Mark Jordan Mark Jordan on Challenges Ahead in Meetings Technology

Five Things I'd Like For Christmas

May 12, 2006

By Mark Jordan, This Week's Expert

The end of the week is here.  Thank goodness.  I went into this with an "Opus" (Thanks, Bob Cherny...) Mind, I think.  When I reviewed what I'd written, I sort of felt like the Grinch, with so much focus on things that are wrong.  It's worth noting that there are a lot of things that are good too, even if they're going through birthing and/or growing pains.  Still, our biggest challenges are in determining what's yet to be born, what's not ready to walk, which one is the troublemaker, and which one is trainable.  And somewhere out there, amidst all the churning, is that child that just is special, gifted and always does everything just right.  We just shouldn't settle for something else while we wait, unless we've really examined it and it still looks good.  So with that in mind, and with feeling like a Grinch reminding me of Christmas, I thought I'd close with five things I'd like to see under my tree on Christmas morning.

1) All the Internet hype neatly packaged up and ready for burning - Wouldn't that be a lovely gift?  I surveyed six technology companies today, and do you know what every single one of them said in statements about themselves?  They said they were the [sic] "leading provider of" and then went on to roughly describe the same product set.  Everybody can't be the leader, can they?  Just reading about the various technology offerings is like walking into a Carnival Barkers' Convention...imagine no more words like "revolutionary," "cutting edge," "redefining" and the latest buzz set, "getting visibility into.."  What the heck is that?  When did butchers get into the language business? So, this would be a great gift if I could just toss the whole package in the fire and roast some chestnuts.

2) Truth in literature, demos and promises - If you read all the literature, at least two of the technology companies are in 400 of the 500 Fortune 500.  If that's true, then they're not really doing a very good job centralizing purchasing.  Or, something's not true.  Or, it's true, but not really.  Another tech company announced its one millionth RFP.  Wow.  But then elsewhere they said that on average, each meeting generates 9 RFPs.  I wasn't great in math, but I think that it means they really have generated 100,000 or so UNIQUE RFPs, and 900,000 copies.  Now, I'd be impressed with 100,000 unique RFPs..why aren't they?  Maybe because they haven't answered the really relevant questions.  How many of those became confirmed business?  or...How many of those were even responded to by the vendors who received them?  One million RFPs is a staggering number - who could wade into that?  100,000 is a bit easier to wrestle with, so it would be easier to ask how many came directly from paying corporate and association customers, and how many came from the sourcing partners and resellers they've stocked the roster with by contracting attractive deals?  Honesty in delivery dates for new releases, less scripted demos, clear statements of which is functionality and which is vapor, how easy is it really to learn and use?  We're grown-ups here - if we like the potential of a particular technology, we can weather a bit of disappointment, or wait a bit, but only if we're prepared for it?  Yep, complete truth would be neat gift, and it would be a gift that would help the giver immensely too.

3) A Signed, Framed Commitment to develop technology based on the way people work, and not on the way someone else wants you to work - I don't think much needs to be said here.  Call me silly but I don't think you'd need outsourcing and implementation consultants if the technology was a little more "built-from-the-user-up" and less from "someone's-head-down."  A great gift, but very expensive, I know...

4) An early Christmas Gift of World Series tickets for the Mets and whomever this fall - That's primarily so I can take Dave McCann to the games as a way of thanking him for letting me ramble on this week, and for me, so I can get out of Philadelphia long enough to root for my childhood team without having people spitting on me from above and shouting things that they appear to be reading off the bathroom walls.  Or writing on them...

5) My Dream Software - It's fast, flexible, modular, customizable (without taking six months to do it), built to my specifications as well as yours, something I can't wait to work with (not can't wait to turn off) works anywhere, wireless or not, doesn't force me to know HTML or java script to make it look cool, and doesn't force me into the constraints of templates that I have to regularly break anyway.  And it works with some of the other tools I use frequently to get my work done.  I know it's out there, or on the horizon - I just have to be good enough for the next year or so.  I can do that.  I think.  Well, it shouldn't really depend on me being good, so I'll add that to the definition. "Does not depend on Mark being good."  There

Be smart, ask the logical questions, and wherever possible, get documentation of the facts.  Even dare to ask for guarantees.  You probably won't get them, but it's still fun to watch their faces.  I think I saw that somebody just announced that they now have a Meeting Estimator.  Can you imagine?  You just plug in some cities, pick some departure points, the number of people leaving from each point and Shazam!  The computer tells what your meeting will cost in each of those cities.  Very cool.  I think I'll just ask one question.  Will they guarantee that the numbers that were cranked out will be within 5% of my ultimate spend if i pick one of the cities?

Could they assure me that the cost elements accurately reflect a meeting of the size that I have to plan?  Can they assure me I won't miss a hotel somewhere else who might have the perfect property and deal for me, easily beating the estimates for the recommended cities.  Can they assure me that the airfares won't have changed radically into the city I pick, because 3 weeks went by before people started booking their tickets?  And so on, and so, and so on....

I'm glad I modified the definition of my gift in number 5 - I knew I couldn't be good.

So You Want to Be Strategic??

May 11, 2006

By Mark Jordan, This Week's Expert

Hey...did you know that a lot of people are discussing a hot issue impacting the future of meeting management and its career possibilities?  Well, before you can jump on the bandwagon, make sure you know what the word "strategic" really means.  I've tied a nice little resource I found into the word here so you can get a quick primer on the definitions that can apply.

"Strategic Meeting Management" should fundamentally meet one of two tests.  If you have a strategic meetings focus in your organization, it should be on a plan with tactics that, if successful, contribute to the bigger goals of the company beyond the boundaries of your department.  Or, it should be on a plan that focuses on achieving a specific stated goal of the organization. 

IF, and I say IF here with great emphasis, a primary stated goal of your company is to cut costs, rather than to grow, diversify, find new customers or develop new products and services, then you should listen closely to the buzz in the industry.  Somebody convinced somebody that there is glory in slashing meeting budgets and exposing rampant waste and fraud.  Has it occurred to anyone lately that if the primary focus is truly on cutting costs out of meetings, at some point, staffing costs have to be looked at?  Is it your highest goal in life to become an expert at whittling away your area until it can no longer support your cost?  Probably not, but that doesn't mean there aren't others within the organization who are thinking that way.

If you want an example of the locusts effect that a pure cost-cutting mentality has on behavior, take a look at your travel departments.  They ran out of things to cut, so now they're looking at your areas.  And what's our industry response?  We better learn to do this to ourselves before they do it to us!

There's a fundamental disconnect here that I just don't get.  If you want to be strategic, then the first thing you do is look closely at how your group and what you do, impacts the organization.  Once you understand that, the next step is to think about how your group and what you do could further impact the company.  What are the primary purposes of meetings?  To motivate, educate and recognize and celebrate achievement.  To enhance customer relationships.  To make a splash for a new product.  The extension of cost cutting is to say you will motivate less frequently to probably less people.  You will pass on educating employees, distributors and customers, or you'll do it in a way that ends up being less effective.  Probably you'll have less achievement to recognize and celebrate, but if not, then you'll mute the celebrations, make them less special, and hope nobody notices.  You'll probably have fewer customer relationships to enhance, but if not, then you'll put fewer resources into it, and the message sent will be of a less positive nature.  You may have fewer products to make a splash over, but who'll really care?

I'm sorry, and I don't mean this unkindly because it is a very simplistic analogy - but you could teach monkeys or bears to cut costs.  Just show them how to hit the little red "NO" button once every three times when a request for a meeting comes in.  What is much more difficult to do, but if you REALLY want to be strategic you should learn how, through your meetings knowledge and skill, to make more money for the company.  Get customers to buy more.  Get new customers.  Examine how your area can improve the impact of education at meetings.  Build morale.  Create brainstorming groups.  Here are three things you could start working on today that might help you jump-start your effort to become more strategic:

1) Think about all the data that comes through your meetings.  Is there an overall plan for how that data is stored, what kind of data is kept on a customer, how is it used - could there be ways to streamline the data flow so that fewer mistakes are made which can contribute to a negative customer impression?  Are there ways you could group that data, and think about different incentives or methods of getting more of certain groups to attend your events?  And so on.

2) Are there ways you can alter the structure of some of your events to make them more customer - centric, or create more opportunities for business to be conducted?  Could you add one-on-one face time with senior management for the very top levels of customers?  Could you find some creative ways to hook up some of your customers together where it might make sense, to create a little magic that might ultimately bloom into more revenue for your organization.

3) Could you research three different styles of group learning and recommend testing each one at a couple of future training meetings.  Are there a couple of approachable colleagues in other departments that you could brainstorm with to come up with some new ideas.  Could you come up with a couple of different kinds of surveys to measure the impact of your meeting.  Not like "How was the hotel" or "How were the meeting rooms" but, "What were two ideas that stuck with you from this event," or "Name something that really helped you focus on the speakers," or "Was there anything that distracted you from the Keynote presentation?"  There are endless combinations, you know, and you could still ask the other questions which admittedly are good to knows....

Did you even think about how you could cut money during the past 5 minutes?  No?  Good for you!!

I think everyone agrees that fiscal prudence in conducting your job is always a desired outcome, and there are times in a company's life-cycle where dramatically reducing expenses is necessary, although those are usually during times of company crisis.  The true strategist avoids those crises as often as possible by directing focus on growth, new markets, new customers and new products.

If you really want to be strategic, don't think about cutting thousands of dollars - think about how you can help make millions of dollars.  Or, put in layman's terms, if you want to be a better, more interesting person, would you make your primary focus losing weight?  Or would it be on learning a new skill, a new hobby, going back to school, learning a language, traveling more, joining a church, writing a novel, becoming a mentor, etc., etc.?

You want to be strategic? Come up with a plan that will grow your company, not slow it down.

Sittin at my desk half the day....

May 10, 2006

By Mark Jordan, This Week's Expert

Web page please refresh
before i run a---waaaay, yeah..

(to be sung to the chorus of "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay"; Otis Redding, Jr.)

Maybe there's money to be made here if i finish the song and market it as the Web Application Blues.

Anybody who has ever had to do some serious work on the web knows that working in a pure web application can be very frustrating.  You do your work on the first page, save, wait, do a little more of your work, save, wait, and pretty soon you feel like you're listening to a song on an old record player that skips every third word.

One of your challenges in reviewing and selecting new meeting technologies is trying to make an intelligent assessment of the short and long term impact they wil have on your work efficiency and process flow.  You can ask the salesperson if working in the application slows people down, but the response you're likely to get is, "Oh no!  Absolutely not!  Once you and/or your people get over a 'small' learning curve, you'll be working smarter and faster than ever before."  Or, "Did I tell you about this really great report you can run?"  It's hard.  You look at the carefully crafted demos, talk to the very carefully screened references, and you just can't help but feel that maybe you haven't gotten the whole story.

Worse yet, Travel Management has come in and said that their travel management vendor has this really great product for meetings and you should/WILL use it.  Have you ever known a travel management company that really knew meetings?  It's possible that they're so thrilled with the product because they're getting a great financial reselling deal, and not that they're convinced that the tools will make you and your people shine within the company.

Now, this is not to say that all these technologies are terrible tools - they're not.  They do alot of good things in theory, and some good things in practice too.  But without careful implementation planning, and management of expectations, everything can blow up in your face. Here's a fact:

1) Almost all web-based applications are slower than ones you may have been used to working with on your local machines or networks.

2) The problem is compounded because many planning departments incorporate a hodgepodge of tools like spreadsheets, Word documents, email, phone and even pencil and paper in the course of executing their business processes.  All of it will have to be scrapped, so you'll have to create new processes and then train staff to work within them.  Odds are that when they're overworked already, and now their job takes 30 - 50% longer to perform, they won't be happy or particularly compliant.

Planning, motivating and incenting your people, and having a realistic understanding of what's going to happen will serve you well.

And then there's this other thing you can do, depending upon how much clout you have to wield.  You can insist on broadening your product search to include vendors who have technology that merges desktop functionality with the Internet.  I promise you - they're out there.  While you're doing that, also review and compare how easy it is to integrate the various meetings technolgies with other technology already in use in the organization by Accounting, Finance, HR.  Integration can reduce implementation backflow. 

Finally, sit on the heads of your technology provider, and try to get them to provide tools that will help you to work faster and more efficiently.  For example, why can't you do your budgets in excel spreadsheets and then upload them to the meetings database you use. Or why can't you use the RFP formats you've always used?  There are often good reasons why not, but "We just don't do it that way" isn't one of them.  Technology is supposed to support your business process, not destroy it and force you to work exclusively the way it wants you to work.

Am I right, or am i wrong??  Shrewd Sage or Silly Idealist?  Let me know!

Suppose it was your life - not the company's money

May 09, 2006

By Mark Jordan, This Week's Expert

Imagine you had a heart problem, one serious enough to see a cardiologist.  You got an appointment, saw the physician, and he recommended a treatment course of medication, a type of drug called a calcium channel antagonist.  Then, you happen upon a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, an analysis of cardiologists who published in medical journals about effective treatments for heart disease, and read that 96% of the physicians who supported using calcium channel antagonists had financial relationships with pharmaceutical companies.  Of the groups that were neutral, or critical of that course of drug therapy, only 60% of the neutral group had a financial relationship with a pharmaceutical manufacturer, AND MOST TELLING, only 30% of the critical group had financial ties.

How confident would you be that the course of treatment recommended by your cardiologist was in fact the best treatment for you?

How does this relate to the meetings and events industry?  Hmmmm...let me count the ways..I'm going to stick to just a couple regarding some of the spend management technologies today that promote themselves as the solution to smart procurement of event space and services.  And then we'll talk about why looking at this is important.

For our purposes, let's consider the two largest providers of meetings technology tools who both profess to provide a "marketplace" for buyers and sellers, amongst the several tools they offer.  I want to be clear - these are decent tools that offer potential benefits for clients who adopt them, but there are also potential risks that you should be considering in light of the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act (for a summary, click here or here), which requires that all publicly-traded companies become financially transparent through audited reporting, etc.  Enterprise spend management tools can make an effective contribution to corporate financial transparency.  My concern is that at some point that data may be called into question because of the appearance of a conflict of interest in how the procurement was made, no matter how scrupulous the efforts of the buyer, if the method included the use of these spend management tools and marketplaces.  Here's why:

A buyer sources their event needs through the use of these tools, selecting potential vendors from these marketplaces.  These marketplaces are populated by a broad selection of vendors, which appears to be a good thing.  Putting aside for the moment any concerns you might have over how all of these vendors can possibly have up-to-date information, the fact is that these marketplaces are powered primarily by vendors who are willing to pay fees for enhanced listing and/or preferred placement.  If you look at the "Supplier Side" pages of these companies, they are very clear about it.  Pay money, and you can move from being lost eight pages back to leading the pack on Page One.  In fact, one site claims that a hotel is 22 times more likely to be selected with a marketing package than those hotels without a package.  From the SOX perspective of fiduciary responsibility, would buying a marketing package and making it a more selectable property be a justifiable reason for selecting it?  Probably not.  Within your own company, it's possible that inexperienced planners could be influenced unduly by these advertisements or program perk inducements.

More importantly, how can you be certain that you are receiving the best tools and information when you know that the marketplace underpinning them provides a significant channel of supplier-based revenue to the technology provider?  Can you really trust that everything is being done on your behalf when there are advertising, marketing package, consulting, technology sales and commissions at stake for the technology company from the suppliers who represent the spend you are trying to manage?  Maybe you are - maybe you're not.  Can you be certain there are no untoward influences at play because of company investors - more than one of these technology companies have, or have had, a major hotel chain as an investor.  That's the fundamental problem of an apparent conflict of interest - even the appearance of one is enough to begin to erode trust in a provider.

The immediate solution, of course, is to ask for versions of the marketplaces devoid of advertising, that no commissions, or fees, be taken from your bookings, and that placements in the database are made purely upon some objective criteria.  Or, better yet, broaden your product search to include products not potentially hindered in these ways.  For the technology companies and participating suppliers, full  disclosure is the best recipe for success.  Full disclosure is an interesting thing, by the way.

In another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), a broad array of articles on the environmental health impact of cigarette smoke were analyzed to see what factors influenced their ultimate conclusions.  Statistically, the only variable that appeared to have a significant impact of whether an article was strongly anti-passive smoke or more neutral about its potential effects, was whether or not the author had a relationship with the tobacco industry.  And that required some digging, because only 23% of the articles written in a more favorable light disclosed a relationship with the tobacco industry, though virtually all the writers were found, upon investigation, to have those types of relationships.  The authors of the study concluded that there was meaningful evidence for the tobacco industry trying to influence the medical community through the opinions of supposedly neutral opinion-makers.   And actually, this is the encouraging study.  In the first study I highlighted, only 2, out of more than 70 articles in the study ultimately found to be written by someone with a relationship with the pharmaceutical industry, actually disclosed the relationship.  Not all were deliberate concealment, many felt that they didn't have a conflict, that accepting honorariums, perks, etc. did not unduly influence their opinions.

Full disclosure has a way of making the person think that their opinion won't be seriously considered if they're open about the relationship.  But honesty wins out in my book.  That's why I'm closing this post by disclosing that I was laid off by one of these technology providers four years ago.  Today, I have a very successful business that has made me happier than i ever could have imagined.  I will also disclose that I use a technology in parts of my business that is an enterprise technology that provides spend management tools without having to struggle with any stigma of potential bias from a supplier revenue dependency.  However, because of the nature of my business, I do not use, and never have used, any of the modules in that technology that comprise the spend management suite.

So, if you're still with me after this lengthy post today, I'd love to hear what you think about the potential risks and rewards of these technology tools that walk both sides of the fence.  Healthy, intelligent discussion is the best antidote for propaganda and lack of understanding.

"All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume."

-- Noam Chomsky

But the more knowledge and perspective you gain, the more power you have.

Data, Data - Who's Got The Data?

May 08, 2006

By Mark Jordan

Our industry has struggled more than many in adopting new technologies over the past few years. There are a lot of reasons for this, I think, and no doubt you have many of your own. The fact remains that cost management and job efficiency will continue to define key job expectations for the near future, and it is this area that the few remaining major tech companies have targeted.

There are good reasons to closely examine these spend management products, and those have all been hashed over ad infinitum in the press as well as company promotional materials. What have not been closely examined up to now are some of the things that I think will provide real challenges in the next five years. Some of these topics include ethical issues such as disclosure and conflict of interest, the true cost of implementation and its impact on process and function, software performance and data privacy/ownership. I’d like to start with data privacy and ownership today, and use tomorrow to deal with some of the ethical questions that come to mind. From there, we’ll see where the discussion flows.

Because most of the spend management technologies are Internet-based, all of your meetings-related data could potential reside outside the security zone created by the systems on the inside of your firewall. How do you ensure the safety and protection of your data? Do you use technology experts to test and validate a vendor’s system security? What types of contract language do you use to protect your information from improper usage? More to the point, if your data includes specific customer information, how do you protect that customer? If the vendor should fold, what plan is there to guarantee the security of your information? If the vendor is bought by another company, is your information "transferable," meaning that the new company has the right to continue using it under the terms of your original agreement, even if you’re not sure you want that new owner to have access to your data. What are the penalties for violating the terms of your agreement, and how do you know when a violation has occurred? Most importantly, what is your data worth, and how do you define that worth.

I may weigh in with more thoughts later, but I’d sure like to see some of what you’re thinking on the issue…..

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