An organisation’s internal conferences are not usually thought of as learning events, but they often constitute the primary means for employees to stay up-to-date with developments within the organisation. Importantly, they also provide a valuable opportunity for reflection, discussion and networking. Conferences are highly expensive events to stage, not only in terms of the preparation involved, but also travel and subsistence expenses, not to mention lost work time. To take advantage of the opportunities provided and to justify the expenditure, every conference needs to be carefully planned.
It is important not to waste the opportunity of having all the players that work in a particular function or at a particular management level present, face-to-face at the same time. Presentations can be useful if they allow senior managers and subject experts to convey important messages engagingly and succinctly, and to stimulate discussion, problem-solving and decision-making. What they must not do is dominate the timetable, because in the end they are just another form of one-way communication and other, more practical, means exist for this purpose, not least audio, video, the intranet and print. As Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) explained long ago: “Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book…”
Three hundred years later, the situation is much the same, as Donald Clark laments: “Conferences are mirror images of the classroom. By and large people turn up to be spoon-fed by sages on the stage talking at them, with the occasional opportunity to ask questions. It has one, and only one, advantage over the classroom – scale. It’s a lazy approach to learning made even more inefficient by the fact that even learning professionals often fail to take notes. This makes it a forgetting experience. The best one can hope for, as a speaker, is to affect some emotional or attitudinal shift. And when people get back to the ranch they rarely write up their findings and distribute them across the organisation. If one were to truly apply a ROI justification for conference attendance, few would be able to look you in the eye.”
Real value comes from the interactions that occur between those peers that in other circumstances meet only rarely, without interruptions and other distractions, and hopefully without the constraints normally imposed by hierarchy. Much of this will occur naturally, between formal sessions, but this is wasting too much of the opportunity. Be sure to provide focused problem-solving sessions, debates and discussions, as a formal part of the agenda.
Internal conferences are:
- at their best when lively and interactive, highly relevant, varied, primarily bottom-up but with some inspiring top-down input;
- best avoided when lengthy, monotonous, presentation-driven, entirely top-down.
Conferences – jumped up classrooms? by Donald Clark, Plan B, November 2008