The death of the mega conference

Attending conferences is one way that a Chief Information Officer can continue to grow and evolve. As a CIO we want to nurture a growth mindset where we take joy in seeing how others are tackling similar issues. For so many reasons, the chance to learn, the chance to share, the chance to connect with others who can offer advice and guidance, is well served by being at a conference.

But the sponsor of the event has to have the chance to sell, sell, sell.

Over the last 20 years I have been lucky enough to attend a number of the Mega Conferences: Cerner, Information Security Forum Congress, Oracle OpenWorld, IoT World, Dublin Tech Summit, Web Summit, Gartner Symposium and now Healthcare Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS).

HIMSS was in Las Vegas in 2018. Like so many of these conferences it can only be in a city that can 'cope' with a sudden influx of so many like-minded people. HIMSS is the global gathering of healthcare technology people and in 2018 there were around 47,000 gathered at this conference. That number feels unreal - it's the 12th biggest conference in the world. Imagine if we could find a way to harness that volume of intellect to resolve problems together - that's what the HIMSS conference should (or could) be about.

As I flew over the USA I was excited to be there, to see colleagues face to face that I have only previously connected to via social platforms and email, but I had a fear.

In the two weeks running up to HIMSS my inbox had started to fill with 'unique' opportunities to connect with organisations that would be at HIMSS. These opportunities needed to be carefully managed as I had a dread they were really going to be hard sales pitches.

The CIO experience of the Mega Conference and in particular the 'unique opportunities' need to be approached in a new way. As CIOs, we are desperately trying to move away from the concept of supplier relationships and become partners in what we do, and yet when we go to a Mega Conference we start to turn back the clock on this change.

The people we want to meet, as a CIO with a growth mindset, can be: sponsor, sales pitch-orientated vendor and partnership maker, but as a CIO we need to go into that knowing what type of meeting we are getting ourselves into.

At HIMSS I met with the CEO of a major sponsoring organisation, one that wanted to do nothing more than meet some of its customers and check how they were doing, build some feedback for them. What a great opportunity that was - time well spent, understanding the roadmap for the future and feeling that as a customer I was helping shape their journey - an example of a meeting of minds that felt like a real partnership.

'Legitimate theft'

But HIMSS, as with many of these events, is a hard one to morally negotiate.

There is immediate conflict in me and many others who were there from the NHS, between the showing off of 'wealth' in the form of massive trade stands manned by hundreds of people giving away gifts and yet charging healthcare organisations huge prices for software, particularly at a time when the software mark-up of what is becoming commonly understood as legacy software, is so clear.

The perception of the mega vendor at the Mega Conference needs to change. Do we need marshmallow-thick carpets, multistory and multisensory stands and model agency staff to attract the traditional IT manager?! For some reason in the 1980s we did, but we don't now. We want to be a symbiotic ecosystem of understanding and no amount of marshmallowed flooring will create that.

The concept of 'legitimate theft' was floated to me over five years ago by an eminent professor at Southampton University. He used the phrase to describe how he came up with new ideas from events he attended, ideas that he could add his flavour to, translate for his business model and then replay, giving credit, to a new audience.

This is something that CIOs who need to tell stories to engage audiences in digital journeys value hugely at large events like this. HIMSS did offer this opportunity: the Brazilian startup incubator, the CIO of the largest digital hospital in the world from Saudi Arabia, one of Obama's advisors and a number of clinicians challenging the IT status quo in the right way all added a new flavour for me and gave me a new story to tell back at the ranch.

I spoke to Rachel Dunscombe, Digital Director at Salford Royal Group and CEO of the NHS Digital Academy, who was also at HIMSS about her perceptions of the learning experience. Here's what she said: "One thing I have learnt from my work recently is that being talked at for a long time does not lead to information retention. In fact this form of 'learning' can have a retention rate of less than 10%.

"The way to help people learn and retain information is to use simulation, games, peer interaction - this can lead to over 90% information retention. The future of events will be aligned with more engaging ways of conveying information. The 'conference' or 'event' of the future will be stimulating, engaging and packed with two-way participation.

"Digital health events of the future will be about peer information sharing. I'm not sure it will be anti-conference but it will be a participation event. The aim should be to catalyse the individuals by interaction and sharing. There is a lot of good learning science that can help us with this."

The anti-conference or un-conference brand is becoming popular. You can see why as this does offer an opportunity to take on board what Rachel is indicating here but it is so much harder to put on, to make happen and perhaps offers a little less revenue for the event organisers around the world.

While the un-conference may well become more popular I have been very lucky to see some amazing speakers that perhaps wouldn't work at a smaller event: Martin Lindstrom of Small Data fame; Gus Balbontin, the ex-CTO of Lonely Planet; Chris Hadfield; Kevin Mitnick; Ranulph Fiennes; Ted Rubin; Dan Pink and all have given me something I can legitimately steal and re-apply.

Can the much smaller un-conference afford to attract these kinds of names? The trend more and more is to offer the people considered to be the buyer free attendance to the conference, which is all well and good but then we truly are there to be sold at.

Pink socks

Events continue to take on a more social connectivity element. Social media marketers tell us the death of Twitter is nigh, but it still seems to be the perfect connector at the big events.

There is no better example of this working than the #PinkSocks movement.

In 2015, two healthcare technologists were at HIMSS with 100 pairs of pink socks with black moustaches on them. The objective was to create a connection point. HIMSS 2015 was a huge event and people struggled to find the random human connectivity point. By gifting these pink socks to random strangers at HIMSS a global movement was created.

In three years, there are now 30,000 people with pink socks, beyond the healthcare technology sphere but still about connecting people at a human level through random acts of kindness and, as new age as it may sound, through hugs.

A surreal moment at HIMSS 2018 was walking into an 'off-the-strip dive bar'.

Typically English, we were the first there and asked the person behind the bar if this was where the Pink Socks tribe meeting was. Blank looks ensued, with perhaps a near reach for the phone to dial 911, but 15 minutes later there were 250 people in the bar, all sharing stories, making connections and being part of a movement. Those of us that were there from the UK all commented on how much of an antidote to the volume of the conference hall floor the meetup was.

One of the team described the conference atmosphere as akin to a massive social event where you don't know a soul, whereas the meetup had a house party-like environment - where it's intimate enough that you can hold a proper conversation with everyone.

Can the Mega Conference foster these kind of fringe events to happen while still keeping the authenticity? Gartner Symposium tends to see these types of informal gatherings happening but more through networks of people that they create. But it does show where the real conference 'business' can be done.

As we all left HIMSS for home, the general impression was that we got a lot from it but the future of the big events has to change. It has to be about ecosystem, relationships, partnership, trust and conversations between peers. The day of the Mega Conference is passing. The future will be co-creation of content facilitated between participants. There will not be 'speakers' and 'audience' but ecosystem members working together to find new ways to share.

The new normal will be diversity-driven too. Panels coming together to exchange stories will be more successful the more diverse they are: that's fewer white males over 45 and more pink socks humans with experiences who are willing to share.

Long live the learning opportunity, long may it continue to evolve.

I need to give credit to fellow pinballs in the amazing American pinball wizard experience that was HIMSS18: @ukpenguin@Anniecoops@Andy_Kinnear and @VictoriaBetton

Richard Corbridge is the Chief Digital and Information Officer at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust. The 2017 CIO 100 leader Tweets as @R1chardatron


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