Authors: Rana Sajjad Ahmad*
The digitalization of conferences was accelerated amidst the Covid-19 pandemic that spawned the birth or rather rebirth of the webinar. In the absence of in-person conferences, it was widely adopted by the international arbitration community also as a viable alternative to in-person conferences. The upside of cost-efficiency and convenience turned out to be a double-edged sword though as the ease of organizing webinars led to their explosive growth, ultimately undermining their value and causing webinar fatigue. Another factor causing webinar fatigue was a lack of in-person interaction, one of the primary motivations for attending conferences. Not having the option of shaking hands and having face-to-face conversations with participants made the webinar experience rather underwhelming and empty. It was a reminder of how our natural and fundamental human need of deep and meaningful social engagement could not be fulfilled by staring at a two-dimensional screen where a wave of the hand is the closest thing to a firm handshake or even a big, warm hug.
The webinar also redefined, rather relegated, the idea of the conference venue, usually an exotic and vibrant location. The city in which the conference is held and the specific venue of the conference have always been considered integral to its attractiveness while it is being advertised which, in turn, helps make it a success based on the higher turnout. For webinars, the venue is the rather dull and indistinguishable cyberspace. Consequently, even the most prestigious, star-studded webinars cannot distinguish themselves by offering much in the way of an attractive venue.
With the venue out of the equation, the role of speakers in making the webinar a success is even more important. More specifically, since the attendees are not physically in the same room as the speakers, the speakers have a bigger responsibility to engage with the attendees to hold their attention. The challenge though is that in a webinar, the speakers do not have much to work with except their facial expressions that are front and center on the screen. While this can be leveraged by the very few charismatic and engaging speakers, a large majority of them continue to give staid talks in which their expressionless faces are amplified while they ramble through their talks that are usually being read off text.
The overarching question then is whether the current webinar model offers a worthwhile experience for the attendees, both in terms of learning and engagement. If not, should webinars be reimagined or more audaciously, are webinars ripe for disruption?
For starters, let us try approaching this scientifically and go an exploratory mission to discover the cutting edge of webinars. As Steven Johnson, the American popular science author, articulates in his fascinating book titled “Where good ideas come from”, the cutting edge is where you are able to see the “adjacent possible”. So let us see what such an adjacent possible for a webinar may look like by reimagining two components of a webinar: the discussion format and the panel of speakers.
For starters, imagine a webinar in which there is no panel of speakers and the discussion format is modelled on the Socratic method that law school professors have traditionally used during classroom discussions. The one fundamental difference would be that unlike law school where only the professor asks the questions, all attendees can ask open-ended questions and move the discussion along with a view to either understanding a concept better or coming up with creative approaches or solutions for complex issues.
There is broad agreement on the value of asking the right questions in the context of creative thinking and problem solving. Hal Gregersen, senior MIT lecturer and former executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, has written an insightful book titled “Questions are the Answer”, on the importance of asking good questions. He refers to the “catalytic quality” of good questions that stimulate creativity and catalyze the process of coming up with innovative ideas. Now let me ask a catalytic question: Should our international arbitration community not consider moving on from talking heads who give monologues to a discussion in which all participants have the opportunity to ask and answer questions?
Let us now turn to the other important component: the panel of speakers. In order to have truly unique perspectives and novel ideas, how about having speakers from different disciplines? To breathe new life into the same old discussions that usually end up regurgitating theories and analyses, the lack of knowledge and experience of speakers from different backgrounds would offer fresh perspectives that might seem naïve or even wrong-headed at the outset. For an arbitration topic for instance, imagine having a sociologist, neuroscientist and an artist discuss their views on arbitration as a dispute resolution mechanism and how it could possibly be redesigned to make it more efficient and workable for users. Sounds a bit too radical? Not really if the purpose of the webinar is to hear novel views and unique perspectives.
The importance of diverse perspectives is backed by research and manifested in stunning success stories of problem solving that affirm the value of cross-pollination of ideas. There is the example of a children’s hospital in London that redesigned its procedure for transferring patients from one department to another by emulating the Formula 1 pit crew members’ procedure for changing racing cars’ tires. Who would have thought that the mechanical pit stop procedure would help break new ground in healthcare? Clearly, nothing is off limits when it comes to cross-pollination of ideas.
Steve Jobs, another purveyor of cross-pollination of ideas, masterfully demonstrated the art of fusing aesthetic creativity and technological functionality. His application of design thinking to the Apple headquarters’ layout enabled employees from different departments to run into each other and cross-pollinate ideas during their serendipitous encounters. Breaking down silos and dismantling the echo chambers helped build a breakthrough product that is considered both a work of art and a technological marvel.
The question is: Why can international arbitration practitioners not focus more on the right questions and adopt a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding concepts, principles and rising issues in our webinars to enhance the value of the discussions and elevate the entire webinar experience for the participants? While such a webinar may sound overly ambitious or even far-fetched, it has the potential for deepening engagement of the attendees which would, in turn, add value to the webinar experience both from the standpoint of how and what the attendees learn and retain. The Center for International Investment and Commercial Arbitration (CIICA) aims to test these ideas by incorporating one or both components of this model for both its webinars and in-person events in the near future.
*Rana Sajjad is a dual-qualified lawyer (licensed in New York and Pakistan). He is a Partner at the Lahore-based law firm of Rana Ijaz & Partners and the Founder & President of the Center for International Investment and Commercial Arbitration (CIICA), Pakistan’s first international arbitration center.
 Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation 23 (2010).
 Hal Gregersen, Questions Are The Answer: A Breakthrough to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life (2018).
 Id. at Foreword.