Remember the big company conferences we all used to attend? Where have they gone, and how have our learning opportunities changed? We know more about technology, professional development, and the learning process itself than we used to. Explore the implications of these factors.
You may remember, perhaps fondly, the days when most large corporations hosted annual conferences for their customers, with invited speakers, break-out sessions, entertainment, gifts, and more. PQ Systems’ annual conference drew about 400 customers during these halcyon years, with the objective of providing ongoing learning that would ultimately enhance use of company products.
While some companies continue to offer annual conferences for customers, the more common model is one sponsored by a professional or trade organization. What has changed and where have these conferences gone?
Pick the one that most nearly provides an answer to that question:
a) Hosting conferences has become too expensive, with costs outweighing benefits for most companies.
b) Conferences that are sponsored by professional organizations such as ASQ offer productive learning sessions that company-sponsored meetings may not provide.
c) With downsized companies, customers cannot afford the time to be away from their jobs.
d) Technology has changed the way professional development is offered.
e) The nature of learning has changed.
f) All of the above.
Hosting conferences is an expensive endeavor, of course, and companies have increasingly questioned the benefit derived from the investment, both for themselves and for their customers. Travel, lodging, registration fees, and other expenses add up for conference attendees, and host companies’ investment includes financial and personnel resources that may bring their core business operations nearly to a halt during a conference. The benefits of attending large conferences could be important—interacting with others in the same industry, hearing discussions of new concepts, bonding with company representatives, for example—but attending several break-out sessions and hearing a number of speakers sometimes represents fragmented learning that has little chance of being applied back at the office.
Conferences with specific thematic content continue to be offered by professional organizations, replacing the company-sponsored events. The National Association for Healthcare Quality, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, the American Society for Quality, the National Quality Forum, and others provide opportunities to those who continue to seek knowledge about quality improvement, and more often assure that at least one concept or approach will be useful in returning to the work site.
Travel these days not only represents airline hassle, but attending a conference means that someone is away from his or her job for several days. While technology makes working from a distance manageable, the multitasking of attending conference presentations while emailing the office undoubtedly diminishes the quality of the knowledge that might otherwise be acquired.
Technology learning is a kind of chicken-and-egg issue. On the one hand, it demands ongoing training to adapt to and use new software and hardware. On the other hand, technology renders training easier, with online tutorials, webinars, and open chat sessions available for help. Learners can often move at their own pace with eLearning, returning to a program after interruptions or practice. Clearly, the dramatic technology changes of the last 20 years have had an impact on conference attendance.
Theories of learning and the brain have advanced dramatically in recent years, providing clearer insight into the nature of adult learning. Adult brains, like their younger counterparts, require much more hands-on learning to assure the connections that knowledge acquisition entails. The days of the “sage on the stage” with a speaker and a note-taking audience have been replaced with activity-based learning, often facilitated by technology. If one wants to learn more about using software to create charts, for example, what better way than in a webinar where the process is demonstrated step by step, and participants follow along on their own computers. The “gamification” process enhances the learning as well, with application of gaming principles to situations or problems that render them not only active but often more realistic.
So it may be that “f” is the real answer to the question. Clearly, all of these developments have had an impact on the phenomenon of conference-based learning. Conferences continue to offer value, but have responded to the factors that have had an impact on their frequency and style. The original meaning of “conference” implied an opportunity to “confer” or “discuss,” rather than simply listening, and it may be that small interactive sessions with an expert provide this opportunity more effectively.
Still, there remains some nostalgia about those annual company conferences. The Saturday-night after-dinner party was, after all, a whole lot of fun.