DGI Executive Insights Interview with DC Central Kitchen Chief Development Officer Alexander Moore

Alexander Moore, Chief Development Officer, DC Central Kitchen

  1. How long have you been at DC Central Kitchen and what do you do there?

I first joined DC Central Kitchen as an undergraduate intern in the spring of 2006. In my junior year of college, I reluctantly took a proposal writing class, and was assigned what I have to imagine is the world’s most profane nonprofit management textbook – Begging for Change by Robert Egger. The book described Robert’s experience launching DC Central Kitchen, a ferociously contrarian, fiercely principled nonprofit dedicated to turning the traditional soup kitchen model on its head. I told myself “I have to meet this nightclub manager-turned-nonprofit visionary,” so I sent him a cold email. A few weeks later, I was sitting down to a makeshift desk (it was a bookshelf) in the basement of a homeless shelter as the organization’s first grant writing intern.

Once you’ve been in that basement kitchen, it’s hard not to fall in love with this organization. I spent a few years kicking around graduate school trying to find something that inspired me as much as the win/win scenario offered by an organization that not only provided nutritious, dignified food to people who needed it, but also took on the root causes of hunger through job training, social entrepreneurship, and the fearlessly innovative use of every resource at its disposal, whether it was leftover food or skeptical teenage volunteers. I never found a more compelling solution to the pressing problem of poverty in the depths of the recession, so I jumped at the chance to come back as a full-time employee in 2010. In the years since, the organization has taken one chance on me after another, ultimately making me its Chief Development Officer in 2014 when I was 28 years old. I now work with an amazing team of development professionals and guide the organization’s fundraising, external relations, and government relations activities.

  1. What is the hottest topic being discussed at DC Central Kitchen?

This is a hard one to answer in these complex times, but I’d have to say our team has been generating a ton of energy – and exciting ideas – for better serving Opportunity Youth. If you’re not familiar with that term, it refers to young people, usually ages 16 to 24, who are not in school and not working. Youth who aren’t engaged in work or school are disproportionately at risk for a host of challenges, in the short- and long-term, at great cost to themselves and our community as a whole. Unfortunately, DC is just one of two jurisdictions in the entire country where the rate of youth disconnection is going up, not down.

For three decades, DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training program has empowered adult people who have experienced homelessness, incarceration, addiction, and trauma to embark on meaningful careers in our city’s thriving hospitality industry. As a result, we’ve become widely known as a ‘second chance’ program that helps our neighbors facing painfully high barriers to employment re-enter the workforce. But what if we could become engaged in people’s lives before these challenges became so severe, and could help them establish themselves in the industry earlier on?

That type of question is why we’re so excited to begin working with Opportunity Youth in a more ambitious and focused way. Later this year, we’re going to launch a new cafe and youth job training center on the campus of THEARC in Ward 8, with the goal of equipping young people who have become disconnected from work and school with the right mix of culinary skills, customer service experience, self-confidence, and industry-recognized credentials to enter the hospitality field and stay on track. That’s no easy task – if it were, more programs like this would already exist – but we’re drawing on 30 years of our own experience and national best practices to launch this youth-led cafe and bring both an effective training program and meaningful community amenity to our community.

  1. What will organizations like DC Central Kitchen be confronted with the next 3-5 years from a technology perspective– what opportunities/hurdles (especially with respect to Robots, chatbots, Artificial Intelligence, etc.)?

The nonprofit sector is struggling to keep up with the rapidly developing world of technology, especially organizations working to provide direct services to our most marginalized and under-resourced neighbors. The type of infrastructure, expert staffing, and ongoing training required to stay current are often viewed as luxury goods in our line of work, and relatively few donors are willing to support the types of investments that allow nonprofits to keep up. DC Central Kitchen has been fortunate to have some very forward-thinking supporters that allowed us to develop a Salesforce-based CRM system to manage our external relationships and build out a robust performance management capacity with a tool called Apricot that’s allowed us to create a culture of data-driven decision-making – but we’re the exception not the rule.

Looking more systemically, I think it’s safe to say that most nonprofits in the field of workforce development are going to be downstream of some major changes in the types of industries we’re currently training participants to enter. As creative as we might be on the front lines, we’re going to need some visionary strategic leadership at the Federal, state, regional, and local levels in terms of setting workforce system priorities and allocating the types of resources needed to help unemployed folks enter the job market, provide incumbent worker training, and deliver training and credentials that help people keep advancing in their careers at a time when wages are stagnant and entry-level jobs are being eliminated by some of these technological ‘solutions.’ Call me old school, but I’ve always believed that the gains from new innovations and efficiencies should be used to address the needs of those who lose out on those changes, and we need to be way more intentional about investing in proactive and creative workforce development if we’re going to ensure that our technological progress doesn’t undermine the ability of many Americans to support themselves and their families.

  1. What is your funniest/fondest memory/What are you most proud of during your time at DC Central Kitchen?

I’m proudest of our work as a principled, mission-driven job creator. When I joined DC Central Kitchen as an intern, our organization consisted of about 45 folks, all working in the basement of a shelter. Today, we’re 185 people strong, 84 of whom are graduates of our Culinary Job Training program. We provide full-time hours, start everyone at $14.50 an hour or better, pay 100% of everyone’s health insurance, and match 100% of retirement contributions up to 4% of salary. That’s pretty impressive for a ‘basement charity’ – and it’s possible because unlike a traditional charity, we earn 60% of our annual income through social enterprise activities like serving locally sourced school meals or catering corporate events. That makes us more flexible and sustainable than a hand-to-mouth fundraising operation, and it means that every dollar we receive in donations, we more than match in money we earn ourselves. 

  1.    What are your top three recommendations for young people entering philanthropy/fundraising today?

First, don’t be a fundraiser. I’m not. I’m a devoted advocate for DC Central Kitchen’s mission and programs, and that advocacy sometimes involves creating opportunities for people to support us financially. I don’t think hopping from one organization to another in search of the right fundraising role is the way to succeed in this field. I think it’s really about finding a mission that feels like an extension of your most strongly held values and waking up every day wanting to help other people learn to love that mission the way you do.

Second, no one should ever wait 24 hours for a response from you, unless you have a detailed out-of-office indicating when they should expect that response. I’m no stranger to having my own emails ignored, but that’s all the more reason to provide outstanding customer service to everyone you interact with, whether they’re a high-powered executive, a foundation director, or an aspiring undergraduate intern. If Robert Egger hadn’t taken my email seriously 12 years ago, I wouldn’t be here today, and the respect he showed me set the tone for how I wanted to behave as a professional – and pay it forward.

Third, the best words you can ever say are ‘Thank You.’ We owe a huge thanks to Mike Smoyer and the DGI team, who have been so incredibly generous with us over the years. Since we became a charitable partner of DGI and the 930gov conference, this annual event has raised thousands of dollars for our programs – allowing us to continue meeting the most pressing needs of our community. So to everyone involved in organizing and attending 930gov – thank you!

DC Central Kitchen’s Website: https://dccentralkitchen.org/

 

 

Where IT comes together – an Interdisciplinary Approach to Learning

Mike Smoyer

Mike Smoyer

While there are numerous professional development opportunities for government employees, most are specialized, focusing on single issues such as Cyber, Customer Experience, Records/Information Management, Data Management, Cloud, IT Modernization etc. The unfortunate trend the past decade, many Government professionals are only authorized to attend events within their discipline or “swim lane” (e.g., Records professionals can attend EDRM events; IT Security professionals can attend Cyber, etc.). Over the years, many Digital Government Institute Education Advisory Committee members remarked: “if only we could get all stakeholders in the room to discuss the issue and its potential impact on the Agency/respective Departments, we would be better off.”

Collaboration and Leadership are required to solve complex problems. Successful entities form interdisciplinary teams from the ground up, focusing on a specific problem, and then will use all the available assets of the organization to attack it. When knowledge is kept within disciplinary compartments, solving complex problems that require more than one area of expertise are difficult to resolve.

In my humble opinion, if the public sector is to effectively modernize to meet citizen needs/confront national security threats, it needs to restructure human capital policies and procedures. Federal CIO Suzette Kent recently laid out what she sees as the requirements for the modern CIO: “accountability, authority, and an expanded skill set not seen in the past.” Her vision is to align more closely with the business side of federal agencies: “CIOs are expected not only to have technology skills, but they have to be leaders, and they have a broad set of management capabilities.”

Organizations providing learning opportunities for the public sector can help. The number of events providing the opportunity for government attendees to network/learn from multiple communities of interest are limited. In decades past large government trade shows covered all important issues of the day allowing attendees to map out an education program to broaden their respective skill sets. For decades, Government espoused how important it is to train and develop a workforce capable of meeting the challenges of the future, but when it comes to filling the training gap, it has come up short. 

Six years ago, Digital Government Institute created 930gov – a conference and tradeshow with five concurrent conferences with a unified exhibit floor allowing attendees to mix and match sessions to align networking, educational and professional interests. Few other opportunities in DC provide such a broad array of educational offerings, all in one day, free for all government professionals to attend. Plan to register and attend on Tuesday, August 28 at the Washington Convention Center – we hope to see you there – www.930gov.com

It has been an interesting year in the Government IT channel.  The Presidential election last Fall leading to a new administration in January, a budget process stuck in continuing resolution mode, rapidly advancing technology and the pressing need for agencies to modernize made the first two quarters of the government fiscal year a bit more tumultuous than normal.  With only five months remaining in FY ’17, many want to know what lies ahead.

First, with the recent CR being approved, it looks like government spending will normalize the remaining months of FY ’17 but few know what to expect when new government fiscal year begins 10/1/17.  Both political parties continue to be steadfast in their beliefs and it looks like the threats of ‘government shutdowns’ will dominate the news later this summer and heat up in September.  It is my wish for the budget process to get back to regular order and Congress pass individual appropriation bills.  The ‘omnibus’ process is a disaster and needs reform.

Second, spending for the first two quarters seems to be tracking with FY ’16 based on industry estimates.    Most agencies will be funded near or at 2016 levels with the new CR, and spending should be relatively normal for remainder of FY ’17 thus opportunities for new and increased business are available for the IT vendor community.

Third, the Modernizing Government Technology Act (MGT) designed to provide startup funds for agencies to modernize legacy IT systems will be introduced to Congress soon and when enacted will create multiple new business opportunities for IT vendors for many months to come.

Fourth, on page 9 of the Comprehensive Plan for Reforming Government (M-17-22) Agencies should consider government-wide contracts for common goods and services to save money, avoid wasteful and redundant contracting actions, and free-up acquisition staff to accelerate procurements for high-priority mission work. To the maximum extent practicable, especially for the acquisition of common goods and services, agencies shall use existing contract solutions such as: Federal Supply Schedules; Government-wide acquisition contracts; Multi-agency contracts; and Any other procurement instruments intended for use by multiple agencies, including “Best in Class” (BIC).

What lies ahead is a lot of opportunity for IT vendors with the knowledge, resume, reputation, contract vehicles and relationships in the channel?  Mark Amtower, consultant and founder of the Government Market Master continuing professional education program, frequently writes about the importance and growing use of GWACS.  He believes GWACS will continue to grow in popularity in FY ’17 and beyond for multiple reasons including (1) the vetting process to win a prime contract spot on the respective vehicles (2) the ease of use for government to use vehicles (3) quick turnaround time.  All three of Mark’s points align with initiatives outlined above.  With the new administration’s active endorsement for agencies to accelerate procurements using existing contract vehicles, GWACs is where a lot of action will be in QIV this year. 

Interested in learning more?  Mark Amtower will moderate a panel of Government IT Subject Matter Experts/Industry Leaders to review what’s new and what lies ahead for Governmentwide Acquisition Contracts and IT Contracting for the current and next fiscal year at Digital Government Institute’s 5th annual 930gov Conference & Tradeshow on September 6, 2017 at the Washington Convention Center

930gov “Where government gathers” is a free, one-day, multi-track training and educational event where 2,000 government IT professionals from multiple technical communities gather to engage, get informed, be inspired and experience a dynamic exhibitor floor full of industry-leading vendors and their respective solutions. Registration is free for Government & Industry

Producing 930gov is a bit like staging an Inaugural Ball.

You plan for a year, the big day arrives, you have everyone you respect in one place, there’s this action-packed whirlwind of activity, and BAM! it feels like the whole thing is over in minutes. As the dust settles, you’re left with a profound sense of relief, satisfaction—and already, the first 5 or 10 items on your to-do list for the next go around.  

You’re also blessed with indelible memories—a mental montage of great moments from all the sessions, as well as discussions with our speakers, exhibitors, attendees. The ideas were flying; you try to take it all in, but it really was a fun challenge to take it all in.  

Some excerpts from my personal “930gov montage”on twitterView the entire story with highlights from each technical community.

So I was happily exhausted (more mentally than physically) as I was walked to the closing reception. And on the way I was compiling a list—of all the people I needed to thank for another successful 930gov event.

I’d like to thank:

  • The DGI staff, for their above and beyond dedication. They thrive on pressure and make pulling off miracles standard operating procedure. 930gov doesn’t happen without what they do.
  • Each of the technical communities who meet at 930gov: Knowledge Management, Records Management, DevOps, IT and Cyber Security, and Government Customer Experience. 930gov is really their conference.
  • Our speakers who brought the depth, substance, experience, and expertise that makes 930gov the gold standard in government events.
  • The exhibitors and sponsors for making 930gov possible—and for all they do to support government technical communities.
  • And finally, I thanked our attendees, who brought their professionalism, open minds, and eagerness to learn to every session they filled. They made great points, asked great questions, and generally challenged our presenters to be at their best.

 It should be clear from all this that 930gov is no one-man show. It’s definitely a team effort, the result of the efforts of a government IT community fully committed to advancing KM, RM, DevOps, Cyber, and Customer Service in the federal government. I’m grateful to everyone who worked so hard to make this year’s event such a success.

We have great things on the drawing/planning table for the 5th anniversary of 930gov in 2017. Join our mailing listfor updates. 

Because tomorrow, we’re going to get up and work on our remaining conferences, trainings, and webinars . 

The flagship session at the 2016 Customer Service & Experience Conference at  930gov  just might be the 15th Annual Government Customer Service Excellence Awards.

Every year, we recognize professionals who take customer service to the next level in some of the most challenging environments in government. But as I’m looking at the list of winners and finalists, a question occurs to me: What is great customer service—or to put it in more modern parlance, what goes into delivering a great customer experience?

Great customer experience is both an art and a science

I think it’s important we define and quantify great customer service. Which means we need to think about who defines it. If you were to ask customers what specifically constitutes great service, they’d probably tell you as the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once wrote in opinion, “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.”

Ask someone responsible for customer service in an agency and they might refer you to something akin to service level agreements—responding to inquiries within a specific amount of time, resolving issues during a single contact, and other performance metrics. They’d also point to customer satisfaction scores.

These two vantage points define two axes of great customer service. On the one hand, service quality is subjective and ineffable; it varies from situation to situation; customers know it when they get it. On the other hand, service quality has to be quantifiable as goals, activity, and results so you can build process around it, measure it, and replicate it.

When you think about it though, both of these perspectives depend on the same thing: an intimate knowledge of who your customers are and what they hope to accomplish as they interact with you.

My definition of great customer service

I’d offer this definition of a great customer experience: It’s what happens when customers encounter an organization or agent that is fully prepared, equipped, and empowered to answer their questions, requests, and needs.

A lot goes into making this happen but it starts with listening. Very careful, very active listening.

Across the years, Excellence Award winners and finalists all have one thing in common. They are diligent—both as organizations and individuals—about listening. They hear what customers actually say. They hear what customers don’t or can’t say. They connect the dots to understand what customers really mean.

Then they take the action customers are actually looking for. In this way, great service can be unexpected and surprising because it addresses what customers really need, not just what they think to ask for.

Organizations have to be great listeners, too

It’s one thing to listen to a customer on a call, treat them with grace and respect, and help them resolve their issues. People who can do that day in and day out are heroes. But it’s another thing entirely for an organization to enable that sort of heroism as standard operating procedure.

In order to make great service routine, agencies also must listen to customers—so they can define strategies, design workflows, build infrastructure, manage processes, measure performance, and ultimately, enable their representatives to take action.

When you hear the stories of this years’ winners at  930gov , you’ll meet some organizations that do this well. Every case involves listening to a group of customers, then doing some hard thinking about what great service really meant to those individuals in those situations.

I recommend listening very carefully to what they have to say.

The 2016 winners and finalists—as well as all the agencies who were nominated—are all committed to leadership in a complex and challenging field. I encourage you to set aside the time to attend Digital Government Institute’s 2016 Customer Service & Experience Conference and come “listen” to the 15th annual Government Customer Service Excellence Award winners and finalists on  Wednesday, August 24  – you will be glad you did. 

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Philip Droege is an interesting guy—with an even more interesting job.He’s the Director, Office of Records Management for the Executive Office of the President EOP. Which means two things:

  • He’s in charge of maintaining the paper trail for the president, vice president, and all their deputies, assistants, counsels, and other staff members
  • Every four or eight years, he’s in charge of clearing out all those records as a new administration displaces the old

Philip lead a session with Jason R. Baron, former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), during the inaugural Records Management Conference at 930gov on August 24, 2016. They spoke on “Presidential Transitions and Exit Procedures for Departing Officials,” covering what happens when the entire senior leadership of the U.S. Government packs up and leaves town.

You probably know that on Inauguration Day, it’s traditional for the president and president-elect to ride together from the White House to the ceremony at the Capitol. As the incumbent walks out through the North Portico, it’s a bittersweet moment—for the simple reason that he or she will not return that day and perhaps not ever.

And as soon as the limos sweep out of site, an army of movers attacks the residence on the third floor. All of the outgoing family’s belongings are packed into vans and are replaced by those of the new first family. When the new first family arrives, their new home will be ready for them.

The White House load-out and load-in is a tiny part of a far larger transition between the old and new administrations. As many as 1800 people work in the Executive Office of the President  (EOP) and the vast majority of those in White House components will be leaving. 

According to Jason, an advocate for information governance, what they have created and will leave for NARA to own  is an enormous mountain of presidential records, including:

  • Hundreds of millions of emails
  • Plane loads of paper
  • Petabytes of other types of data, including photographs

The Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978 designates every item in that vast trove as a presidential record. And under the PRA, the rules are clear: all presidential records of all White House employees must be transferred into the legal custody of NARA.  

For political appointees at federal agencies, the rules are differentOnly some records series in agencies are organized by administrations, Jason says. In other words,  a cut-off date when those records must be sent to a records center may differ from the date one administration ends and another begins.   Other internal records will be subject to an agency’s own policies regarding preservation or disposal, in accordance with the Archivist’s determination of when they will no longer have administrative, historical, informational or evidentiary value.

As a change in administration approaches, Jason recommends that departing officials follow NARA guidance and prepare thoroughly to make an “intelligent hand-off” by:

  • Meeting with their designated records officer or ombudsman
  • Working within the approved guidance framework for their agency
  • Ensuring that all records—including documents, email, and data—are accounted for
  • Removing purely personal information, especially PII
  • Transferring any emails sent via private accounts to a .gov account

We’ve seen in the news that senior officials can generate tens if not hundreds of thousands of records. Waiting until the last minute to sort and prepare all that material will make for a big, ugly job. To avoid the rush, Jason recommends officials adopt these operating principles from the first day they walk into their new offices:

  • Don’t skip the briefing on NARA and agency records management policies
  • Understand what systems are in place to automatically capture records
  • Follow procedures so that records are processed appropriately
  • Use a .gov email account for all official business (and promptly copy or transfer emails relating to government business sent over a commercial account to a .gov account)

Ideally, for most officials, the day-to-day burden of records management will be almost invisible. But taking a few simple steps can save a lot of time and keep you out of trouble—especially with new laws covering emails.

 

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As we develop the Knowledge Management (KM) conference agenda for 930gov and I continue to talk to our speakers, a clear theme emerged: There are several common pitfalls that knock KM initiatives off track.Most of these pitfalls stem from the lack of a common definition of KM that can be easily understood—especially by non-practitioners. Gartner defines KM as: “a discipline that promotes an integrated approach to identifying, capturing, evaluating, retrieving, and sharing all of an enterprise’s information assets. These assets may include databases, documents, policies, procedures, and previously un-captured expertise and experience in individual workers.”

Hmm. That sounds like something an organization really ought to do. It also sounds like a really big, really complicated, and really expensive undertaking. If the KM “brand” resonates with non-practitioners as some “buzzword flavor-of-the-month” or a “risky enterprise program,” then it’s no wonder KM practitioners constantly find themselves in an uphill battle to gain interest, buy-in, and funding.

Several of our sessions at  930gov  touch on the topic of redefining knowledge management. Any new definition should be designed to help KM programs and practitioners navigate around these five landmines:

  1. Labeling programs as “knowledge management initiatives.” If the term, “knowledge management” leans toward unhelpful connotations, Art Schlussel, ECM Program Manager, FDA/CDRH, a KM session speaker, seriously suggests avoiding it altogether—especially in program proposals to agency executives and business owners. He says, “take the term ‘KM’ out of everything and focus on functions,  features, benefits, and value.”
  2. Doing KM for KM’s sake. Sharing all of an organization’s information assets really isn’t a goal. It’s a means toward achieving an outcome. As Maureen Hammer, Ph.D., Knowledge Management, AAHR/BCO, a  KM session  speaker says, “KM leaders need to frame and communicate how KM processes and approaches can help achieve operational, performance, or strategic objectives.” The question KM practitioners must really answer is “What’s in it for me—or us?”
  3. Relying on top leadership to drive KM. There’s always a risk that the duration of your KM program will exceed the tenure of the leaders that helped you get it started. New leaders (especially those from outside the agency) will have their own priorities and may not see how KM might specifically benefit your organization. In such a situation, the best ally you can have is a groundswell of grassroots support from those who are or will be seeing direct benefits from your program. Recruiting your stakeholders as your champions will enable your program to survive leadership transitions—even a change of administrations.
  4. Failing to adapt. Maureen Hammer estimates that for most KM initiatives, about 70% of the effort will focus on people and processes with the remainder going to technology. With that mix, dynamic change is inevitable. Your success will substantially depend on the ability to adapt to new circumstances or mission requirements. Build on a foundation of flexibility and protect it at all costs. Programs that are rigidly locked into approaches, systems, or even acquisition strategies may find they cannot deliver what their agency now needs.
  5. Allowing misconceptions to breed: Someone was telling me that a study has proved that humans always default to negative perceptions. Well, no kidding. But think: that negative bias is especially dangerous for KM programs because of their somewhat abstract nature. According to Ms. Hammer, many non-practitioners think that the aim of KM is to Hoover up every last dustball of knowledge that exists in a organization. That’s implausible, messy, and pointless. But it does confirm the idea that KM might have an image problem. Make sure you relentlessly communicate the specifics of your program: The challenges it addresses, the information it will capture, how that information will be distributed, and the concrete, mission benefits that will result. Listen for and jump on any misconceptions that may divert engagement away from what you’re trying to accomplish.

KM offers substantial benefits for agencies—especially when so many federal employees are nearing retirement age.

KM offers substantial benefits for agencies—especially when so many federal employees are nearing retirement age. That means the first responsibility for both KM leaders and KM operators has to be recruiting their agency colleagues as KM champions. That leads to a second responsibility: to communicate far and wide the value and benefits of KM. If that means calling KM by another name, so be it. Whatever it takes to actually do it.

 

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Image of people at tradeshows 930GOV | DGI

Thirty years ago, the live event government marketplace was a completely different realm. Back then, great tradeshows stalked the earth and the apex predator for federal marketing dollars was an annual “Tradeshow and Conference” filling the prior Washington Convention Center multiple times each year.Fast forward to the present and it’s a very different epoch. The apex predator “Tradeshow and Conference” of old is extinct, with not even a single fossil remaining. Today, the government market calendar abounds with a profusion of small mammals—variously known as single vendor “Summits” or single solution conferences held in hotels and related meeting space throughout the DC metro area—with multiple events scheduled virtually every day of the business calendar.

So what happened to the great tradeshow?

Unlike the dinosaurs, the great government “Tradeshow and Conference” wasn’t done in by a single cataclysmic event—such as the advent of the Internet. Rather, large tradeshows were diminished by smaller factors including: lack of focus and management attention, mergers and acquisitions, and greed. Combine that with the inability of established tradeshows to adapt to changing market dynamics resulting in declining attendance. Meanwhile, tighter ethical guidelines and government travel restrictions made attending multi-day, large horizontal events risky.

But more than anything else, the scale and complexity of the challenges government agencies faced grew beyond the plausible scope of even the grandest tradeshow. Thirty years ago the large government tradeshows were focused on products; vendors used the event to announce new products and services. At a time when agencies were trying to stand up local area networks, connect network printers, and get email to everybody, it made sense to convert the convention center into a giant, one-stop mall for IT products and related services.

With Moore’s law in full effect, computers and other IT products were improving dramatically from year to year justifying annual participation. The large tradeshow enabled buyers to see, touch, and try the full range of their IT options, all in one place, all at one time—it was a win-win for both agency personnel and vendors.

But over time, the focus shifted from the desktop, beyond the LAN, to the enterprise and beyond. Products that were once innovations became commodities. Today, few IT leaders are going to leave their office to address challenges that can be solved by purchasing a product. They can jump online, investigate and click “Buy.”

As the emphasis shifted away from products with vendors using other media formats to make new product announcements, the large events started to decline in exhibit space and attendance. Instead of updating the tradeshow format, show organizers stuck with the old formula of trying to be everything to everybody—using taglines like ‘Technology Unites Us”—leading to lost exhibitors and attendees. The same goes for hard-pressed publications scrambling to replace declining magazine advertising revenue. The transition from an industrial economy to the information based economy continues to destroy many prior successful business models.

Split off from the mammoth-sized exhibition, in the past 15 years “small mammal” sized events filled up the event calendar (small mammal event defined as a one day/ half day solution specific events). The value of these events vary greatly with multiple alternatives happening each week or in some cases the same day. Unfortunately, many are just elaborately concealed sales pitches.

Making tradeshows great again

So how can the classic tradeshow be revived? Should they be revived? The answer is definitely “yes” but only if the tradeshow evolves into a new form and format. Tradeshows must move away from broadcasting information vendors want to convey to building communities, and start facilitating conversations agency professionals want and need to hear. To be of any great value, tradeshows must essentially become a dynamic form of live, in-person social media.

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The new tradeshow is a platform and venue for gathering communities of interest for discussion and networking. It’s where professionals can gather to engage with one another as well as with subject matter—with ample time for deeper dives, face-to-face networking, and nuanced conversations that are difficult to replicate online.

To function in this way, tradeshows must be organized to support the ongoing work of government technical communities. The work goes on every day, all year, in all sorts of ways, in all different agencies. The new tradeshow exists to summarize and surface all of that work for review and discussion among the community as a whole. Following the tradeshow, now armed with up-to-date, holistic perspective, the community can get back to work equipped with new ideas to tackle another year.

The new tradeshow is part of the process of advancing the work. Which means the content, speakers, and formats must be curated by someone who is intimately familiar with the people, projects, and subject matter that truly matter within technical communities. The result of that familiarity is the essence of the new tradeshow: specific, contextual, and relevant. Sustaining that relevance over time is the primary qualification for greatness.

A great tradeshow is one that consistently delivers great value and can adapt to the constantly changing environment.

In this way, tradeshows can resurface and be great once again.

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