Why Small Regional Training Conferences Are Most Effective

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    I recently published a blog on 5 Ways to Make Your Training Conferences Rock! But we all know that large training conferences aren’t always the most effective training platform. In fact, if we have to have a training conference at all, the smaller conference or meeting (sounds less formal) is the best face-to-face way to go. It costs less and is more effective.

    International and national corporations are seeing the advantages of regional conferences

    Big organizations are learning smaller is better. In fact, extremely large organizations–even those on an international and national scale–are finding that going to a smaller scale vastly improves results. Even gigantic organizations like the Federal government are taking advantage of regional conferences to maximize the training efforts on a smaller scale, with the result being more focused training on trainees who can also contribute to the discussion in a way that larger conferences can’t.

    Most of us will agree that the larger the training conference, there is more potential for problems, but there is also a greater opportunity to train or inform large groups of people. Whether it is the most effective training is debatable. The economic cost for sending people to this venue is high and the expected attendee numbers decrease dramatically as that cost becomes an issue. Not only that, but hotels want room guarantees, and if contracted rooms aren’t filled, the organization is on the hook for those costs.

    Are large training conferences the most effective? Or, are smaller venues the answer?

    I’m only going to focus on physical presence-required training conferences or meetings, not teleseminars or webinars–even though I have seen national conferences that incorporate those into their programs.

    Still, we have to train them all, but we can do it.

    As an example, the Federal government has an enormous number of personnel on its payroll, including many outside contractors who have to be trained as well. Managing the Federal government takes a lot of compartmentalization, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We have to break down the government programs into workable units and often, in the United States anyway, those units are still so big as to incorporate large numbers of personnel and more compartments. So, again, how to train them all…

    In training, it doesn’t really matter who decides the organizational structure. You have to deal with the situation that management has determined.

    There is no national training program for everyone that I know of–no Department of Training, but individual departments like Health and Human Services and Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, etc., that have department-wide training programs; then there are divisions within the departments like the Administration for Children, and then there are programs under the various administrations under other departments, and some of those units are still quite large. And, that’s just on the national level.

    To reach down to the states (actually some 54 jurisdictions and the tribes) in my case where the client-based work is generally implemented–with the next lower level, the county, being the place where there is government face-to-face with the general public. To manage and oversee all this, there must also be a “workable” solution in an environment where the federal government doesn’t exactly tell the state what to do but offers training and technical assistance so the states can produce the nationally-desired results. What exactly is “workable” organizationally is determined by a government table of allowances, the Administration, the Department, or whoever does those things.

    In training, it doesn’t really matter who decides the organizational structure. You have to deal with the situation that management has determined.

    Most training is needed at the lowest levels. To see the results, and not pay the high price, we can assist with training at the level it does the best rather than doing it ourselves.

    I worked in the National Training Center for my program. The biggest challenge for us–even a few levels down–was the volume of training assessments–determining what training was needed at our level and each level below us, and how best to meet those needs. The usual things a training manager, training developer, or trainer looks for. Then, there has to be a budget to support either traveling to various venues to develop the training, provide the training, training the trainers, or some other way to meet the need, often through web-based training, CDs or DVDs, teleconference, teleseminars (if your agency can afford it), etc.

    With the cost restraints of today, training is slashed quickest at the highest levels. Most training is needed at the lowest levels. To see the results, and not pay the high price, we can assist with training at the lower levels where it does the most good rather than doing it ourselves.

    There are other benefits besides price.

    Moving one level down to a region changes that focus and the training dynamics tremendously. Let’s define a region as an area where personnel have similar needs and work in rather close proximity but away from the central office. Not only are the regions closer to the folks who need the training, but the smaller size also makes a huge difference in targeting the audience, focusing the training on exactly what it needs to hear, providing the best possible interaction save one-on-one, and flexibility to make truly the customer’s training and not a showplace.

    In addition, area hotels may not be willing to reduce room costs as much for a larger conference (but they may not have the room to accommodate that size of an event) but it still may be easier to get a good deal from a really nice hotel, including a conference room. There are other benefits besides price.

    What is the optimum size? It has been my experience that anything over 200 begins to be impersonal and tries to do it all, which may be fine for generalists but may be overwhelming for more specialized attendees. So, less is better. Often these large-size conferences are targeted at maximizing attendance–therefore reaching the most people so the training that benefits all; that’s the theory and the plan. However, a large group naturally forms cliques, which doesn’t allow much opportunity for cross-sharing between states and sufficient networking unless there is ample time offered for those “side meetings” and socializing. In these larger venues, there is so much to be done to fulfill everyone’s needs, the most important training and networking needs have a diminished return.

    Try focusing on smaller ones. Say 40 or 50 attendees. States can only afford to send a few people anyway. Our topics are very focused, our speakers are well-known for their expertise and ability to provide that expertise, and our interaction is constant. Being in the same region means the states are familiar with the similarities and differences in their programs, but it is a way to catch up.

    Offer the states a chance to share what’s new and cutting edge for them. Break times can always be longer if we need them. If something happens and we need to be flexible with the schedule of training, it is easily managed. A change of format? No problem. We’re pretty informal if we have to be. We form a team, a class, creating a bond that will last.

    Instead of one massive training conference year, think several smaller ones, hosted by regional offices throughout the country and other parts of the world where you have people stationed. Where a region may be too small or not have the potential to pull in enough attendees/trainees, collaborate with the neighboring region, and try to have it in a location close and accessible to both regions.

    Not only is this a good way to train, but this also gives regions recognition for the work they do and a valuable connection to the home office. They can even bring in a central office or home office subject matter experts to train when needed, adding the recognition that every level of the operation is important.

    Expectations, either for my organization or the states involved, are usually exceeded. If anything, the dialogue keeps going until the next meeting.

    States are seeing the value here and send only the ones who will benefit, and who can contribute.

    We could have a larger meeting or conference, but we couldn’t offer more incentive than we do now to entice more to come. Accidentally or on purpose we have hit the optimum payback. States are seeing the value here and send only the ones who will benefit, and who can contribute.

    In some ways, the trainer’s job is easier in that it is more facilitating training, getting the participants to train each other, and extending that beyond the meeting. Training is still 50 percent motivation and 50 percent information (my stats, my perception). The opportunity to learn from others present is paramount, whether it be for trainers or for trainees.

    Sounds like a good deal for all.

    For more resources about training, see the Training library.

    What seems a good idea to me may be debated. I have no lock on perceptiveness or intuition. My opinions are my own and not representative of The Free Management Library. I hold myself accountable. To prove that, here’s my website can see for yourself how my mind works (good luck there–I have a bio) and where you can find other opinions on various subjects from training and development to communication and theatre under the category of What I Say. Yes, theatre. I also write performance reviews. I’m interested in people and want to know if we give them what they need. Please feel free to comment here, or on my website, or send me an e-mail. For a look at the human side of training from my Cave Man perspective, please check out my book, The Cave Man Guide to Training and Development. Happy training.