Technology has advanced so much that we can now buy ice cream, deposit checks, chat with friends, find and apply for jobs, and share pictures of cats—all from our phones. We have Skype. We have social networking. And more people than ever are making use of virtual social platforms to connect and stay connected with others, educate themselves, learn skills, conduct meetings, and do business. Somewhere between 500 and 800 free massive open online courses (MOOCs) were offered in 2013. YouTube reported that more than 100 hours of videos are uploaded every minute, and Wikipedia has over 4 million English-language articles updated and validated by more than 3000 regular volunteers.
And yet in 2013 more than 30,000 people descended on Austin, Tex., to attended SXSW Interactive. Over 1,400 hit Long Beach for the TED Conference. And participants flocked to noteworthy hotspots like Aspen, La Jolla, and San Francisco for thousands of conferences, roundtables, tradeshows, and exhibitions—including Techonomy events in Tucson and Detroit.
Why do we still need physical presence if it’s an increasingly virtual world?
Social media connections enable knowledge-sharing. But physical meetups still enable more compelling spontaneous interactions, establish deeper trusted relationships, and let us share tacit knowledge in ways no other connections can. Conference-goers discover new ideas, experience serendipitous encounters, touch and feel new technology, and develop new relationships.
We’ve noticed that conference activity seems to be most intense and widespread when people are convening around a topic at the edge—by which we mean the edge of peoples’ awareness, the edge of innovation. It might be a new generation of technology, such as the cloud, a new market, or an emerging region. One reason is that there isn’t a lot of data to share on such topics. There is no canon of knowledge, no curricula. All that those who participate—or want to participate—at these edges have are stories of their own experiences. They gather to share these stories, to learn more, and to begin developing a context for their actions and further stories.
Consider Dreamforce, Salesforce.com’s gigantic and still-growing annual event, which brought more than 135,000 participants to San Francisco in November 2013. Attendees learn about new technologies from Salesforce and see firsthand the innovations from the partner ecosystem. Salesforce partners come to showcase their innovations and find collaborators and resources for new endeavors. Many of those drawn to attend are small players—individual developers and startups—who build on Salesforce platforms. Some will grow large, some will stay small, others will be acquired. They, in turn, attract investors, consultants, and other customers who are eager to stay ahead of emerging trends and learn how to better use the existing services to solve their most pressing business problems.
The conference setting becomes a hotbed of unpredictable interactions and encounters that lead to learning and new opportunities. No virtual platform or tele-presence can yet begin to duplicate the spontaneity and energy that comes from 135,000 people rubbing elbows for three days around a shared topic of interest. In fact, travel volume has increased 63 percent over the past two decades and continues on an upward trend as reported in our 2013 Shift Index. Face-to-face interactions facilitate the transfer of tacit knowledge more readily than other means, despite the improvements and accessibility of tools to connect digitally.
Events that focus on emerging topics around areas like marketing analytics that are specific to a function or industry generate a lot of interest and excitement. Kim Rivielle, a managing director at Institute for International Research, says that business-to-business events “have real value when you can provide innovative content and connect people with each other so that they are learning and generating new business.”
In emerging and less-defined areas, participants may not even know the questions to ask, nor know how to frame the unknowns. Without a framework to ask questions, it is difficult to find answers on a digital platform, no matter how good—at least so far. Being in a physical environment with others grappling with similar challenges helps one build context and create domain knowledge. Looking at an agenda or listening to key speakers can open a participant’s eyes to the possibilities. But understanding the relationship of those possibilities to our own world and seeing a path forward often benefits from the additional insights and ideas that come from comparing notes with the person next to you or a later conversation in the lunch line.
Conferences won’t substitute for social platforms that help individuals connect or maintain relationships formed in the physical world. But there is an undeniable benefit to taking a day or two away from your normal schedule to physically gather with a variety of people who are engaged with and passionate about a new or emerging opportunity. Then afterward you can stay connected with your new acquaintances on Facebook, Twitter, and those other virtual tools we all love.
John Hagel III, director in Deloitte Consulting LLP, is the co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge based in Silicon Valley. John Seely Brown is the independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge.