I’m just back from Chicago, where the good folks at the American Educational Research Association hosted a dual-component annual meeting where people could come together online and virtually to hear the best ideas in the industry.

You couldn’t ride an elevator without hearing attendees gush about the event. From learning opportunities to networking events, these fabulous folks were sporting their lanyard badges all day and excited to be back together to nerd out about incredibly esoteric topics.

Professional conferences have long been seen as essential opportunities for networking, skill development, and exchanging ideas. They bring together experts and enthusiasts from various fields to share knowledge, generate new ideas, and build relationships.

However, despite their many benefits, conferences can sometimes be counterproductive and exclude innovative ideas. So, I’d like to explore why professional meetings matter and their potential drawbacks. Then, I’d like to propose an optimal professional event that fosters inclusivity and innovation.

Why Professional Conferences Matter

Nothing beats listening to geeks on stage and drinking margaritas with your colleagues afterward. Believe me, as much as I complain about human resources, I miss the days of live-tweeting conference sessions and getting day drunk with my girlfriends.

So, why do conferences matter?

Networking: IRL events allow attendees to connect with like-minded individuals, establish new partnerships, and expand their professional networks. The networking aspect can lead to collaborations, job opportunities, and the sharing of valuable insights.

Skill Development: Conferences often offer workshops, seminars, and keynote speeches aimed at helping attendees improve their skills, learn about new technologies, and stay updated on industry trends. These learning opportunities can help professionals remain relevant and competitive in their fields.

Idea Exchange: Conferences are platforms for discussing and debating ideas, best practices, and innovative approaches. Cross-pollinating ideas can spark new research, improve existing practices, and lead to breakthroughs in various fields.

Counterproductive Aspects and Exclusion of Innovative Ideas

Not all conferences are created equally; many suffer from design flaws and biases preventing the best ideas from rising. So what are some common problems with professional events?

High Costs: Attending professional conferences can be expensive. The cost can prevent many talented individuals from attending, which limits the diversity of ideas and perspectives presented at the event.

Overemphasis on Hierarchy: Conferences sometimes prioritize well-known speakers and established industry leaders over lesser-known but equally innovative voices. The overemphasis on hierarchy (and patriarchy) can stifle the sharing of groundbreaking ideas and make it difficult for new voices to be heard.

Echo Chambers: Conferences focusing on specific themes or disciplines can inadvertently create echo chambers, where attendees predominantly hear ideas and perspectives reinforcing their beliefs. It can hinder the development of new ideas and prevent cross-disciplinary collaborations.

The Optimal Professional Event

I’ve been involved in designing some of the best and most well-known HR industry events. I’ve keynoted many of those events, too. Luckily, great event planners, producers, and even keynote speakers who work hard to demonstrate excellence have mentored me. Here’s what a great conference does right:

Affordable and Accessible: To foster greater inclusivity, great conferences strive to minimize costs for attendees. It can be achieved through subsidized registration fees, virtual attendance options, and partnerships with local organizations to provide affordable accommodation options.

Diverse Speaker Lineup: Conference organizers who do it right prioritize a diverse speaker lineup, including emerging voices and innovators from various backgrounds. They also pay their speakers something. Not just the celebrity keynote speaker, but everybody who steps on stage. These actions ensure a wide range of shared perspectives and ideas, encouraging a more dynamic and innovative event.

Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration: Encouraging cross-disciplinary collaboration is critical to fostering innovation. The best conferences include panel discussions and workshops that bring together experts, customers, and practitioners from different fields to discuss common challenges and explore collaborative solutions.

Interactive Formats: Instead of relying solely on traditional lectures and presentations, my favorite events incorporate interactive formats, such as virtual roundtable discussions, brainstorming sessions, and immersive workshops. These formats help break down barriers between speakers and attendees, allowing for more meaningful engagement and exchanging ideas.

Good to Great Events

While professional conferences offer valuable networking, skill development, and idea exchange opportunities, they can also be counterproductive and exclude innovative ideas.

Let’s all learn from AERA and the rousing success of its most recent event. We can create an optimal professional event that fosters inclusivity and innovation for all attendees by focusing on affordability, diversity, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and interactive formats.

Wouldn’t you sign up for that event in the future?