Why I don’t like conferences

Over the years, I’ve learned from conversations with creative and entrepreneurial people. Many place great emphasis on the value of “new experience” and social engagement outside the organizational bubble.

Whether you are entrepreneurial in business or in the pursuit if solutions to social ills, there can come a stage in the development of your enterprise when you find yourself needing to pander to too many groups over and beyond your clientele or constituency.

These multiple needs lead to conformity in performance and, more significantly, erection of a barrier between the founder of an organization or originator of a movement and the customer, client or beneficiary.

Through force of circumstance, your organization has bureaucratized — the HR and accountancy departments have swollen and regulatory systems impose their multiple requirements. Additionally, having gained a degree of public visibility, your organization is seen as one of a group and your work is identified as representative of a style, culture or movement. Things are expected of your organization and there are risks associated with failure to comply with expectations.

The concept of isomorphism was developed by Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell in the early 1980s and these authors refer to a style of collective rationality within different organizational sectors.

Those with entrepreneurial inclinations need to contend with the impact of sectoral isomorphism which is not totally confined to public services subject to a high degree of centralized control where you would expect to feel the influence of coercive isomorphism rooted in the institutionalized rules of government.

Mimetic isomorphism refers to the tendency of organizations that are uncertain about the legitimate course of their own development to mimic other organizations they consider to be successful.

Different sectors are also shaped by normative isomorphism that derives from the homogenizing effect of shared professionalism. Socialization among professionals tends to reinforce the conformity that derives from the educational and experiential background they share.

In the circumstances I’ve just described, the entrepreneur will talk about the loss of the human connection. The people, systems and the paraphernalia that they have become surrounded by serve to isolate them from their clientele. They become crucially aware of their increased reliance on the types of communication to which business professor Dev Patnaik refers and their growing inability to resist the force of homogenization.

Patnaik points out that (i)n many organizations, decision makers often find themselves working with simplified data that lacks any sort of context. They often deal with information in the abstract instead of experiencing it for themselves. (“Wired to Care: How companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy”, 2009).

Entrepreneurs who have become executives find it difficult to find a vantage point from which they can experience the impact the organization is having first-hand (or see it for themselves, if you will). More significantly, a matrix of forces that can’t be clearly identified, far less resisted, is playing a large role in defining that impact and determining how relationships with clients are managed. Ed Catmull (Pixar CEO) refers to this phenomenon as the Beast.

The Beast loves conferences. They act like ecological conservation areas for conventional wisdom and celebration of sectoral “best practices”. They are not places of learning or development — quite the contrary. Normative isomorphism exerts too strong an influence. Adoption of best practice has to be a discretionary exercise involving adaptation and localization. You do it because it works for you and not because it’s trumpeted as “best”.

Solid learning leading to sound development takes place at territorial borders, at the water cooler, in the provinces, on the streets and not in corner offices or palatial conference suites.