(Originally published and edited by The Credit Union Times, November 17, 2010. Note: This has unfortunately been interpreted as a condemnation of all credit union conferences. The intention was to draw from my personal experiences at conferences and highlight what does and does not work. Even more importantly, I wanted to refocus credit union people on efficiency. Professional education should be less about latitude, longitude, glitz, and glamour, and more about driving credit unions toward better, future-focused performance.)
Over the past eleven months as a contractor for the Filene Research Institute, dozens of credit unions, state leagues, and national associations have blessed me with invitations to speak in front of their audiences. This has been an amazing opportunity for me to meet credit union professionals, share my stories, and inspire positive change in our movement. Likewise, this experience has given me remarkable perspective on what works, and what doesn't work in credit union education. Here's what I've discovered:
Location matters...but it shouldn't.
Most conferences take place in gorgeous venues -- beautiful resorts, exotic locales, or exciting vacation spots with access to top golf courses, casinos, entertainment, and sight-seeing. This is a great way to drive attendance, but some events have made educational content a side show. I helped organize and host an independent credit union conference in Fishers, Indiana, last month called the CU Water Cooler Symposium. Indiana is gorgeous in October, but it's certainly not a vacation destination (with all due respect to my fellow Hoosiers). So, instead of attracting attendees who wanted to sunbathe, golf, or gamble, we hosted 140 credit union professionals who cared about one thing and one thing only: improving credit unions. The point is simply to say that location isn't the only attendance driver. Lead with content, and you won't have to be so concerned with expensive venues.
We need to improve access.
If you have the budget to attend a conference and can get away from your desk for a few days, you have access to conference education. If you can't pay, or can't find time to attend, your access is extremely limited. As a believer that credit unions are still a cooperative of cooperatives, this situation drives me nuts. If ideas are worth learning, they're worth sharing. We must improve access by lowering prices, facilitating knowledge sharing, allowing redistribution channels, and improving efficiencies.
I love how CUNA Mutual designed its Virtual Discovery Conference to improve access. Registration was free. Content was terrific. Sessions were recorded for later consumption. Speakers participated remotely. That model works. Similarly, the CU Water Cooler Symposium live streamed all of its content through the Credit Union Times' website. Didn't pay to attend the conference? No sweat. We still want you to be able to learn from it.
I still don't think there's a total replacement for the face-to-face communication and interaction that comes with being in the same physical location as other credit union professionals. Accordingly, I don't believe that giving away content will be the end of a sustainable conference business model. Declining accessibility in the form of high prices, inconvenient travel, prohibited redistribution and relationship exclusivity, however, will.
Sponsors are not second class citizens.
You've seen it. At many conferences, sponsors (vendors) are herded by the dozens into remote exhibit halls, hoping that the thousands of dollars in sponsorship, travel, and swag expenditures will yield any discernible amount of exposure, sales leads, or (gasp) appreciation. Sponsorships are sold to anyone willing to pay for them. Regardless of their relevance or how much they dilute a business partner's chance for success, the number of sponsors (and subsequent revenue) is a key performance metric for events.
This is wrong. Conference planners would do attendees and their sponsors a huge favor if they were more selective about who can sponsor, and how those sponsors are integrated into the events. Taking a page out of Finovate's book, the CU Water Cooler Symposium handpicked sponsors with interesting and new products, gave them eight minutes on stage to talk about their product/service, and then hosted a thoughtful Q&A session for the crowd. This session was well-received because of the attention we paid to sponsor selection. When you do that, you're able to bring value to both the sponsors' and the attendees' conference expenditures.
Talking at people is so 1995.
Credit union professionals are an intelligent lot. They are living and breathing the challenges and solutions that most conference speakers are simply observing. So, why do most sessions have so little interaction? The most interactive conference I attended this year was the Texas Credit Union League's New Ideas Conference. Each speaker gave a thirty minute talk, followed by a thirty minute facilitated Q&A session. Hats were passed around to accept questions for attendees too afraid to speak up, and independent facilitators asked the questions everyone was thinking but didn't want to say aloud. This format works. Attendees aren't just students, they're experts. Educational events should be as much about allowing attendees to share information as they are about absorbing speakers' content.
At the CU Water Cooler Symposium, we created expert panels from the crowd to do sessions of their choosing. We also assigned well-known credit union personalities to facilitate lively Q&A sessions after each talk. We did this because the best content often comes as a result of casual conversation, not premeditated rhetoric. Find a way to dig deeper into the topics by getting your attendees more involved.
My colleague, Brent Dixon, organized a grassroots movement of young people called "Crash" to help young people get better connected to the credit union system's largest events. At Crash the One and Crash the GAC sessions were casual. Speakers sat among the attendees, gave informal remarks, shared from the heart, and forever changed the lives of the young attendees. Humans want interaction, not to be talked at. Let's figure out a better way to make this happen.
Moving credit unions forward requires rethinking the traditional credit union educational experience. Our time is too valuable, issues are too complex, budgets are too tight and stakes are too high to settle for status quo. Rethinking the way our system approaches education doesn't mean what we are currently doing is completely broken, it's just a way to channel the posthumous urgings of our organization's namesake, Edward A. Filene. "Progress is the constant replacing of the best there is with something better still."