By Lia Marus
A perennial complaint I hear from employers is that their employees ask to go on countless conferences, but these individuals cannot explain the value their employers will get out of said exercise. All the business owner can really see is that they will have to pay for the attendance fees plus their staff member’s salary while they are away – and who knows if they will really be focusing on the conference?
There are immeasurable value-adds that you, as the employer, can get out of your employees going to conferences. And face it: You do not have the time to profit from the conference yourself. This means it will benefit both you and the company to send one of your employees who can gather the knowledge and skills from that conference and bring these back to you.
2 of the most valuable things that you can get out of a conference
1. Learn from the best in the business
At conferences, thought leaders in your profession speak about aspects in your particular line of work. This forces you to take a step back and look at your work differently, and in the process possibly find new solutions to issues that you have been facing.
This experience would be very valuable for your employees – especially those who have only been exposed to one or two working environments and have not been in the working world for very long – because their eyes are opened and the way they approach their jobs is changed. Consequently, you will benefit from this.
A good example of a conference where you can see this is 30th annual Pan Pacific Conference (PPC), which was hosted by the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ’s) Faculty of Management earlier this month.
Professor Gerhard Roodt, vice-dean: research in the Faculty of Management at UJ and chairman of the conference local organising committee, said that the main objective of the PPC is to serve as a forum for business research scholars and practitioners to share research and best practices, and as a consequence, learn from each other.
2. It’s what you learn in between the sessions that counts
Possibly the most valuable parts of a conference are not what you learn in the sessions but what you learn from the other delegates, discussing the session topics and getting their perspectives on what has come beforehand. This type of information you cannot learn from a conference as it is totally spontaneous and as such, is the richest information you will learn.
Your employees will benefit from talking to industry stalwarts – even if the topic of conversation is as inane as “How did you get started?” or “What made you choose the career path that you did?” They will come away with an insight into their careers, and consequently your business, that you will find invaluable.
Instil a love of networking in your employees
The one thing that I would advise you to do is to encourage your employees not to be afraid of these events. They must talk to people – and not feel intimidated!
I used to work with an editor who absolutely hated going to conferences because of the compulsory networking that punctuated the lectures. She absolutely adored soaking up the new information that poured from the lips of the speakers but when it came to the teas, lunches or networking drinks, she would make directly for a corner, with her collection of food and drink, and pray that no one noticed her. If she was ‘unlucky’, other like-minded individuals – who had no interest in meeting other people in the industry – would find her out and they would exchange stilted conversations which ran along the lines of: “So what do you do?” The result of this was that she never became truly interested in the industry she was in and because of this she left publishing very quickly.
My advice, to help your shy employees get over their fear of networking, is to chat to them when they come back from events and to ask them questions like how they found the event and who they met there. And if they divulge that they have a problem with networking and talking to people, give them a couple of pointers that have worked for you in the past.
How to get the most out of your employees going to conferences
Next time one of your employees comes to you and asks to go to a conference, ask to see the conference programme so you know exactly what the conference is about. If you feel that the conference material will indeed benefit the employee and your company, draft a list of questions that they need to answer during the conference. This is to ensure that they are paying attention and come back with the information you need.
Before they go to the conference, let them know that they will have to provide feedback to you about the event in addition to the commentary you requested. This feedback session could take any form which is appropriate for your company culture, for example a formal feedback session using slides, an informal discussion over a cup of coffee or a report that he distributes in the company newsletter.
Remember that conferences are valuable learning experiences for you, your company as well as your employees. You shouldn’t flatly deny your employees the opportunity to attend these events as you will be hurting your chances of learning as well as your employees’ opportunities to grow. However, make sure that you arrive at a balance between your and the employees’ interests.