Ensure that conference attendance doesn't interfere with important IT projects

When it comes to conference attendance, CIOs must ensure that the event won't leave project teams or operational staff shorthanded. It's often a matter of detailed planning and compromise.

As important as it is to choose the right conferences for your staff to attend, finding the right time to send staff to conferences can also be challenging. Often, it's difficult for CIOs to be able to ensure that while employees are away, important projects aren't left unstaffed. Let's discuss a few tips for ensuring that the conferences you approve today don't interfere with ongoing projects.

Project management issues
As a program/project manager for many years, it never ceased to amaze me when a project player came up to me after a good project plan had been formalized and said: “Well, I forgot to mention that I’ll be at a conference (or on vacation, etc.) next week.” No matter how much you try to solicit scheduling information, you will at times be presented with conflicts that may interfere with a project—potentially at a critical point.

In scheduling the best time to attend a conference, CIOs need to be very aware of the projects and associated tasks involving staff. Be proactive in informing the program/project management team of the conference schedule at the beginning of a project. Those in the program/project management roles should be asked to keep conference dates on their checklist of items to bring up at project initiation and during the requirements-gathering phase when project baselines and work breakdown schedules are being created.

But no matter how much homework you do beforehand, you may still have to deal with a scheduled conference interfering with a project. In this case, you have some options:
  • You can cancel the conference attendance altogether. All too often, conferences occur at specific times of the year, and rescheduling is not possible.
  • You can try to find another internal project player who can effectively replace staff at the conference or take over the project for a short time. If that isn’t possible, consider using an outside resource such as a consultant or contractor. Remember that adding new players to the project process not only brings an extra cost, but it often has a learning curve associated with it and may not always be a feasible choice.

Scheduling operational support
Just as many IT players perform in project roles, CIOs may have operational support deliverables to keep in mind when scheduling and approving conference attendance. The days of the week, weeks of the month, or months of the year that require certain amounts of specific resources need to be understood and fully applied to decisions as to when it’s best to allow conference attendance.

But there are many times when fires burn unexpectedly, and even the best-laid operational support plans and schedules get sent into disarray. This is why you not only need to plan around known periods of high resource demand, but you should also have contingency plans in case issues arise and force a change in schedule. The scheduling solutions I mentioned for IT project players can work in much the same way for operational support, the goal being to ensure that staff can attend conferences but that operational needs aren't left unsupported.

Business partner involvement
When planning to attend a conference, you may need to consider whether to bring along important business partners. (You'd usually do this to achieve vertical or horizontal growth, or just to create goodwill.) In this situation, you have your own IT scheduling issues to deal with, as well as those of your partners. Effective communication and thorough planning is required to ensure that all needed players can schedule a good time to attend the conference together. Also, having good contingency and backup plans on both sides is paramount because you'll be dealing with the schedules and resource availability of multiple organizations, not just your own.

Coordinate with all players to have viable backup staff or other support ready to step up to the plate if project or operational issues arise. If someone just cannot attend the conference, try to make sure that other effective players are available and ready to go.

I recall a telephony conference where our voice and data-networking vendor had coordinated special presentations for our firm. This involved a great deal of cost on the vendor's part, and the vendor wanted to be certain that we'd have the needed players there. We wanted to guarantee that we were well represented, because the areas being covered were critical to our operations. The vendor worked with us to ensure that we had backup players in place to take over project and operational issues if fires began to burn around the time of the conference. The vendor even offered, for free, to provide support from its own staff if internal scheduling problems arose. All were effective solutions that would avoid any "mythical-man" type issues.

Lastly, we coordinated backups for all conference attendees on both parts if critical and unexpected issues arose, such as illness or death in the family. The replacement staff that was set aside as backups for the conference were picked on the basis that they could effectively participate in all planned events and fully meet the needs of the conference's goals.

By working with our telephony provider in this way, we had covered all contingencies with good backup plans. All felt comfortable that the conference would be a success for everyone, and it was.

It's all in the planning
There are many factors that will enable you and your staff to effectively schedule conference attendance around important projects. By considering project requirements, operational support issues, and the needs of external players, you can optimize your chances for success in choosing the best time to attend a conference.

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