Out with the old

Why conferences are usually a waste of time, money and how that’s changing

In a world saturated with conferences that are not quite saturated with valuable information, finding a conference that is insightful and accessible is a very exciting option.

By Rebecca Maserow

In recent articles, the theme has been on the currency of information; the channels, options and benefits of exchanging and improving knowledge. Whether through big data, visual graphics or ICT, it’s all about streamlining how we give and receive information.

Problem with many conferences

Saratoga encourages its employees to continually learn and grow, so its staff are familiar faces on the local conference circuit.

One of the common complaints is that so many conferences are one large marketing scheme. The talks are often conceptual rather than informative, full of inspiring catchphrases that make you feel pumped about starting something new – only to have the endorphin rush wear off and to be hit with the realisation that you didn’t actually learn anything (except maybe another acronym you quickly Googled during a talk).

Often, the conferences are tracked, putting talks on at the same time, forcing attendees to pick between them, or the speakers have no coaching and waffle on beyond their time allowance. Perhaps s/he was the one speaker you may have learned something from, but it’s too hard to follow what s/he is saying.
Networking is, of course, a large draw-card of conferences, though you may already know a lot of the people that could be useful connections.

Some say: “But it’s great for students and people who’ve just entered the job market.” True, but how can they afford R6 000+ for a conference ticket? People want to make the investment in themselves, but can’t justify those costs.

The worst part is they all promise to reveal industry secrets and to empower your career or business in a life-changing way, and you go – just in case it’s true.

Shifting the goal posts from making money to creating an informed community

Complaining about poorly run conferences is easy, and the task of executing a well run, informative and career-benefiting conference is a lot more time-consuming. Mammoth BI was built around this very notion, and after its pilot conference in November, there is no doubt it puts its sponsorship money where its giant mouth is.

Saratoga, a gold sponsor for Mammoth BI, encourages its employees to learn new skills either through training or mentoring. It initiates and supports platforms or projects where people can share their skills and findings, and form relationships with like-minded people keen to collaborate on new ventures. Above all, it is the sharing of ideas and information, and not hoarding, that companies should be aiming for.

A project doesn’t have to be profitable to be worthwhile

Active engagement with different communities, like Mammoth BI in big data or Net Prophet in entrepreneurship, allows us to contribute to and benefit from community insight – it’s a give and take. The act of sharing knowledge with no promise of financial gain does not negate your chances of benefiting.
In an article on shared value, it stresses the long-term benefits of non-profit ICT and social upliftment, which is why events like Mammoth BI run the Mammoth Bursary, available to a previously disadvantaged student in the statistics, electrical engineering, information systems or computer science industry. It is spearheaded by Saratoga’s Genevieve Mannel, who stated: “We need to contribute to the growth of the industry. It’s important that we make the change where the impact is best felt – at student level”.

Many local companies feel the same way, and the opportunities are growing in different fields. The non-profit aspect of events like TED Talks and Mammoth BI is proving the method in the madness. Early adopters are already praising the style of this conference, as well as the unique value, the no-BS attitude in presenting compact, concise information.

Attendees of Mammoth BI indicated the event felt different to most other conferences. Don’t take our word for it, watch the videos from the 2014 conference.

“I loved the TEDx-like format [of Mammoth BI], quirky distractions as soon as your brain gets overloaded. I also liked the fact that no speaker sounded like they were giving a marketing pitch.”

Feedback indicates the variety of topics was compelling – while every speaker spoke about big data, they all approached it from different angles.
“The people [Mammoth BI] gathered together were really top class, and very enthusiastic. It’s really hard to meet that group of people.”

Theo Priestley spoke on the ‘information of Things’ and how big data is changing our lives, presenting a futuristic view of Jetson-like computerised homes. Marc Smith revealed the value in big data for social media, which can help you see how effective your company’s campaigns truly are, or if a potential investment is really trending.

Barry Devlin, the grand master of data warehousing, argued the morality of how big data is being used. Georgina Armstrong shone light on making data accessible through visualisations. Mbwana Alliy explored the ways in which data helps with investing and venture capital, and there were still another 12 speakers, each with their own specialty.

All of these talks are also being put online, so even if you missed the conference, you can enjoy it for free, because that’s what conferences like TED and Mammoth BI should be about; a space to ‘spread ideas’ and encourage that creative flow of valuable information. This is the goal that should be targeted ahead of any financial gains.

Contribute towards the Mammoth Bursary: visit donate.mammothbi.co.za to support the education of at least one student with promise.


Mammoth BI had it’s pilot conference on 17 November 2014. It was founded on the belief that events should be for the delegates and the students, not as a marketing campaign for large corporates. With impactful talks by speakers who share the vision of a community united in the spread of information, Mammoth BI refused to charge it’s delegates more than R700 and gave away over 100 tickets to students. Mammoth BI is a not-for-profit event that aims to inspire through knowledge, turning insight into action. For more information, visit the Web site www.mammothbi.co.za.

Mammoth BI, 2014Mark Gebhardt