Professional Life: Attending Professional Meetings

Showing Up

The US comedian and movie director, Woody Allen, once said that 80% of success is showing up.  When it comes to professional meetings, there’s more than a little truth in his claim.  Think about an Academy of Management (AoM) annual meeting.  It would be a rather short and uninteresting event if only a few showed up.  Charles Jamison presided over the second meeting of the AoM in Philadelphia back in 1934.  There were 24 attendees.  Jump ahead to 2000 when Dave Whetten presided over an AoM meeting in Toronto with more than 5500 attendees drawn from a membership exceeding 11,000.  There were thousands of opportunities to hear paper presentations at competitively-selected panel sessions, symposia, caucus meetings, keynote addresses, receptions, and informal gatherings.  I wouldn’t guarantee that every paper or presentation was ready for verbatim publication in one of the AoM journals.  But there were in 2000 and continues to be in 2012 great opportunities to see, hear and learn from a diverse group of scholars and scholarship at AoM meetings.  And it happens in one place over a few days.  Quantity has a quality all its own.  And when you show up, you promote both.

This month, I’d like to think about some of the ethical issues raised in showing up to professional meetings and doing your part for your own professional development as well as that of your colleagues.

What’s Right (and Wrong) for You (and Us) in a Professional Meeting?

In 2012, there is no shortage of professional societies to join, meetings to attend and related service to promote the maintenance and growth of both.  It’s an alphabet soup running from AAoM to AEA, AIB, AoM, EURAM, EGOS, IABS, IEEE, ORSA-TIMS, SASE, SBE, SMS and beyond.  Many of us have limited budgets and time to submit papers, proposals and or attend them on an annual basis.  My own very rough rule is to try and submit papers to and attend from two to three professional meetings a year.  Almost every year, I attend the AoM meeting in August.  Then I try to attend the Academy of International Business (AIB) meeting in June-July and or the Strategic Management Society (SMS) meeting in late October-November.

What’s right for you depends.  My own view is that a meeting should provide at least three learning opportunities:  1) to learn about your field –through presentation of your own research to others or from listening to and discussing the research of others; 2) to learn about your profession –through presentation by the association leadership and journal editors, interviews with prospective job candidates (including, perhaps, you as the candidate), and discussion with vendors such as publishers; and 3) to learn about your colleagues –see familiar faces and reconnect to find out what is happening in their professional and personal lives, and to make new contacts and friends.   These factors make it difficult to miss AoM and a bit easier to let an AIB, SMS or other annual meeting to slip by now and then.

Of course, there are other factors in play:  registration expense, travel and accommodation expense, the opportunity cost of time away from home and work.  And of course, there’s the work of preparing an original submission six to nine months earlier than the date of the meeting.  We often justify those submission deadlines as prompts to help us finish writing a paper that was only an idea and a few data correlations for months.  Again, the December-January winter vacation window for submission to AoM, AIB and SMS fits my work habits and my Northern Hemispheric location.  So I go there more often in the following summer and fall months.

There are (learning) factors I prefer and (expense) factors I know when choosing meetings.  Here are a few other factors that probably shouldn’t be part of the calculus.  Maybe location matters –Dallas in August may not appeal to everyone.  On the other hand, humidity is not and probably should not be the reason to attend or avoid a professional meeting (in an air-conditioned hotel or conference center).  Then there are other factors that simply shouldn’t be part of the calculus: the number of receptions with an open bar (and top-shelf liquor); and the likelihood that some faculty colleague will make a spectacle of him or herself (at one of those receptions).  Call me judgmental but these and many other “cosmetic” factors strike me as irrelevant. We’re there to learn and help others learn.  It’s the quantity of such learning-motivated attendees that gives a meeting its quality.

The No-Show Problem

Over the years, I have occasionally strayed into professional meetings in other academic fields.  I enjoy studying the role of electoral politics in prompting more or less foreign investment in countries, particularly in developing countries.  One great place outside of management to learn more about electoral politics and foreign investment is at professional meetings of political science scholars.  The American Political Science (APSA) meets annually in late August or early September while the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) meets annually in late March or early April.

Competitive paper sessions at APSA and MPSA have an additional element I’ve never found at management meetings.  At specific sessions, the presenters, chairs and discussants fill out forms to verify their attendance.  Apparently, there’s a no-show problem.  Scholars submit papers and get them accepted for presentation.  Others sign up to serve as chairs or discussants.  And then they either don’t go to the professional meeting or go but don’t attend their scheduled session.  I confess to substantial ignorance regarding the extent of this problem in political science, in management or in other fields.  I can imagine the potential for abuse.  Maybe the faculty member signs up to chair a session and then uses such scheduled participation in the program to get his/her trip paid for by the department or college.  It’s an interesting way to ask for, say $1,000-1500.  Maybe it’s a little risky, too.  If the meeting organizers learn that you ducked out of your session as chair, discussant or presenter then, supposedly, your participation in subsequent years could be put in jeopardy.  In any case, the no-show problem is an issue and rightfully so.  Failure to show and participate as scheduled detracts from the learning experience of others in the same session, and indeed, in the meeting more broadly.

Setting Examples:  In Person and Electronically, From the Top Down and the Bottom Up

I don’t know whether this sort of problem is substantial in management as it may be in other fields.  I do recall an instance at AoM in the 1990s when I was a doctoral student presenting a paper in a competitive session.  The scheduled discussant was a chaired professor at a major research university in the US.  Not only did s/he not attend my session as discussant, but s/he was found across the hall sitting in quietly at another session where his/her doctoral student was presenting.  When confronted afterwards –not by me but by another participant in my session– s/he hardly feigned surprise at the failure to show up.  Being present for his/her doctoral student apparently trumped other obligations to the meeting organizers.

In a digital world with instant and also asynchronous communication it has probably become easier to be a no-show at meetings.  It’s late July and a track chair gets a brief email late at night from a faculty member in the state or the country of Georgia saying that they won’t be able to attend the AoM session and present the paper they were invited to present after submission the previous January, review in February, and scheduling into the program in April.  Sometimes, there is good reason for the email:  health or family emergencies; for foreign faculty coming to the US, visa issues.  Stuff happens.  But sometimes the late-night email just says “can’t come.”  No explanation.  Those are the emails that vex track chairs who put in hours trying to allocate scarce paper presentation slots.  Those are the emails that vex session chairs and discussants who put in hours reviewing and preparing comments on papers.  Those are the emails that prompt us to think about ways to identify and sanction habitual no-shows.

My vignettes are, I think, so much more an exception than the rule for professional meetings in management.  But no matter how infrequently it happens, it sets a bad example for others to follow.  After observing a chaired professor blow off a session across the hall with no apology, a doe-eyed doctoral student thinks about when seniority and self-importance will let him/her blow off scheduled meeting obligations.  The umpteenth email from Georgia –state, country and or person– begging off at the last moment leaves the track chair weary of ever volunteering for such service again.  The umpteenth no-show at a paper session leaves the session discussant wondering how s/he got conned into reading a paper and preparing a constructive review for someone s/he doesn’t know and is now probably less interested in knowing.  There is much to lose for the no-show and for others at the meeting and in the profession.

My examples seem pretty “top-down” in nature.  Faculty scheduled to attend a meeting don’t, and other peers or more junior colleagues learn the wrong lesson.  Here’s a “bottom-up” example. It’s a cliché to say that doctoral students represent the future of our field.  It’s a bit less cliché-ish to hold that those same students are the biggest potential beneficiaries of and biggest contributors to professional meetings.  They get all of the learning opportunities I outlined above.  And it is all new to them:  the people, the papers, the various networking opportunities.  There’s a naïve excitement often palpable and energizing in the questions and comments I get from doctoral students who attend a symposia, paper session or other session I attend.  They remind me of my own past, and help re-kindle some of the excitement that got me into this business in the first place.  My own view is that we should be encouraging and financially supporting doctoral students to attend professional meetings like AoM, AIB and SMS as soon as possible and as often as possible.  When they show up, they tend to do so with more gusto as consumers and catalysts of learning.

Intellectual Ginbura

I was a track chair for last summer’s AIB annual meeting in Washington, DC.  I had the opportunity to identify papers for presentation in competitive sessions and papers for less formal “interactive” sessions.  Interactive sessions include six to eight paper presenters sitting around a table, taking five minutes each to summarize key points and implications for the session theme.  The session chairs double as discussants, often commenting on individual papers immediately after their presentation and then summing up commonalities across papers.  And there are comments and questions from other session presenters and attendees.  It’s a busy affair.

I made a point of visiting most of the interactive sessions in my meeting track.  Initially, I thought it would set a good example to have the track chair show up to sessions that might otherwise attract less attention and attendance than, say, some symposium composed of senior scholars.  I would wander in after an interactive session started, and then stay for 30 minutes before wandering on to another session.  It would be like the Tokyo shopper who wanders the streets of the Ginza with no specific purchase in mind.  My reasons for such an intellectual ginbura changed after the first two interactive sessions I attended.  They were just so interesting.  Asking presenters to be brief and to highlight connections to previous presentations encouraged real dialogue on common themes around the table.  The session chairs were fantastic at drawing out implications from a single presentation or from a few presentations addressing common themes.  It was just the kind of learning experience I hoped to get from showing up at the AIB meeting, but not where I expected that learning experience to happen.  Sure, no-shows are a problem for those of us who attend expecting to learn from them.  But maybe we have an obligation to think more broadly about who else made it there and how they may surprise us with something unexpected and exciting.

Professional Obligations, Not Merely Etiquette

Maybe that’s a great place to conclude.  Woody Allen is probably right that 80% of success is simply in showing up.  For professional meetings, showing up is a big part of overall success in learning and developing professionally.  We have an obligation to show up when we submit a paper or proposal and have it accepted for presentation.  We have an obligation to show up when we agree to serve as a chair, discussant, facilitator, consortium faculty member, judge.  We have an obligation to play our role in professional meetings with diligence and care.  It’s not just a matter of etiquette –observing some niceties in person or electronically when pulling out of a specific session’s duty or from the meeting generally.  Others are depending on your presence and active participation.  Others are observing and learning from your behavior.  You matter.  You should be there.  And if some emergency keeps you from attending, then you should try to mitigate the loss by reaching out to co-authors and colleagues who might fill in with diligence and care.

And for those who do show, well you’re 80% of the way to success.  To increase that percentage, reflect in advance on how this professional meeting will enrich your learning.  Maybe you could also reflect on how some surprise learning might happen.  As the ginbura story illustrates, it makes sense to do a little exploration for learning opportunities in less familiar venues of a professional meeting.   I think it was Louis Pasteur who said that “[f]ortune favors the prepared mind.”

I wonder what Pasteur would’ve thought about Midnight in Paris

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Please address your comments to:

Paul M. Vaaler

Department of Strategic Management

Carlson School of Management

University of Minnesota

3-424 CarlSMgmt

321 19th Avenue South

Minneapolis, MN 55455

Tel (612) 625-4951

Fax (612) 626-1316

E-mail: vaal0001@umn.edu

Author: Paul Vaaler

Professional Life