Gathering String – Academic Conferences and Serendipity

By Keshav Krishnamurty.

Conferences are funny things. I was at the Eastern Sociological Society conference at the Boston Park Plaza this year, which proved to be fairly informal, friendly, and with a substantial number of undergrads presenting interesting new work. I have been to multiple management conferences before and although I am not quite a “conference junkie”, I can already see how each conference has its own “flavor”. Even relatively boring conferences sometimes tend to have rather interesting people turn up, and getting to meet them is an experience worth remembering.

Being the organizations nerd that I am, I’m also familiar with what the literature says about the benefits of conferences. More papers and articles than I can possibly list talk about how the networking opportunities provided by a conference help students – as the answers to this question at ResearchGate demonstrate – whether it’s in terms of finding future job opportunities, in terms of knowing future colleagues and superiors to recommend you and your work, or how meeting colleagues from different universities and therefore being exposed to new knowledge, new perspectives and new collaborations, leads to greater creativity. There is advice on how to network more easily at conferences, tips on conference productivity and for those who don’t like conferences much, there is even advice on how to make conference networking feel less ‘icky’. Overall, I do know, more or less, what to expect from a conference when I go into one. However, the Eastern Sociological Society conference resulted in something that I had not expected…. 

This conference helped me connect to people within my own university whom I had not been able to get in contact with earlier. Colleagues whom I would rarely have met in the corridors of UMass Boston, whose offices I have never landed up finding (I have no idea where the sociology department is!) and whom I would hardly have recognized as such were together in full sight courtesy of their name badges. I had the opportunity to meet them and talk to them about my work and theirs in a manner that would otherwise not be possible in the university, away from the usual issues of scheduling and trying to find a common time to meet, or a common pretext on which to begin conversation about work and explore further. In many instances I found myself wondering what could have been possible had I as a student from a management department not been separated from their colleagues in sociology from an academic system that places departments in silos and often keeps people working on common issues separate from each other, both in terms of organizational structure and physical proximity.

Now, conferences within universities do bring together faculty from different departments- I was at a conference on Social Justice within UMass Boston just yesterday and got to meet faculty and students from Global Governance and Public Policy, as well as, surprisingly, Nursing, Psychology, and English – but as I discovered yesterday, the weekend scheduling and the small numbers involved meant that a large number of university colleagues chose to skip it. This makes me think twice about the ways in which a large external conference may be of help to academics. Although advances in communications technology over the past quarter century have linked academics from across the world at the speed of light, there is no substitute to personal interaction with a potential colleague. In fact, a classic study by Prof. Thomas J. Allen nearly 40 years ago found that colleagues that were out of sight were out of mind, with the result that colleagues working on the same issues in different departments were unlikely to talk to each other due to the lack of physical interaction.

Companies know this already – with “serendipity” having been a prominent buzzword for three years now and still going strong. Whether in terms of engineering it or cultivating Guy Talese’s art of “gathering string”, companies from Google to Yahoo to shoe retailer Zappos have recognized the importance of serendipitous employees. As the New York Times article on cultivating the art of serendipity notes, the term meant a carefully and deliberately cultivated skill rather than mere fortunate happenstance  – serendipitous encounters happen to those looking for them and willing to exploit them, which raises questions about their “engineering” (such as employees complaining about the greater time it takes from one place to another, and therefore ruining any chance of a serendipitous casual interaction). It does not, however, overlook the great instances of academics who have made personal interactions with their colleagues the basis of their success.

Where does this leave most of us? Business academia is in the throes of a relevance versus rigor debate of great intensity, with suggestions being made about freeing business scholars from their “ivory tower”. This, however, is at odds with practical realities in academia. With professors in all disciplines under greater stress than ever before to juggle the demands of teaching, administration and personal life, there is less and less precious free time available, of which little will be spent in freely associating with colleagues from other departments, much less about associating with organizations and individuals outside. Rather, our lives tend to revolve around the silos into which we are already structured. Serendipitous interactions in the hallway are more likely to be replaced by hurried greetings to colleagues while sprinting from one classroom to another due to the absence of time to sit down, introduce ourselves, and chat about work.

Conferences, particularly large ones, provide a precious opportunity for us to connect with colleagues whom we would otherwise be in close physical proximity to, but whom we would not have the chance to meet with during our regular rushes to and fro from our workplace. and thus providing us with a basis for serendipity in a way otherwise not possible with our lifestyles. Perhaps in these circumstances, it is better for us as management scholars straddling multiple disciplines to go to conferences on a regular basis and across as many disciplines as our schedules and our budgets can afford, for the chance of forging precious connections with the people close to us rather than those an ocean and a continent away.

External links:

Structural Holes and Good Ideas (pdf)


4 thoughts on “Gathering String – Academic Conferences and Serendipity

  1. Pingback: Africa Research: Role Model for Engaged Scholarship? – Organizations and Social Change

  2. Pingback: Do Academic Conferences Exclude the Global South? – Organizations and Social Change

  3. Face to face interactions are still the basis for real knowledge creation. Conferences are expensive in many ways, especially the time they require. But you are right Keshav: Academia, and business, cannot survive without them.

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