediu thinks a lot about how the strengths, weaknesses, and historical baggage of various forms of presentation, I’d be curious to see him rethink how to best use and rework the conference format, learning something about the case study method if possible.

The conference was designed as a series of four case studies, on the mobile industry, Hollywood, finance, and learning; I like active learning instead of just listening and reading and thinking by myself (all of which I can do with his blog and podcast, so I fully support a conference format that takes advantage of the fact that there are 150 people together in person), and those are all topics that I’m interested in. Though that’s also pretty ambitious: are we really going to figure out something about four topics in a single day, with only 75 minutes per topic? Dediu seemed to genuinely think so; he’s a smart guy with a lot of vision, maybe he’ll design a structure that will allow us to carry it off.

That’s what I had in mind coming in; how was it in practice? I had some interesting conversations with other attendees while waiting for it to start; and Dediu led off with a rather interesting history of Amsterdam through the lens of disruption. And then we started the first case study, on the mobile industry; each participant got to actively participate in one of the case studies, I was assigned the first case study, and I actually ended up being the first person from the audience to chime in.

So: yay! The thing is, though, it was an interesting conversation, with smart people, but we didn’t figure out anything. A pleasant way to spend an hour and a bit, I like talking to and listening to smart people, but that’s all it was for me.

And the conference continued that way: interesting conversations (I particularly enjoyed a lunchtime discussion about the link between Christensen’s notion of “jobs to be done” and interaction design), interesting bits happening on stage, but nothing that made me sit up and take notice. I’d hoped to learn more about applying disruption analysis techniques concretely; the only specific new technique that I noticed was picking a couple of axes in which to analyze a space, plotting existing participants along the resulting graph, and looking for blank spaces. Which is certainly useful, but I was hoping for a little more along those lines, or figuring out something surprising about one of the domains, or something.

(Also, one strange thing: the gender balance was really far off, and I say that as somebody who is used to going to programming conferences and video game conferences. I counted 6 women out of 120 participants; maybe there were more women that I missed in my survey, but I’d be shocked if the percentage was as high as 10%. No idea what was going on there, and I certainly don’t want to draw any conclusions from it, but it surprised me.)

So: I’m not going to second-guess going, it was a reasonable use of time and money, it was a pleasant and interesting way to spend a day. But I’m certainly not going to go attend the next Asymconf unless it’s in the Bay Area (which is a possibility, they’re planning to hold it on the west coast of the United States), and probably not even then unless I can understand the vision better, get a better idea of what I’d like to get out of it.


On which topic: I don’t have experience with the case study method, but I do have experience teaching using active, group-based classroom methods. And, when doing that, I would try to help bring students partway into a topic, then give them something fairly large to struggle with and enough room to work at understanding it better, and be available to help provide a bit more context/support if necessary but not get in the way otherwise.

Dediu did a great job with the last point there: he spoke up when appropriate, repeating and amplifying points, without inserting himself inappropriately. The middle point, though, I’m a lot more dubious about. I was a math professor; an hour and fifteen minutes is enough time for a class that has been together for a few weeks to get their hands dirty with a specific mathematical technique, but it’s not nearly enough time for a group of people that have never met each other before to figure out anything about a huge topic. E.g. looking at Tuckman’s group development model, maybe it’s enough to get through forming and into storming, but we didn’t get to where we were seriously chewing on specific ideas, let alone make it into any sort of performing groove. So, from that point of view, spending the whole day in a single group looking at a single topic would have been a much better use of the time than four groups working on four topics; though the number of participants would have made that extremely unwieldy, I have no idea how to reconcile that tension.

And then there’s the first point, helping bringing students partway into a topic. If the topic that we’re trying to learn about is disruption, then everybody there has seen Dediu’s disruption-based analysis, so we’re coming from some sort of common understanding. But I could have used some more specific support in that regard, more of a helping hand in the transition between seeing others apply disruption analysis to applying it yourself.

As I said above, I don’t know much about the case study method; this article, though, says that one aspect of it is that “Unlike lecture-based teaching, the case method requires intensive preparation by the students, before each class.” And that’s something that was almost completely lacking in the conference: techniques aside, we need to know about the data of the case! (Maybe the most striking aspect of Dediu’s blog is the wonderfully data-driven nature of its analysis.) He wrote one short blog post on each of the first three topics, and nothing about the fourth. Admittedly, the blog talks so much about the mobile space that we had a lot of data to work with there; the other topics, though, are only touched on much more irregularly. If I’m remembering correctly from what he said on his podcast, this lack of prior background for participants was a conscious strategy on his part, but it’s not a strategy I would have adopted.

Still, I don’t want to end on a down note. I was going to say that Asymconf was a conference unlike any other I’ve attended, but actually there are hints of the AYE Conference in the approach that Asymconf took. And AYE was one of my favorite conferences that I’ve ever attended! Asymconf isn’t nearly there yet, but this is only the first iteration, and one the most notable aspects of Asymco is its focus on learning and iteration. So if I had to bet, my guess is that Asymconf is going to be a lot better in a couple of years (quite possibly even in six months!), and I still think it’s got a real chance at figuring out something about how to learn.

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