It’s easy to forget how one wrong assumption can take us down a series of blind alleys, closing off options that would have brought better results to an organization—or to hundreds or thousands of conference participants.

That risk is ever-present in meeting technology, where expectations are high, the scene is constantly shifting, cost-cutting often trumps innovation and quality, and meeting professionals sometimes lack the specialized training to make choices that build better events.

Much of the technology discussion in our industry swirls around the latest new platforms, software, and toys, far less around how to choose the tools to help participants achieve his or her goals on site. Too often, we limit what we can do with technology before we even realize it.

Hands up anyone whose business has ever launched a shiny, new CRM package, only to find that it forced users to understand the logic of software designers, not the other way around? (OK, I lost count. Hands up anyone who’s never done that?)

How often have we introduced nifty, new options that were sure to give participants a better on-site experience, realizing too late that the systems were tough to use or wasted more time than they saved? In my own corner of the industry, many planners still think they can deliver learning by posting verbatim session video online, when too many people had too little time to sit through the whole session while they were on site.

The importance of instructional design in guiding technology choices was brought home to me when I met Richard Pinet, head of the Centre for e-Learning at the University of Ottawa. After having watched successive generations of technology pass through post-secondary classrooms, Pinet traces a progression that rings true for meetings.

With the rise of instructional technology over the last 15 years came an understanding of what he calls the “constructivist” nature of learning, leading to a focus on learner-centered pedagogical design. The technology itself was designed to support that engagement, and attention shifted from the podium to the students.

But now, lecture-capturing technology “is taking us back to a place where what happens at the front of the room is most important,” he said. “It would seem to render students mute and turn them into audiences and witnesses of knowledge being taught to them, rather than participants in their own learning.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, in universities or in meetings. I’m writing this just back from EventCamp East Coast, one in a series of conferences that are showing how meeting design can bring the power back to participants. Some of our clients are already beginning to apply the lessons we learned at EventCamp Twin Cities in September, and I have more ideas and strategies to share after two days in Philadelphia. (I’ll have more on this in a future column.)

But so far, our industry’s thoughtful use of instructional design is most notable by its rarity. We’ll do better work if we learn more about this discipline, and so will our participants.

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to