The Corporate Conference - Why They Make Us Feel Good
Winning Business Magazine, June 2001
It is always difficult to predict the future. But one thing for sure is that the twentieth century will see companies investing more into the annual corporate event. Of course this is very good news for those of us who earn an honest penny through giving keynote speeches. And what we see is companies putting more and more resources into making these events bigger and better than last year. This means there is the constant quest to do something different. The result is that I have given talks on a cruise liner in the Mediterranean, in a marquee erected in an aircraft hanger in Berlin, at a motor racing circuit in southern England, on a ski slope in northern Sweden, and a cellar in Slovakia (which I remain convinced is a former state brothel). Why do companies do it? Is it a gigantic waste of money or do these events serve some purpose?
Not only are they necessary but becoming increasing important. Over the past decade, there has been the fragmentation of companies into business units as profit centres, project teams and trading groups. The result is that companies have lost their hearts and souls. There is no longer a meaningful corporate core with which colleagues can identify. Their focus has to be on achieving short- term targets because that is how they are rewarded. The task at hand takes precedent and so to hell with the bigger corporate picture. Chief executives now offer the role models for us to copy. They negotiate share option deals in three year contracts, hype up the share value by 'down sizing' a part of the company, exercise their options and then off to the next company to do the same thing again.
And so what ties us to our employers? Basically, three things. The first is the pay cheque. The second is the corporate brand. Outside our own business unit the only things that emotionally tie us to the company are the corporate symbols and logos. That is why company PR now has greater strategic significance that it had in the past. And the third is the corporate event. It is the rare occasion when colleagues can step outside their mini corporate boxes and share an experience of corporate sociability. It is an occasion of collective celebration, of sharing the common experience of working for the same company and of reaffirming some common corporate vision and values. In other words, it has the same function as mass for Catholics.
Which brings me back to the role of the keynote speaker and why they can demand such high fees. Basically, they legitimate the event. They offer an explicit justification for having the conference. At the same time, a good speaker has to capture the core values and aspirations of the company in exactly the same way as the priest at mass. Their role is to solidify a shared experience among colleagues who, because of the disparate nature and the short term focus of their day to day jobs have very little in common.
Since devolved, decentralised operating units are likely to be the business models of the future, we will be attending more of these events. More time away from home, more justifications to partners and more anxieties about dress codes and designer brands. And the stress of being nice to everyone. Who knows, after that next corporate re-restructuring, we could be reporting to that woman we got drunk with on that second night (I just can't remember it) of that conference in Spain last year.
© Professor Richard Scase