Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Designing and Managing Conferences of Professional Bodies

I have completed recently a Conference for the IIMA Society on "Leadership and Governance". It was attended by a select group of IIMA Society members and a few others who are not members. It was a two day conference. EThere were eight sessions and each of the sessions were chosen with care. The purpose of the conference was to communicate to the IIMA Society members who donated their time and money and brought to existence the great Institution called the IIMA. This is the second such conference in the history of the Institute. I remmber participting in the first conference held almost thirty five years ago. It was organized by Dr. Mohan Kaul (now with Commonwealth Secretariat, London) and was the brain child of Prof. Samuel Paul Director of IIMA at that time. He felt that IIMA should give something in return to the Society members and was organised as a gratitude. As Chairperson of the Golden Jubilee Planning Committee at IIMA, I got this idea accepted by the Institute and understandably  the Institute wanted me to coordinate this. As a member of the Faculty as well as that of IIMA Society I was more than enthusiastic to take up this task. IIMA Society members list is around a hundred and of them there were only some who were active. The first task we did was to write to all of them to ask for their preferred themes and on the basis of their suggestions we identified Leadership and Governance issues.

The objective of this conference was to share the work done by the Institute faculty to the Society members. We went through the work and identified the faculty. It so happened that most of them wrote books for the IIMA book series as a part of the Golden Jubilee Celebrations. Professor Manikutty wrote a book on ethics and we scheduled a session on Ethics and values in Leadership; Professor Atanu Ghosh wrote abook on Strategy and we scheduled a session on "Leadership through Strategic Management"; Professor Anurag Agarwal wroe a book on "Intellectual Property Rights" and we scheduled a session on "Business Leadership and Law"; Professor Monippally wrote a book on persuasive communication and we schedule a session on "Persuasive Communication and Leadership Development"; my own session was scheduled based on my book on "Managers who Make a Difference". Then we looked at the other issues and other faculty who have done work in related areas. Professors Neharika Vohra and Deepti Bhatnagar just completed bringing out a special issue on Leadership colloquium using Vikalpa the IIMA Journal as medium and hence we included a session by both these professors. Professor Subhash Bhatnagar has been working with the world bank and also with various state governments on It applications and also completed a book on the same. We scheduled a session on "Information Technology and Ethical Governance". Professors Samir Barua and    Jayant Varma have completed a study  on Board level membership and we included a session on "Governance Strategies for Leadership at Board level". Thus the conference had eight sessions an each session was allotted a clear 90 minutes.  A open session was also planned to give opportunity for the delegates to raise issues of concern and seek answers or make comments. Each session had a Chair from among the Faculty or other distinguished person available. Each session also had Rapporteurs. The design was such that the chair got ten minutes for introductory remarks and summary at the end, the speaker got 40 minutes make his/her presentation and 40 minutes for discussion.  The conference as a great success. Each participant got five books and also other research material by the respective Professors to carry. The power points were mailed to them.

Looking back this conference was a great success and I take pride in organizing this with full credit to the MDP support system, the Director, CAO and MDP coordinator of IIMA.

When I look back at the first NHRDN Conference we had at Madras as well as the initial National Seminar where National HRD Network was born, I recollect with satisfaction very similar things we have done in these conferences. We maintained this tempo for a number of years until recently. I notice in recent times the Conference management have become more commercialised and the purposes have got drastically changed. I suspect that now a days we have begun to organize conferences for  other reasons than knowledge dissemination and genuine discussion of issues of concern to the profession.  playing for galleries than with a genuine intent of sharing and knowledge dissemination.

We have corporatised conferences and lost the academic rigour. Part of the reason may be that there is a significant decline in the number of academics associated with conference design and management.  I rarely find reputed Academics and Scholars associated with the design and conduct of Conferences. 

A large number of professional bodies keep organizing conferences in a country like India: CII, National HRD Network, NIPM, ISTD, AIMA etc. When we started the National HRD Network we resolved that we will do a conference that is bench markable in its organization. To tell you the story behind the first NHRDN Conference held at Madras (now Chennai) in 1987, the source of inspiration and learning was an International Conference held at IIMA. In those days we did not have low cost Xeroxing but used mostly cyclostyled papers. IIMA brought excellent speakers from all over the world: David Brown, Robert Golembiwisky etc. There were about 200 delegates attending the conference at IIMA. When the cyclostyling expenses came for discussion at the Policy Planning Committee of IIMA, I was stunned to see nearly Rs 1.20 lakhs spent on cyclostyling of papers and the quality of duplication was far from satisfactory. The next year when I was invited as a  key note speaker by ISTD I found the similar experience or even worse- some of the cyclostyled material was as casual as the papers giving not so much of a  good impression about a professional body. 

I felt getting the papers printed would be cheaper and also are more presentable. It is this experience that lead to search for a publisher. Dr Anil Khandelwal facilitated this by getting us Rawat publications. Rawat publishers made available the conference papers in a book from form - 200 copies for Rs. 50,000 at the cost of Rs 25 a copy of nearly 250 pages hard bound. Even today the book is marketed by Rawat publications (Alternative Approaches and strategies of HRD edited by T V Rao, K. K. Verma, E. Abrham, and Anil Khandelwal). The preparations for the conference itself started six months in advance. Mr. Chandrasekhar assisted by Mr. Mukundan of L&T ECC and P V R Murthy of Sundaram Clayton became the main organizers of the conference. They received the delegate fee, made all event management related arrangements including fixing of the hotel, evening cultural program (Krishnaswamy Associates offered this), looking after the other administrative arrangements. The Souvenir committee was headed by H N. Arora of reliance in Ahmedabad and he designed an innovative souvenir and collected advertisements with a message. The papers were invited and managed by the author of this blog with the help of Mr. K K Verma who offered the facilities at Bank of Baroda Staff College. Fr. Abraham who was doing his Ph. D. at that time worked almost full time for this. I worked out with Economic Times and got them to publish a special edition on HRD during the conference. The most important thing in the conference was a full day devoted to CEO conclave where about 10 prominent CEOs from all over including me. M V Arunachalam, M. V. Subbaiah, Mr Deenadayalu (MRL). Mr K K Nohria, Mr. Suresh Krishna and Dr V Krishnamurthy spoke. The well printed book giving all presentation was handed over on the first day of the conference as conference kit and was the most appreciated part of the conference. Thus we set new standards for organising conference. The Conference of National HRD Network held at Madras laid new bench marks and new foundation for conference management. if there is one factor responsible for the latter success of NHRDN it is the way the conference was organised, the way paper presentations were managed and the quality of presentations and the book. Those days were the real networking days and people were crazy after learning from each other. 

I feel that conference management by most professional bodies has grown very well in terms of the conference logistics management and event management and there is a substantial decline in the academic input management. I feel quite disappointed to see that we (NHRDN, NIPM, ISTD, AIMA, CII and others) are making conferences mainly to promote individuals and corporations and consulting firms and other commercial outfits and rarely serious academic discussions. I observe the following from various conferences:

1. We try to find speakers who have currency value and bring them from all over the world more to sell the conference than to learn from them. Most of these speakers speak what they have already written in their books or use these as promotion avenues for their new books. Nothing wrong if it is done selectively and for those who make real research based contributions (for example Dave Ulrich or his team who do a lot of research based work). As a result we find the same speaker addressing every conference as he has perceived high currency or delegate attraction value (DAV).

2. We don’t provide any opportunity for real good work from academic institutions and provide scope for presenting papers. For example NHRD has nearly totally done away with paper presentations by those who do some good work. They don’t even write to Institutions like IIMs for papers- leave alone other institutions.

3. The main concern of the conference organisers has become commercial value and savings from eh conference than academic value and learning from the conference.

4. Delegates are to be mobilised and commitments are taken from each company to send delegates rather than attracting delegates by internal merits.

5. They choose knowledge partners who are normally consultants and don’t share any knowledge but for a price. The Institutions where real knowledge is generated are not even considered. For example I never understood how a consulting company can be a knowledge partner and not an institution like XLRI or TISS. Interestingly such knowledge partners are put as knowledge partners because they have paid money to the conference organisers for their own bran building purposes.  

It is unfortunate. 

However this is not to say that everything is bad. Involvement of some of the educational Institutions has gone up. This prepares the younger generation for future. For example Wellingkar and Balaji group of institutions participate and presumably derive a lot of benefit from the NHRDN conferences. The Bangalore Conference of NHRDN has set up some new bench marks in conference Management. It is worth emulating. There was research base, there was involvement of academic institutions in a big way, there were research studies made. They set new bench marks by doing away with mementos and donating the saved money to the cause of poor children's education.

Now a days many management schools have started the new trend of organising HR Conclaves. One may wonder why so many HR Conclaves? The main reason behind most HR conclaves is to get HR Managers to visit the campus and see the work done so as to enhance the placement opportunities. I fell into the trap of many institutions in recent times and sometimes it becomes difficult not to walk into the trap. The audience are rarely HR managers. The speakers are mostly HR people and to be a key note speaker is respectful and hence you don't decline the invitation. Once you visit you are normally impressed and will make sure your recruiters at least visit the institution next time. 

It is time that we change our thinking about conferences and the way we organise them. I am giving in a separate blog what I wrote about ten years ago after I attended the ASTD Conference. There is a lot to learn from the way they are organised in the US.

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