Into The Millennium - Are corporate events a waste of money?
Kent Messenger, July 2001
The spend on in-house corporate events seems to be booming. Even when there are signs of economic downturn companies are reluctant to cut their budget on these off-site meetings which are becoming ever-grander events. The locations are getting more exotic and the conference surroundings ever more luxurious. The larger corporations put up gigantic stage sets, complete with speaker auto-cues, laser lighting and stereo surround sound. Then there are the gurus, the entertainment and the celebrity after dinner speakers. At a recent event I attended in Europe, the US keynote speaker was charging $100,000 plus air flights and all expenses. For this he chatted off the cuff for 45 minutes, tossing out his thoughts on how he saw the future of the Internet.
What do the delegates gain from these events? In my view, quite a lot. A range of factors is driving their growing popularity. We now work in corporate structures that are highly fragmented. Project management is the order of the day so that we identify with these rather than the broader company picture. The company event brings us together in celebration of the corporate mission, vision and culture. It is rather like going to church, it re-affirms our beliefs and through this, our corporate identities.
But also the occasion has to be seen to offer something special. As employees of the company we have access to exclusive knowledge or information that is not available to others. This is where the gurus kick in. They are sharing their wisdom with us.
Then the message has to be put across that this is a 'fun' company to work for. And so not only is the event about forward planning and debating corporate strategy but also about having a good time and entertainment. That is why the celebrity after dinner speakers are rolled out.
But even if all of this is not enough, the message has to be conveyed that this is an exciting company to work for. That is why there is often the go-cart racing, the skid tracks and the water sports.
The outcome of all of this is that the emotional and psychological bond between employer and employee becomes intensified. Through these events, the company develops an identity and by linking themselves with this, employees are motivated and some would even go so far as to say, become inspired. When the competitive advantage of companies is based on high rates of product and service innovation, it means that a high premium is attached to leveraging employee brain power. To do this they have to feel good about their companies And so perhaps the corporate event is not such a waste of money after all.
Is it just a load of talk?
In the high performing company, generating a high level of sociability among colleagues becomes a key strategic issue. Because we now spend so much of our time staring at computer screens, we have to be deliberately encouraged to talk to each other. Why is this important? Because office chat s the basis for new ideas and out of these come innovation and competitive advantage.
Many of the companies I researched are located in the centre of London with high costs, congestion and over crowded facilities. Why do they stay there instead of relocating to the congenial environment of Kent? Because of the absence of a high geographical concentration of pubs, restaurants and wine bars. It is in these places that colleagues meet up and it is here where the corporate plans get prepared, innovative ideas developed and sales leads pursued. In these small businesses there is no need for the Corporate event because working for the company is a corporate event on a day to day basis. To re-locate away from these facilities would quite literally destroy not only the heart and soul of these businesses but also the core of their strategic and operational processes.
What is also interesting is that their costs are kept low and their productivity high because out of hours sociability reduces the need for meetings during 'normal' working time. This practice also generates commitment and among colleagues a clear understanding of the company's strategy into which they all make an imput. It goes without saying that it sustains open and fluid communications.
In my experience, these companies are also very open with their customers and other business partners. This culture encourages strategic alliances and joint ventures for product development. There is an absence of corporate paranoia and obsession with secrecy. Why? Because these businesses know that their practices cannot be imitated. Based as these are on tacit working relations, and built upon intense personal relations, they know their ideas cannot be stolen. Why is Celia Smith still in demand as a person although she sells her recipes? Because although she puts her ideas in the public domain, she knows that her special and very personal set of cooking techniques cannot be imitated. And so it is with high performing companies.
I recently heard a speaker from GlaxoSmithKline. He was saying that the company regards the catering staff and the company restaurant as central to the drug discovery process. Why? Because if the food is good the R&D staff use the facilities and when they do, they discuss research ideas with each other. And so the key to gaining competitive advantage is to have highly motivated chefs. Think about that next time there is a debate in your company about outsourcing the catering! Equally, don't cut the budget for the corporate event. You could be killing the next money spinner idea.
© Professor Richard Scase