So why is it that conference attendance is the first thing that institutions cut and why is funding so low on the priority list? The simple answer is that administrators don't see the value proposition in sending faculty and staff to conferences - especially if they aren't presenting. Sending a presenter to a conference has a little more perceived value as it helps pad the research count and add to the prestige of the university, if only incrementally. But, sending faculty and staff who aren't presenting is simply a fringe benefit. At least that is how myopic administrators view conference attendance. Somewhere along the line the entire purpose of attending conferences to keep attendees current in their field and transfer knowledge back to their home institutions has gotten lost.
In being so short sighted, institutions are missing the opportunity to significantly increase their knowledge capital and transform practice. Specifically there are two ways in which conference attendance can be leveraged to build and expand an institutions knowledge base and efficacy. First, and most direct, is that whether presenting or just attending, all attendees have the ability to network and build relationships. Given the proper degree of maintenance and common purpose these relationships can be transformed into cooperative research and knowledge sharing initiatives. These in turn can add significantly to an institutions community recognition and, more concrete funding initiatives. A classic example of this is the development and ongoing research on the Community of Inquiry Framework. Over the last several years I have worked closely with seven fellow researchers in the US and Canada on developing this construct and associated instrumentation. While certainly a lot of the work has been conducted virtually, the initiative was catalyzed through an initial series of face-to-face meetings and continues to be enhanced through these physical interactions.
Second, when a conference attendee takes part in a particularly good session or visits a vendor with a innovative product offering, there is a modification to their schemas, which are typically grounded in the practices of the institution with which they are affiliated. In a perfect world this newly acquired knowledge is transferred back to the institution for consideration, where it has the potential to transform practice or processes. When this occurs the results have to potential to be significant both in terms of enhanced learning outcomes and return on investment.
An example with which I am well aware of but have to be somewhat vague about (because I know of it from a paid consultant's perspective) will illustrate my point. Sometime during the 2008 academic, a faculty member (hereafter referred to as Dr. Smith) from "State University" attended a conference and listened to a presenter talk about how a new technology could be used to increase the efficacy of support functions in their university's online application process. Realizing that State University was experiencing the same problem, Dr. Smith talked at length with the presenter and the application developer. After her return to State University, Dr. Smith recounted her interactions at the conference and, after several painful committee meetings, State University began investigating potential implementation of the application and eventually moved to adoption. A year after adoption State University accomplished the following:
1. Conversion of inquiries to enrollment increased by about 30%, which translated into roughly 225 additional enrollments per year.
2. The new enrollments resulted in the generation of 426 new course registrations, with a net revenue for the distance learning program of slightly over $250,000.
3. The adoption of this application resulted in cancelling positions that were going to be added to handle the application conversion issue through the normal email and telephone-tag channels. Each of these positions would have paid about $45K annually. Add 28% for fringe and between the two positions a savings of about $125,000 was realized.
4. Annualized growth in converted inquiries continues to increase by about 30%.
Now, this growth wasn't free. State University spent $30,000 on various consulting fees and the applications itself costs around $60,000 per year to license. So, if we are to assume that the $250K increase would have been the same had State University utilized a human labor approach then we see a first year savings of $35,000 and subsequent year savings of $65,000 - notably there is growing evidence that this particular app increases conversions at a rate about 25% higher than the human contact approach, but that data isn't quite hardened yet so we will stick with the equal outcomes assumption.
The question here becomes would State University have adopted this application if Dr. Smith hadn't returned from the conference and related what she had discovered? If so it would have been the result of some other faculty or staff member stumbling on the application in the literature or responding to inside marketing; nether of which would have been very likely as they were poised to post the recruiter positions in the very near future. Thus, while there are plenty of holes that can be found in the causal event chain I have laid out I personally believe the link between Sr. Smith attending the conference and eventual application adoption by State University is pretty strong.
So will every conference attended yield a net profit of $60,000 for an institution? Of course not. In fact it is very likely that the vast majority of conferences attended will yield no increase in net revenue at all. However, a great number will yield increased collaboration with other practitioners or researchers that can catalyze grant funding. And there will be a number of conferences that will change processes that will result in direct funding. In the case above $60,000 would pay for 30 funded trips to conferences per year and that is being very liberal as there are many institutions that only provide $750 - $1500 annually for each faculty member to attend a conference. However, it only takes a few high stakes changes to pay for a lot of travel, not to mention smaller returns on investment that can add up very quickly; I wont even bother with discussing how the occasional million dollar grant and the obscene overhead institutions loot from those could help fund an extensive amount of conference participation.
Though this one use case sounds good, and I am certain any university president would love to see all of his faculty be as proactive, being able to consistently replicate it is highly problematic. For any number of reasons faculty may be reluctant to share their insights if it means disrupting the status quo even marginally. As such, if institutions need to leverage the power that can be derived from conference attendance, faculty and staff must be held accountable for trip reports. Long a mainstay of corporate processes, the trip report provides a concise summary of activities engaged in as well as insights gained. Upon return from a conference these are passed up to management, further condensed and circulated across the verticals to determine if any part of the business can benefit.
However, the verticals in eduction are often ill defined and don't always play well with each other. The most apparent way of overcoming this hurdle is to implement institution-wide federation of all tacit and explicit knowledge into a common database with applied relational mapping of assets. (The fact that higher ed does a terrible job of knowledge management is a topic for another day.) Once such a database exists, federating trip reports and leveraging semantic analysis to detect obvious and non-obvious relationships is a straightforward proposition. Using this methodology, the power of faculty and staff insights could be fully leveraged for rapid, meaningful application and a catalyst for continuous improvement.
Whether of not advanced knowledge management techniques are utilized, the value proposition in leveraging insights gained from proactive faculty and staff activities at conferences is clear. Insights gained from interaction with the larger community should be fully exploited to capitalize on the university's most precious resource - the knowledge capital of its members. Far too many administrators are oblivious to the fact that conference attendance has the potential to be far more than vita padding or a type of fringe benefit that is the first line item to be cut in hard economic times. What they fail to realize is that dissemination of knowledge acquired in this setting is an organic engine for growth both intellectually and in terms of ROI. Fortunately there are a few enlightened institutions that are capitalizing on this model and hopefully they will catalyze change in academia.