Given the ever-increasing need for bottom-line performance from IT departments, choosing which conferences to allow employees to attend has taken on its own heightened level of importance for CIOs. By evaluating the worthiness of a conference using a good criteria checklist and employing sound decision-making, CIOs can best ensure that they have chosen conferences wisely.

In reviewing information from IT standards bodies, tech executive master’s program academia, and feedback from IT leaders, I’ve developed a checklist along with some tips to help you make the right choices when deciding which conferences and seminars your staff will benefit from the most.

Assessing the value
To help you justify how the conference is going to contribute to bottom-line performance, ask these questions to assess the conference’s value:

  • Will the conference boost individual staff performance?
  • Will it improve horizontal and/or vertical growth channels?
  • Will it help increase sales or reduce costs?

If organizers have held conferences similar to the one under consideration, find out if you can get former attendee assessments to review. It might also be beneficial to try to get a list of organizations that have supported the conference in the past.

Any substantial and legitimate conference has readily accessible information about program topics and speakers on a Web site. If the information is sparse, contact the organizers and try to get as much information as possible. If the conference host organization isn’t a widely known name, it’s worthwhile to determine its conference track record—the ultimate goal is to make sure you don’t send staff to a conference that is a sham or doesn’t follow through on its program.

The checklist
The following list of criteria can help you determine whether a conference will be beneficial.

1. Determine objectives and goals
The first step is figuring out what you hope employees will gain from attending the conference. Make a list of points and see if the conference agenda will satisfy your staff education requirements. Also, try to answer the following questions:

  • Is the conference purpose well defined?
  • Does the theme to the event seem appropriate?
  • Are your employees the target audience for the event?
  • What is the size of the conference and does it meet your requirements?
  • Are the location and dates appropriate and can attendance be fit into your work schedule?
  • Do the timeframes for the individual conference events meet your needs?

If the conference is an ongoing series of events with multiple dates, you need to decide whether it’s worthwhile to have employees attend all of the events.

2. Determine audience involvement and media used
Some technologies are better explained through interactive sessions; others are more valuable if presented through a panel discussion. Here are a few questions you can answer to help you determine if the conference will meet your employees’ needs:

  • Is the conference mostly presentation-oriented or participative?
  • What media will be used in the conference: blackboard, easel, AV equipment, computer/projector, required readings and/or supplies, Webinar or e-seminar, video conferencing, lecturing, or other?
  • Is the conference media appropriate for your staff requirements?
  • What media will any handouts and conference summaries be given in, and does that meet your needs?

3. Review the agenda outline
You need to pore over any conference agenda to get a good idea of its substance and depth. Ask these questions:

  • Are the goals and objectives of each conference event well defined?
  • Is the expected input from lecturers and attendees defined?
  • Is there sufficient detail regarding the lecturers and attendees to ascertain their effectiveness?
  • If exhibits are used, is their purpose well defined?

4. Can business partners benefit?
Often there is value aside from a conference’s topic agenda for enterprises looking to network with clients and offer insight to their own business partners, internal and external. These points can help you decide if staff will benefit from such value:

  • Is the conference aimed at a specific industry or business niche that could potentially expand your organization’s networking opportunities or help your own business partners?
  • Can business partners attend, and will that optimize vertical and/or horizontal growth potential?

Decision support systems
Once you’ve evaluated the conferences based on these criteria, you can make a choice about which events will be most beneficial to your employees. Evaluating each noted conference criteria is, in effect, a decision support system. A decision support system is merely a methodology or modeling system used to bring structure to unstructured information to help foster a more informed decision.

One way to go even a step further in the conference decision-making process is to conduct a simple cost benefit or ROI analysis that will show the flow of costs and expected benefits from the conference over an employee’s lifecycle. The analysis, which you can create in an Excel spreadsheet, is best stated in net present value (NPV) terms. Other decision-support systems involve decision trees, influence diagrams, the analytic hierarchy process, or the Delphi method developed by the Rand Corporation.

More about decision support systems

A full discussion of these and other decision support systems is beyond the scope of this article. For more information, I recommend George M. Marakas’ book, Decision Support Systems.