Why a Leading IT Leadership Organization Totally Redesigned its Annual Conference

Jaclyn SchiffLatest News0 Comments

The Society for Information Management (SIM) has held an annual conference for nearly 40 years. The conference, called SIM Interchange in the 70’s and SIMposium starting in the 80’s, consistently drew a strong core audience of CIO’s and IT leaders. Now, as member demand for a different type of conference experience continues to grow, SIM is reinventing the conference experience.

“We want to iterate toward something that others aren’t doing, or aren’t doing well,” explained Steve Hufford, SIM’s chief executive. “We hear from conference participants and Chapters that it’s time to do an update, and to look at how we can do things that are innovative and move the dial on how we do an event like this.”

The conference steering committee, led by Debbie Jowers, vice president ambulatory ITS services at Texas Health Resources in Dallas, decided it was time to ask tough questions. So in June, 2015, a strategy session was convened to explore whether SIM should even host an annual conference. Was there something members could gain from a yearly gathering? Is there an appetite for it? And if there is, what changes need to be made to bring the event in line with what people want?

Yes, there was a need for a live forum that brought SIM members together, the committee concluded. But the conference needed to look a lot different. “It was just time after 40-some years of kind of the same format to change this into something more modern and to be more in line with the way people learn and interact today,” said Jowers.

So Jowers, Hufford and a small group of SIM staff and volunteers worked together to come up with a strategy for a redesign. They sought expertise from Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, which specializes in conference and trade show improvement. The company “facilitated a task force charged with completely reimagining the SIMposium into a brand new experience for SIM members,” explained Sarah Michel, a vice president at Velvet Chainsaw. “Our designing principles were transformational and focused on community, and we wanted to bake those into every aspect of the new conference. That led to a more purposeful driven conference brand — SIM Connect Live.”

Some adjustments were made to the conference program in 2016, but the next major experience iteration will be unveiled when SIM Connect Live launches on April 11, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. While SIMposium traditionally took place each fall, one of the findings from the redesign research was spring worked better for most attendees, which is why the event will be held in April.

With a focus on networking and making the right connections, attendees will encounter a different kind of space layout and program at SIM Connect Live.

“We will have ample quiet space for members to talk to each other and share solutions,” said Deborah DeCorrevont, an IT executive with the Salt River Project who became chair of the conference’s national committee at the beginning of this year after Jowers’ term was up. DeCorrevont explained that to make networking more purposeful, people will be asked for their specific areas of interest when they register for the conference so they are provided with opportunities to connect with others who share those interests. For example, areas of the event will be devoted to table-top networking where people can easily identify others who might be interested in cybersecurity, procurement or other issues.

The general ethos of the redesigned event is designed to enhance peer-learning. “Instead of people talking to attendees, attendees will talk each other,” Hufford said. “It is designed to have more interaction, less presentation,” he added. “Fewer slides, more interaction, more on-demand content is part of our focus.”

Change is also coming to the sponsorship area. In the past, attendees that visited vendor booths would usually find vendors who tried to sell them on their products. This year, attendees can peruse the Solution Center where efforts are being made to include sponsors who can provide genuine solution counseling and who won’t use the conversations as an opportunity to pitch products, DeCorrevont explained.

While the experience will be fresh, the redesign has also focused on emphasizing what IT leaders enjoy about being a part of SIM and the different resources the organization can provide for members. DeCorrevont explained that one of the conference tracks will be based around SIM resources, such as STEM Outreach. “We’re balancing the old with the new,” she said, noting that it’s the 50th anniversary of the event. “We want to pay tribute to the founders of the conference as we reinvent for today’s audience and new kind of leader.”

Another part of blending the old with the new is the revised role for the Regional Leadership Forum, which has usually help a separate event alongside the conference with little mixing between the two. In 2018, the two events will feed off each other with added content, program, and networking opportunities for SIM members and graduates of the RLF program.

“With rapid, relentless advances in technology on the horizon, current and future leaders will soon be facing a host of critical issues with moral, ethical and social implications,” said Phil Zwieg, national director of the RLF. “Advancing Leadership 2018 will feature numerous presentations and breakouts on these issues for RLF graduates to discuss — plus multiple opportunities for networking, reuniting and reconnecting.”

“SIM members used to say that our conference looks like everyone else’s, so they put it in the planning stack with everyone else’s conference and we didn’t always win,” Hufford said when reflecting on past conferences. “Now our focus is on providing a different experience, which will be much more collaborative, much more focused on the leadership challenge, and very focused on the future of IT.”

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