The Value of Professional Conferences. Also Why Has There Been So Little Innovation?

In the most recent ASQ Influential Voices post, Julia McIntosh takes a look at the costs and benefits of professionals attending conferences.

I still remember being in high school and George Box talking about the primary value of conferences was talking to colleagues in the hallway. This seemed very odd to me, as it seemed that the reason for going to a conference was to learn from the talks.

I also didn’t really understand the value in catching up with people in person. I could see it would be somewhat useful but I didn’t really understand the benefits of personal communication. Pretty much all of my communication at that point was person to person. So I didn’t really see the huge loss of fidelity of any other communication (phone, email…).

At early conferences that I attended my main benefit was still in sitting in sessions and learning what people had to say. I did also benefit from discussions with other attendees. And I started to form relationships with others which grew over the years. And over time the networking benefits did exceed the learning from sessions benefits.

Part of this also occurs as your knowledge increases and you have less to learn from the average speaker. George was obviously well past this stage when I was talking to him. For me I still learned a lot from some of the speakers but also found I was learning much less and skipping sessions to talk to people I could learn more from was an increasing benefit. Still I have difficulty doing that and would focus more on networking at lunch, between sessions and in the evening.

The costs of attending conferences are easy for companies to calculate. The benefits they bring are very hard to calculate. I can see why companies often are very tight with budgets for conferences.

Egyptian carving of figures into a stone sarcophagus

A stone sarcophagus from ancient Egypt. I took this photo after presenting a Deming 2 1/2 day seminar in Boston (at the Boston Fine Arts Museum – see more photos).

I think the benefits of getting people outside the building and letting them interact with others to learn and think about new ideas is very valuable. I do think it is much less valuable in most companies than is should be because they have bad management systems that are atrophied with poor practices that are going to be extremely difficult to improve even if people have good ideas to try.

The organization really should focus on improving the management system so it isn’t such a barrier to improvement. But I think most organizations instead find it easy to just estimate a poor return on investments in conferences because those returning don’t actually make any improvements. Again, I think the cause of the failure to improve is more about the bad management system than the benefit of the conferences.

Of course, to some extent, the conferences should be focusing on how to improve given so many attendees organizations are crippled with a poor management system. But often people seem reluctant to acknowledge or discuss that. And those that point out problems often are seen as the problem (based on their actions – I can only conclude blaming the messenger makes sense to some people). And these factors are often even more pronounced in those the organization is willing to invest in (they are often more focused on making the bosses happy rather than something like improvement and change which often rubs people the wrong way).

For me the pitiful state of the air transportation system is another reason to reduce conference attendance in the USA (most of the rest of the world this doesn’t apply, though in some places you do have other transportation – some parts of Africa for example). The whole USA air transportation system is so customer hostile it should be avoided.

So many of the problems conferences have to overcome I think are not about the conference itself. The problems created by a poor management system (which will make applying what people learn difficult or impossible), the annoying transportation system, the opportunity cost of the person not doing their job (especially if the management system has resulted in a overworked people already), lodging and per diem costs…

The cost of the conference itself and the nature of the conference itself are items within the control of the conference providers.

Since those first few conferences I attended I have been disappointed in how they work. They seemed stuck back in methods from the 1950s. I have already gone on longer than I planned so I don’t want to keep going with the ways conferences could be better designed for the modern age. But the basic ideas are that we have easy ways to communicate before and after conferences.

The idea that a conference should be a 2 or 3 day event in one location is what they have been. But is that the way to serve the purpose of conferences today (or 20 years ago?). What is the purpose? What should attendees get out of them? How can we make them more valuable to attendees? There are lots of things about encouraging networking and extending the reach of the conference for months.

A super simple example is what the Madison Area Quality Improvement Network did with the Hunter Conference (named for my father) over 20 years ago. They told you this plan on the first day. They reminded you about this during the conference. Then on the last day they had you write down what you were going to apply from the conference when you went back to work. Then you turned that in to them and they mailed it out to you in something like 3 months.

This is just a small thing. And something done before the internet was in widespread use. If the intent of your conference is to improve management you need to think about what will do that. A huge issue on why management conferences don’t accomplish that is people fail to actually do anything when they go back. So if your purpose is to improve management you need to address that.

You shouldn’t think within the barriers of what it is conferences can do (how nice can the conference facility be, can the speaker be heard…) in a couple days. First figure out what the conference is suppose to provide attendees then improve your value proposition.

When I used to think about this 20, 15 and 10 years ago the opportunities to innovate using new technology and thinking differently about the value conferences provide lead to tons of idea on how they could be much better. I don’t know how many I remember, but it pretty much just flowed from thinking about purpose, understanding systems and organizational behavior, thinking about how adults learn and change, thinking about how to improve organizations and how to use technology to maximize the benefit while not paying much attention to the old view of what a conference was suppose to be results in plenty of ideas. So I doubt it would be hard to rethink of whatever I had thought of back then and new technology would increase the possibilities.

I think some conferences have taken a few sensible steps to look beyond the barrier of the 3 days of the conference. And I am sure the organizers would tell you all sorts of gibberish about how they are. Based on my experiences from that time long ago (over a period of 10 years) they changed almost nothing in actuality even if they claimed to be thinking differently (“outside the box,” etc.). And maybe I am wrong and they really have all sorts of great things they are doing to meet customer needs in innovative ways.

I think facilitating networking is done better by more conferences today than 20 years ago. But I am not very impressed with the progress made over 20 years (and before that the progress from the 50 years before that had to be very lame, given what I saw at the time).

The use of group activities has improved a lot I believe in break out sessions. That may be the best area of improvement, but still it should be continually improved even more.

Another thing that is pretty lame about the conference part itself is how speakers are often selected. For keynote speakers their is often some focus on the ability to engage an audience and communicate great ideas effectively. But for others there is often no focus on that at all. Given a big part of the product of the conference is me sitting in a chair and taking in a presentation (or engaging in some group activity as directed) by the speaker, conferences should be very focused on the speakers ability to engage an audience.

And while keynote speakers often have charisma and polished presentation styles I often found their content very lacking. I think conference organizers often err greatly on the side of slick presenters over presenters with content with much value. Now plenty of keynote speakers have both and they are wonderful, but that is how it should always be, and too often they don’t have ideas that have much value to someone paying any attention to the field (in my experience).

If I were responsible for conferences I certainly would be talking to attendees about what they wished to accomplish by attending. Then talking to them over the year about whether it delivered. And discussing what roadblocks they found to accomplishing what they intended to. And over the years experimenting on how to achieve better results.

The focus for me should be on helping people improve the management of their organization (for management improvement conferences). If attendees just want to talk about stuff like “networking” or learning about this new idea, I would pay attention but I would push to get expectations that are related to improvement in their work, not just things they might feel are more acceptable to expect from a conference.

Evolving what constitutes a conference would take time. You need to change the expectations of attendees also. Basically I don’t see much evidence that people responsible for conferences have been doing a very good job of breaking free of the constraints of the mindset 50 years ago of what conferences were.

Some things have been done which are good; it can be as simple as posting presentations (or snippets of presentations online). That can contribute to the goals for a conference (especially for professional associations where there is broader vision to promoting good practices among many others than just the attendees).

The other (non management improvement focused conferences I attended) were software development conferences. They were not that much different but the thoughts about how to evolve them are a bit different. What the conference wishes to provide attendees needs to be figured out. There are common things like networking, exposure to new tools and concepts, listening to people’s experiences trying tools and concepts… But then rather than the people going home and improving the management system the aims would likely be going home and delivering working software more quickly or developing more robust software or… For the software development program manager types there is a lot of overlap with the management improvement aims (and some of the software development conferences have a fair amount in that area).

Obviously those impacted by poor software development management systems want the bad impacts on them to go away. Some of the talks on tactics on how to improve software development on focused on technical solutions that are not so much about management systems. But an fair amount of the talk is a combination of technical and management system issues and how to improve both.

Related: Networking is Valuable But Difficult to QuantifyLearn Lean by Doing LeanGood management systems seek systemic adoption of the most effective solutions“Subject matter is delivered in five integrated learning cycles. Five eight-week sessions of classroom lectures, seminars and study are linked by seven-week internships at participating firms”more photos of ancient Egyptian art

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5 Responses to The Value of Professional Conferences. Also Why Has There Been So Little Innovation?

  1. Mark says:

    I have been to a conference last year, and even though it did manage to motivate me for a couple of days after it was over, in two months I ended up quitting the whole thing. There were many reasons at the core, but basically, I could see that most of the speeches made there were not realistic and a lot of guys and girls good at speaking were on the stage, but that definitely did not represent my ideas, the one of the little guy. I do believe conventions are great, I mean I got a chance to relax and socialize and that is great, but I think everyone should have the same opportunity to state their ideas, not only the planners who already know how things are going to go and basically have already put together speeches which sound a lot like a pageant answer. I mean everyone should take part in a conference, not only the producers of it, for a more realistic feel to it. Either way, they are good, regardless of the result.

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  3. Jim Duarte says:

    John hits many good points. When he talks about hearing ideas from the 1950’s (back when), he is really resonating that today we still hear rehashing of mid-twentieth century ideas, especially around process improvement. Technology has significantly changed the landscape and having teams go collect a sample of data to improve a process when there is a vast amount of data to be mined is ludicrous. The quality greats were definitely at a disadvantage in computing horsepower…no more. Now the IoT (Internet of Things) is giving us mountains of streaming data to help satisfy customers, there is no reason to attempt to take a small sample from entries on a Fishbone Diagram when the Effect can be a response variable and Causes can be columns in a data warehouse (not all of which would have been found on the C&E diagram. I speak from experience). We need to update conferences to embrace advanced analytics technology to take advantage of modeling tools like Neural Networks and Decision Trees. Some of the bad management systems are a result of technology (non-analytical) being the tail wagging the dog because folks like ASQ members aren’t working on improving processes using analytical technology. Conferences should have tracks addressing advanced analytics and how to integrate them into Six Sigma, etc. We used to talk about the great “buggy whip” company having quality whips that didn’t meet customer needs in the auto era. The mid-twentieth century problem solving tools have some definite “buggy whips” in the arsenal.

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