Do Conferences Make Sense?

Conferences are a common facet of the life of the professional class.  It seems that the more education and credentials you have, the more conferences you can attend.

These conferences, often at hotels, sometimes even at resorts, are a great excuse to get away from the office and the family for a day or two.  Who doesn’t enjoy nice hotels, sleeping a little late, meal at nice restaurants, sitting around a bar with colleagues?  It’s especially good if someone else picks up the tab.

However, in a time of declining budgets and increasing technological applications for connecting with people the logic of conferences must be questioned.   Having attending dozens if not hundreds of conferences I can attest that a conference is a terribly inefficient way to transmit information.  Even the alleged “training event” wastes time and money.

If the employer views conferences as some kind of perquisite the current model is fine.  The boss can treat a few employees to two days at a hotel bar in exchange for their attendance at a few sessions.  Everybody is a little happy: some productivity is exchanged for some executive treatment.

Conferences offer no outcomes.  Educational benefits are nebulous at best, and solutions are rarely discovered.   The two great effects of professional conferences are networking and sparking creativity.  To maximize those achievements conferences should be orchestrated differently.

Many middle-manager types are most drawn to conferences that feature content intimately familiar to them, and attended by many familiar colleagues.  Reinforcing those bonds is fine, but it is unlikely to ignite a new perspective or open a new collaborative opportunity.  Consequently the most beneficial conferences may feature programming at the fringe of the attendees’ expertise and lots of unfamiliar faces.

Decision makers should encourage participation at those conferences with challenging subject matter.  Professionals should be exposed to new ideas, other fields, and on occasion, completely unrelated methodologies.  This will help cultivate creative thought.  It is inefficient, and may yield no tangible benefits, but that is the risk of encouraging thought over action.

Conference planners need to put more effort into networking activities that help people break from the three friends they knew before the event.   The example of speed-dating might provide a useful model.

Spending money is harder than it has been in a long time.   Professionals seeking information from experts or peers are best served by reading an article, or joining a video-conference.   Wise organizers will recognize that honing and updating skills are not cost-effective conference pursuits.

In focusing on investing in the long-term, and thus slow, growth of professional’s talents, planners will embrace cross-pollination of ideas, and risk sacrificing a few days of office time.


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