My Company Won’t Pay! How To Get Approval To Attend Conferences or Training

© 2002 John Suzuki, www.jksassociates.com

Sometimes getting what you want requires a little creativity. While working for a Fortune 50 company several years ago, I desperately wanted to attend a conference in a newly forming discipline. My manager supported my attendance, but had no budget for the conference. Responses from upper management varied from neutral to negative, ranging from “Why do you want to go to that conference?" to "Everyone knows our industry is going through a downturn these days; we need to cut back on all unnecessary travel expenses."

With a little imagination, I eventually found a way to attend the conference without spending my own money. I discovered that there was a separate budget center to fund separate R&D and Marketing activities… and that conferences and workshops fell under that category if the company could gain publicity or recognition from the event. This was the solution to my problem, and I got to attend the conference.

Over the years I’ve had to think of several creative ways to get the backing to attend conferences, seminars, workshops, and training sessions. To help you do the same, we’ll look at tools and strategies for use throughout the approval process: before you attend, making the case to attend, and obtaining the actual approval, as well as alternatives to consider if your request is turned down.

POSITIONING YOURSELF FOR YES

Often your odds of attending a favorite conference depend largely on your organization’s corporate culture, and your position in it. The next time you have an opportunity to change departments, projects, or companies, here are some ways to recognize (or even create) a conference-friendly environment.

First, make sure that your immediate boss supports and promotes continuing education. When you’re interviewing for a new position, ask your potential co-workers about their own training and growth opportunities. 

Choose organizations that have a formal training policy. Look for companies that promote and utilize a company policy in which everyone must take forty to eighty hours of continuing education each year. Many companies have a reimbursement policy for educational classes that are connected to your job functions or career path. I once had a boss who let me take any class or workshop as long as it related even remotely to my job, including esoteric topics such as technical marketing.

Look for jobs that depend on state of the art knowledge, require cross-disciplinary work, or in which ongoing education is a requirement to practice in that discipline. One of my most conference-friendly jobs was in a specialized work group called Advanced Development, where we pushed the technology limits every day. Our job was to survey cutting-edge innovations that we might be able to use in new products, so keeping current was a priority. Most of the information we needed, in fact, was so new that it hadn’t yet appeared in print; the only way to stay on top of it was to attend conferences. In addition to timeliness, breadth of knowledge was crucial. Our work crossed scientific disciplines, requiring us to read and study in diverse fields. Not surprisingly, this group had a large budget for conferences and training, and I was able to attend seminars on everything from object technology and the healthcare sciences to applied mathematics and statistics.

Negotiate your conference attendance as part of your employment contract, consulting contract, or statement of work. Specify the negotiated conference dates before you obtain final approval on a contract or employment agreement.

NINE WAYS TO MAKE YOUR CASE

Even in the most learning-friendly environments, chances are you’ll still have to make a logical and compelling justification for investing time and money in training. Here are some ideas that you can use to make the case to attend.

1) Is the time you’ll be away from your desk an issue? Offer to work a few extra evenings and some weekends in advance in order to make up for time away. This should ease concerns about you being away from the office and affecting the schedule and delivery of your projects.

2) In some cases, when your justification for spending company resources on a conference seems to not be working, consider a backup plan. This time around, offer to split the cost of the conference and travel, or volunteer to use some vacation time in order to attend that favorite conference. If you come back to the office full of new ideas and ways to improve operations, you’ll have a much stronger case next time for full company funding.

3) Show how you’ll share the benefits of your new know-how. Offer to prepare a presentation when you get back for your boss, your team, or department on the things you learned at the conference that could be used in your organization.

4) Just like hotel rates, conference prices aren’t always set in stone. See if you can get a lower conference fee by waiting until just a few days before the actual conference start date (or even the day of the event). Or call the conference chair (not the conference organizers) and explain that you would like to attend but you have limited funds. Make an offer; some conferences have been hit hard by recent travel cutbacks, and may surprise you by giving you a break.

5) If you have your eye on a conference that’s particularly unique, use this exclusivity and uniqueness as a selling point for attending. While many popular conferences are offered each year with pretty much the same content, some events are unique in content and in participation each time they’re offered. If you’re wanting to attend a seminar that may not be offered next year, stressing its now-or-never quality might help you get approval.

6) Submit a paper for presentation. Usually when you get a paper or presentation accepted for a conference you get one complimentary admission to the conference. In addition, you sometimes get complimentary admissions to conference tutorials.

7) Look outside your own department for funding. In some large organizations a special corporate budget exists to pay for promotions and marketing, as in my earlier example, and that may be a cost center you can tap for underwriting. Presentations and attendance at conferences, you can argue, are proven ways to promote the company name and the work that’s being done by key employees. I’ve used this approach successfully when my organization had travel and budget restrictions at the local division level.

8) If there just doesn’t seem to be any training money in your organization, think outside the box. I once made a deal with the president of a local technical society, for example, and offered to help with fund raising and putting together a regional quality conference. In return, the president agreed to draw from the conference profits to pay my fee to attend a national Software Engineering Process Group (SEPG) meeting. The more creative you get in your funding, the more important it is to get the agreement in writing, if possible.

9) Should all else fail, you might not want to rule out begging as an option. This is an effective strategy if you have a decision maker who is a placater and has trouble saying no to people. The flip side of begging? Threatening to quit. While I’ve never done this directly, it was probably implied based on the seriousness and urgency of my request to attend a particular conference.

CLOSING THE DEAL 

Receiving the actual approval—the signature on the dotted line—is often the most difficult step in the conference-attending process. In some organizations without a clear path for training request approvals, the conference may be long over by the time you get a yes or no!

If you’re concerned this may be the case in your company, schedule a one-on-one meeting with a manager in your department who has budget authority and explain the benefits of attending the conference. Estimate the company’s return on investment, explaining how new ideas or processes could help the organization cut costs and improve productivity. I have personally found that this is an effective approach; few people go to this effort just to attend a conference, so the extra work is often rewarded with a yes.

If you run into a brick wall, or if your immediate manager says no, then consider asking higher up the ladder—the division president, a general manager, or some other key player in your organization. Each organization is different, but just be sure before you appeal your immediate supervisor’s ruling that you understand the risks of tampering with the chain of command.

Is a decision maker wavering, unsure of whether to okay your trip? Then use the personal touch to get approval. Have someone like the conference chair, a conference organizer, or keynote speaker talk to your manager about the benefits of attending. This peer-to-peer approach may be enough to help turn the approval process in your favor.

LIVING WITH NO

If you manage to exhaust these suggestions and have your approval request turned down, you still have options to receive additional training. Here are three alternatives that worked for me in various companies after my initial conference requests were refused by management.

1) Sponsor and organize your own training in house. I once arranged onsite training in the C language for about 30 development people within our organization. I did the planning, organization, handouts, and arranged cost center repayments for all attendees. I brought an experienced C instructor in house for thirteen weekly two-hour sessions. We split the two-hour classes between one hour of personal time and one hour of company time.

2) Volunteer to seek out grant monies for training. In the state of California, the Employment Development Program (EDP) offers grants that can be used in training or retraining the company’s workforce. I once threatened to write an EDP grant for training a development group on CASE tools. I was told the budget did not contain money for either tools or training. The threat of writing the grant proposal was probably enough to embarrass the company into coughing up the money. Our management eventually paid for licensing of the tools and hired some consultants to help with training and implementing the CASE tools.

3) Does your group, department, or organization have a corporate library or subscribe to journals, periodicals, videos or reference works that you can checkout and use? If the organization is missing this valuable resource, ask to start one. An in-house library serves as a great resource for those groups or organizations that don’t want spend a lot on conferences or training. Remember that having in-house resources isn’t helpful unless you’re allowed to utilize them; make sure you can allocate time to take advantage of the library’s contents.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’ve noticed over the years that only a small number of people actually pursue attending conferences. Even when times are tight, most budgets have enough slack in them to cover a few thousand dollars here and there. Capitalize on this fact by asking if you can attend that important conference or much-needed seminar. The worst thing that can happen is that management says no. And you might be pleasantly surprised; during a four-year period at one company, my requests were never refused. I explained the benefits, I asked the company to make an investment, and I got the conferences I asked for.

Is it worth the extra effort? Every time I’ve asked to attend a conference, I’ve learned something – from the training event, and often from the request process itself. Being a part of these conferences has offered both short- and long-term benefits: learning new concepts that improve the effectiveness of my work, networking with potential colleagues, and improving my knowledge base and technical skills.

And once you’ve negotiated the logistics, approvals and finances of attending a conference, learning can indeed be its own reward. At the end of the conference, in addition to the technical or operational information I’ve learned, I have the added satisfaction of knowing that I’ve invested in myself.

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