UK: WHAT'S A CONFERENCE WORTH? - Not much unless firms find ways of transfering knowledge.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Not much unless firms find ways of transfering knowledge.

Attended any good conferences lately? If so, how much benefit did the organisation reap from your day or two away from the desk? UK businesses spend an estimated £600-800 million a year on conferences. Yet according to a recent survey in Conference and Incentive Travel magazine, fewer than one company in three makes any attempt to capitalise upon - or even evaluate - this investment.

The finding will surprise few people with detailed knowledge of the conference world. The transference of learning back into an organisation is usually poorly done, agrees Hilary Scarlett of communications management consultants Smythe Dorward Lambert. 'The event may have been worthwhile, and the manager may believe that he or she has gained much useful information, but once back at the desk he will have no mechanism for translating it back into the organisation.' Transfer of learning to the organisation could certainly be improved at British Telecommunications, according to one unhappy manager. 'There is no formal procedure so it's up to the individual. Given human nature, usually nothing gets disseminated at all. Employee numbers are shrinking at BT - and everyone is doing more - so there never seems to be time. Team meetings would be a good opportunity but all the information there seems to be going one way, which is from the top down.' There are practical difficulties about incorporating an employee's learning into an organisation, admits John Richards, head of training and development at The Boots Company. 'We have nine businesses, thousands of employees at different levels and no process which works uniformly across the organisation. Debriefing does occur, but it is obviously more difficult for a store manager than a senior manager to come back and get his ideas heard and implemented.' Employees attend conferences for three reasons, Richards points out: to improve performance, to increase knowledge or to network. 'The greatest benefits are often to be gained simply from meeting other people and finding out what's going on. Frequently, we send staff to a conference not to learn anything new but to benchmark where we are against other companies.' But employers would do well to consider carefully before sending people to conferences. 'They don't suit everyone. It really depends on your learning style.' Chalk-and-talk conferences suit some. 'Others would only gain from a more participative situation, such as a workshop.' There's another side to personal learning capabilities, and that's the quality of the product. Ann Tunnicliffe, in charge of operations in one of the units of Club 24, a Leeds-based retail finance company jointly owned by Kingfisher and Next, is a periodic conference-goer like most managers. 'Frequently I have already forgotten the content of a conference before I pack up to go home,' she says. 'I have failed to get anything out of the day, either because it was mind-blowingly boring or badly organised, or both.' Inadequate content and poor presentation are all too common, admits Paul Swan, managing director of conference organisers Spectrum Communications. 'Audiences often suffer ... A poor conference is one of the largest amateur blood sports around. Conversely a professional event, with well coached speakers, an ideal environment, changes of pace, and a crystal clear story-line is an extremely powerful means of putting information across.' If the conference cannot be faulted on quality, then it's up to the conference-goer to make it effective. The information - not to mention the contacts - presented at a well-organised conference certainly can be put to good use, as Tunnicliffe demonstrates. 'My last conference was very valuable. There was plenty of opportunity to meet others and hear how they tackled problems. The speakers were very willing to share exactly how they did things ... The organisers, IIR, provided a huge pack of notes and course material ... The atmosphere was informal, and the speakers were very approachable between sessions.' Tunnicliffe returned to Club 24 determined to apply what she had learnt. 'I organised a meeting, debriefed my managers and explored how we might use some of the ideas. We decided on a dual approach: the implementation of some "quick hits" to ensure some instant gains and then a longer-term strategy.' 'Delegates', maintains communications consultant Scarlett, 'could put more effort into understanding the purpose of attending, deciding what contacts or information might be relevant to people in their own organisations, and then finding the right hooks to interest colleagues when they return to the office. Organisers should consider not just the day itself, but its wider value to an organisation. They should build in some element which helps delegates consider questions such as "What am I going to take away with me?"' 'Gone are the days when a conference was an excuse for a jolly,' says Alan Hopper of consultants Pannell Kerr Foster Associates. 'Time spent away from the office must be worthwhile.' More organisations should ponder how the costs incurred can be added back.

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