Others find the usefulness of conferences inversely proportional to their sizes. "If you've got 1,000 people in an auditorium, I get very little out of that," Miller says. "Usually, you'll get as much if you read a book."
In contrast, Miller says he found an AT&T Corp. executive development conference for about 30 CIOs very useful.
"They brought in speakers from around the industry and academia and tried to test the group's ability to get out of the box," Miller says. Most important, he says, is that participants can talk to presenters at breaks and meals, "so you can take the content of the session and dive down into it."
IT leaders stress that only part of the educational experience of a conference takes place at presentations. The rest happens "between the cracks," in the hallways, bars, restaurants, parties, vendor receptions and even bathrooms. Managers can help their reports get the most out of conferences by assuring them up front that socializing is an intrinsic and valuable part of the experience and isn't considered "goofing off."
"The more the conference attendees hang out with peers, the more they learn," says Cathy Hotka, vice president of IT at the National Retail Federation in Washington. "Your nightmare as a CIO is to send your people to a conference and have them eat dinner in their rooms."
Among professional associations, respondents praised the Information Management Forum as a place to meet and network with clients and competitors and hear about upcoming technologies and how they might be used.
IT leaders also had good things to say about short-term, university-based leadership courses from Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Virginia, among others. They praised their reality-based case studies, close alignment with current issues, presenters with real-world experience, interaction with peers and action-oriented lessons.
Leadership and management education is in greatest demand, but Fayen notes that programs fail if they're too general. "I just got back from one for everyone from first-line managers to senior executives," she says. "It's very hard to construct a management training program that will be appropriate to all of them."
Among programs focused on leadership training, The Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., got the nod from many companies for intensive, high-quality, content-rich programs. Miller says two of the center's sessions helped him modify his behavior to become a more effective leader.