CONFLICTING OPS THEORIES

By Fiona Anderson.

As AFN is intended to include different ways of achieving the same objective (ie running a con successfully), below is an article by Ben Yalow on the theory of small-Ops. Ben and I are at the two extreme opposite ends of the spectrum in our views on Ops, and most people fall somewhere in between.

From my point of view, I am convinced that Ben's ideas are quite feasible where you have a situation that most departments have people working them who have regularly worked on large (2000+) cons, and therefore have the experience and know-how built up over years to be confident that most things will go according to plan.

I am equally convinced that had we tried Ben's ideas at Intersection, we would have had a first rate disaster on our hands. This is because the UK only gets a Worldcon every 8 years or so, and meanwhile the largest regular con is the Eastercon (800+), which doesn't prepare anyone for the realities of a Worldcon. When we get regular larger (2000+) cons in the UK or Europe will be the time to start thinking about whether we want to try out Ben's small Ops model or not. Until then, I think that any UK/Euro Worldcon that abandoned the traditional large-Ops model would be rather less than sensible… and in any case I rather doubt anyone here would feel comfortable changing from something that has worked for us to something untried here.

Meanwhile I think it's fascinating to read an American theory of conrunning that is so completely different from what we do here, yet successful in its own context….so over to Ben:


The Small-Ops Model of Ops


(or Centralized vs Distributed Ops)

By Ben Yalow

In general UK conventions, such as Eastercon, follow what I term the big-Ops model of how Ops works. A big-Ops department has significant line authority with respect to the running of a con, and is generally involved in the problem solving for many different classes of problems. For example, on Intersmof, Fiona has been posting a series of "problems", listed as Ops problems, as exercises and examples of the sorts of things that Ops may be called upon to handle.

In the small-Ops model, used by most American Worldcons, most of these problems don't involve Ops at all, except, perhaps peripherally. Authority and responsibility instead are distributed throughout the various departments and divisions within the concom, and Ops has the responsibility for helping to establish and maintain the communications infrastructure to support that.

If, for example, a problem arises with the facility (includes Hotels or Conference Centre), then the facilities liaison for that building is contacted, rather than Ops. If a problem arises with a program item, then Program Ops (a department entirely separate from Ops, whose reporting chain lies entirely within Program Division) is contacted, and they solve it.

Ops still has a number of functions in this model. The primary one is establishing the communications infrastructure, although, as technology improves, then this becomes less of a task. With the relatively cheap availability of numeric readout pagers, then generally, those people who need to be contacted are issued pagers, and Ops creates and distributes a phone list, which lists the phone numbers of all the pagers, and the fixed location house phones. So if someone needs to contact the person on duty for the Art Show, you can just look it up on the pager list, and beep that person, giving the number where they can contact you. Before numeric readout pagers became affordable, people had to contact Ops, and leave a message to be delivered, and people would call Ops when they got beeped, and get their messages that way, but now technology has made that extra call unnecessary. Some American cons are starting to experiment with cellular phones, to see if they are cost-effective enough to replace the beepers for people who need more immediate methods of communication -- I suspect that, as prices keep dropping, this will certainly be true in a few years, whether or not it's appropriate now. And, depending on dead spots, it may be useful to have both beepers and cellular phones, since beepers can get through places where current cellular phones can't, although the phone technology is improving fast enough that this may not be true in a few years.

Ops also can serve as a small pool of manpower for short-term surges. For example, if an event is suddenly added, such as a fireworks display, then Ops would be asked to provide a few supervisors for crowd control. Or, if the elevators break, and a pool of elevator operators are needed to run the few working elevators manually, and maintain the lines of people waiting for them, then, once again, Ops would be called upon.

Besides serving as the contingency pool, then Ops, because of the communications structure, is often in a position where it hears about problems. At that time, its job becomes to contact the real department responsible for problem solving, and hand it off to them. For example, at a recent convention, the hotel discovered a problem late at night concerning a VIP guest's room location. Since most of the rest of the con was shut, the hotel's Director of Convention Services contacted Ops, which immediately contacted the Facility staff to go meet with the hotel. At the meeting, it became apparent that the solution would involve the Chairman, due to the presence of the VIP, so Ops contacted the chairman, at the direction of the Facilities staff. A solution was reached, after negotiations with the hotel, and discussions with the VIP (although a member of the Ops team was involved in those discussions, this was because the Ops person knew the VIP, not because of being Ops). But since it was a hotel issue, then Facilities, not Ops, was responsible for working on a solution, although it could, and did, call on Ops resources, as it could on the resources of any other department.

At American conventions, and others with late night parties, Ops also usually has the responsibility of working with facility security at night, since party noise control is a constant issue at American conventions, with their traditions of open parties on sleeping room floors. Hotel security needs someone to interact with as a first responder for noise issues, and that's traditionally been a responsibility of Ops, since they have a few people with radios who can provide a mobile function to keep an eye on the parties. In case the facility still has problems, then Ops can contact the Facilities Division, who will have the hotel liaison for that hotel available to work with the more senior hotel staff, and can escalate that within the facilities division.

The key to this entire system is that the departments need to be prepared to solve intra-department problems, and to be able to co-ordinate inter-department issues with all of the affected departments. This means that, instead of concentrating the top personnel in one department -- Ops -- the talent pool is out in the departments. So, for the most part, Ops is *not* the place to be, but is a temporary spot where somebody might stay for a while, before going out to work in a department, or, if interested, move into a division spot.

It also depends on everybody understanding how the various pieces of the convention fit together, so that they can contact the appropriate department to solve their problems if the problems lie outside their purview. If not, Ops can serve as a backup to help identify who should respond to a problem, so that "contact Ops and let them call in the (non-Ops) problem solvers" remains as a backup solution for a department with a problem.

So the underlying philosophical difference is the degree to which authority and responsibility are distributed. The Big-Ops model concentrates these in one department, Ops. The Small-Ops model distributes these to the departments, with an escalation mechanism within the division. It requires a greater concentration on communications, and ensuring that everybody knows what the entire convention looks like, and why. It empowers the entire concom, which is both risky, and more apparent work, but has been highly productive and rewarding, both for all of the individuals involved, and in terms of allowing American Worldcons to grow significantly without increasing the load on a small set of individuals to the extent that they start to burn out from having to do this for a Worldcon every year.

Most, though certainly not all, American conventions of sub-Worldcon size tend to have Ops departments that follow the small-Ops model, if they bother with Ops at all. For example, a convention like Boskone (about 700 or so) doesn't both with having Ops at all -- the office serves as a general message center, if necessary, and since departments like Program have offices, then people with program problems contact them directly. There's a beeper on the hotel liaison, so the committee, or the hotel, can contact them directly, and that's likely to become a cellular phone soon. In any case, they distribute the responsibilities to the departments most involved.

For example, this year at Orycon (about 1600 or so), there was a problem with the pocket program (Patty Wells has an article for the SMOFcon proceedings for this year discussing it). As head of Program, she had the lead responsibility for solving the problem, since it hit the program listings. She borrowed people and resources from other departments, as needed, and coordinated with Newsletter to handle providing notices, and Office, in terms of getting stuff copied (Orycon doesn't have Ops during the day, and the Office is the closest thing, since it handles the beepers). But it was Program, not Office, which was responsible for solving the problem.

It isn't possible to talk about a uniform American model of how Ops behaves. But, in general, it is safe to say that most American Worldcons will distribute authority and responsibility to the departments/divisions, rather than concentrate them in an Ops department. And most American regional conventions tend towards a small-Ops model, if they have Ops at all, which many cons up through Eastercon sized don't. They've found that distributing authority produces less work for the staff, and makes better use of the limited people resources that conventions have available.