The Real ROI From Professional Conferences
I recently attended a 3-day conference on best practices in Internal Auditing. Now, please resist the urge to click your way right out of this blog, chased by visions of an army of pencil-necked, pocket-protected nerds armed with red pencils, arguing about the fastest way to add up a column of numbers in Excel.
Fear not. I am not here to write about internal auditing, though I think my profession is sorely misunderstood. Rather, I would like to speak to the value of the seminars, conferences and symposiums which, regardless of your profession or industry, we or our employers spend valuable time and money attending. Are the series of keynote speakers, breakout sessions, vendor expos and cocktail hours worth it?
My answer: Yes, if you do it right.
There is tremendous value to be had if you have the right expectations and make the most of what these conferences offer. If you are attending a professional conference and expect to receive “job training”, as if you were attending a training class in Microsoft Office or business writing, you are in the wrong place. This is not the objective of these conferences, so please do not complain when you don’t walk away having learned exactly how to use a new piece of software, or perform some specific task. Conferences are about sharing ideas, experiences and opinions. What I get out of them is this:
1) Reinforcement and validation. Back at the office, my department tries to apply accepted professional practices. However, because we are a small team, and many of us have been here for a while, we wonder sometimes if we are getting it right. Conference sessions often provide great case studies and illustrations. Here I can compare notes with other companies or groups to see if we are using the same approach or whether our department or company is an industry outlier. Conference sessions can give you a sense of where you fit in terms of knowledge and skills. This is especially important when you are a member of a small team with little opportunity to stack yourself up against your peers on a regular basis
3) Professional Networking. Conferences allow you to develop and nourish your professional network. If you work in a small company like mine, this can be crucial to advancing your career, by providing you with at least some exposure to individuals and companies who might value your particular skill sets. Make no mistake though, networking is like everything else, you get out of it exactly what you put into it. Don’t be a wallflower, even if it means getting outside of your comfort zone. Do attend the luncheons and cocktail hours, even if you would rather dig through the SPAM in your Inbox, or clean the grout in your bathroom tiles. Strike up conversations with strangers. If you are uncomfortable with this, check out a few of the many resources available on the Web that provide tips for getting the most out of networking opportunities.
2) Recruiting. As the of manager of a small department, I try to assess the skill sets of the other attendees I meet. When I have the opportunity to bring someone new into our department, the people I meet at these conferences provide amount of reference for what I can and should expect from candidates I interview. By speaking with auditors from other firms I can get a sense for the talent level of the current hiring pool. of course, this is a two-way street too. If you are considering new opportunities for yourself, conferences are a great way to demonstrate your own talent. Be proactive. Prepare for the scheduled topics and ask relevant questions.
As I mentioned earlier, while many of us attend these conference to obtain valuable CPE credits, they are not true “training classes.” I would probably not send my most junior staff members. However, for professionals who have a role in designing strategies to meet department or corporate objectives, who must recruit and hire new employees, or who are looking to benchmark their own knowledge and skills against their peers, professional conferences can be well worth the time and money.