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03 August 2007

Backlash against conference season

Former Spook has an interesting item regarding political backlash against the long established tradition of the conference season.

While we are no defender of government waste and abuse, and can list a few dozen conferences which are nothing more than the fig leaf over vacations for senior managers with no real responsibilities of their own, we find ourselves troubled by the implications of this exercise – not of legitimate oversight, but of the continuing game of political “gotcha” that has so bedeviled DOD and the IC in recent years.

At the same time we are attempting to revolutionize both military affairs and the intelligence community through information sharing, and break stovepipes and fiefdoms through collaboration, we are not supposed to spend funds on travel and convention rooms to do it?

To be sure, VTCs have brought us a lot of benefits, as have more persistent collaborative environments such as Groove/Jabber, Intellipedia, and many of the various account specific portals created within the several classified and SBU networks. We have high hopes for similar benefits from virtual worlds such as Second Life. But we have found that collaboration in those environments works best when individuals periodically have a chance to meet face to face, and especially when they can have discussions on informal ground in less than official contexts.

The conference season for has some time been for us a time of renewal, in which we are energized by exposure to other issues and accounts, and through these exchanges find new ways of thinking and new players in the professional space. In many cases, it may be the first time that introductions are made that will later be of immeasurable import in a crisis – because the first time you exchange business cards shouldn’t be during or immediately after a major terrorist attack or other intelligence failure.

We know a number of good young analysts which count on a single conference a year (if they are lucky, and mission requirements do not suddenly interrupt) as a rare chance to get out of the office and meet others, both working similar accounts as well as those in unrelated but intellectually stimulating fields. Several may even use their limited leave time (and personal funds) to attend – or volunteer to perform administrative scut work far beneath their normal responsibilities simply for a chance to be in the room. We have seen firsthand the benefits to moral and productivity that these occasions create, and the damage over time that is caused to shops which do not encourage such interactions.

Frankly, the typical DC venues used in the conference season are one of the primary arguments in favour of the “centralized” community in the greater Metro area. But we have found that we greatly favour the offsites out of town, where other players from dispersed geographies can also come out to play, and where the temptation to head back to the office in the middle of the day to deal with “pressing demands” are reduced – and where participants are more likely to hit the bar after a long day, allowing for far better networking, than to head home and maintain their pockets of splendid isolation.

Nothing good comes for free, but the higher order effects of the conference season are well worth the investment required to bring it about. And after all, cramped economy class seating, less than favourable flight times, sub-economy class rental cars from off brand chains, dingy “government rate” hotel rooms, and a per diem that barely buys a decent steak dinner are hardly the luxuries of say a typical Congressional junket, let alone a normal function in corporate America.

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