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Step by Strategic Step

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Step by Strategic Step Cisco Systems is one of the world's largest companies with more than 70,000 employees in dozens of countries. When its Global Events management team decided to implement a strategic meetings management program (SMMP), they knew they had a lot of work ahead.

Carolyn Pund, CMP, Cisco's Senior Manager of Global Strategic Meetings Management, says the way to succeed has been to implement a SMMP gradually, step by step.

"It's a major project, not an overnight plug and play," said Pund, adding that it takes time to build the necessary partnerships, technological infrastructure, policies and processes. "The groundwork and implementation has been in process for almost three years. Putting an SMMP in place isn't just coming up with a good idea. It's change management of a lot of behaviors."

One of the first actions that Pund and her team did was to schedule meetings with every stakeholder department in order to communicate the values of an SMMP.

In meetings with finance, procurement, travel, legal and other departments, Pund and internal business partners presented the value proposition with statistics relevant to each organization's pain points. Procurement was shown data about cost savings possible under SMM, legal was presented with contractual risk reduction, while risk management heard about the security benefits of expediency of reports in crisis situations.

"Education is key," Pund said. "The general corporate population is unfamiliar with the industry practice of a SMMP. When you're trying to do an enterprise-wide change management initiative, many components are critical but none as important as internal and external partnerships and educating your stakeholders."

What is SMM?
In order to understand why it can be difficult to simply launch a strategic meetings management program one must first understand the program. At its core, SMM is a philosophy that aims to take all the pieces that make up an organization's meetings universe and tie them together into a consistent and efficient whole, with the aim of cutting costs, mitigating risk and improving service quality.

But SMM isn't just a lofty philosophy that gives subtle hints. Its edge, and the reason it's so difficult to implement, is in the specific recommendations it makes to standardize every step within meetings management, starting with the question to meet or not. The areas that SMM overhauls with a more disciplined approach are: meeting registration, approval, sourcing and procurement, planning and registration, payment and expense reconciliation and data analysis and reporting.

The most difficult work may happen before any of these areas even comes into play. It involves trying to convince members of an organization to abandon the way they have run meetings in the past and let SMM be the guide.

Starting Slow: Data First
Data is central to every successful SMMP, and it's a crucial tool in gaining buy-in. Experts say even some very basic numbers can help to convince other departments, and later, decision-makers of SMM's value.

"If you can show that your company is spending US$20 million on meetings each year and that your team can save 25 percent: that's the business case you need," said Kimberly Meyer, CMP, founder of Meeting Analytics, which helps companies analyze their procurement data.

It sounds simple, but Meyer says senior executives don't know exactly how much their company spends on events.

"Senior executives are flabbergasted when they're told their meetings spend," Meyer said. "That's enough to get you the attention you need."

In addition to cost savings, executives also like to hear about SMM's contractual risk mitigation and security benefits. SMM reduces that risk by controlling those who may sign legal contracts, and it enhances security by offering faster and more complete overviews of where meetings are being held at any given moment, in the case of a safety threat.

Compiling the data doesn't have to be difficult. Rick Binford, CMP, president of event management services at Experient, says it's sufficient to gather bottom-line data on half of the events that took place over the previous 12 months. This data should include: the purpose of the event, number of attendees, total cost and decision maker identities.

This data can usually be gathered from existing registration platforms, spreadsheets and through personal interviews. In addition, large vendors such as hotel chains or airlines can usually provide handy summaries of a company's total spend.

Once the data has been gathered, it's time to start building a business case. While specialized vendors can help you analyze the data and turn it into a convincing report, all that's really needed is a straightforward slideshow that compares costs and risks before and after implementing a SMMP.

Cisco's Pund says the presentations to the organizational department leaders were eight to 10 slides, while the executives received summarized briefs.

"When you present to executives, it needs to be clear, concise and value driven—their time is valuable and it's important to optimize every minute." she said.

Once the data have been gathered, it's time to start finding supporters. A SMMP is so pervasive that it's almost impossible to get it started without strong endorsements from multiple key decision makers.

No Size Fits All
The most important thing to realize is that no single size fits all when introducing SMM. How an SMMP makes it into an organization depends on many things, including its size, the way it's managed and its culture.

Lisa Palmeri, CMP, director of professional services for event tech firm Cvent, says there are two main ways that SMM typically finds its way into an organization: top-down or bottom-up.

In large, decentralized organizations, she says, SMM is usually introduced in one sub-division—either in a group that's in charge of a certain product or in a geographical area. In smaller, more centrally organized companies, SMM is usually mandated by high-level finance or procurement leaders.

Each of these approaches carries its own set of challenges. When SMM is introduced top-down, as in Cisco's case, it takes a lot of effort to bring the stakeholders on board since they may feel their needs have been ignored by higher-ups. By the same token, starting SMM on the grassroots level often fails if you can't win approval at the enterprise level.

Making Friends and Influencing People
There are two ways to form the partnerships necessary to get an SMMP off the ground. In top-down implementation, it suffices to hold meetings with stakeholders—as Pund and her team did—explain to them the value of SMM, and get their perspectives on how the SMMP should be applied. By giving them an opportunity to participate in the implementation, you increase the chances that they will support the program.

"In the corporate world, people who don't feel they were part of a project will often try to derail you," said Betsy Bondurant, CMP, founder of Bondurant Consulting. "Don't let them hear about your program through the grapevine."

The other way to form partnerships, which is crucial in a bottom-up implementation, is to lead by example.

"Start in your own backyard," Experient's Binford advised. "Whether you're an individual meeting planner or head of a meetings group at a company, begin by implementing those tactics in your own group."

As you become more experienced with SMM and begin to collect evidence that it's working, you can begin to reach out to other departments and try to win them over.

"You have to showcase yourself as someone who is strategic," said David Rich, senior vice president of strategy and planning at George P. Johnson Experience Marketing. "You have to convince a number of individuals slowly and over time that there's a better way of doing things. Plan by plan, individual intervention by individual intervention."

A strategic approach includes a variety of elements. But those that will stand out the most are those that help to cut costs and reduce contractual risk. For example, when planning an event, make sure you analyze available data to find spots that might allow for savings. If you can show that your company spent $15 million with a single hotel chain in one year, you can use that number to negotiate a discount. Another tactic is to get the legal department more involved. By showing them every contract before it's signed, you can work with them to reduce risk exposure.

Once you have planned three or four meetings using SMM tools and have collected data to show its benefits, you can begin to build a business case. If you have played your cards correctly, you will impress the meeting owners you worked with and can tap them later to endorse your approach.

"It doesn't matter how senior the meeting owner, as long as they were accountable for the budget and they can say that your approach saved the company money and achieved results," Rich said.

Still, it never hurts to have the financial decision makers on your side. Since CFOs and chief procurement officers are already intricately involved in the event management process and are always keen to save money, they make natural partners.

"I can't imagine there are many CFOs or chief procurement officers who are not interested in having a conversation about SMM," Binford said.

Winning an Uphill Battle
But if your financial leaders aren't ready to hear about SMM, or if you don't have the authority to get your ideas heard, don't lose hope.

As in other areas of life, the only path to big success is through a series of smaller successes. If you manage to implement even one small element of SMM in your own approach to event management, you'll begin to see yourself as more of a strategic planner, and this confidence will help to win over skeptics.

In addition, it's crucial to connect with like-minded professionals. There are many other SMM converts in your situation, and today's networking opportunities allow countless ways to connect, commiserate and compare tactics.

"Planners often feel like they're too little understood and too little appreciated," Rich said. "People who are seen as strategic suffer those issues the least. If you want to be seen as strategic, don't feel like you have to do everything at once. The longest journey begins with the first step." One+
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