by Mark H. Sklarow, Chief Executive Officer, Independent Educational Consultants Association
LinkedIn, GoToMeetings, Twitter, webinars, Facebook, discussion boards, videos. You know the list and it goes on and on. There are so many ways to educate yourself and so many ways to connect, an obvious question might be: why do we still hold in-person conferences? If I can flip on Skype and chat up an IECA member in Beijing while wearing a shirt and tie with hidden shorts and flip flops, why would I choose to fly across the United States to attend a conference live and in-person? And there is some evidence that other industries are dealing with such loss in their gatherings. However, IECA conferences grow each year: more Independent Educational Consultants (IECs), more colleges, more vendors and a total attendance increasing at about 10% annually.
The reason our association conferences grow, I think, can be summed up in four terms: relationship-building, brainstorming, networking, and advanced content.
I have yet to meet anyone who tells me that they established a good, mutual, trusting professional relationship on LinkedIn. But ask anyone’s who has been to IECA’s Summer Training Institute, or shared a seat on a three-day campus tour, or prudent attendees who share a room with an unknown colleague, or conference attendees whose similar interests mean regular connections that turn into discussions, and you’ll understand the power of in-person gatherings. Relationships begin and strengthen and grow during IECA conferences, among members, among admission staffers, and between the two.
I have joked through the years that you could put any three conference attendees together in a room, and they’ll be brainstorming ideas for student placements within two minutes. It is inevitable. A conference is like a petri dish. Combine smart, committed people, passionate about teenagers and schools and ideas flow. Has there ever been an IEC who heads off to an IECA conference wondering what to do with Buffy back home, and not leave the conference with 10 ideas that never occurred to him/her? Those spontaneous discussions lead to real life solutions. But that’s not all. I have seen what happens when people leave a particularly interesting or emotional session; maybe it was ‘Tiger Mom’ Amy Chua, or the Programs vs. A-Start debate. Such sessions lead to small groups discussions that last for hours and turn into new programming ideas.
Networking, some people tell me, is what social media is best suited for. I believe in social media: I’m on Facebook, I’m on LinkedIn, and I tweet daily. But I have to admit that I’m not sure how many of my 2,900 Twitter followers really feel networked to me. They may read my tweets and even link to the articles I recommend, but do I feel networked with them as individuals? Hardly. When I teach a session for introverts, I first tell them to change the word “network” to “connect.” When you do this, the power of face-to-face meetings becomes clearer. You can meet an admission director at our School & College Fair. That builds comfort to sit with them at a networking reception or dinner and ask follow-up questions. That leads to sharing a cup of coffee at another conference, a campus visit, and a trusted colleague to answer questions that arise. That, my friends is connecting. Not what LinkedIn offers.
Finally, most experts agree that webinars and other electronic education work best for great ways of disseminating less complex information, but nothing beats a room full of others asking questions, prodding a speaker, seeking a deeper and fuller understanding of a concept. The IECA approach of three-hour pre-conference workshops, 75-minute breakouts, and 2.5-hour master classes allow for much deeper exploration, including brain theory, gender differences, adolescent depression, impact of adoption, and so many other topics.
In a few months we’ll gather in San Diego. Connections, education, new ideas, and relationships will all be on my agenda. I hope they will be on yours as well.