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Why do IT professionals attend conferences?

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IT Professionals are an interesting breed – and I’ve had plenty of opportunity to study the ‘species’ last week at the FUSION11 conference in Washington.

Of the 2000 attendees there was a group of people who clearly enjoyed the personal interaction and social aspects of attending a conference, but there was another group (probably even larger!) who appeared to be very single focused: attend the sessions, take notes and go back to the hotelroom to work a bit more. You didn’t see them at the social events, they didn’t attend the networking sessions. You didn’t even see them at the motivational keynote events… they showed up at the breakout sessions which were specific to their current job role.

It made me wonder… if attending a conference is only to gain more knowledge aren’t there better options for you? There are some really great webinars around, many of which are free to attend. And most vendors that have a booth at the conference have all the information available at their websites or corporate information portals. Or you can enrol in online learning classes to quickly increase your knowledge and skill level for a specific subject. You can even do this outside of work hours so your peers don’t know how you got to this new level of knowledge and understanding.

Direct learning is not the main reason for attending a conference, that is not where the value add lies…

So what is the value add of attending a conference? And where is the Return on Investment?

  • Is it the schedule of industry specific learning interlaced with motivational keynote speakers?
  • Is it the fact that you can distance yourself from the daily ‘grind’ in the office?
  • Is the value more at a personal level to build trust between people, a relationship that can’t easily be forged through email, blogs and tweets?

Or is it simply that you don’t have to think about who to approach for new information and knowledge around your subject matter of choice? To get close to the thought leaders of your industry even when you are too shy to contact people directly or speak with them face to face.

Personally, I think the main value for attending conference is the connections you make. Not just the personal connections (although they are very important), but the links between various items discussed that are specific to your industry. You attend three to four breakout sessions during a day and each speaker has a slightly different point of view to the same or similar topic. You ask questions to speaker nr. 2 based on the information you received from speaker nr. 1. This way you are able to assemble your own viewpoints and approaches to various issues and topics you run into in your role at the company.

The magic of a conference is that after you attend these breakout sessions you can test your theories and hypotheses by discussing it with other attendees! Do they feel the same way? Do they support your theories, and if not – why not? That is the value you get from attending conferences. Instant feedback from other people in your industry in a non-threatening way. Yes, it does mean you’ll have to attend the networking sessions and get social during the week… but you get so much back in return: a guilt free and consequence free way to solidify your thoughts and ideas. (let’s cal this INDIRECT learning, as apposed to the direct learning mentioned before) You’ll get back to your place of work a lot stronger and wiser and people will notice!

And if all else fails, at least you’ve had a nice break from work… and you get to see Doug Tedder do a Hoola Hoop demonstration at 9 o’clock in the morning 😉