Mixed Reviews on BPM Conferences

Post by
Scott Francis

This isn't particular or specific to the world of BPM conferences - there's a general "conference malaise" going on - in which only the "best"? conferences are really tearing it up.

Outside of the BPM world, its clear that conferences like SXSW in Austin are doing just fine (and did just fine last year too, by the way).? Record attendance and a record number of panels and bands and acts is just the norm at SXSW these days (conference starts today).

But in the world of BPM, 2009 was tough for conferences, when the expectation was that people would still be attending BPM conferences due to how applicable they are to everyone's business.? Several vendors postponed their conferences or took them virtual (Lombardi's Driven), but the ones who waited until the fall (Appian) benefited from the beginning of the rebound in businesses planning for the future rather than businesses just living in fear of the next shoe dropping.

Sandy Kemsley has pointed out this problem with BPM conferences several times, as has Theo Priestley, and we've chimed in as well on the topic.? Some fresh perspectives:

  • Sandy points out that 2010 looks like a rebound year for conferences.? We'll see - Gartner's BPM summit is in March in Las Vegas, and IBM's "Impact" is in May - good test cases of the demand for these conferences.? Word from the London Gartner summit implied that attendance was low?? (I wasn't there, so its second-hand to me).
  • Theo Priestley and Mike Gammage hypothesize that Gartner and IQPC could merge events by 2012 - which again sounds like weakness rather than strength to me.
  • Interestingly, Gammage was more encouraging about Gartner's latest offering, while Jon Pyke's contacts were not impressed.

Theo has a separate blog post, and while the bulk of it is about building community more broadly, at the end he makes a telling argument:

"When a sponsor at a BPM conference turns round and says he was perplexed at why there was such a low turnout given how important BPM has become according to what surveys seem to suggest the answer may be in the fact that we can't even agree on what we're telling clients in the first place.

For a group that practices change we're incredibly resistant to it ourselves?.."

I've said before and I'll say it again: I think BPM conferences need to do a few things:

  1. Localize.? Have the conference closer to the bulk of your attendees, so that more people can come without travel costs.
  2. Face-to-Face.? Tele-presence and high-def video conferencing is great.? But a virtual conference is a broadcast medium.? If attendees want one-way communication they can read the book or watch the video after the fact.? If they want interaction, then you need physical presence to really encourage that.
  3. Respect budgets.? Don't make cost of attendance a barrier - keep it reasonable. For anyone traveling, travel costs should dominate their total expenses, not registration costs.
  4. Crowd-source.? Leverage the community to arrive at the topics.? There's been too much top-down sourcing of content at conferences, without soliciting feedback from potential and actual attendees.
  5. Narrow the focus. The narrower the focus, the more involved the people who attend can be.? People mistakenly think you have to broaden the audience to get more people - but the point isn't MORE - the point is BETTER.? If the event is BETTER then you'll get more value out of your investment of time and money.

We've followed this philosophy for bpmCamp and it was a great success for us - the feedback has been enormously positive, with a lot of interest in repeating the event next year.? But of course, our "unconference" was limited to 40 attendees - and its easier to organize around these principles when you keep the size of the conference smaller. Still, I think there are lessons to learn for those who would put on BPM-focused events, and the biggest one is:

It's about the audience, not about the organizer.

For more information from bpmCamp, follow this link to our blog coverage of the bpmCamp event.? The element that I think is most crucial is the impromptu discussion that can happen in a more intimate setting.? Questions don't wait for a microphone or a moderator - the hand goes up or the question is proposed and people can jump in and contribute.? I was really pleased with how this dynamic worked at bpmCamp and I hope we can reproduce this at other events.? I think 2010 will be a better year for conferences, but organizers need to keep in mind how to make these gatherings *more* valuable for attendees or they're going to lose their attention next time.

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