Conferences, boondoggle or the ultimate social network?

Having wrapped up the Las Vegas show, my mind turned to December’s HP Discover conference in Frankfurt which reminded me of last December’s in Vienna where I bumped into client, IT management guru and friend, let’s call him Vince (not his real name), which surprised me because he lives in the USA. “What are you doing here!?” I asked him. “I’m here for Discover, I get so much out of these conferences I don’t like to miss any of them.”


It was a similar story during Las Vegas last week. I was at a breakfast meeting with a client the morning after the Discover conference proper had finished. I had asked if the conference had been worthwhile, and the client explained his feelings.  “I get a huge amount of value from these events. I’m even thinking it might be better to take personal leave just to set the expectation back home that I’m not going to be available for project work or escalations so I can focus without feeling guilty


But why? Having just spent four exhausting, but exhilarating days in Las Vegas at HP Discover 2012, I got to thinking about why we still even have conferences. I mean, it’s not like you need to actually GO places in order to get access to great content. There’s so much wonderful material available for download over the Web. Why would you subject yourself to hours of flying and time away from family and friends? Especially if the final reward is sitting in a dimly lit room drinking coffee of questionable quality while your inbox at work grows ever larger? 


To be fair, this isn’t just a question that attendees ask themselves. If you’ve ever organised an event of any complexity, you’ll know that they’re not fun to host. It’s a high profile, costly, resource intensive and creatively stressful process not for the faint of heart.  In uncertain economic times, when we’re all being asked to do more with less, it is tempting to categorise conferences as an extravagance that can easily be substituted with lower-cost alternatives.


So what is it about a (well run) conference that makes them so valuable that people would consider using their personal leave to attend them? I think part of the answer is that people don’t attend a conference, people ARE the conference. The quality of a conference is the sum of the intellect, passion and energy of the audience. None of us are there just there for the speakers—we’re there for the audience that they attract, our peers our mentors and muses.


Which requires you to think about the conference experience differently from an “event”. One pattern of success that I’ve noticed is that the people most satisfied with their conference experience are the ones who put considerable effort into thinking about how to maximise their experience. Not just what sessions they wanted to attend, but also who they wanted to meet. The special interest groups, developers, CTOs, vendors and to experience hands-on sessions that will put them into contact with stimulating ideas and conversations.


I’m not saying this is easy. It’s hard to tap the brains of 10 people sitting in one room, let alone diving into the collective brainpower of over 11,000 people and billions of dollars in R&D spread across 100,000 square feet of foot achingly hard conference floor. It’s a little bit like going to the Lourve in Paris—it’s better with a guide. Tap your professional network to generate ideas on the personalities, presentations and parties (the after-hours activity can be great for building your network).


The critical learning here is that the onus is on each of us to get the most out of a conference, you get out what you put in. My conclusion, conferences are a unique form of social networking that are enhanced, not replaced by social media.

  • It’s not a passive process, it’s participative.
  • It’s not a event, it’s a sabbatical.
  • It’s not just the structured content; it’s about the unexpected, unstructured.


To be fair, not everyone and/or every company can afford the time and expense of attending, which is why I make a point of working with my team to create a “backstage” experience where you can get some insight into interesting personalities and perspectives (check them out here).


Perhaps I’m deluded; maybe it’s the afterglow of having pulled off a major logistical and technical challenge that’s giving me a rose colored perspective. What about you? All conferenced out? How do you establish and build connections and develop new ideas?


Which leads me back to “Vince” who, it turned out, was attending using his annual vacation time...

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About the Author
Paul Muller leads the global IT management evangelist team within the Software business at HP. In this role, Muller heads the team responsib...

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