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Utilizing Conferences as Professional Development

Posted by Kris Hiebert on Nov 12, 2012 12:41:09 PM

I recently attended the Building Business Capability conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for the second year. This five-day conference, sponsored by the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA), is focused on a number of different themes surrounding Business Analysis. In this post, I will discuss how to select a conference, how to get the most out of your attendance, and why I think conferences can be a very valuable use for professional development money and time.

If you think you would like to attend a conference, one of the first things you have to decide is what conference to attend. Many factors can play into this.

Subject Matter is Foremost

Is the conference you are considering for a subject area you are already working in? If so, and your expertise is already represented by a professional body such as the Project Management Institute (PMI), the IIBA, or a product (such as Oracle, Java or .NET), then there are most likely “official” conferences that you can attend. In searching for professional development options and conferences, I’ve found a variety, ranging from huge (like Oracle OpenWorld) to very profession-, industry- or tool-specific. Another option, especially if you are looking to grow your career in a new direction, would be to look at conferences specific to an interest of yours that you may not yet be practicing on a daily basis.

Whichever option you choose, it is important to take a look at the agenda for the conference itself. Are there pre- or post-conference “boot camp” sessions designed to gain certifications or professional development credits towards existing certifications? Do the keynotes look interesting, both as people you’d like to hear from and their subject matter? Are there lunches or networking events/dinners? Not all conferences post an exact agenda well in advance, particularly if you are looking to take advantage of early bird pricing. One tip would be to look at the previous year’s agenda or speak with someone you know who previously attended to answer some of the questions above.

Date and Location

For me, the next most important factor in selecting a conference is date and location. Is the conference at a time where it is reasonable for me to be able to attend, based on work and personal commitments? Is it in a location that I can get to easily enough without having to take three or four planes and over a day of travel each way? Many conference organizers try to hold their conferences in appealing destinations such as Florida, California or Las Vegas. They do so because they know that many attendees may add a few days to the trip and use the conference as a vacation, perhaps bringing spouses and children. If you are looking at doing the same, make sure the conference location is going to be suitable for them. I once attended a Business Analyst/Project Manager World event in “Chicago” which turned out to be in the suburb of Rosemont, over an hour from downtown. Without a car it was nearly impossible to see anything outside of the conference centre itself.

Maximize Your Investment

Once you are at the conference there are a number of things you can do to ensure you maximize your investment.

Get the lay of the land

Once you have boots on the ground, I find it best to plan a strategy of attack for the duration of the conference. If there are particular speakers who are very interesting or very well known, there might be a premium on presentation space. Most venues have plenty of room for the keynote speakers, but then rely on a number of smaller rooms for the various speaking tracks. If you know where you are going and can stake out prime seating, you will likely have a much better experience at the conference.

Ask questions

For the formal sessions, don’t be afraid to ask questions either during the session or individually with the speaker afterwards. In most cases, the speakers are selected due to their experience in a particular area and, as senior practitioners, they are usually more than happy to discuss their work or their career. If you really liked a particular session, don’t hesitate to ask if they have handouts, references or supporting documents they can provide.

Network

One of the main reasons I now attend these conferences is to network with peers. When I first began my career, I had a heavy focus on using my professional development to build up my repertoire of skills. Now that I function at a senior level, I find it increasingly valuable to have access to a number of thought leaders, senior practitioners and even researchers in a field of my interest.

There are a few tips I can suggest for making the most out of your networking opportunities at a conference. The first is that even if you came with one or more co-workers, try to use every break, lunch or event to meet new people. Many conferences organize spaces for just this reason. Don’t be afraid to ask if you can sit at a table with an open spot as chances are the others at that table have also just met. Secondly, keep an eye on who is in your sessions. If you find that there are a couple people attending most of the same sessions you are, try to strike up a conversation with them as you likely have similar interests.

There are many simple techniques that can be used to start a conversation with someone new, but at a conference, you already have a great opener built in: “How are you finding the conference so far?” The other helpful point is that almost everyone is wearing name tags that likely mention who they work for or their geographic location. That’s two more very easy conversation starters right there.

Most conferences have some vendor participation and will have a vendor-sponsored networking function, usually in the evening with free refreshments. Take this opportunity to meet and mingle, moving from group to group. Finally, bring business cards to give to those with whom you would like to keep the conversation going outside of the conference. Don’t just hand them out like candy or you are likely to find your own business cards lying around on tables or the floor.

Benefits of Conferences

So far, we’ve discussed how to select a conference and how to maximize your experience while you are there. The last area I’d like to discuss the benefits to attending a conference.

For myself, I know that one of the most humbling and eye-opening experiences I’ve had is listening to presenters and employees of companies that dwarf my own in size, business domain and employee count. I find it fascinating to hear about how they have approached particular problems, sharing what has worked for them and what hasn’t. I am constantly comparing against my own experiences and sometimes deciding that I will handle particular situations differently in the future. One of the other benefits related to this is the exposure to contrasting viewpoints, particularly on hot-button issues.

If you are attending a conference for a particular profession or industry, you will also find that the keynote speakers are likely focused on the future and what’s to come. When combined with the sessions and seminars, you may find that your outlook on what you are doing and where you want your career to go has changed.

Don’t discount the tutorials, sessions or seminars for their educational value either. If conference organizers have selected well and you’ve done your homework, there is much to be learned from conference tutorials, sessions and seminars, both in theory and practice.

As I mentioned above, the greatest benefit to conferences for me now is in networking with my peers. Conference attendees, speakers and vendors can give exposure to new industries and organizations, identify new opportunities, and even provide potential mentors and guides for your career.

Plus, don’t forget that your company is getting a well-rounded, worldly, educated and refreshed employee returning to work from a conference. The key is to find a way to channel that enthusiasm you have into something positive for the organization. Bring details of the conference back to your peer group at your employer; perhaps offer to present on a topic of interest; or maybe write a blog or whitepaper on your experiences. If your employer can see the benefit in having you attend conferences, they are more likely to support, or even sponsor, them in the future.

In Summary

I hope I’ve been able to articulate for you why conferences can be very valuable for employees and employers. I’ve discussed how to best select a conference, how to get the most out of your attendance, and the benefits you can realize. Conferences can be a great alternative to coursework or self-study if the time is taken to select appropriately and if you work at getting as much as possible out of the experience.

 

Topics: Professional Effectiveness

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