Friday, May 11, 2007

Listen to Your Customers and You Might Learn Something

Sclerochronology is the study of physical and chemical variations in the accretionary hard tissues of organisms, and the temporal context in which they formed. Familiar examples include annual bandings in reef coral skeletons or daily growth increments in mollusk shells.

I learned this from our customer Beth Miller-Tipton of the University of Florida during a conversation at the Society of Government Meeting Professionals in Atlantic City last week. Beth also taught me that she is using our product to manage abstract submission for their upcoming Sclerochronology conference. This was news to me; I didn't know that we had an abstract management tool.

Behind the Curtains at Scientific Conferences

In my graduate school days at Berkeley I had the opportunity to help organize a few conferences for the California Catalysis Society. Scientific conferences typically have a higher ratio of speakers to attendees than other educational events. Let's say you're an expert in a particular area of science (such as Catalysis or Sclerochronology) and you find yourself appointed to be the host of a conference on the subject. When you begin to put the program schedule together, the first step is to issue a "Call for Papers", which you send to everyone in your field. Scientists, professors, and students who want to present their work at the event submit abstracts describing the content of their proposed presentation or poster. A conference usually has multiple sessions, each focussed on a particular topic. The session chair is an expert on that topic and has the job of selecting speakers, moving the presentations along (often only 15-20 minutes are allotted per speaker), and managing the discussion.

Presenters submit these abstracts for many reasons - their budget might not allow them to travel to the conference unless they are speaking, they may have recent results that they are about to publish and want to generate additional attention for their research, or they may be rehashing previous research in order to get another line on their Curriculum Vitae (the scientist term for resume and list of publications). Success in science, like most fields, is a combination of quantity and quality. Quantity of research is demonstrated by the length of your list of publications and presentations, while quality often depends on the number of citations that your research has, i.e. the number of other people whose work references yours. (Where do you think those guys at Google got their "page rank" idea?) These two factors combine to help determine your funding levels from grant applications, your promotion to tenure, your movement up the academic ladder into the elite universities of highest prestige - you get the idea. So getting your abstract selected is a big deal at some conferences.

Abstract Management Process

As the meeting planner, you have to collect the abstracts from prospective presenters, force the session chairs to review the abstracts and select their posters and presentations, and keep the presenters informed of their status (since many presenters cannot register or make travel plans until they know that their abstract will be accepted). Fortunately software is available to facilitate this process, although dedicated "Abstract Management" solutions can be expensive and are over-kill for many conferences.

Certain Registration Extended

Enter our clever customer Beth Miller-Tipton. She devised a process with her IT department and Certain Registration to use her existing registration system to collect both abstracts and registration and housing reservations. They first upload the abstract file (usually as a Word document or PDF) onto their internal servers, then link to a registration form in Certain Registration, where they collect the presenter's contact information, abstract title, presentation preferences, and so on. They use data integration to pass the web address of the abstract file into the registration form, so that they can produce a single report from Certain Registration with the contact information for all submitters, with hyperlinks to their abstracts. Beth and the session chairs sit down one day, run through this list on a projection screen, and click on each link to view the abstract. The chair (or committee) quickly decides which abstracts to accept for presentations, or which for posters, or which to decline if space is limited.

Without having to learn a new system or spend a bundle, Beth created an online abstract management process that works conveniently for everyone - the meeting planners, the session chairs, and the prospective presenters. I liked it so much that we decided to add a new custom question type ("File") into Certain Registration, so that she can manage even the file upload portion of the process within one system. Hopefully, many other customers and prospective customers will find this to be equally valuable.

1 comment:

Rick Borry said...

Credit where credit is due: I learned today that Jon Dodson and Kathy Isola from Certain helped Beth devise this file upload process.