Time to blow up the Management Conference?
By Mike Klein
Earlier this spring, I spent some time speaking with communication directors from a variety of companies in Europe and North America about The Present and Future of Internal Communication.
My latest report on the subject for Happeo has a wide range of insights, but one subject that came up has been much in my thoughts for a number of years - the disproportionate emphasis on management and leadership conferences and the sheer quantity of time and attention they consume.
Only one participant raised the issue of management conferences, but his comments were searing:
“Leadership conferences are a major cost when 300-400 leaders are involved. There’s no substitute for getting people together, but the value is hard to measure. The leadership conference is more than three times the cost of the rest of our IC spend.”
His comment struck a chord. Management conferences consume a ton of money, have nebulous impact, and often fail to involve the people who actually matter.
Show me the money
Let’s look first at the money. Assuming that the leadership conference is either on a European or US scale, some numbers come into play:
3 nights hotel at EUR 200 x 300 participants = EUR 180,000
3 days meals at EUR 100 per head per day = EUR 90,000
Travel costs averaging EUR 300 (short haul economy class) = 90,000
Outside Speaker and external event support=35,000
Estimated total: EUR 395,000
2 days of salary for conference (est EUR 1000 per day x 300) = 600,000
1 additional day for travel (est EUR 1000 per day x 300) = 300,000
So, a conservative estimate of the costs involved with a large leadership conference add up to nearly EUR 1.4 million. That’s about USD 1.6 million.
Getting bang for those bucks?
But what is anyone getting for the millions that are spent on management conferences? And how can it be compared on a more even basis with other communication investments?
There is a potential way to assess impact:
Leadership conferences are opportunities to introduce new concepts, language and priorities into an organization. When specific language is employed, its use, embrace or rejection can be tracked either through employee pulse surveys or by measuring the use of those terms in enterprise search.
The speed at which the language becomes spread through post-conference cascades can be measured as a trend, and compared with the speed and impact at which other terms have been spread through different channels.
But even if management conferences can be proven to accelerate the spread of key concepts and support intensified alignment, there are other factors worth questioning.
The invitation list is a good thing to look at.
Generally, leadership conferences invite people at certain levels on the hierarchy – first, second and maybe third-level reports to the CEO or her regional/functional equivalent. But, as demonstrated repeatedly by specialist consultancy Innovisor and even by McKinsey, organizational change and communication is generally driven at least as much by “hidden influencers” as it is by managers high on the organizational chart.
Rarely are those “hidden influencers” invited to leadership conferences. Equally rarely are managers assessed in terms of the spread and value of their networks to the organization’s ambitions. Even taking “influence” out of the selection criteria, focusing on hierarchical position tends to make leadership conference attendance pools older, more male and less representative compared to the organization as a whole.
Secondly, it’s also worth looking at the other $1.6 million question: what else could we get for that money? Is a management conference a better investment than an organizational network analysis or the adoption of a fit-for-purpose digital workplace focused on accelerating communication and collaboration more broadly?
I don’t pretend to have the answer for each individual organization. But I think every organization needs to be asking this question: “is it time to blow up the Management Conference?”
My fourth report, The Dynamic Within, draws these additional conclusions from my interviews with 12 communication directors in Europe and North America:
Senior communicators generally recognise employees as participants in the internal dynamic and as a key external communication channel.
There is a significant tonal shift underway in corporate and Internal Communication, from “direction” to “guidance” – offering a corporate opinion while acknowledging the ability of internal and external stakeholders to accept or reject it.
Although leaders and senior corporate communicators recognize the importance of internal dynamics and of employees as an audience, expenditures on Internal Communication often attract scrutiny far in excess of their cost.
A hidden measurement benchmark emerges - that IC expenditures are not really compared with other investments, but against management’s perception of “Communicating Well Enough” - whether a communication intervention can be done adequately with no added expenditure. The belief in “Communicating Well Enough” is based on a belief that there is an alternative approach that can be executed “well enough” with existing infrastructure and resources.
Communicators need to consider justifying communication investment from a risk management perspective rather than focusing solely on trying to justify activities in terms of return or on the basis of anecdotal evidence.
A risk based approach puts communication in the context of an accepted business discipline while offering incorporating the impact of inadequate action as well as the cost of desired action.
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Lise Michaud is the only party authorized to represent, negotiate and accept any agreements, contracts, partnerships, or any other forms of association, lucrative or non-lucrative, on behalf of IC Kollectif and/or involving the IC Kollectif's brand.
Mike Klein of Changing The Terms is a communication consultant based in Holland. A London Business School MBA and former political strategist, he has focused on internal communication planning, research and writing for twenty-plus years.
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