Tricks of the Trade Show Innovation and Informal Learning

By Garry Kranz

Nov. 16, 2009

Most of Qualcomm’s 16,300 employees don’t get to attend industry trade shows, so company execs three years ago hit upon a novel way to familiarize them with the company’s expanding product line. Why not bring a trade show to them?

Once a year, employees are invited to attend an “internal trade show” at Qualcomm’s San Diego headquarters. The concept is to replicate the experience of an actual trade show, right down to the marketing materials, booths, product demonstrations and even giveaways.

    Two other organizations, Freeman Co. and Boeing, also are using variations on the trade-show theme for instruction and innovation. The internal trade show is an example of informal learning, a trend among businesses that is noted in Bersin & Associates’ recently completed 2009 Training Industry Study.

Modern learning and development organizations “are realizing that most learning takes place outside of the classroom or online course—and they are putting in place coaching, mentoring and social learning environments to facilitate this knowledge transfer,” Bersin’s principal analyst for the report, Karen O’Leonard, writes in the study’s executive summary.

At Qualcomm, the internal trade show is a big deal, making it possible for employees to visualize how each of their jobs contributes to Qualcomm’s broadening portfolio of wireless technologies. They also learn how different products might be integrated to create new sources of revenue.

“The impetus was to help them understand more about what we’re doing from a technology development standpoint,” says Tamar Elkeles, vice president of learning and development.

Qualcomm in July conducted the event for a third year, with about 3,000 employees making the trek to San Diego. Thousands more were able to participate virtually, using online technology that enables access to the event through computers at remote offices.

Qualcomm makes chipsets used in cell phones and other electronic devices. Its products are based on a wireless technology standard known as code division multiple access, or CDMA, which converts information from analog to digital signals, then transmits it as a radio signal via a wireless network. Publicly traded Qualcomm closed its fiscal fourth quarter in September by posting revenue of $2.69 billion, a year-over-year decline of 19 percent.

Qualcomm’s employee trade show serves as more than an engaging social event. Although she declined to cite specific products, Elkeles says it spawns innovation among different departments. Software engineers and chipset designers, for example, might work together to integrate powerful new applications on state-of-the-art chips. Should the project be found to have commercial potential, Qualcomm could conceivably have a source of new revenue.

“But if we don’t do the internal trade show, these individuals probably never get connected,” Elkeles says.

Considering Qualcomm’s reliance on innovation, the push for collaboration is a sensible business decision. Even so, it typically takes years of research before a conceptual idea results in a revenue-generating product.

No matter, Elkeles says. Without innovation, Qualcomm’s business growth would come to a standstill. That is why she and fellow Qualcomm execs don’t obsess about measuring the impact on learning of an internal trade show.

“It’s spurring new ideas and knowledge across the organization, but this in many ways is an informal learning experience,” Elkeles says.

Qualcomm’s trade show offers important hands-on learning to employees at a minimal cost, Elkeles says.

“The largest cost is the time of the people manning the booth. We have giveaways [budgeted] anyway, so we give them to employees instead of giving them away at a trade show. We just repurpose the marketing material and use it internally,” Elkeles says.

It’s an unusual approach, but Qualcomm is not alone in using an internal trade show to foster learning. It can be an effective technique for companies that need to convey a single corporate message to widely dispersed groups of workers.

Trade show for a trade-show company
The internal-trade-show concept was a natural fit at Dallas-based Freeman Co. The $1.2 billion convention outfitter produces nearly 4,500 expositions and 11,000 other corporate marketing events annually, including hundreds of the largest industry trade shows in the United States. Freeman’s roster of customers includes some of the most well-known brands in the world, including Qualcomm.

Freeman has grown to include 4,000 employees in 41 U.S. locations. Department specialties include logistics, construction, furnishing and flooring, audio/video, content development, entertainment, digital graphics, utilities, transportation and other behind-the-scenes services.

Making sure that trade shows go off without a hitch requires tremendous coordination among the different functional areas. As part of its ongoing training, Freeman includes a simulated trade show as part of annual corporate meetings in Dallas.

Representatives from Freeman’s different divisions are invited to exhibit their wares and share information with fellow employees. The event includes people in administrative jobs such as information technology, human resources or accounting.

The event provides important context on how the various functions work in support of one another, says Judy Owen, the company’s vice president of learning and development.

“It is a simulated environment that enables our employees to gain a lot of knowledge at once. Ultimately, it helps us deliver a better brand to our customers,” Owen says.

“It’s also very motivational. Employees say: ‘Wow, look at all we do as a company,’ ” says Jeri Mueller, the company’s director of service quality

In addition, Freeman’s U.S. branch offices sometimes sponsor mini-trade shows at a regional level, usually at hotel ballrooms or Freeman’s larger corporate facilities. The regional events bring together divisional employees who don’t have time to gather during Freeman’s busy convention season.

“We help the branches frame the criteria, but the message on how they deliver on our brand is theirs to own,” Owen says.

Boeing’s best-practices rollout
In another variation on the theme, aerospace giant Boeing Corp. sponsors a once-a-year, invitation-only trade show to “rapidly introduce and share best practices” among its top engineers, says Kim Armstrong, the senior manager of professional and technical development.

Chicago-based Boeing is a leading manufacturer of commercial jetliners and military aircraft. The company employs a highly technical workforce of 156,000 people, mostly in the United States. Boeing has a presence in all 50 states, as well as select locations around the globe.

The Alumni Event is open to chief engineers that are selected to participate in Boeing’s four-month-long Engineering Leadership Program.

Chief engineers are responsible for driving product development and ensuring product integrity. They also need to lead by example. The leadership program consists of a series of workshops and requires each engineer to complete a workplace project. It also requires engineers to build a personal strategy to advance their professional growth.

“Leadership development is paramount. We want to have an engaged workforce, so a lot depends on how well we develop engineers for that role,” Armstrong says.

Still, Boeing does not want the leadership training to occur in a vacuum. The Alumni Event gives chief engineers in different disciplines the opportunity to network and share technical knowledge in a face-to-face setting. It takes place at the Boeing Leadership Center in suburban St. Louis.

“The real beauty is bringing together a diverse group of engineers who have the shared experience of going through the ELP,” Armstrong says.

Boeing’s most recent Alumni Event, held in October, attracted 108 engineers, including 72 Engineering Leadership Program participants who are expected to graduate in December.

Garry Kranz is a Workforce contributing editor.

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