Most trade shows and industry conferences bring together industry experts, investors, vendors, managers, and designers, among others. This makes them “target-rich environments” for professional learning “spies” who use the opportunity to gather competitive intelligence, and “steal” new ideas to take back to their home organizations.
There’s even an academic sub-field in business research that studies conferences from this point of view. Dr. Jonathan Calof, from the School of Management, University of Ottawa, Canada, leads research teams into events for systematic intelligence and data gathering, and he has written several books and articles on the subject.
So if you approach FocusOn Learning 2017, one of the premier conferences in the eLearning industry, like a spy, what would your conference experience be like?
First, as a learning spy, you would prepare well beforehand.
Make sure your spy camera (i.e., your mobile phone) has charged batteries (and carry extras), and that you have spare storage devices. You’re going to need them.
Then, create a set of objectives or targets for your conference experience. Are you there to just listen and record sessions? Or, are you daring enough to go undercover and ask strangers at the bar distracting questions, while you accomplish your real mission by gathering their email addresses and phone numbers without them realizing what you are up to? (To prepare for this mission, watch Michael Moore’s film “Where Shall We Invade Next?”)
Fortunately, besides the Canadian spy Jon Calof, there are other subversives online who will freely supply you with tips on how to invade the FocusOn Learning conference and come away with highly valuable information that you can actually use in your work.
For example, Cascade Insights suggests seven tips on gathering competitive intelligence at a trade show that include such tactics as “Check out the ratios: once you hit the expo floor, the first thing to observe are some ratios: what’s the booth size relative to the staffing levels and number of attendees for a given booth?”
In an insightful 2011 article in Inc. Magazine, Burt Helm advises on where to hang out at a trade show to gather the best information. In the spirit of James Bond, he suggests,
Protect your own meetings. Splurge on a suite or other private meeting place so that you can entertain vendors and clients in a location that’s both swank and secluded. Have your colleagues debrief there, too. And be sure to shred the trash on your way out.
Having been to many eLearning Guild conferences, I would suggest the following for reconnoitering the FocusOn Learning 2017 conference:
1. Check Out Any Sessions By “Guild Masters”
These are people who have made extraordinary contributions to the learning and development industry, and are reliably informed on the latest trends and important developments that you need to know about. (The Guild Masters include our own Chad Udell, who will be speaking several times). If you get a chance to have a drink with one of these illustrious characters, jump at the chance.
2. See All The Exhibitors, And Ask Each Of Them Tough Questions
These questions might include:
- “What do you have this year that you didn’t have last year?”
- “What new products are you working on?”
- “What large contracts have you delivered on budget and on time?”
If they have interesting answers, tell them about the biggest issue you have, and ask whether they can get back to you within two weeks with a proposal (or even a prototype) on how they can help you. If they can’t do that, you have obviously exposed their weakness, so move on to another vendor.
3. Don’t Skip DemoFest
This is a concentrated burst of some of the most innovative ideas in the learning industry.
You’ll be able to gather lots of new ideas here. And, believe it or not, they let you take pictures! Shoot lots of stills and video for those debriefing sessions with your spymasters and colleagues back at the home office.
4. Go To The “Featured Sessions”
Sessions are featured when they are given by the most experienced and dynamic presenters at the conference. After the session, approach the presenter with your business card and a question to see if they really know what they’re talking about, and if they will actually follow up and send you more information at a later date. This could develop into an undercover relationship between your organization and one of these leaky sources.
5. Bring A Large Shopping Bag To The Sessions And The Exhibits
While some might think that you’re panhandling, the shopping bag is just a disguise. Your real purpose is to gather lots of documents for later analysis.
Believe it or not, people will just hand you valuable information at sessions and exhibits. Sometimes, when no one is looking, you can actually remove a set of papers from racks at select exhibits and keep walking. Or, circle back and have a colleague ask the vendors at the booth the difficult questions while you help yourself to the literature.
While you’re at it, pick up a pen or a candy; they’re usually put out to lure people into an exhibit booth in what is obviously a counter-intelligence operation.
6. Analyze The Conference Website
In preparation for FocusOn, be sure to carefully analyze the conference website.
If you really want to go deep, compare this year’s program with that of last year’s conference; spot trends by figuring out what has changed.
- Why has “performance support” been dropped as an official focus this year?
- Why have the organizers significantly increased the types of artificial reality (mixed, augmented and virtual) in conference sessions?
- What is wrong with normal reality?
- Why are there so many sessions (6) that feature some form of “microlearning?”
These are questions that require deeper investigation.
Speaking of microlearning, this is a trend that I identified in my review of what was new among the exhibitors at last year’s version of FocusOn. I wrote:
With a few exceptions, vendors have stopped offering full eLearning courses on mobile devices, and, instead, have chunked their materials into small pieces that can be delivered using a mobile device when and where it is needed, a concept called performance support. Reinforcing this trend is the fact that many of the conference presentations featured microlearning content, usually based on very short video clips.
This trend continues this year with six sessions on some form of microlearning, and over a dozen vendors offering either microlearning content or a microlearning platform.
Float will be in the exhibit hall demonstrating its new microlearning platform, and I‘m sure there will be others with new products to show, as well.
I will be attending the conference, and as I have for many years. I’ll talk to all the vendors learn about what’s new and innovative. Watch for my post shortly after the conference ends, and come by the Float booth to say hello to the team.
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