Event: Training 2008 Conference & Expo
When: February 4-6, 2008
Where: Georgia World Congress Center, Atlanta
What: Training 2008 is put on by Training magazine and says it is for both the "seasoned training and development professional or a new trainer who wants to get a grasp on the learning industry." The conference includes breakout sessions, headliner sessions with keynote speakers, project-based clinics and "expo stage sessions that offer hands-on, practical learning and best practices from seasoned training and development professionals."
Conference information: For information about Training 2008, go towww.trainingconference.com.
Day 2—Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Keynote speaker—analyzing the creative process: It’s a good thing that Hollywood writers were on strike this week. It provided some free time for Joel Cohen, a writer-producer for Fox’s hit show The Simpsons, to illuminate the creative process during a second-day keynote address at training 2008. Although he didn’t address training specifically, Cohen’s insights can be applied to any business function.
Cohen said that each joke is an example of innovation that involves crafting a setup and punch line, called a "blow" when it leads into the next scene. The key to success is collaboration among the show’s 15 writers.
"Every day, we work as a group," Cohen said.
No one leaves the office in the evening having penned an entire show. The gestation of one episode can take months, and work on one joke can last an hour. If 5 percent of a writer’s original draft makes it into the final script, it’s a reason to be proud, Cohen said.
Creativity flourishes on the show, which has produced $5 billion in revenue for Fox, because the network gives the program freedom to experiment. The staff itself also is open-minded. They know that bad ideas often are the first step toward novel ones.
Cohen compared work in the writers’ room to a group of kids kicking a soccer ball around. The ball is the idea that is chased until the staff finally scores a goal. Among the guidelines they follow: "Fight your first instinct," look for a combination of things that seem unrelated, keep jokes within the context of the show, don’t over-test an idea, and never stop trying to improve.
The other important factor is having a filter for all the ideas. For The Simpsons, the filter is the show runner, who makes the final decisions on each episode. Cohen said the runner must remove his or her ego from the vetting process.
All of these variables come together to coax the best show out of the staff.
"The environment is incredibly important to creativity," Cohen said.
If it’s constricted and suffocating, the only word writers might put in Homer’s mouth is, "D’oh!"
—Mark Schoeff Jr.
High-tech companies know the value of training: At least two sessions on the second day of the conference were designed to teach participants how to measure return on investment of a training program. As mentioned above, the timing for such a discussion is opportune.
With the economy seemingly headed for a recession, learning and development may be one of the first areas to get the ax. But companies in Silicon Valley know the value of training, according to Darryl Sink, head of an eponymous consulting firm in Monterey, California.
High-tech companies are loath to whack their training budgets because those programs bolster recruiting and retention.
"You may be cutting off your nose to spite your face because you’ll be losing your best people" if a firm cuts training, Sink said in an interview after his presentation. "If they’re not keeping their skills up to date, they may not be hired elsewhere."
Replacing them is not easy. "Those are people you cannot outsource," Sink said.
In her session, Patti Phillips, president and CEO of the ROI Institute in Chelsea, Alabama, walked participants through the formula for calculating return on investment. The key is to use to conservative and credible standards for determining program costs and benefits. Doing so will help convert "soft data" like customer service, work climate, work habits and initiative into "hard data" like output, time, costs and quality.
Executives have become more demanding in evaluating training programs over the past decade, regardless of economic circumstances.
"Accountability has become a trend," Phillips said. "Senior managers are asking better questions."
—Mark Schoeff Jr.
Day 1—Monday, February 4, 2008
First big conference of the year: An early February training conference doesn’t sound like it would draw a good crowd, but there are probably close to 1,000 people here for this event at the cavernous Georgia World Congress Center. Even the need for most attendees to arrive on Super Bowl Sunday wasn’t much of a deterrent. In short, this is good evidence of how strong the business conference market is right now—and makes one wonder what will happen if the U.S. does slip into a recessionary environment.
The big training event of the year is always the one put on by the American Society for Training & Development (June 1-4 this year at the San Diego Convention Center), but this one, from the people who bring you Training magazine, is probably the next largest behind ASTD. One downside: There seems to be a lot of consultants and authors putting on the breakout sessions and not quite as many corporate executives and managers. There’s nothing wrong with consultants and authors, of course, just that it is always better to hear a presentation from someone actually working in the trenches trying to drive an organization ahead.
Keynote Speaker, Day 1—Welcome Back, John Kotter: Harvard Business School professor John Kotter did a quick one-hour session built around his new book (written with Holger Rathgeber), Our Iceberg Is Melting. It’s a penguin parable about dealing with change and what it takes to succeed under any conditions. It’s a pretty popular book; yesterday it was ranked No. 776 overall in Amazon books, and No. 11 in Amazon’s motivational category. Unfortunately for Kotter and the Training 2008 attendees, one hour is just not enough for him to really do justice to any subject. I’ve heard him speak before, and you really need to give Kotter a couple hours to dive deep into his material. He did his best to engage people in his penguins and his message, but it was really too much to ask him to pack it all into such a short time frame.
Economic Downturn Hits Training: Soaring commodity prices are cutting margins in the food business, while the stock market tailspin is whacking profits at Wall Street firms. Such economic stress is threatening training programs. The collapse of the subprime mortgage market has forced Michelle Blieberg, managing director of global talent learning and development at UBS Investment Bank, to cut a midcareer program from 300 to 150 participants and reduce its budget by $500,000. But instead of applauding the belt-tightening, UBS officials lamented it because they see the value of the development initiative.
"The feedback was so negative," she says.
Blieberg says the cost per person in the program for emerging leaders is $12,500, a bargain considering that many participants earn $300,000 to $1 million annually. Such return on investment is a key selling point for Blieberg as she battles for training dollars in a tough economic climate. At the Schwan Food Co., Alex Stiber, senior director for organization development and leadership, is also under pressure.
"The business units are looking very hard at the bottom-line numbers and deciding what they want to invest in Schwan University [the internal learning center]," Stiber says. Stiber’s pitch to them is that nine people who have gone through an executive development program during the past four months have been promoted to senior vice president or higher. That saves the company money. "We don’t have to go outside our company to recruit executives," Stiber says.
—Mark Schoeff Jr.
Executives Resist Classrooms: Masters of the universe pretty much think they know everything. So, novel settings are required to get financial executives to engage in training programs, according to UBS Investment Bank’s Blieberg. As part of the UBS Summit initiative, managing directors are taught leadership skills by visiting nonprofit, artistic and community organizations. One of the most popular excursions was to Florida to spend time with Edward Villela, founder and director of the Miami City Ballet. Villela built the troupe into a world-class organization by attracting and retaining dancing talent that was in demand in Asia and Russia as well as the United States. The UBS executives talked to Villela and observed his dancers stretching and rehearsing.
"It’s very simple and cost-effective," Blieberg says of the Miami jaunt. "Learning is in, but classrooms are out."
—Mark Schoeff Jr.