Today’s Conference Education Model Was Created For An Economy That No Longer Exists


Conference education has not kept pace with 21st Century workforce demands.

It is usually devoted to information transfer through a lecture or panel, rote learning and memorization of facts and figures to pass a certification test.

The reality is that this old style, 20th Century, traditional expert in front of the room presenting to rows of adults that are passively listening is over! We cannot continue to use an industrial revolution 1950s mindset to solve 21st Century problems.

Outdated Conference Education Model

Fifty years ago, our entire education institution was largely focused on routine. Memorization and following instructions aligned well with the jobs of that era that were in manufacturing and hierarchical organizations. Those approaches were also suited for people that would have only a single career.

Conference education copied that same model. It was all about putting an expert in the front of the room and having them dispense their knowledge. Once they shared their expertise, the audience then “had the same knowledge.”

Well, that was the belief anyway.

This conference education model is outdated and doesn’t result in learning.

From Routine To Non-Routine Work Models

Economists Levy and Murnane have studied the workforce since the 1960s. Their research shows a major decline in routine work. The more routine the task, the easier it is to digitize it and thus automate it.

Non-routine tasks have seen a sharp increase in workforce demands. Most 21st Century jobs require critical thinking, complex problem solving, collaboration, creativity, innovation, and information analysis.

Yet our conference education is still based on preparing a workforce for routine work.

Labor Secretary’s Research On 21st Century Skills

The Labor Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) sought to define the skills needed in a 21st Century, high-tech economy. The report highlighted skills the workforce of today needed for success.

These 21st Century skills included problem solving, critical thinking, evaluation and analysis of information, creativity and innovation.

Learning these skills requires more than listening to an expert. They have to be practiced to be applied. Yet our conference education does not allow participants to do anything but listen. Interactivity is rarely offered.

The AMA Critical Skills Survey

In 2010, the American Management Association (AMA) asked 2,100 small, medium and large businesses their views about critical thinking, communication, collaboration, innovation, problem solving and creativity.

More than 70% said they measured critical thinking, communication and collaboration in annual employee performance reviews. More than 50% said they measured creativity and innovation.

More than 75% said they assess critical thinking, complex problem solving and communication when hiring new employees. More than 60% said they assess collaboration, creativity and innovation.

More than 90% said that these skills were critical to the growth of their organization.

Yet our conference education is still focused on transferring information from an expert to a listener through a lecture or a panel. We do not provide learning opportunities for our attendees to interact with and practice these 21st Century skills.

Service Economy Requires Different Learning Opportunities

Our economy has changed. We are no longer in a manufacturing economy.

Today, 80%-85% of the country’s jobs are in the service economy. (21st Century Skills, Education & Competitiveness). Those who engage with customers, clients or patients are in the service economy.

But our conference education model has not shifted to accommodate this profound change. We still think that our conference attendees need information and data.

Gaps Between Workforce Demands And Conference Education Are Significant

If your conference education is like most, the gaps between the knowledge and skills required for success in today’s workforce and the knowledge and skills your attendees are learning at conference are significant.

We have to stop putting experts in the front of the room to dispense their knowledge and thinking it builds successful skills. We have to analyze our current model of conference education and ask if it is helping our customers or not.

We need facilitators of learning experiences instead of expert speakers. We have to make the shift to offering 21st Century education.


  • “AMA Critical Skills Survey 2010.” American Management Association
  • “Are They Really Ready To Work?” Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2006.
  • “Skills and Tasks for Jobs: A SCANS Report for America 2000.” Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills.
  • “The Skill Content of Recent Technological Change: Am Empirical Exploration.” Levy and Murnane, Quarterly Journal of Economics 118 (2003).

How has your conference education model changed so that your customers are now prepared for more complex and interactive jobs? What is your reaction to the framework of “routine thinking” versus “complex thinking” for a model of conference education?

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  1. Ton Soons says:

    I fully agree this view. I suggest and teach conference producers to research and develop their conferences by interrogating the prospected primary target group asking “I am considering to develop a conference for people like you, regarding XYZ ( a topic, your job or industry) . What are your concerns and with whom would you like to discuss them at a conference?”. After selecting the proposed (type of) persons (“speakers”) the producers must design an interactive conference with them, with presentations, interviews, debates, discussions, round-table sessions, excursions, demo’s etc.

  2. Well said. I have been writing about this since February, 1997 when I launched my training and development website and e-zine.

    It’s hard to believe that in almost 17 years there has hardly been any change. I had hoped that with the entrance of Gen-Y into the workforce there would have been pressure to change but 2 dynamics are at play.

    The 2008 downturn meant that many employees had to postpone retirement. So it has been harder for some of the younger workers who prefer more interactive approaches to get that first job and get promoted to decision making positions.

    The other dynamic is that those who are getting promoted and some of those who are moving into training and education have bought into the out-moded approaches. I gave a workshop for aspiring trainers and they were very resistant to interactive approaches. They wanted to sit and be passively spoon-feed by lecture and went complaining to the director when they were expected to participate, do projects and, heaven forbid, have evening assignments.

    One participant was under 25 and teaching a course. His attitude and I quote was “I don’t have to make it interesting. If they don’t accept how I teach I can just fail them.

    So it’s a matter of mindset not age.

    I don’t know when things will change.

    Keep sounding the alarm and I will continue to do the same.

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