In my mind, the difference between a good conference and a bad conference is staying power. Ask yourself this – How long do the issues discussed, the ideas generated and opportunities for growth stick with you post-event? By that measurement, the 2009 HR Technology Conference was a rousing success.
Before I jump into my final thoughts, I’d like to point you to the musings of some of my fellow blogging attendees:
- Steve Boese offers three good conference related posts worth reading. You can find them here, here and here.
- Lance Haun reminds us that “Being Effective in HR Isn’t About Technology“.
- Kris Dunn covers the Talent Management Shootout.
- Kevin Grossman summarizes cool technologies and marketing challenges.
- Bradford Thomas reports on where talent and technology intersect.
- Trish McFarlane provides her closing thoughts.
Many of my opinions on the event can be heard in a special live edition of the “HR Happy Hour”, a wonderful new show hosted by Shauna Moerke and Steve Boese. Despite the initial background noise, what was so impressive about this particular episode was the ability for online conversations to break the digital divide, resulting in meaningful real-world dialogue. In addition to fellow panelists Jason Seiden, Laurie Ruettimann and Lance Haun, nearly fifteen other callers and conference room participants were part of the discussion. I’ve included the show below and encourage you to take a listen.
Ok, enough setup. Let’s get to it.
The Conference Itself
Bill Kutik and company did a tremendous job organizing this year’s event. As I mentioned in my prior post, logistics were a bit challenging, but participants seemed to be quite pleased overall. Not surprisingly, attendance was a bit down on both the service provider and HR buyer fronts, but those who made the investment were quite purposeful and highly focused.
Here’s my suggestion for HR Tech 2011…. all panels all the time. The panel discussions were not trite, run of the mill, predictable, robotic regurgitations of the obvious. Sure, there was some of that, but by and large we witnessed meaningful dialogue on a whole host of topics, some of which had no bearing on HR technology explicitly.
A quick note for the unseasoned. If you do attend a panel discussion, expect to witness Bill Kutik rising like a ruffled Phoenix to interrupt the flow if things get too “cozy”. This isn’t a criticism. Bill generally keeps the conversation loose and – like a mailman – ensures the envelope gets pushed.
There were three panels of note.
Wednesday’s was moderated by Jason Averbook and included senior HR leaders from KeyBank, Nike, Target and Dell. I spoke to this in my prior post but it’s worth discussing again. All seemed quite bullish on the application of social media for their organizations, with Nike stating that as an industry we may miss an “avenue of engagement” if we don’t get on board. I also enjoyed the discussion on HR service provider demonstrations and on this point the panelists could not be more crystal clear. “Show us the good, the bad and ugly” and be “transparent about what features you currently have in production and which are aspirational”. KeyBank even stated that this approach would help improve your score in a competitive environment, with Nike adding that this is your first opportunity to “share your culture” and “values”. Take heed here people.
Thursday morning began with the industry analyst panel, featuring:
- Josh Bersin of Bersin & Associates: “Dinosaurs don’t tend to die. They get acquired.”
- Naomi Bloom of Bloom & Wallace: “You own your own professional development, not your company.”
- Lisa Rowan of IDC: “The cage match is for the profile of record versus the system of record.”
- Jim Holincheck from Gartner: “Use data as a strategic weapon.”
Moderator Bill Kutik asked this panel to predict which HR service provider will be the most influential in ten years. I’m not a fan of this question because it’s difficult enough to ponder what will happen in ten months, but the answers were telling nonetheless. Holincheck and Rowan put their money on Oracle (in Holincheck’s case, because of M&A activity), Bersin bet on SuccessFactors and Bloom doubled down on Workday. Maybe I’ll stick around long enough to see who was right…
The final panel I attended was focused on recruiting technology, featuring moderator Gerry Crispin and senior HR/talent panelists from Intuit, Research in Motion (BlackBerry), Deloitte and Southwest/Yahoo’s former CHRO, Libby Sartain. There were a number interesting topics of discussion, but the focus on social media really caught my attention. When asked, nearly half of the audience admitted to policies which block social media sites, and even BlackBerry stated that this was an issue for them until recently (ironic, I know). Deloitte was the most direct about the issue, stating that social media is “not a technology problem, it’s a management problem.” Intuit added that these concerns really need to go away, especially with the younger generation of workers given we know that “they’re bringing their lives into their work and their work into the lives.” Crispin then shared a tale about a very intelligent young man who refused to accept a job offer because the organization blocked FaceBook, and I think this is a great cautionary tale for those who are leveraging social media to recruit applicants and then blocking access to those same tools. The final item of note was by Libby Sartain when she spoke to the issue of “applicants”, preferring instead to think of these people as “consumers of work”. I like it.
Shoot the Shootout
The “Second Annual Talent Management Shootout” was held on Thursday evening. This is a scenario-based competition that requires HR service providers to demonstrate their wares and approaches to prescribed (and common) HR scenarios. Much to my surprise, the room was packed at the outset and the mood quite light. This year’s competitors included Lawson, SAP, Salary.com and Plateau. Salary.com was the victor.
Here’s the problem I see with this format. Senior level executives rapidly run through their scripted paces while curtained solution wizards pull the strings on their respective software packages. The temptation is to focus exclusively on the user interface, which given the speed reading and tiny print makes colors and pictures seem superior to outright functionality. It’s really a 75-minute demo without the benefit of asking questions or pausing for processing. I don’t think it works and would like to see it either go away or replaced with something else.
I might be wrong… it happened once.
I believe HR Tech worked because the organizers focused on engaging the audience where it matters. Panels are superior to talking heads because conversations are what we seek to further our learning. “Talking with” versus “talking to” seems like a no brainer, but sadly it’s a miss for most event planners.
As I mentioned previously, HR buyers were there to make some tough decisions with their precious 2009 and 2010 budgets. However, I believe the Expo floor was wrought with mostly empty booths staffed by intelligent (and senior) people who suffered from a lack of volume. Sure, there were transactions that occurred and HR buyers who made decisions based on a service provider’s Expo presence. But the numbers are difficult to justify given the investment (both hard and soft dollars) required. Having worked the floor of many a conference, this issue is often the most challenging to reconcile once you return to the office and answer the inevitable CFO question – “So how was the conference?” The conference was great, but the leads were few relative to the number of sponsoring companies.
George Bernard Shaw once said, “I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live it is my duty to do for it whatever I can.” The 2009 HR Technology Conference lived up to this spirit. I’m better for having attended and continuing to built both old and new relationships.
My challenge to the organizers is to continue to think about how this community can be furthered. How do we ensure that it is not an annual event that drives important innovation and dialogue, but instead a constant flow throughout the calendar year? I look forward to the next evolution in our field. If you’re still reading, I owe you a pint. Please share your thoughts below and let’s continue to keep the conversation going.