.... and a few real reasons you absolutely should.
I have been in the tech industry now for a short 17 years and have had to justify going to my fair share of conferences, lectures, and conventions. My perspective is from a programmer's point of view but I work with DBAs, graphic designers and all sort so experts who have their own industry conventions and the arguments for going are often the same. However, the common arguments to justify sending an employee are paper thin and easily shot down by a VP or manager who views such events as vacations sprinkled with tech fanboy appearances. So lets just get a few of these reasons out of the way.
1) It's Not a "Learning" Experience.
To begin with, lets narrow down what I mean by learning. In the broadest sense, you're learning when you eat cereal in the morning. Seriously. You're reinforcing both what you know about eating cereal and learning new ways to get the most number of Fruity Sugar O's to your mouth. You're training your fine motor skills to keep the maximum amount of milk on the spoon. There is subtle learning at play in everything we do.
But when we talk about learning in regards to a conference, generally we are talking about what you can take home with you. And lets face it, you're likely not learning a new skill in an hour presentation using just an overhead projector. Some presentations allow you to follow along with a computer or some other means of interactivity but the most I have gotten out of that was about as much as a one-time tutorial with a little hands-on. I lose most of it the minute I get in line for the next presentation.
Even if you do learn a few tricks to a skill you already have, there is a real good chance that the presentation and power point slides will be available online somewhere after the fact. I have been to several conferences and not once did I come out of a 60 minute presentation in something completely new saying "I know kung fu!".
2) It's Not a Networking Opportunity
Sure.. there may be thousands of people and you might be great at striking up conversation that ends with the mutually interested swapping of business cards and some text messages to talk shop at the local pub after hours.
And then there is the rest of us. Often we are our own islands standing around, checking out our smart phone for email while waiting for the line to shift toward the door. Or we end up going with people we know which creates an automatically insulated socially exclusive situation that is daunting for anyone who might even consider approaching you for conversation. Many tech conferences are loaded with less-than-social people and introducing yourself to a complete stranger with the old standby of "so.. what do you do?" feels like the first day at kindergarten.
The end result is usually that you get in line, have some surface conversation with another human being that is equally alone in the crowd, maybe sit by them in silence as the presentation is performed after which you shake hands and maybe.. if you are armed with human marketing material, if you care to ever talk to this person again... might give them your business card.
But this is very far from a social meet-n-greet. The odds that you will contact them again is very low. The odds that they will be useful if you are not savvy in leveraging social contacts is equally low. Standing in a line, going into a room where you face forward and listen to one person, and then leave to get into the next line does not make for a social mixer.
3) It Is Not An Opportunity to Share
Sure, you're going to come back and tell everyone what happened at the event. How great the energy was, the kinds of food provided, and how good the presentations were. But when we talk about "sharing" we are talking about the expectation of "teaching" or passing the wisdom and knowledge imparted by the dozens of 1 hours sessions through you to your peers and even the business. That somehow investing in your conference experience means that everyone else will learn what you learned and training a dozen people for the price of one is a Great deal! There are, however, a couple truths that knock this one out of the water.
First you won't come back an expert in anything you weren't an expert in prior to attending. So what is shared is going to be a grape vine of the actual knowledge and presented material. You can "share" the moments or key points that stuck out and how you interpreted the information presented but it won't be complete and it likely won't actually teach anyone anything that can be immediately turned into a functional skill.
Second, realistically you're not going to re-present all the material to your peers. A conference often has dozens of presentations that any one person will end up attending and nobody comes back to their company and reenacts all the presentations with the same level of expertise and knowledge that the presenters had.
At best you can come back and give a very terse overview of the highlights and how that might affect your peers and the company on a whole but what you will likely share is but a fine sliver of the content presented.
So those are some of most common surface reasons leveraged to send a person to a conference where there is a great divide between the expectations and reality. And using these reasons might work with someone who is already sold but someone who thinks this is an employee vacation isn't going to buy it.
So here are some reasons that I think are truer in the returned value to a company and may provide fewer arguable points for sending someone to a conference.
1) Your company needs to instill employees with vision and purpose.
A high level business visionary walks into a meeting with the development experts and pitches a grand idea for a project that will be the unicorn of the industry where it will eat rainbows and poop money, only to be met by the experts with with "uh... I don't think most of that is even possible".
This happens a lot and the main problem with expert buy-in is that they are often too busy to stay abreast of the new technologies coming down the pike. As a result, these new ideas are met with cold caution and doubt. Your experts assess risk at their own level based on what they know can or can't be done and without exposure that may be limited.
A conference is rarely about picking up a new skill and more about gathering information as to what can be done; what is possible. Ground-level leaders can take this and form a vision around what they know is possible even if they don't know how to do it quite yet.
The idea of building high-tier employees to be visionaries is often unquestionable but what is possibly more important is the discovery that even grunts need vision too. A company that instills vision and purpose at the lowest levels has fully engaged employees that will be dedicated to finding new and potentially powerful ways to move the business forward.
When thinking about whether to send someone to a conference ask yourself, "if I send this person out to see their niche of technology at the 10,000 foot level, will they come back to the ground a more directed, vision filled and empowered worker?" if the answer is yes you absolutely should send them.
Sending employees to conferences relevant to their industry builds leaders with vision and purpose from the ground up. And you NEED this. You want to be able to say "I want to do this new thing" and you need the grunts to be able to say "WE CAN DO IT!".
2) These conferences are for your company's industry spys.
Seriously speaking, you need to send your experts into the den of their profession's industry, the same den that your competitors are likely looking at or even attending. Your spy's job is to observe, take notes on critical events, updates and points of technology, and come back for a debriefing. They are your eyes and ears and they are in the best position to translate how the talking points at the conference will be relevant to your industry.
This is distinctly different than "sharing" as sharing often implies teaching. This is high level information gathering, translating, and reporting with an eye on competition. Your business is like it's own country, your professionals may do development, but they are also your best means to assess how your competition will be able to leverage new tech presented a these events. Don't relegate your 007s to just desk work.
3) Conferences are for scouting risk and advantages.
Your business is the boat and the crows nest is the conference. If you don't occasionally put someone up there who knows what to look for, you risk hitting something that wasn't on your map.
You need a way to get a gauge on the technology your business is thinking of investing in or may already be using. There is a risk component when new software, hardware, or business methods are presented to the industry at these conventions and you need your experts to assess not only the risks and advantages, but also how it was received by the other people at the conference. A highly pushed product with a ho-hum response from industry experts is something that needs to be measured in person.
And your experts are the right people to act as scouts because they will already be in the best position to interpret both what is presented, how it is received, and where the line between business potential and fluff might lie.
When your scouts come back, they should be able to help the business plot a course both toward new and exciting technology, and around the high risk products that might not yet be fleshed out. Your experts are fine tuned B.S. detectors that are able to to cut through the promotional crap and assess the real value of what is presented at these events. With enterprise technology requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars, you need all the intel you can get and a conference is relatively cheep intel.
So lets wrap up. Why should you send your experts to conventions?
- Your experts will gain vision about what is possible and that empowers management ideas from the ground up.
- Expert observations of how your competition might leverage this information and insight into how competitors might leverage that info will give you a potential advantage.
- Your experts will be able to assess how product, technology, and ideas coming down the road may expose great benefit or help avoid great risk to your business.
This is a trade of a few thousand dollars for the very expensive risk of moving through your industry shortsighted at the mid level, blind at the bottom and the top having to make decisions based on the best guesses off the those below.