The Myth of Conference-Based Learning

John Kogan's Profile

I was recently talking to the CFO of a publicly-traded company about training for his finance and accounting group (about 1,200 employees in the organization). They are already a client of ours but we were talking about 'live' training and what he does for his folks there and he said, "I like sending them to conferences. It's a chance for them to take a break and have some fun." Now in his defense he's in his sixties, and I have no doubt (since I'm getting into that neighborhood myself) that when he used to go to conferences way back in the day, that it was all peaches and cream. But that was before email, before smartphones, before 9/11, and before the '60 hour work-week for your entire 40 year career' we live with today.

As a long-time CFO I get to tell CFOs things their subordinates won't, which is fun. And I spent some time taking him through the nightmare that traveling to conferences is today, and how it's just not practical to ask folks to put aside work for two or three days, ignore their 200 inbound emails a day, some of which come from him and expect immediate action, and focus on training that's totally unpersonalized.

He shared that these days when he thinks of live trainings he thinks of the intimate roundtables he's invited to where it's him and 12 other public company CFOs spending a day schmoozing at a five-star hotel paid for by some vendor or service provider doing super-high-touch brand-building at the cost of $10K per attendee - and he flew first class to get there. It's worth it for a bank (or similar) to spend $150K to bring a dozen big company CFOs together b/c that's just sales expense. And the CFOs get pampered and don't spend a dime while they're wined and dined and hanging with their buddies. Sure they learn from their peers, but I told him that his experience was diametrically opposed to what his employees experienced when he sent them to conferences.

If you haven't heard of companies like Lynda, Udemy or Pluralsight it's because they serve folks in marketing, sales and IT and have led the revolution from live conference training to online, on-demand training that now dominates in those spaces. Each is a multi-billion dollar company (or part of one) at this point. Their revolution is well underway, but in audit, accounting and corporate finance, the move from live to on-demand is just beginning and is, in many companies, a full decade behind these other functions.

The only reason audit, accounting and finance are still using old-fashioned conferences as such a dominant means of training is because there has been a severe lack of online, on-demand alternatives available. That is changing, and corporate learning (L&D) organzations and the finance leadership they support should make an effort to find the modern alternatives that work for, not against, their people.

Take a look at these conference-based training myths and think about what you and your company do today. Any parallels?