The Enduring Value of the INFORMS Conference
One of the promises of the Internet is that we would all be able to work wherever we wanted with no loss of productivity. Talent could be found wherever it lived, whether across the world or a small town hundreds of miles away from the large city where venture capitalists or the Fortune 500 company was located. Technology tools would allow us to video conference and collaborate smoothly. And yet, somewhat surprisingly, we are not sitting at home watching each other’s presentations via a slick technological interface. We all still continue to come to INFORMS conferences rather than stay at home, and for good reasons.
One factor that I find helpful at INFORMS is hearing the voice of the author themselves. We can all read papers and look at presentations, but the tone and emphasis of the author is highly informative. The interaction between author and audience creates additional knowledge spillover that helps others see where the research could move to as well as where it has already been. And of course, the conversations that happen after the presentation often are the most interesting or insightful.
Another is the element of surprise and novelty at INFORMS conferences. As we search for new knowledge, we tend to follow paths and words that we are familiar with. But often, at a conference we discover new research topics and areas, or realize that a past idea or interest is (or is not) research worthy based on new information. While search technologies are getting better at predicting what we would like to read and discuss based on previous interests, I believe they’re still not able to properly anticipate what one might find interesting. The joy of being surprised is still a major motivator for participating in intellectual work.
Finally, and somewhat surprisingly, proximity and geography themselves still are vital in partnership success. Whether it’s proximity of high quality educational opportunities to a certain area, or startups to venture capitalists, or a retail store’s proximity to headquarters, research continues to show that distance matters. And naturally, while proximity is tempered by other measures of distance rather than miles (the CAGE distance framework of Pankaj Ghemawat may be of interest), INFORMS provides an opportunity to meet with co-authors and potential employers who also share a similar intellectual culture. Many of us have had the experience of working with a co-author on a paper for months and making little progress, only to find that a few hours face to face resulted in a rapid solution to the problem that seemed insurmountable remotely.
Thus, the INFORMS Annual Conference continues to provide a difficult to replace benefit, even in this age of increased technological connection. Makes it worth dodging a few Seattle raindrops, indeed.