I spent the past three days at the annual conference of the American Production and Inventory Control Society (APICS). Earlier this year, I had attended the annual conference of the Institute for Supply Management (ISM). This was the first time that I attended both conferences in the same year.

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At lunch yesterday, I was asked by a fellow attendee how the two conferences compared. I rattled off several points of comparison and thought that you may be interested as well. So, here it is: a 10-point comparison of APICS’ and ISM’s conferences!

Disclaimer: Some people consider Next Level Purchasing to be a competitor of ISM and, to a lesser extent, APICS. I have made the effort to make this a balanced review, giving credit where credit is due to both organizations. Keep in mind that some elements of this review are inherently subjective, just like anyone else’s review would be. For example, what is a “good” workshop to one person may be a “poor” workshop to another. Who is right? Neither – it is an expression of two opinions, not facts. Me writing that a workshop is “poor” is me expressing my opinion, not an unfounded attempt to discredit a competitor. Like I said, credit is given when due so any constructive criticism is necessary for a truly balanced review.

Size of crowd: Based on the hosts’ claims and my own personal observations, I’d estimate the ISM crowd at around 2,000 attendees and APICS a little less with around 1,500.

Composition of crowd: Despite the fact that APICS and ISM get compared a lot, I found that the crowds were drastically different when it came to the positions held by the attendees. APICS seemed to be mostly planners, inventory managers, operations managers and directors, logistics coordinators, and others on the more blue collar end of the supply chain. ISM attracted mostly buyers, purchasing managers, and purchasing directors. While ISM seemed to be equally male and female, APICS was decidely more male – 70 – 80% by my estimation!

Topics of workshops: The topics matched the attendees’ roles at both conferences. APICS’ workshops were very deep in operations management and blue collar supply chain with very little attention given to purchasing, sourcing and supplier management. Conversely, ISM’s workshops mostly centered around purchasing, sourcing and supplier management with little to no attention given to operations management or the areas of supply chain beyond the receiving dock.

Organization: Time for a little “constructive criticism” for APICS. APICS’ audience lacked some serious etiquette and APICS did nothing to help. In many of the sessions I attended, there were dozens of people standing in the back. Yet, there were a good number of empty seats in the middle of rows. Instead of encouraging attendees to move to the middle and give some of the standees the opportunity to snag an end seat, APICS did nothing and let their attendees – who paid handsomely to be there – stand for 75 minutes! Shortly after one session started, I mentioned to the APICS coordinator that he should encourage people to fill the empty seats so almost everyone can sit. He replied that it’s too late because the presentation started. Pssssshhht, I say! A classic non-profit move – no care for the customer. Then, in every session I attended, as soon as the speaker got to the Q&A slide half the audience rudely bolted for the doors! Not only was that unprofessional, but these people missed what are sometimes the best parts of presentations! APICS, help your people out and teach them two aspects of seminar etiquette: (1) fill in the seats in the center when you have a packed room and (2) don’t leave until the speaker says “thank you” and everyone claps.

Professionalism of visual atmosphere: Despite the lack of etiquette among attendees and APICS’ abject lack of help for them, the professionalism of visual atmosphere is where APICS put ISM to shame. From the signage to the consistent look of each presentation, APICS projected a professional brand. ISM gave the impression that it picked its “i-dotters” and “t-crossers” and marketing people right off the street. As an example, here’s a photo that I snapped at the ISM conference. Notice anything wrong with the spelling of “excellence?” Kind of an ironic word to misspell, don’t ya think?

Size and selection of workshops: APICS had fewer sessions with bigger audiences (200-300 people) whereas ISM had more sessions with smaller crowds (50-75).

Exhibitor-friendliness: Next Level Purchasing did not exhibit at ISM but did exhibit at APICS, so perhaps it is unfair for me to compare the two here. But I will share our experience as a vendor. And that experience at APICS? Ugh, horrible! First of all, they really had no dedicated time or special “draw” for people to be among the exhibitors in the exhibit hall. The exhibit hall was on a separate floor from all of the workshops and the only excuse to be in there was because you had to walk through the exhibit hall on the way to lunch. Not only that, but the path through the exhibit hall to the lunch area was not through the middle of the exhibitors! It was down the far end of the booth area, where APICS had its books. So that aisle got a lot of traffic but the remaining aisles got comparatively little traffic. Actually, those remaining aisles not only got little traffic, they got little light – the convention center being a “green” building uses a lot of natural light instead of artificial light. Well, in cloudy October, there’s not a whole lot of natural light in Pittsburgh! Many booths were in the virtual darkness. In comparison, ISM had many scheduled events (e.g., continental breakfast, dessert, networking receptions, etc.) right in the exhibit hall during times when there was nothing else going on. The exhibitors’ fees cover much of the cost of a conference. It was a shame they got shafted at APICS.

Diversity of speakers: I have to give APICS some props here. APICS had a great variety of speakers including practitioners, consultants, and professors. ISM was mostly practitioners except for a few consultants who are part of the “old boys network.” APICS was definitely more consultant friendly, which I like. While a practitioner can tell you what worked well in one situation – and that’s valuable – s/he usually doesn’t put much thought into what can make their success transferable to other organizations. On the other hand, consultants can experience success in multiple organizations and, therefore, understand what the true common threads of success are and what things need tweaked to fit other organizations’ cultures. For example, one speaker consulted on something like 41 ERP implementations. I find that more helpful than a practitioner who may have succeeded at one and thinks that his/her methods will work everywhere without an explanation of what needs to be adapted for slightly different situations.

And now the aspect you’ve all been waiting for…

Quality of workshops: Frankly, both APICS and ISM were hit and miss – some bad sessions, some OK sessions, and just a couple of nuggets. I’ve already written about the highlight of ISM’s conference, so I won’t regurgitate that here. There were two presentations that absolutely rocked at APICS. First, Gary Smith, Supply Chain Operations Director for New York City Housing Authority, gave an excellent presentation of cost savings through sustainable initiatives using a total cost modeling approach. And, second, there was Michael Martin, Global Supply Chain Planning Strategy Manager for Stanley Black & Decker, who gave an absolutely incredible presentation on multi-echelon inventory optimization principles. He was such a rockstar of a speaker that he had a large crowd around him waiting to chat with him after the presentation. I waited 20 minutes and gave up on meeting him because I had another session to attend. He was that good.

Overall: Given the price of these conferences – which is more than the cost of earning the SPSM® Certification which will serve your career for years, not days – you’d expect that they would be great. Unfortunately, you only get one or two truly good workshops at these conferences and have to sit through average or worse sessions the rest of the time. That being said, hey, it’s like a company-funded vacation for just about all attendees, so you won’t hear them complain. But that’s not cool – the companies funding these conference passes deserve better. I’m thinking that it’s time to bring consistently high quality education to supply chain conferences. With over 220,000 members, the Next Level Purchasing Association is the largest purchasing association in the world. Even though we have focused on being modern and all online, perhaps it’s time to show these old fart associations how it should be done. I’m thinking that you should keep your eyes and ears peeled for an NLPA conference announcement in 2012 or 2013…