Laiserin's Lemma—Schmoozinar in the Desert
(lemma: a short theorem used in proving a larger theorem)
Jerry Laiserin

Knowledge management is the discipline concerned with the development and dissemination of understanding in groups, organizations and industries. In a meeting or conference context, knowledge dissemination is most often associated with intellectual capital—the sort of structured activity that goes on in lectures, seminars and workshops. Knowledge development is most often associated with social capital—the sort of unstructured activity, or schmoozing, that goes on outside the seminar rooms before, between and after the formal sessions. Suppose somebody planned a gathering of engineering software vendors, users, analysts and editors that maximized the proportion of social capital—the schmoozefest—while maintaining just enough formal structure to make effective use of participants' time? The resulting "schmoozinar" would look a lot like CoFES, the Congress on the Future of Engineering Software.

Launched and piloted by Brad Holtz, Joel Orr and Evan Yares of mega-analyst firm Cyon Research, CoFES is now entering its fourth year, and I have been privileged to be an invited participant from the get-go. CoFES attendance is by invitation only, and Cyoneers Holtz, Orr and Yares tightly limit the list to no more than 240 senior-level decision makers in the mechanical/manufacturing and AEC software communities. Every year I am both amazed and delighted by the diversity, balance and collective expertise of the folks that the Cyoneers invite to populate CoFES.

Physically sited in Scottsdale, Arizona every year, CoFES has wandered a bit in time over the years, in search of the ideal slot in a congested spring meeting calendar. For 2003, CoFES will run from the evening of May 15 to the morning of May 18, neatly tucked between this year's convention of the American Council Of Engineering Companies (ACEC), May 11-14, and the Bentley International User Conference (BIUC), May 18-22. While general-purpose, industry-wide tradeshows and affiliated conferences have suffered drastic declines (not just in AEC and MCAD, but across all industries), carefully targeted venues have been booming. CoFES, ACEC, BIUC and a select few others exemplify these trend-setting events. What sets these examples apart from their failing tradeshow/conference cousins is the favorable ratio of social capital activities, affording opportunities for active but informal networking, compared to the more passive and formalized intellectual capital realm of seminars and canned demos.

BIUC has its share of seminars and tutorials, skillfully intermixed with ample networking opportunities (as does its winter-time archrival Autodesk University. But, as I reported in IssueThree, BIUC is a user group conference that stresses presentations by users themselves, rather than "show, tell and sell" by vendor staff. Folks from the audience in one session may be seminar leaders or panelists in other sessions, which tends to soften the distinction between seminar time and schmooze time. The success of ACEC conferences is attributable in large measure to that organization's exclusive focus on senior-level executives. ACEC membership is at the firm level, not individuals, ensuring participation by senior management of ACEC's nearly 6,000 member firms representing some 250,000 staff. I had the honor of speaking to these folks about "Knowledge Management for Design Professionals" at their October 2002 meeting in Puerto Rico, and they are among the smartest, most interactive participants I've worked with among hundreds of groups over the years.

CoFES pushes these trends to their practical limits. Although the CoFES schedule includes keynote talks, formal briefings and plenary sessions, every invitee could serve interchangeably as presenter or audience, as at BIUC. Furthermore, as at ACEC, the high-level focus and high-powered credentials of all attendees ensures that even the most casual breakfast conversation or late-night chat at poolside will be a rewarding knowledge opportunity. Since the kickoff event in 2000, the AEC side of CoFES has gradually achieved parity with the mechanical/manufacturing side—further reinforcing the strong cross-fertilization among the disciplines.

The availability of product and service information and high-bandwidth conferencing over the internet has and will continue to erode the utility of mass-market, generic tradeshow/conferences and unfocused, general membership conventions. Economic and post-9/11 concerns that crimp travel budgets will accelerate the erosion. On the other hand, the same factors that are eating away at traditional meetings are simultaneously placing a greater premium on face2face contacts among like-minded, like-level peers and counterparts—precisely the kind of crowd that gets invited to CoFES. Anyone fortunate enough to receive that coveted CoFES invitation should give the most serious consideration to clearing some calendar time for a few delightful mid-May days in Scottsdale.

If you do attend, I'll see you there. If you can't make it, keep reading the LaiserinLetter for first-hand reports from CoFES. Either way, let me know what you think.

Editor and Publisher, The LaiserinLetter
Analysis, Strategy and Opinion for Technology Leaders in Design Business

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