Monday, October 18, 2010

Networking and Learning at ELIA and the CNGL in Sunny Dublin

I was in Dublin last week at the ELIA Networking Days conference. In many ways it was less a conference, and much more a peer community coming together and sharing ideas and views of the world, much more so than most other professional translation industry “conferences”. I think it was one of the best LSP-issue focused events I have seen.  While some might say that I say this because I did have a prominent role there, (I was both a keynote speaker and ran a workshop on how LSPs could get started with MT), I assure you this is not why I say this.(Hear me now and believe me later – in German accent)

We live in an age, where increasingly marketing and corporate-speak is challenged, undermined and sometimes even seen as disingenuous and false. (Raise your hand if you trust and respect corporate press releases).  Today we see customer voices rise above the din of corporate messaging, and taking control of branding and corporate reputations with their own “authentic” discussions of actual customer experiences, while marketing departments look on haplessly. I think this phenomenon is happening on many fronts, including conferences in the localization industry. There are too many events in the L10N industry that seem formulaic, routine, repetitive and engineered based on the same old viewpoints. This, I think affects the ability of these events to really spark dialogue, excitement and generate vital learning experiences that make these conferences must-attend events. While these events remain useful for “face-time”, they often have little value for really engaging attendees at a professional level.

What makes for a great conference or professional industry event? To my mind: high quality content, interactive and engaged audiences in sessions that broaden one’s horizons, interesting people who continue the professional dialogue outside of the sessions and share learning experiences and of course a good location. And if you can offer all of this at a reasonable cost, even better. A great professional event is characterized by learning, the more intensive the learning experience, the better. The best ones leave you thinking for awhile after the event.  Intense learning rarely happens at really big events because it is hard to scale this. The ELIA Networking Days meeting (rather than conference) had many of the elements of good professional group meetings. The attendees had a lot of say in determining what was presented, the sessions were highly interactive and engaged, attendees all shared without concern for exposing personal weaknesses and it was clear that the broad feedback was genuinely positive and the biggest single complaint seemed to be that people wanted to be in two sessions that were running concurrently. Ultan (pictured below in traditional Irish garb) aka @localization has also written about his own early impressions of the event with more to follow soon in Multilingual magazine.

This event was also very organized in terms of Twitter coverage and attendees saw continuous live coverage through the event where several screens showed the Twitter feedback up to that point. Type “#ELIA” at the wall of silver to see one such live view. Opinions from tweeps outside the conference were shared with the session group if they were deemed pertinent or relevant. This virtual expansion is a key characteristic of the best events like TED and SXSW where one can see audience reactions in real time and the external virtual audience may actually be several times larger than the physical one.  This event also has some great candid photo shots taken by @AgaGonczarek like the one below. She also created the mood video that captures much of the feel of the conference.

Some of the sessions that I found most interesting – Sharon O’Brian’s overview of post-editing, @paraics review of the work CNGL is doing, @marylaplante’s perspective of changing enterprise needs and innovation. Ultan also did a great impromptu presentation on the huge value of Information Quality at Oracle (he really does not like descriptions of IQ with the word controlled or simplified in them).  I also really enjoyed the Bulls Eye Sales Pitch session which compared and contrasted the actual sales pitch used by several brave and courageous LSPs who voluntarily faced criticism from both the panel and the room on their presentations.(We all need to do more of this to learn faster).  Differentiation is a fundamental business challenge for language service providers and this session did a great job of raising awareness and providing real insights into different differentiation strategies. There is a very nice downloadable twitter archive here where you can see mine and others coverage of these sessions, but unfortunately all the hardcore tweeters tended to attend the same sessions, so some sessions did not have very much twitter coverage.

I also spent a day with several people at CNGL at Trinity College Dublin to better understand what they are working on and also had a session with graduate students that was a lot of fun, where I got to tell them my opinion on what broad language technology problems needed to be solved and what research they should do to help us (the world) make more rapid advances. The students were respectful (about  my ideas) and at one point informed me that while my suggestions made sense and could even possibly have an impact on important translation problems, they were unlikely to have merit as PhD thesis ideas.  Most people don’t realize that CNGL has major SMT research initiatives underway that would rank it amongst the largest MT research programs in the world. They are also doing some very cool and leading edge work on global customer support. In fact, I think one of their research initiatives has produced customer support related technology that could be the basis of a formidable offering in the market, if I had the money I would be very interested in trying to commercialize it. This technology solves a very important problem: Getting the customer to the information they want, by quickly matching queries with carefully filtered and highly relevant response information.

I also got to be on a panel of judges that ranked CNGL PhD student thesis presentations. The winners were focused on improving Patent Search, Developing Better Localization Data Standards and Managing Quality in Crowdsourcing. There were also some cool SMT ideas and ontology development ideas that looked promising. The highlight of the day had to be the very brief visit to see the Book of Kells and the Long Room Library. It is heartening to realize that men sat together a few hundred years ago, and said lets build a library, and lets make it so amazing that men (and women) in future will realize that knowledge, words and books can and should be approached with awe and reverence. This place truly is imbued by the hand and touch of civilized beings. A marvelous and magical place whose scale cannot really be appreciated in pictures, but here’s one anyway (please sir, pardon my use of it without permission).

Dublin-The Long Room Library Trinity College

All conferences have some wonderful conversations and some of these are really heartfelt and should be celebrated. Even though some of these conversations may be the one and only interaction I have with these people in my life, I agree with Carlos Castaneda who recommends (in The Active Side of Infinity), that these conversations should be chronicled as memorable moments in one’s life. I can recall a few of these conversations from this trip: several conversations with Ultan O’Broin (sometimes with Renato there as well), a conversation about differentiation, vision and distinction with the lovely Polish duo of @AgaGonczarek and Marta (who tried repeatedly to get me to say Wroclaw correctly), a conversation with the lovely and talented Sara Nicolini about purpose and passion and finally a dinner conversation with Reinhardt Schaler (and Paraic) about India and Hard Times in Ireland and elsewhere.

This was also a particularly intense event for many and varied professional conversations about how to get started with MT. I look forward to continuing these conversations.

ELIA Networking Days Dublin 2010 from Agnieszka Gonczarek on Vimeo.

And indeed it was actually sunny for those three networking days.


  1. Kirti,

    Thanks for the heartfelt comments. We did indeed put a lot of effort in organizing a program that was at the same time insightful and fun. You were a big part in making this ELIA Networking Days in Dublin a success.

    We are already working hard on the program for Stockholm in May of next year. I hope your readers consider coming.

    Renato Beninatto
    President of the European Language Industry Association (ELIA)

  2. I just found an interesting comment about conferences from a blogger I have just discovered: Conversation Agent - How talk can change our lives. See the full blog entry here:

    Here is the excerpt that caught my eye

    "What real time learning means (in the context of a conference)

    Real time learning doesn't mean using Twitter and Facebook to comment on sessions, speakers, and the program. For all the points outlined above, real time learning means formatting the conversation in a way that is conducive to drawing out and harnessing the collective knowledge and experience in the room and using the dialogue to move to a new place -- together.

    I'd love to be part of that conference, and we have been on our way there several times in the past. It's a format that requires a different mindset and personal availability to become a true member of the group. Conference organizers and volunteers have an opportunity to create this kind of experience with participants.

    How is your identity being shaped by derivative values (I'm cool because I'm attending this conference) vs. reflective values (this conference is cool because I'm attending it)? Answer that question in the privacy of your mind, and you'll know what kinds of events you'll continue to have..."

    Cool concept, isn't it ? Harnessing the collective intelligence in the audience and making it part of the living presentation.