The power of an internal conference

By / March 08, 2017

Illustration of an internal expert sharing an idea at a conference

“This generation is committed to their personal learning and development and this remains their first choice benefit from employers. In second place they want flexible working hours. Cash bonuses come in at a surprising third place.” – Millennials at Work, PWC

 

As the number of millennials in the workplace increases, the emphasis on professional development becomes more and more important. This is because millennials are focused on learning, and are looking for opportunities to grow. For employers, this means looking at staff engagement differently.

Although tech companies like Google are notorious for extravagant perks, the Millennials at Work study tells us something different about what workplaces should prioritize. The retention strategy for the young people in your office is not free beer—it’s professional development.

The question then becomes: how can companies provide meaningful professional development opportunities to millennials? The traditional professional development model involves spending thousands of dollars on conferences, training, seminars and courses. Though this spending provides employees with an opportunity to learn and continue to grow professionally, it has its pitfalls.  Often, these opportunities are pre-built, untailored, and require a large time and financial commitment.

While Bridgeable does provide staff with an annual professional development allowance to spend on learning opportunities, we also decided to try something new this year.  In January, we hosted our own internal conference: Bridgeable Day.

Bridgeable Day was a day of learning for all of our employees. Our goal was to provide specific information that would appeal to a wide range of experience levels, and would also apply directly to employee’s day-to-day roles. Topics varied from qualitative and quantitative research methods, to the value and history of visual service design tools, and how behavioural economics can apply to our work.

When our CEO Chris Ferguson first proposed this idea, I admit I was skeptical. Would people care to hear presentations from their co-workers? After all, these were people they sat next to and saw every day. What’s the appeal? To my pleasant surprise, the interest was substantial. The key to this interest was designing the conference with our employee needs at the core:

Keep in mind there is work to be done

One of the first things we decided for Bridgeable Day was to create an accessible space to minimize the amount of time away from work. Our conference took place in-house, which meant people could pick and choose how they spent their time. They still had access to their colleagues throughout the day, and could quickly go back to their desks or attend a meeting. The accessibility of this event meant that participants weren’t stressed out about the work they were missing, or how their team was doing without them. They could attend sessions they had time for, and quickly step out when duty called. This flexibility relieved a huge mental burden and allowed participants to focus on the learning that was taking place.

Quote: "There is incredible power in boosting the experts you already have in your company"

Make presentations relevant and culturally appropriate

How many times have you gone to a conference and thought this talk is not applicable to me at all? By making our team the speakers, we leveraged their deep understanding of our workplace culture, creating a conference that was more relevant than any external speaker could be.

At Bridgeable Day, we tailored the presentations to our employee needs. Speakers were able to draw connections and action items for the audience that applied to their day-to-day work. The presentations were also culturally designed for Bridgeable—for example, Tim MacLeod used a music video by Kanye West to explore how we might integrate qualitative and quantitative data.  This approach wouldn’t be popular at all companies, but it was a hit with the Bridgeable team.  By drawing on the specific cultural interests of the Bridgeable team, learning is not only more effective but is also an enjoyable and memorable experience!

Create internal experts

The day took my colleagues, who are already wonderful, creative, fun people and turned them into experts that others could approach for informal follow-up conversations weeks and months after the event. This is distinctly different from a conference or when an external trainer is brought in, where the audience gets information without the opportunity to follow up. The level of accessibility of the expert just isn’t there.

There is incredible power in boosting the experts you already have in your company instead of constantly looking for external conferences or trainers. By creating Bridgeable Day, we were able to showcase internal talent and provide a sense of pride for those who work at Bridgeable. Staff engagement doesn’t have to be beer and snacks. To know that you work next to a rock star service designer, researcher, and overall rad person is staff engagement at a level that free food just can’t match!

Illustration by Minyan Wang