In my short time as an information professional, conferences and other professional development events have played a major role in the evolution of my career. As a recent MLS graduate, SLA Annual 2013 in San Diego truly welcomed me to the profession. The experience gave me confidence and convinced me to remain active in SLA and become more involved in professional groups such as METRO and my college alumni association. SLA 2014 in Vancouver enhanced my earlier experiences by allowing me to integrate what I learned directly into my specific job responsibilities. SLA NY’s conference in 2014 and METRO’s this past January facilitated improvements in my social media efforts on the job and improved the visuals in my deliverables. I was introduced to people with similar niche interests, who I would later collaborate with for brainstorming, problem solving, and presentations.
This year I was unable to attend SLA in Boston, yet I was pleasantly surprised at the number of valuable takeaways that I benefitted from at a distance. My fellow information professionals made it possible for me to learn something entirely new: the residual value of conference attendance and the importance of a knowledge-sharing environment in the workplace and beyond.
The harsh reality is that not everyone can attend conferences, especially expensive, multi-day affairs. Budgets are shrinking, time is scarce, and important events will always not-so-conveniently fall on the same dates. However, this year I found it entirely possible to keep up the momentum of my continuing education. By utilizing technology and your network, and being a bit proactive, you can absolutely benefit from the residuals of a conference in actionable ways. My intention here is not to promote choosing “the next best thing” to being at a conference in the flesh. Despite all I’ve gained this year, I am even more apt to choose attendance in the future.
Thanks to social dialog, I was able to experience some of the goings-on in real time. During the conference, I followed the designated hashtag to see what the overarching trends were and to access any content that was available to me. While “listening in,” I interacted with conference social content, followed people whom I found helpful, and tried to “give back” even in my absence.
To do this, I used a couple different methods. First, I added the conference hashtag as a stream on my professional Hootsuite dashboard. Hootsuite is a social media management tool which has capabilities for monitoring both internally and externally. This really integrated the buzz of the conference into my daily routine while the action was happening. Keeping the hashtag stream active proved helpful long after the conference, when I discovered a Goodreads list of books that were recommended at the conference.
In fact, I didn’t grasp the full value of the conference’s social conversation until this year. In years when I was in attendance, I’d pop on a device to check my social feeds now and then to see what was happening generally, converse a little, and post some of my own tidbits from sessions. Once the conference commenced, I only utilized posts that I came upon by happenstance, or if I received a notification. Previously, I never more than glanced at Storify summaries. Storify is a tool that allows users to create stories or timelines by importing content from social media channels.
This year, I found Storify to be a particularly helpful tool. A quick search of the fun and informative conference hashtag (#SLA2015) brought me to photos, daily summaries by the SLA San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, bloggers, and SLA Headquarters. Simply searching the hashtag brought me to juicy conference session content such as the Business & Finance Division Poster Session, lists of session presentations from the Legal Division and Leadership & Management Division, related whitepapers. I also came across direct links to presentations such as CI resources and copyright in the digital age on slideshare, which reminded me of another valuable tool to search. Unfortunately, you will likely also be teased by photos of event swag. If you’d like to avoid this, Storify does allow you to limit your search results.
Blogs really filled a void for me this year. Previously, I would read one or two posts pertaining to sessions I was interested in, but had a conflict that prevented me from attending. This year, it was the variety of blogs I discovered on social media that filled a void for the personal insights and fresh perspectives that in-person networking provides at the conference. I especially enjoyed these key learning points from an attendee that traveled from the UK, these takeaways from the digital asset management blog, and reading that new attendees had reflections similar to mine after my first conference. I was also able to learn from adjacent content, such as this assessment of marketing materials an attendee picked up in Boston during the conference.
Social media was able to communicate overall themes of the conference very well. Immediately after the conference, notes from members of my network kept me informed on the details of specific sessions. I received notes from a coworker and a few other fellow info professionals. Similar exchanges would have occurred had I attended, but my absence caused me to become ever more grateful for the communities that I’m involved in.
One particular tidbit within the notes a METRO colleague provided from Sunday’s “Leading from the Middle” session struck a chord with me. The bullet point reads: “Remember your vendors are your team members too—they can help you!” This is a lesson in itself; I’ve forgotten their value during previous conferences and I now plan to remedy my mistake in the future. I benefited from vendors just this year thanks to the nurture of knowledge-sharing within my network.
One of my coworkers followed the advice quoted above while she was in Boston, and it has directly improved my work on a day-to-day basis. Upon returning from the conference, she sent a quick e-mail to our team that was full of tips and tricks she had picked up while casually checking in with vendors at the expo. She simply stopped by resources we currently use and asked, “What’s new?” While instructing my coworker on another topic entirely, the vendor representative breezed by a method for browsing industry reports in their database. We use these reports often, but never had a full scope of what was available and found their organization messy and difficult to search. Thanks to my coworker’s savvy and excitement to share her discovery, my resources have widened and my deliverables have improved. I’ve saved a great deal of time in searching, which can now be allocated elsewhere.
My workplace has a pretty good system for sharing conference information. Attendees normally prepare a report on sessions and resources. The report is reviewed and edited to be concise and valuable for the overall group and the process is supervised in such a way that readers really do get the most out of it. This document is sent out and posted on our intranet for all employees to access. Coworkers are great about sending items directly to individuals if they happen to apply to their particular responsibilities. I’ve always enjoyed this; I’m guaranteed to be interested in something within each of these. There is often follow-up on questions and a lot of conversation around the topics within. Even casual chats have the potential to increase our productivity and add to our value as an information center; this is recognized and encouraged.
Conferences have provided me with fresh perspectives on my own work, structured and unstructured learning, opportunities to give back some of the knowledge I’ve gained, and a network of individuals to contact both professionally and recreationally. Clearly, there is a wealth to be learned from conferences, even for those who are absent. Though I was unable to attend SLA Annual this year, my enthusiasm and advocacy for these events will continue.