Top Reasons Why IT Staff Should Attend Conferences!

Sometimes you have to travel away from home to learn things about home. But travel away from home is threatened right now by the fiscal crisis with which our institutions are coping. (And there's evidence that the crisis may actually be a new way of functioning and will never end.) What d'es this mean for your travel budget? Or are you at an institution where travel has been completely banned, and you have no budget at all? Who's getting to travel anyway? We think it's important, even in this virtual age, for IT staff to experience face-to-face professional development and networking.

So, we've queried some folks on the discussion lists for the American Society of Association Executives and the University Web Developers (UWEBD) and have come up with a list of points you can use to keep or increase your budget for travel and other expenses for IT staff development.

I'm lucky. Not only do I work for an association that inherently understands the value of conferences and workshops—because that's part of what it d'es—but my boss also wisely believes in special development support for IT staff. She understands that creative, innovative, connected IT staff can provide productivity boosts that are real, but sometimes hard to articulate.

I'm also lucky because I quite recently experienced one of those strange connections where I can practically demonstrate that traveling away from home actually paid off when I found out about something I had not been able to learn about at home—even though it was right next door!

We've been looking for virtual working group software for our committees, task forces, and staff working groups. Did I mention that it had to be inexpensive? We had tried Yahoo! Groups, but the advertising drove us and our volunteers crazy. One day last winter, I decided I would go to the National Learning Information Infrastructure conference in New Orleans, partly for my own professional development and partly because we were distributing a complimentary copy of our book, Transforming e-Knowledge, to attendees.

The first thing I saw on the first day was a signup sheet to join some Virtual Communities of Practice (VCoP); so I did. Later that morning, in a session (I was paying attention!) I was checking e-mail and saw that I had been added to the membership of a VCoP. So I went to the virtual site and was impressed. WorkTools (http://worktools.si.umich.edu/) was almost exactly what we had been looking for.

When I took a closer look at the domain address I realized that this software tool was hosted at the University of Michigan (UM)—which is where I am! So I excitedly e-mailed the Webmaster, asking to be told more about it. Later, in the next session, I received an e-mail from a very nice young woman staffer from UM who said she thought that she was in the meeting room right across the hall from me, and suggested that we meet later during a break.

We did. She was very helpful. Now I manage or am a member of about 30 virtual working groups. Did I mention that we're not being charged a fee to use this resource? And that we are also connected now with the development team that is building the next, even more sophisticated version? Try to put a dollar amount on that!

Now that's a good, clear example of the kind of serendipity that comes from traveling away from home and attending conferences. That young woman and I—had I not spent the money to go to New Orleans—would certainly not ever have met, and I probably would still be in ignorance of UM's WorkTools environment.

But that's a hard example to explain to your boss. So here are what we think are some good reasons (statements, questions, arguments, stories) to travel and attend IT-related conferences that we gathered from the people we queried. (Not in any particular order.)

1. Overheard in the computer section of Borders … Guy says into cell phone: "Yes, I know the server is down." Listens to reply: "I know, I know! I'm looking for a book on it right now!"

2. They don't call it information architecture for nothing. More and more our institutions are built on it—architecture that has to constantly be shifting to meet changing demands and needs. Thus your IT staff's knowledge and connections must constantly be updated.

3. When do we know enough about our members and prospects, where do we store what we learn, and how can we push that information to the right people at the right time so we stay in business?

4. Cut the consultants first (or maybe they're already cut), which means internal staff needs to know more of what you were using the consultants for.

5. (Or this twist.) Want to pay $2K now for staff to travel and attend this conference, or $10K next year to bring in a consultant who was at the conference?

6. Our IT staff will get professional training in the coming year. The question is, "Do we want it to be at this institution or somewhere else?"

7. Network intrusion, network intrusion, network intrusion.

8. Face-to-face meetings—in hallways, at lunch, at dinner—give you personal connections to people you can call with questions and ask for help. If you travel to meet them, they are people who've learned more than is available in your building.

9. It takes knowledge and skill to do more with less.

Please let us know if you use any of these, and if they worked. We're also interested in hearing about "arguments that worked" for you. We'd like to think that the current shift in economic circumstances d'esn't mean the end of conference travel! E-mail me at terry.calhoun@scup.org.

Many thanks to Paul Ward, John Nicolette, George Breeden, T.J. Rainsford, David Gammell, Tony Lam, Vince Streiff, and Rayann Turpie for their contributions.

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