How will L&D ever move forward if we constantly allow “thought leaders” to have a voice at conferences only if they have something to sell? This year I have been round the conference and exhibition circuit several times – speaking at a few and attending a few as a regular punter. It’s not over yet with a couple of important ones still to come – CIPD Annual Conference, and Meaning 2014. However having had a run of a few varied events lately, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences, hence this blog.

Some events have been great – the smaller, innovative, subject specific ones such as LearnFest, HR Game Changers, 70:20:10 Forum and the CIPD Coaching Conference. Others have been uninspiring sales gigs – far be it from me to name check them giving more undeserved publicity! Anyone following me on Twitter (@MiPS1608) will know I like to Tweet the hell out of these events, so you will know where I have been.

At a recent conference seminar discussing blended learning within the first 5 minutes we were told about a company’s LMS elearning and how many awards it won. I don’t care!!! Elearning and LMS are not blended learning. Awards are important but the session was not called ‘ABC Company and how many awards it won’. It was called Blended Learning so I expected to hear ideas, provocations, and topic enthusiasm. I don’t care about your awards and your LMS – do me a favour, are we not already over Managing Learning with a System yet? I care about what you actually think, what you believe, how you can encourage us to move our industry forward. Note to self: manage your expectations more effectively, Parry-Slater – this is a conference!

I declare a personal beef in all this, that conference organisers are wrong to assume those with a great story to tell work in a Corporate. Same story, same person, same presentation, different badge. Twitter shows me daily that those with genius don’t always have a regular pay cheque but they do have a regular inspirational drive. Those with a regular income are driven to sell via their seminar. This is so frustrating! I really do want to know what you, Mr/s Speaker, actually believes, not what your Corporate pays you to believe. And if I have no corporate badge, as a punter, you don’t want to speak to me because you cannot sell me anything. How short sighted – do you not want access to my customers? Do you not want access to my Twitter followers – do you even know what Twitter followers bring you?

I am starting to conclude the traditional conference format is past its best, that it is the layout of conferences which are at fault, not the speakers. The set-up of free exhibition, passive audiences being spoken at, and the sales nature of these larger events is not effective for thought leadership, for industry direction, for stimulus and enthusiasm. It isn’t even that conducive to increased sales. When you consider blended learning, social learning, the impact of social media, and bitesize learning in as small a format as 140 characters, it is a ridiculous proposition to have the traditional conference format with crammed in seminars alongside a free exhibition trolling for sales. Of course, I am a realist – conferences are expensive to host and the sales pitch is the only draw for those with conference stand cash. That said, I have attended some amazing events recently which didn’t have that cash stamp all over them, and they were all the better for it. A snapshot:

  • HR Game Changers was an inspiration organised for the good of the industry, running simultaneously alongside events in New Zealand, with top speakers, interesting discussions and networking, plus a SoMe buzz as big as the event.
  • LearnFest was a fringe style conference in a field next to Lake Windermere which ranged from film making to firewalking interspersed with truly imaginative, engaging non-Corp and Corp speakers and fascinating delegates.
  • Similarly, to see Andy Lancaster include live coaching sessions in his recent CIPD Coaching Conference was a refreshing change of pace for the Institute. I garner hope from this, plus the exciting CIPD’s Leaders in Learning format of a brief presentation followed by whole forum open sharing.

There is a glimmer of a future for conferences which is not old skool, staid and salesy.

In my opinion, conferences should be a place to gather thoughts not slide packs, to gather excitement not free biros, and to gather new stimulating colleagues not just business cards in a fishbowl. Let’s have open mic’s for those with genuine opinions. Let’s start challenging conversations. Let’s have world cafe style breakouts, facilitated by leaders in our field. Let’s have inspired movements instead of standstill same old, same old. Let’s stop sending sales people to conference to talk to audiences who are hungry for operational experts who could help them formulate ideas, thoughts and direction. Let’s encourage corporates to come to conference with the view of being brave. Let’s do things differently. Please.

As one to usually look at life’s positives, I’d love you to burst my cynical bubble with a reality pinprick of a good conference or event you have attended. What did they do right? What should other conference organisers be learning from that event? I know the reality to be true that inspiration doesn’t pay the mortgage like a regular pay cheque, but I dream that there can be more LearnFests, more HR Game Changers, more Leaders in Learning, more inspiration and motivation at conference. I’d love you to make my dreams come true.

Conferences, this is me breaking up with you until you grow up. It is 2014 and L&D has matured.