ROI of Professional Conferences

Having been to some professional software development conferences before, its always been on my mind how to best share news and details of current & new technologies and any other information gathered at these kinds of events.  I have had the opportunity long ago at a previous employer to attend VBITS (that will date me) and more recently the opportunity to attend PDC (Microsoft’s Professional Development Conference).   Four of the past 5 years, I paid my way to HDC (Heartland Developer Conference) which was not a big deal since I could crash at my sister’s house, and catch up with the happenings in her life, and with the Early Bird Discount, most years the fee was only $150 or so which I figured I could easily get that much in value back out of the conference (and I always felt that I did).

Sidebar – For those in the Midwest, HDC in Omaha, NE is a great bargain, and their work at adding networking events after hours is a big draw as well – kudos to Joe Olsen for making it happen – they are a terrific example of a great event at a terrific price making its ROI much easier to achieve.  You can read my reviews here (https://bradosterloo.wordpress.com/2010/09/11/back-from-hdc/) and here (https://bradosterloo.wordpress.com/2009/10/18/back-from-omaha-post-hdc/) regarding previous years – last year did not work out for me to attend but I expect to be back this year.  They are a perfect example of a very affordable, national-quality conference held right in our back yard with great information being shared in a very down-to-earth Midwest fashion that I appreciate.  My appreciation of Buffalo Wild Wings in Omaha is a big factor as well.

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But in general with larger national conferences, I notice these pros & cons:

Pros

  • Time away from the office to focus on new technologies and recharge your batteries, and increase passion for learning
  • Time to question experts in person
  • Meeting others in your industry (which can also recharge your batteries, and increase passion for learning)
  • For people passionate about their craft, time away to focus on learning can be a huge reward

Cons

  • COST – Hotel, Conference Costs, Meals– can be extremely hard to justify ROI (return on investment) for material which for the most part becomes available online anyway
  • Days away from work can lead to backlog when you get back
  • Can be difficult to disseminate what you have learned to others back at the office
  • Can’t send everyone which brings up a new set of problems

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So I find myself sitting here scrolling thru all of the video taped content from last weeks 2012 North American TechEd conference, queuing up all of the conference sessions I would have attended if I could have gone – checking out the BI, SQL Server 2012, and Big Data talks, the same thing I would have done had I realized at the conference that 2 appealing talks were going on at the same time.  And I start wondering……hmmm, I am watching the same presentations I would have seen anyway in person, too bad this doesn’t have more of that “attending–a-conference” vibe.

And that takes me back to the old issue of how to best do internal training & knowledge sharing because with all of our technology it seems we ought to have more effective internal training methods – sure, we can’t match the excitement and feeling of new stuff being rolled out for the first time in a live audience – but we ought to be able to “hand roll” the videos, webcasts, and other publicly provided information into some type of more internal training Academy it seems to me….and better yet, tailor it more towards the future needs and interests of the company (nothing stopping you from throwing in some non-company fun topics as well)

I admit to recently being more and more impressed with things like 24 Hours of PASS, and other online virtual conferences as well as in-person events such as regional Code Camps designed to be accessible to everyone (here in SD we benefited this previous year by the work of Chris Ortman and Seth Larson who created a Code Camp in our state that had a successful launch

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Events like these seem to me to be very cost-effective ways of spreading knowledge going forward.

While I think certain conferences on some topics for those on the cutting edge of sharing information within their communities make sense (as well as regional-very-affordable conferences such as HDC), for many its hard to justify the ROI on the basis of the information gathered alone – unless you are factoring in the “employee recognition” effect of letting an employee immerse themselves outside the office for a few days in technology that interests them AND has value to the company as well – (which I agree can be a powerful reward and motivator for some individuals).

So what am I getting at?

More and more I think that creative companies could shape and tailor their own “internal conferences” with :

  • Available online videos/materials/webcasts – live recordings from TechEd which are posted on Channel9 website, or other live recordings from the Norwegian Developers conferences and many other places that I find myself checking out each year.
  • Throw in some roundtable discussions hosted by your senior management on topics such as strategy, technology, and goals which would foster more discussions that probably more companies would benefit from anyways
  • Perhaps throw in some catered meals (or pizzas or subs)
  • Maybe even throw in some giveaways/swag like any live conference

and create their own cost-effective conference and training experience for their staff at a tiny fraction of the cost of sending a few individuals across the country.

  • Who knows, perhaps some employee bonding occurs, or with the benefit of a small coding contest, or some 24-hour challenge, maybe some mini-version of a hack-a-thon or even a company brainstorming idea contest such as a Microsoft-version of their Think Week
    Microsoft Think Week

    Who knows what ideas employees could be sitting just waiting for the proper venue to share them in a friendly, fun manner – afraid to share them in a more formal, day-to-day business manner.

  • Maybe even taking a few beta images of new technology such as Windows 8, Visual Studio 2012, etc and having them installed on some virtual hard drives on some PCs in a separate room simulating the hands on lab feel present at some conferences.
  • Maybe even nominating a few topic facilitators – these people while not experts – just regular “joes” in your company could facilitate any discussion and track down the questions that come up to follow up with real MVPs or Microsoft forum questions and report back to the interested group on that specific technology within your company which keeps the dialogue going another week or so after your internal conference.

Yes, I know its not the same without having subject matter experts there, and without the chance to network outside your company – but I am talking about creative compromises that could bring a much higher overall ROI of training dollars for more of the staff – perhaps done in a manner to bring teams normally not in contact with each other together.

And whereas the recession introduced words like “staycations” to describe people taking time off and then staying in their community rather than the expense of traveling, perhaps we will create a new word like “incademies” to describe internally hosted conferences.  But with some creativity and some good planning, I can easily envision a highly effective knowledge sharing event – it would just take the right kind of people to make it happen.

That’s what I was thinking about anyway.

Brad

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About bradosterloo

.NET Software Developer working for Innovative Systems, LLC in Mitchell, SD
This entry was posted in ContinuedLearning, Software Development, Work and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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