Anthropology of a PCO

One of the things that make Professional Conference Organisation so fascinating is that it attracts a wide variety of people from various backgrounds. Our Project Manager Carola, for example, has a degree in Social Anthropology, which is the study of human cultures and interactions around the world. Not only is this useful when working in an international environment, it is also extremely interesting in its own right. So in her guest blog, Carola has pretended that our PCO office is a remote tribe and done a little tongue-in-cheek “study” of our everyday tasks, roles and rituals. Enjoy the read!


“A very, very scientific anthropological study on the intrinsic culture of Professional Congress Organisers” or “How I finally got something to use my anthropology degree for”


“It may be in the cultural particularities of people — in their oddities — that some of the most instructive revelations of what it is to be generically human are to be found.”
― Clifford Geertz

I dedicated three years of my life to the study of Social Anthropology, the branch of anthropology that studies the cultural and social aspects of human communities. During my studies, I was taught about tribes and peoples around the globe, their cultural peculiarities as well as their rituals and beliefs.  We used to study Siberian shamans transforming themselves into moose and heard (multiple) stories about stones having feelings. Anthropologists also like to argue about how it would be much more relaxing for all of us if we still lived in hunter and gatherer societies.  

So after finishing my studies I was looking for my next project and stumbled upon a Professional Congress Organizer (PCO) named Mondial Congress & Events.
While the more traditional anthropological studies focus on places far away, I was quite astonished to realize that the culture within this company was in no way less marvellous than that of the Trobriand Islanders that Bronislaw Malinowski, the forefather of Anthropology, wrote about almost 100 years ago.  

Left image: Malinowski (third to the right) with islanders  = basically the same thing as the author (indicated by arrow) with Mondial tribe (right image)

As such, I seized the opportunity and applied to become a “participant-observer”, the common choice of research tool social anthropologists use. Anthropologists who are participant observers immerse themselves completely in a culture in order to understand it. So even though, technically, I applied to work at Mondial as an “Administration Manager” (see description below), I think it still counts as participant observation.  I’ve now spent almost three years “working” here (i.e. participating), observing this intriguing tribe.
               
A participant observer does not try to influence or interview the subjects in their natural habitat (also because they tend to be very busy). Integration went very smoothly. Unlike other anthropologists in the field, I have not once been shot at or chased out of the village. Some rituals were initially quite foreign. For example, PCO employees insist on wearing bright green sneakers to congresses. Overall however, it seemed like a culture that featured a level of openness that is almost a luxury for a researcher.

They really like those shoes!

Terminology


Before we dive into the results of my little study of the PCO tribe, we should explain some terms:

PCO    short for Professional Congress Organiser; a subgroup of people that dedicate themselves to organizing (predominantly) scientific events for others and carry out all aspect of organisation, including delegate management, scientific management and industry relations.

Congress    Originally, a congress is a gathering of experts in a certain location. However, a good PCO manages to create a higher sense of connection and solidarity not found at many other places where experts regularly meet. After all, congresses exist as a binding force for communities and PCOs are essential in upholding and alleviating them to become long-standing rituals.
 
The main questions this research sets out to study is how a PCO does in fact manage to create this sense of belonging in delegates and brings events together that have this appeal.
Visitors often show their attachment to the congress by registering up to a year prior to the event, collecting congress bags, or going on a pilgrimage to the hashtag printers onsite to get so called “selfies” featuring the congress logo (a kind of ritual emblem).

Some examples:

Selfies in high demand

Please note the number of congress backpacks in this image.

Results

The present research has found that PCOs manage to create and uphold the deeper meaning of a congress is by specialization into different service areas to most efficiently allocate time and resources.

As a result, multiple sub-tribes have emerged, that together work through the ebbs and flows of organizing a congress and weather all obstacles coming their way. These groups also show particular characteristics that are quite unique and will be outlined below.

Notable subtribes


Administration Managers

This is one of the most important subtribes of “Mondial Congress & Events” as it deals directly with congress delegates. Many PCOs are still committed to the idea that in customer service, human beings should be interacting with other human beings directly and not via automated processes, which is where the Administration Managers come in. They are typically ready and prepared for any questions thrown at them, ranging  from the simple “where is the congress taking place?” to the fairly complex: “I would like to book a room for 4 people and require vegan, gluten free breakfast, plus could you also arrange my flights, please?”. The more complex kind of question has a certain statistical probability to occur one week before the congress.
The level of resilience and strength required for this task cannot be overstated.

Typical habitat: Buried in their emails with occasional coffee breaks re-telling the newest story of an especially inventive client request.

Administration managers in action.

Scientific programme management

Few tasks may be as present and essential to the success of a congress as the management of the scientific programme.
The role of scientific coordinator in the tribe can be described as part referee, part mediator – always having to weigh the consequences of different decisions (What benefits can speakers receive? Which sessions will draw the larger audience to occupy the auditorium?). As such, they advise the congress presidents and organizing committee and always try to make sure to balance the interests of all stakeholders. Their role is also substantial in creating the “final programme book” (a kind of sacred text that is followed religiously by all other tribe members). This great responsibility results in countless hours of proofreading and also a mild sense of agitation anytime session details are changed last minute, which is all the time.

Typical habitat: In a jungle of excel lists taking note of all details, from room set up requirements to speakers’ dietary preferences; ironically not big supporters of printed programme books and a high affinity for congress apps to implements last minute changes

This succession illustrates the mental state during programme finalisation.

Industry relations

Exhibition and sponsorship managers are a third sub-tribe that can regularly be found in PCO project teams. Unlike the other groups that largely interact with delegates, speakers and congress organizers, the focus of industry managers is in the world of pharmaceutical companies and medical compliance. In a way, the role of the industry manager in the tribe is closest to the classic hunters in hunter and gatherer society that ensure the survival of the group. They do of course not “hunt” industry contacts, but rather seek to enter into a mutually beneficial relationship based on respect and cooperation. Unseen by the other tribe members, they steadily pursue potential partners, arrange exhibition logistics, allocate booths and only resurface to present the result to the rest of the group. Due to their single-mindedness, they are likely also the last to hear about news and changes, for example when a registration deadline has been moved.

Typical habitat: On the phone discussing booth locations and symposia restrictions while forwarding registration questions to the administration managers; often the first people onsite a congress wandering about in massive exhibition halls tracking floor markings.

Somewhere in here, there will be an industry manager wandering around.

Project Manager

As the other subareas focus on their specific specialities and navigate the complexities of their tasks it takes the additional force of a Project Manager to bring it all together.
In their role they do not only oversee the other sub-tribes and ensure that everything is running smoothly but also act as a guide through the process, helping it to be transformed into a glorious event that can attract thousands of professionals.
It would be easy to just compare the project manager to the village chief or elder, but it may in fact be more apt to compare their role to that of the shaman that is often discussed in anthropology.

While shamans unite their tribe by mixing together sometimes unhealthy herbal substances in colourful rituals, project managers exert their transformative power by bringing together a team and making it greater than the sum of its parts. They convert empty halls into buzzing congress areas and fundamentally create the final product.

Shamans often claim to see visions of the future. Project managers also have a special connection with the future and explore how it may unfold to combat potential dangers for the tribe. They do so by creating mystical budgets and projections – a peek into the future and the risks lying ahead which helps them to add another layer of protection that ensures the well-being of both the congress and their tribe.

Typical Habitat: Checking on the teams’ progress and forwarding all sorts of emails to the specific sub-tribes (occasionally including the appropriate replies). They can be found at all areas of the congress at more or less the same time– it is not quite clear if they are just very efficient power walkers or have in fact mystical powers of teleportation; sometimes found to bring food to meetings further legitimizing their authority.

Power walking in action

Traditional shaman appear not to have mastered the art of power walking

Other subgroups

It will be obvious to the reader now that all these sub-tribes exhibit specific particularities – or oddities, if one wants. However, in tandem they are all essential in the creation of the brief moment in time that makes a congress special for delegates. While each member of the subgroups is essential for the success of their specific projects, it cannot be assumed that they exist in isolation. Their focus and dedication is only made possible by the wider support network that exists in a PCO and guides each team – be that the marketing expert (or, in anthropological terms: chief of charismatic congress leadership) or the IT department (which in hunter and gatherer days probably were the only people in a tribe that could actually start a fire i.e. ensured the survival of the remaining bunch).

IT supporting team members - in literally all aspects.

Conclusion


By taking a closer look and observing the different subgroups and how they are brought together by their shamanic project managers, it can now be understood how PCOs accomplish the challenging missions of transforming a simple gathering into a congress which has a right in itself and is recognized by hundreds of professionals as “the place to be”.
While the world seldom pays homage to PCOs, it surely is quite remarkable how this culture of team work, support and work ethic manages to not pull off just one, but multiple of these congresses on a regular basis. It will be exciting to see how their culture will develop further with an ever-changing world and new challenges in congress organisation.

Sadly, the wider anthropological community has not yet caught on to the cultural importance of documenting and preserving this unique community and the further cultural developments of PCOs for future generations (just as Malinowski did with the Trobriand islanders). Therefore this researcher has decided that continued observation is certainly required and will continue participant-observation for an extended period.

Clearly still participant observation (arrow indicates author).