Why we need conferences

It’s easy to think of conferences as rather old hat – top-down and push in an era that is increasingly bottom-up and pull; very un-green when we face huge environmental challenges; very extravagant when everyone but the Chinese is running out of money. But having spent some time now immersed in The Power of Pull by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison (2010), I’m convinced that conferences will have an important role to play for years to come.

The reason? Well, conferences provide an ideal setting for serendipitous encounters – discovering what you you did not know you did not know / meeting people you did not know you needed to know. The setting is ideal because everyone there has some commonality of purpose and interest and approaching complete strangers is acceptable, even encouraged.

Conferences are primarily networking events – they bring people together and spark off opportunities. This is something we’ve long acknowledged at the eLearning Network, where we work hard at making sessions as interactive as possible and allow plenty of time for free-form networking. Would people attend without the keynotes and the other formal sessions? Probably not but they should.

Serendipitous meetings are necessary because they stimulate thinking outside the box. When we know what we don’t know it’s easy – we simply Google it, check out a forum, or consult our online networks. But however many blogs we subscribe to or Twitter feeds we follow, we’re always in danger of playing safe, sticking with the people we already know all about.

True, chance encounters can also come through links in blogs, forums and tweets which take you to unexpected places and people, but still much depends on who’s already in your network – and remember that not everyone that might be important to you is that active or visible online.

Conferences and social networks work in harmony, not competition. Those people that you encounter online you are then keen to meet up with when you do find yourself in the same physical space. And you follow up with the people you meet at conferences by getting their details and befriending them online.

My conclusion? There’s simply no alternative to putting yourself about. Get out there and meet people, even if you’d prefer to hide yourself away on your computer.

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