Let employees select trade shows to attend (but retain veto rights)

With tighter travel and training budgets, many IT leaders are being more discerning when approving employees' requests to attend trade shows. Jay Rollins discusses the process he uses to help employees decide which trade shows to attend.

With tighter travel and training budgets, many IT leaders are being more discerning when approving employees' requests to attend trade shows. Jay Rollins discusses the process he uses to help employees decide which trade shows to attend.


There are hundreds of technology trade shows around the world and, with shrinking training budgets, it has become more important to select the right trade shows for your organization. Early summer is a great time to start thinking about which shows to go to for a couple of reasons. Many companies begin their budgeting process in October, so starting now will allow you to get good business cases in place. Well-thought out requests have a greater chance of survival if the requests come under fire later. The second reason is timing. Many trade shows kick off in the autumn and winter months, particularly those with relatively exotic locations.

There are many aspects of a trade show to consider when going through the options. There are local or regional shows, shows focused on training and skills enhancement, shows focused on innovation or cost-cutting strategies, shows focused on new product introductions, and many more. And not all shows are created equal either. But the type of show is not where you need to begin your decision making process.

The two main drivers I use for deciding what shows to attend are strategic alignment and employee career progression, in that order. From a strategic alignment standpoint, I look for the projects and initiatives we have coming up for the following year and look to where we need to be in the next three years. After reviewing the current staff and performing an initial gap analysis between current skills and the future skills that are needed, I define some general criteria for show selection.

This criterion varies, but it takes into account employee career progression, areas where we need to innovate, basic skills such as time management and planning, technical skills, etc. That is all the selection you will need to do -- the rest is left up to the employee. I ask each employee to identify their top three trade shows that fit the criteria I give them. I then ask the employees to sell me on the idea of them going to the trade shows. Some employees do better than others, but the process is effective. Of course, you still retain veto rights.

You'll be surprised as to what comes back. Sure, some employees request the trade shows with the highest boondoggle potential, but most employees identify high-quality shows. For example, my company currently uses Citrix virtualization technology. The systems administrators managing our Citrix/XenServer environment first leveraged virtualization expert Brian Madden's site,, for technical guidance and ideas on managing the systems. This social media support site has also developed a trade show called BriForum. Although the trade show is relatively new, the information the systems administrators receive is top-notch. It also meets their needs for career development, and they get to network with other experts in the area.

Do you risk losing employees this way? Yes. But the rewards are much greater. These experts leverage each others expertise in various ways well after the trade show is over. This only helps improve the management of the environment and accelerates the introduction of new features and functions to our user community. By affording employees these opportunities, coupled with a healthy work environment, recognition, and appropriate pay, more times than not, they stick around.

There are things to watch out for when you are reviewing an employee's pitch for which shows they want to attend. Look at the boondoggle potential. Also, some of the locations (and the cost) for these events can be over the top. If the cost is inline and the quality of the show is good, this is a great way to reward a trustworthy employee.

Many companies have employees return and prepare a presentation focused on what they learned to share with the rest of the IT team. I love the idea, but I have found it to be somewhat impractical in smaller companies. As a company grows, this is a great way to help an employee work on their presentation skills, while distributing information. A better way to distribute the information is to have the employee buy a DVD of the events and breakout sessions and publish it on the intranet.

The bottom line is most experienced employees know which trade shows are junk. Your best bet is to provide employees with the criteria and let them find the shows that will be most beneficial to their work and career.

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Jay Rollins
Jay Rollins

Excellent point! And at larger companies I whole heartedly agree with your point of view. However... In smaller companies, sometimes IT departments make hires that are not necessarily aligned with the strategic direction of the company. They are brought in to do small development tasks or administer a specialized system geared toward that industry and associated with the company size. As a smaller company grows, the decision to shed legacy systems comes much more easily than in larger companies. Once these smaller companies can afford a new direction, they usually decide to go down that path. These technologies geared toward smaller companies have markets of their own, however. Some IT employees choose to continue with these technologies instead of learning the new technology the company is implementing. I am not saying that you should not afford these employees every opportunity to grow into these new technologies, but some still choose to continue with the old and decide to part ways. Additionally, one particular technology may just become a necessary evil for a company and will never move beyond the current implementation where SOA companies providing this service may be this IT employee's only path to career development. Sometimes, employees just like what they do and get very good at it and don't want to change. And at times in a company's life, these people are needed.


The only exception I would take with this article is the idea that strategic alignment isn't the same as employee career progression. There are mounds of examples from exceptionally run companies that all indicate that to hire and retain the best people that, in most cases, over the long run, employee career progression should be the same as strategic alignment. If it isn't, you have the wrong people or the wrong strategy. To accept the alternative is to say, "I need someone without ambition and a desire to grow, because I have no room for that in my organization." Run that thought by one more time and ask, "What does that say about my organization?" Or... "I've got people who's definition of career progression is misaligned". If those two items are not aligned your company is already on a downward spin, you just don't know it yet. You either have the wrong strategy or the wrong people.

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