Conference Goers Beware!

In my previous post, “Competing in the Age of Bill Ackerman,” I held that many executives insulate themselves from a diversity of views. This problem doesn’t plague executives alone. Managers, unaware of the biased source of their external perspectives, seem to follow some bad habits as well.

For one, an important way managers develop external perspective is by attending conferences where they can meet people with different perspectives, and hear a variety of views, some controversial, some less.

Alas, as a recent article in USA Today claims, the conference business has gone to the dogs. Worse, dogs without perspective.

In that article, “Tina Brown now in the conference business,” Michael Wolff, a seasoned commentator, discusses a new venture by former Newsweek editor Tina Brown. She’s teaming with The New York Times to offer general-interest conferences on women’s issues. Wolff reveals a secret many of us already know: conferences today are organized by commercial vendors who have turned them into shameless “pay for play” meetings. Speakers are not invited because of their quality but because they pay for access to the attendees or throw back cash to the organizer. He adds that they’ve become more about entertainment than learning.

I know many of my colleagues stopped going to professional conferences because of that deterioration in quality. Many of the best also stopped speaking at conferences when dullards with dollars essentially bought their spots.

Is there a connection between insular management and the tendency of companies to finance conference-going without asking for value in return? “For one thing, there are so many conferences,” says Wolff. “It is rather a disappointment, when you hope to meet the high and mighty, to show up and find a sparsely populated room with people just like yourself.” (Emphasis added.)

Touted as great opportunities for “networking”, what many vendor-organized conferences deliver is nothing more than meeting (and at times commiserating) with same-same people and predictable, comfortable, meaningless speeches by “celebrities”. When managers insulate themselves from high-quality, diverse perspectives and find comfort in those who are just like them, they are seeding their own failure.

Do your due diligence

Would you soak up a slide-show, voiced-over webinar and think: now I have an MBA from Harvard? Would you go to a doctor if you knew she/he is a de facto employee of a pharmaceuticals company?

Before you spend a lot of money on conferences that won’t enrich you in any way, maybe you should write the organizers and demand to know: Are you a “pay for play” conference? Do your speakers deliver one self-promotion after another, disguised as “learning experiences”? If enough managers and professionals ask these questions, some conferences may actually become high quality.

The first step in honing your skill at competing is choosing carefully where to hone them.

About the author  ⁄ Ben Gilad

BENJAMIN GILAD, PhD, is founder and president of the Academy of Com­petitive Intelligence, Inc., and with Mark Chussil, a cofounder and partner of Sync Strategy. He is a former associate professor of strategy at Rutgers University’s School of Management, and a pioneer in the field of competi­tive intelligence and war gaming. He has published seven books and more than 90 articles in academic and practitioners’ publications on the topics of behavioral economics, competitive intelligence, and business war gaming.

He has been running war games for Fortune 500 companies since the 1980s and teaching a course on war gaming as part of Fuld-Gilad-Herring Acad­emy of CI which grants CIP certification in the field of CI. The Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals society awarded him its highest Meritorious Award in 1996.

He earned his PhD in economics at New York University, MBA at the University of Central Mis­souri, and BA at Tel Aviv University.

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