Dancing Robots?…Lifting the lid on the business conference.

Have you heard the latest? The robots are here, they’re smarter than us, they’re gonna take all the jobs, and finally they’ll take over and rule the world. And they dance. Of course you’ve heard it! You’re a leading or budding executive and are fully tuned in to the revolutionary robotic transformation in just about every sector and sphere, happening all around us, literally, as we speak. Or more likely still, you will have heard about it at a conference.

Maybe it’s just me, but the whole business conference thing leaves me cold. Always has, even PD (pre-disruption). It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve bothered to attend any of these at all, and after my latest foray, there’s a strong chance I will revert to my former ways. Sure, they should be great places to network, learn from others, speculate about the future, and let your hair down a bit; but in reality they are mostly dreary, forced and formulaic. And usually full of tossers.

Now I know that’s unduly harsh on a lot of people. Many times during my career, usually when staying at mid ranged chain hotels in dreary towns or industrial suburbs, have I thanked my lucky stars that my career path has avoided the horror that is hard faced hardcore Biz to Biz selling. You see these hardened souls in these hotel lobby’s and bars up and down every country, doing their utmost to focus and network and sell, but boy it takes a certain type of animal to cope with it, let alone to revel in it. These same people tend to be veterans of the conference circuit. Not in the auditoriums. But outside in the hastily erected market places. Come evening time they rule the roost. And this is when their deals are closed. In my book I have no issues with this breed. They are what they are – often effective, usually drunk, sales men and women who make the sales world go round. The rest of the crowd is more of an enigma.

The organising body tends to consist of a (usually failed) egomaniac at the top, who is singular in the adoration of his (almost always HIS) own voice, backed up by a cool, stressed but bloody hard working support crew. Then there are the experts. Usually a certain type, and very often the same ones that you will have seen at the last conference you attended. And the one before that. Good with a crowd. Provocative. Engaging. In it for themselves and of course a good ego stroke, and also for a nice dinner, a gift and a few free tickets for the mere mortals working beneath them.

These days there is a new addition to the conference agenda. No self respecting conference organiser can miss out on booking (and often importing) a futurist, usually with their own recently leased robots. Lauding it over their open eyed flock, banging on about how if you’re not on the journey, you’re already dead! Scaring and scarring with bold predictions, wit and charm, bucket loads of confidence, a loud voice and a few handy gadgets. Interesting though they are, and undoubtedly more relevant than ever, the truth is that the facts in this spiel still appear to be fairly short on the ground. And the delivery? Well, suffice to say – seen one, seen them all. Ever wondered what happened to all those Y2K consultants? Meet the futurists.

The big corporate headliners that follow tend to be (understandably) a bit overawed when they launch into their more down to earth corporate power point presentations. Real achievements through logic, perseverance and people don’t seem anywhere near as sexy any more. The contrast really is black and white. Reality vs imagination or the past vs future? Only time will tell but the absence of any real middle ground is an interesting development.

There have of course been memorable moments and events in my corporate conference past. Wonderfully excessive rooftop parties. Extravagant food. Bands and acts that you wouldn’t dream of seeing under normal circumstances. I know I’m lucky to be able to experience it all. And then there is the bizarre, which appeals most to me. One of the things I do love about a good conference is the outrageous variety of situations you can find yourself in, yet all knitted so tightly together. My personal favourite requiring an agile mindset switch around, occurred last year. Midway through a highly enjoyable and extravagant conference I found myself honoured and surprised to be invited onto the top table at the exclusive C suite only Executive luncheon, listening to the great Sugar Ray Leonard extolling his own virtues, reflecting on his career and his personal journey and learnings, handing out signed gloves and giving friendly buddy punches while posing for selfies. After an hour I floated out of the room like a butterfly. Ten minutes later I was listening to a monotone northern English whine, matter of factly over-explaining the details of the un-breathtaking system led changes taking place at the Co-op in Rochdale. Variety is indeed the spice of life.

So what’s the big reveal? Well, the one group still to come under the microscope are the actual conference delegates. And this is the group that troubles me most. We are in an era where information and fairly full disclosure is at our fingertips, all of the time. Not to mention there is a rightfully growing force of public accountability (together with the front page news that so often comes with it when it gets exposed as going bad) that means corporates need to spend wisely. In this environment it genuinely staggers me just how many seemingly cost conscious businesses and especially their normally savvy business leaders, are willing to sanction the mass exodus of mid and top end troops to these – let’s face it – spurious jollies on quite such a regular basis. Nowadays I am told by every expert and coach I meet with, (and currently there are a lot) that I need the conference circuit in order to network and grasp future opportunities. Well, if that’s the perceived wisdom then perhaps this is an opportunity for more disruption, this time to conference organisers, by the masses telling them where to stick the conference circuit. Because big business has enough on its plate to change its image, appeal once again to the masses, and do the right thing, without this distraction. And the facts of the matter are that the conference circuit is nothing more than a wasteful distraction. A free wheeling jolly for the attendee, and a lucrative ego stroke for everyone else involved. And don’t let anyone, at any damn conference, tell you any different.


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