Tactical, Operational & Strategic Analysis of Markets, Competitors & Industries
The SCIP annual conference in San Diego this month was my last field excursion for the spring (our baby is due to arrive May 9th) and, I confess, I was becoming more and more nervous that the downside risk of a poor turnout could make for a diminished return, not only, for Aurora’s investment as an sponsoring exhibitor, but for the CI community at large.
Having seen a steady arc of growth in recent years we’d been hoping to see a further growth in attendance rather than a reduction or pause for a reset with a smaller-than-expected 2008 meeting.
Likewise, there are a dozen reasons for that diminished turnout – West Coast venue, off-target-keynote cancelling at the last minute, the economy and the impact on travel budgets, etc. – all of which contributed.
But I would suggest something very interesting took place with fewer numbers in attendance. That is, the people who did turn out seemed to be of a more sophisticated variety than the usual mix and a more diverse array of interests as well.
That’s not to say that those who might normally make the trip, but this year didn’t for whatever reason, aren’t “sophisticated” intelligence practitioners; but it does suggest that the decision to attend by various demographics (or more accurately psychographics) of participants goes deeper than surface issues such as the venue, the keynote or the economy.
As far as the meeting’s value to our company is concerned, my team was generally of the opinion that, we had one of our best exhibits ever!
We don’t judge our impact by booth traffic at events like these, so it’s a bit disingenuous of me to try and quantify that objectively, but to judge simply by a measure of lead-ratio at the close of the conference, we absolutely walked away with a great feeling about the opportunities we explored with clients new and old.
We toned down and simplified the booth significantly from year’s past and used our time to have conversations with people rather than pitch anyone on our various capabilities. This seemed to resonate better than the hard-sell I think many vendors engage in which more often devolves the relationship-building opportunity SCIP provides vendors with new, prospective client-partners into little more walking, talking dollar-signs with a blank PO.
Likewise, I’ve always argued that participation in events such as SCIP are cumulative for vendors, even the big database firms and other deep-pocketed sellers of easily metered services, unlike our own.
The nature of our market is one where reputation means everything to vendors and word of mouth between and among clients is far more important than brand impressions, booth swag, brochure design or other fancy collateral items.
It takes years to build those kinds of relationships of trust and they are, no doubt, our most valuable assets, so engaging prospective clients in the kind of dialog that gives them understanding of and access to one’s capabilities going forward is far more important than walking away with a quick sale that might serve more to commoditize a budding relationship than differentiate it from the rest. Aurora’s message in that respect is a simple one: “here’s my card, call me if you ever need help with X” where X is the category of service capabilities we have to offer.
Interestingly enough, that’s precisely how most of our clients have started out with us. Because of the structural issues with CI in general (perennial underfunding, notwithstanding) the matter of timing is critical to relationship building and knowledge of a vendor’s capabilities is where that all starts. Where it ends is the alignment of the client need with the vendor capability under circumstances of sufficient funding to achieve the common goal.
However, this is decidedly harder than it sounds. The vetting process is a long and slow one, but for the determined and patient intelligence vendor, that long, slow relationship-building can serve you both very well for years to come.
Aurora hosted an evening dinner cruise around San Diego Bay for a small group of current, past and (hopefully) future clients who were available during our narrow window of opportunity.
The limited opportunities to socialize this way was one of my only real criticisms of the agenda, incidentally: that everything was so tightly scheduled there wasn’t much time for informal get-togethers such as this, at least not without the expense of feeling like you’d missed something else.
Likewise, I think the switching around of daily schedules, so that the conference was Wednesday/Thursday and workshops were Monday/Tuesday, had a lot to do with attendance dynamics overall.
My usual modus operandi is to arrive the day before workshops to settle in (in this case it would’ve been Sunday) and adjust and network before day-one of the conference begins. Day-two furnishes an equal opportunity for networking amid sessions, meals and evening activities and then the relatively “soft landing” of post-conference workshops make for ample opportunity to make a week out of it and still make it home in good order. I understand the scheduling trouble around Passover starting that Friday, but I do hope that sort of thing can be avoided in the future as I think it has a real effect on availability of interactions among attendees.
As it happened, Monday ended up being quite sparsely attended (to the casual observer) and seemed like a weak start to the rest of the conference with an anticlimactic day of workshops on Tuesday producing a feeling of a false start before any real meat of the conference was on offer. For us non-workshop-goers, we then have a very abrupt stop to things Thursday at the end of the conference span. SCREECH! Though I'm sure it was much more profitable to pack the workshops with paying attendees, I know I speak for many who found that tempo very discombobulating.
Nonetheless, we had a great group for the cruise and, though we didn’t host the same kind of huge party we have in years past, due simply to the logistics of the situation, everyone seems to have really enjoyed themselves.
Last year we rented out the Hard Rock Café on Times Square when SCIP07 took on New York City and had a suitable NYC nightlife experience, but this year was decidedly more of a low-key/west-coast vibe. Everyone seemed to have a nice time however and we got a birds-eye-view of the USS Midway (the converted aircraft carrier/museum sitting at dry-docks just outside the hotel), among many other sights around the bay.
As for the conference program itself, winner of my “Best in Show” presentation award was Mr. Paul Slayton (IBM) with his thought provoking and entertaining, “CI Lessons from the Silver Screen, Part Deux”. It was the first time I’d seen Paul speak and, though I understand it was a reprise of one done in New York last year, I found it the most original session I’ve been to at a CI meeting in a long while, despite the absence of Paul’s routinely excellent co-presenter, Mr. Michael Sperger (SAP), having been called away to more urgent job priorities. Overall, on the conference content, and though I was only able to attend a smattering of the sessions - I cherry-picked about 20 percent of the total altogether, so more than usual - Paul wasn’t alone among highly-regarded presenters, as there were many others… too many to name individually, in fact.
That said, I wasn’t alone either in having ducked out early (sorry) from an equal share of rather more pedestrian fare, so I must refrain from anointing the entire program agenda with holy water with this short review. I think it’s always a challenge – based on the depth of the talent pool in terms of submitted proposals, more than anything else – to drive excellent conference sessions with new and original material so I’ll congratulate the program committee on doing a decent job of that. First-runner-up and most honorable mention goes to the dynamic team of Ms. Melanie Wing (Whirlpool) and Dr. Herman Milligan (Wells Fargo), who co-facilitated an active dialog entitled “Evaluating CI Providers” that I think everyone who participated would agree was one of the most lively sessions on the agenda (rather uncharacteristically, I kept quiet).
As for the keynote presentation, I was disappointed by Mark Penn’s push-off at the last minute. Filling-in as replacement speaker, “Microtrends” co-author, Kinney Zalesne, had her work cut out for her with a potentially hostile audience, but she did an amicable job and I learned a thing or two, as I usually expect to at this sort of talk.
In fact, I’d say the audience was probably more engaged than usual, but I think this derived from that diehard psychographic of the attendees themselves I mentioned above. Again, though attendance even in this general session seemed down, the people who did turn out were, I think, of a more seasoned variety and so were more intellectually engaged in and critical of the meeting content than the traditional mix, which tends to consist of a higher percentage of first-time attendees.
As a quick aside, strategically speaking, this remains a big challenge for SCIP – compelling past participants to return to the conference in later years. Content is only part of the equation and speaks to the first-timer as the value promised in the pitch. But knowing that you'll be able to network with the people you want to meet and socialize with is of more importance once you've been... likewise, the marketing strategy of the meeting itself cannot be understated. In this day and age of desktop conferencing, you really need a great set of reasons to get on a plane and fly anywhere to study anything... and if the networking opportunities are the differentiator then SCIP can't play that up enough.
Still, articulating the value of returning to the annual conference year-in and year-out as a must-attend event is something SCIP has always been and will continue to be challenged by, in spite of favorable venues, compelling keynotes or a lush economy. I’d like to think the era of “facetime” meetings hasn’t finally fallen entirely to the rising challenge of the webinar amid tight travel budgets, but all such meetings boil down to being a matter of value for the attendee and their sponsoring organization.
Perhaps more of a “roadshow” style event brought out to members across the country or, going to the other extreme, an entirely virtual one, could help reinforce the value of in-person meetings like the SCIP Annual, but I sincerely hope SCIP can crack the code on this before next year’s meeting. As the saying goes, if you can’t bring Mohammad to the mountain…
In that respect, I believe they have the right executive in charge to do that, as I managed to meet briefly and welcome Mr. Ken Garrison to SCIP as the new Executive Director of the Society, taking over for interim ED, Mr. John Fiegel, earlier this month. I know everyone on the search committee and I also know their search was an arduous and diligent one. I believe also, after having spoken with him, that they found the best candidate available in Mr. Garrison to execute the members’ collective vision for the Society going forward. Welcome aboard Ken, I’m sure you’ll get lots of valuable advice and input from all quarters.
Last but not least, what kind of SCIP Annual would it be if there was no divisive controversy?
We had our share of that in the weeks leading up to San Diego and it’s not exactly resolved yet, but I hope it will be soon. I serve on SCIP’s CI Foundation Board of Trustees with many esteemed colleagues and the decision was made to restructure the CI Foundation’s academic publication, the Journal of Competitive Intelligence and Management (JCIM) this coming summer. As one might imagine, the vacuum into which this development was both announced and received left a lot of people speculating on whether and how the academic community would continue to have a voice in CI’s evolution vis-à-vis SCIP at least, and, even more important, how this would affect CIF’s goal of building credibility among academia for the study of Competitive Intelligence in schools of business everywhere.
The restructuring committee has started meeting now and, one thing I’m sure of, they’ll give the process all the due diligence it requires as they figure out how JCIM should be positioned and structured going forward. I’ll end by saying I personally want to thank co-editors, Dr. Bobby Brody and Dr. Sheila Wright (who is also a very good friend of mine). I think they both did an admirable job of taking the JCIM from a dead stop almost three years ago and achieving a level of momentum that precipitated an outcry by their academic peers as to the destiny of their work!
That's a good thing, by the way... a very good thing, and not something to be overlooked. I've always thought that, the real judge of any project's impact or relevance is whether people will miss it when it's gone and in that respect, their impact was significant indeed. The fact so many people care about JCIM's destiny bodes well for CI and for SCIP as its steward, so I encourage everyone with an interest to reach out to the CIF's JCIM restructuring committee to offer whatever advice they can to help that process proceed forward.
Finally, I’ll mention that, alongside Ms. Rebecca Behrens from Ernst & Young and Ms. Judy Leavitt from Rockwell Collins, I was a humble recipient of the 2008 SCIP Fellows Award for contributions to the field of CI and SCIP at large. In addition to congratulating my two accomplished fellow winning colleagues, I’ll also congratulate the other nominees, as well, who I will mention (after having laid eyes upon the highly esteemed list of nominees in addition to the three of us) were all at least as deserving as me based on my admittedly incomplete knowledge of their contributions.
Well done everybody and keep up the good work. We need more such engaged professionals in CI now than ever before. The Meritorious, Faye Brill and Catalyst awards were also bestowed on and received by very deserving recipients, all of whom boast a long track record of having done a noble job of moving our field forward.
To paraphrase Meritorious Award winner Dr. Pat Bryant's brief remarks, SCIP needs to hang together... or we shall surely hang separately. (Or was that Ben Franklin...?)
Thanks finally from me and mine to everyone on the SCIP staff (new and old) for all your hard work, to the chair Ms. Donna Hawryliw and her program committee who selected all the sessions and workshops, to all the presenters who shared their ideas, sponsors and exhibitors who shared their wares, volunteers and board members who stuck their necks out in a largely thankless job out of the pure passion they feel for this most exciting of endeavors of intellectual curiosity, and, most of all, to the people who came to attend, participate and share their own ideas as part of a living, breathing community. It really does take a diverse collection of people to pull off a meeting so central to our collegial understanding and appreciation of these critical matters for business and society everywhere.
Here’s wishing next year’s program committee and staff an equal measure of success as they plan for SCIP 2009 in Chicago.
Mr. Derek Johnson (Aurora’s director of research and my brother) has accepted the role of chair for the Chicago meeting with our good friend Mr. August Jackson (Verizon Business) as vice-chair, which starts a new practice among SCIP annual meetings. When the meeting moves from Chicago to Washington DC in 2010, August will chair that conference and a new vice chair will come aboard to oversee programming for the following year's meeting to maintain planning and thematic consistency from year to year.
I've always thought this sort of cadre was a welcome practice and would have really enjoyed a more formal relationship when I chaired the Orlando meeting a few years ago with my good friend and predecessor, Mr. Dale Fehringer, who offered very generous support as I went forward in spite of that more formal process being in place at the time.
I'm sure such innovations will continue to move SCIP forward, so here’s hoping I’ll see more of you in Chicago next year. If you drop me a note now, by the way, I'll make sure you get invited to NEXT year's party... wherever that ends up. Navy Pier anyone?