Should I stay or should I go?

Should I stay or should I go?

CIOs could spend much of their working life at one conference or another. But how do you assess whether they offer much value?

Another invite to a vendor-sponsored conferences lands in your inbox. It could be a golden opportunity to catch up with your peers and school up on future product releases. The problem is that the gloss of travel has long since worn off and, even worse, you spend so much time being “educated” that it leaves little time for work. How do you approach this problem with management?

Paul Fitzpatrick

Information Technology Director

LandMark White Group

Given today’s economic climate, I am doubtful that management always perceives overseas and domestic sponsored conferences as a “golden opportunity”. I’ve found, particularly over the past twelve months, it is common practice for companies to undergo internal reviews and identify areas that can produce significant cost savings. Travel is one such area. If management has yet to approach you regarding cutting back or being savvier in your travel, then this is your opportunity to strike. Prepare a plan to reduce or eliminate travel, which in turn maximises your time and productivity in the office.

Roadmaps & product releases can be very handy for planning future projects and these days this information may be available on the internet. Increasingly this information appears online even before being launched at the conference. Contact vendors and find out how you can join their beta newsletters, teams or offer to trial concepts. You should be able to exhaust several alternative resources online to locate product information.

Evaluate your trips over the past year and think about the topics covered at the conferences and ask yourself if these topics were relevant to the organisation. If not, then you need to identify if any insight was gained that significantly impacted the company. Next, think about the details of the conferences. Did you already know most of the content or could you have used alternative resources to obtain detailed information on the topic? Finally, ascertain the cost benefit of these trips and identify when it is appropriate for you to travel compared with using alternative resources.

Ask the hard question, is cutting-edge technology really applicable to your organisation or is it more of a wow factor? It wasn’t too long ago when people in the industry said that you needed to be cutting-edge to gain a competitive advantage and make an impact on the bottom line. Today the focus has turned towards maximising your investment and this has the knock-on impact of helping the bottom line. The argument that cutting-edge is a competitive-edge is debatable. Not to mention the financial impact of maintaining the latest technology. Your final thoughts on this can really influence how you discuss this with management.

There is no doubt that IT evolves rapidly. However, if your company has just implemented $1million of new equipment, are you going to scrap it all in two months’ time because something newer, faster or better has been released? I doubt you build a strong business case for such a dramatic change in such short time.

Once you’ve contemplated these items, you’ll have formulated a rough plan on how to discuss this scenario with management. You’ll probably find that project deadlines and/or KPIs have started slipping. Even if you have been able to put in the hours on the plane or in the hotel, overall your quality of work will be substandard. Don’t believe for a moment that management hasn’t noticed. They might have turned a blind eye to the issue because they believe these trips are critical to the business; however, it is your responsibility to be open and honest.

Sheldon Dyer,

Information Technology Manager

Cricket Australia

I would have thought this scenario is easy to answer. More education equals greater skills which increase your employable value and this surely translates to a larger pay rise. I’m sure if that picture was painted at the next performance review then management would quickly concur in the irrelevance of future product education!

There wouldn’t be too much disagreement between management and attendees alike that there is some value to be gained from vendor conferences. Truly grasping the full capabilities of a product to ensure it delivers maximum value or the ability to strategically shape your business through key insights off a vendor’s roadmap are certainly important outcomes for all concerned. This knowledge is vital and imperative to the ongoing success of enhancing the business through technology.

However, the heart of the matter is that for a large part these conferences are innately inefficient mechanisms for both the vendor and attendees. It can cost substantial time, resources and dollars for a vendor to hold such events. Not to forget the effort in collating the ubiquitous show bag full of tacky mouse mats designed for 90s ball mice, t-shirts that will get you bashed, or the USB stick that can’t store any more than the vendor’s key note presentation.

Perhaps the larger vice of inefficiency is time wastage. We are all familiar with rushing to board that red-eye special flight, taking the “quicker” route via taxi, listening to the lengthy intro speech on how cosmology relates to product development or realising 10 minutes into a presentation that you should have chosen the other stream. There is unfortunately a lot of productive time lost through the very act of attendance that could be better utilised.

The current economic climate is a natural rationaliser of excess and both vendor and customer will scrutinise expense against the value it achieves. Both will seek active ways to impart and receive this knowledge in more cost effective ways and focus on better resource and time utilisation.

Fortunately in this era more efficient alternate mechanisms exist. Webinars, podcasts, RSS feeds and the like, deliver knowledge economically and in the format and time best suited to the recipient. This is such an empowering method for the recipient and arguably allows greater transfer and retention of knowledge than achieved in attending a conference.

Of course the vendor will stress the importance of networking, relationship building and the sharing of ideas while driving sales and generating brand presence and loyalty. All of which are important elements in their respective terms. However, how many attendees actually participate in these activities versus firing up the laptop at any free opportunity, making those important calls back to the office or getting to the front of that lunch queue?

If all this is not sufficient reason enough for management then you may have to resort to bringing forward your green initiatives and strategies. There is nothing as unpopular as needlessly contributing to carbon emissions or being environmentally irresponsible. A word of caution though – be careful what you wish for. You never know when that killer conference is just around the corner and you have to deftly counter your own arguments.

Phil Roy

Director, Operations – Division of Information Technology

Charles Sturt University

Pushy university executives demanding overseas conference attendance – Oh well where do I have to go this time: Hawaii, Fiji, Mykonos, the Caymans? When will it ever end! None of these locations come close to the experience provided by our local RSL club meeting rooms.

Being regionally based, industry conferences provide a key opportunity to develop and maintain networks, have contacts with vendors, and communicate with peers. Working and living in a regional location is fantastic, with heaps of advantages compared to city living (things are even better since we got the power connected last week).

However there are challenges presented by being a five-hour drive away from the nearest major city, particularly when managing our IT operations.

Strong relationships with our vendors are essential; we need our vendors to understand our requirements and challenges, particularly given our regional context.

While distance is somewhat helpful in dampening an unrelenting stream of pesky marketing initiatives, it can also mean that a four-hour call-out or onsite next business day responses are not always achievable.

From an IT manager’s perspective, it also means that sometimes useful activities such as sponsored breakfasts, product launches, and vendor sessions are not as accessible.

Being regional does not mean being isolated, but it does require a little bit more effort in maintaining valued vendor relationships.

Delivering more on a smaller budget, maintaining a strong, vibrant and satisfied workforce, improving service levels as the portfolio expands, being green, providing IT governance and strategic planning, working through the hype of the latest technology.

It’s really valuable to be able to network with peers and colleagues and share war stories. That’s the true value of an industry conference. Not only do you get a chance to catch up once a year with the same people, but in sharing a quiet drink after the end of a heavy day’s conferencing it’s very useful to go into reflective mode and compare your issues and responses with what your peers are doing.

It’s unsurprising how often the issues are the same across different technologies, geographic locations, industry sectors, even across different countries and languages. But it is really valuable to hear about the differences in response to these challenges.

Despite the challenges and pressure of managing an IT operation, it’s comforting to put things into perspective and come back to the basics. Industry conferences can help.

At my last conference, three out of a group of four of us drove into the same dam on the fifth hole. Our slice shots from the tee were identical – we’ve got the same issues to deal with.

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