Well, it’s hard to believe that another SHRM Annual Conference has come and gone. And like last year’s event, we witnessed some of the same challenges and opportunities. But before I offer my thoughts on this year’s gala, let me suggest a few of the wonderful bloggers who provided fantastic coverage of SHRM 2010:
- Charlie Judy offered terrific coverage, including, What (the ‘f) were you thinking? A new calling for HR.
- Monster.com had a terrific team on the ground this year, so be sure to check out posts such as Jennifer McClure’s, What HR Wants to Know About Social Media CAN HR Them, and Ben Eubanks’, Creating a Culture of Engagement: HR Leader’s New Strategic Role.
- Mary Ellen Slayter of SmartBrief partnered with Monster to produce a wonderful series of SHRM 2010 interviews for the Monster Thinking Series.
- Laurie Ruettimann used to offer fantastic hotel-cam observations of her world travels, and this year she’s back! Be sure to check out her fashion insights from the show.
Ok, let’s get down to business:
I’m a big fan of San Diego and the convention center really did offer a terrific venue for the event. There were plenty of places for exhausted, swag-laden HR pros to find a little corner to relax and even catch a brief nap (I saw more than a few sleepers). Although San Diego was geographically too distant (and therefore costly) for many, the convention center was conveniently located within walking distance of several hotels, dozens of restaurants and nightlife, as well as on the shore for those who needed to get away from the chaos of the expo hall. My only nit is that there were not enough coffee shops as the lines were very, very long. If there’s one thing to know about HR, we love our java.
I said this last year and I’ll say it again – I really can’t imagine the difficultly in hosting more than 11,000 attendees, coordinating hundreds of sponsors, securing hundreds of volunteers and making it look relatively effortless. My hat goes off to the organizing committee for another terrific job. Moreover, this year we saw some new offerings including the introduction of a social media lounge and what I felt was a much more comfortable press room. With plenty of power strips, good high-speed internet, pre-configured laptops and desktops and all the beverages and snacks you could handle, our merry band of misfits were connected, caffeinated and ready to roll. A personal “thank you” to SHRM’s new social media guru Curtis Midkiff for doing a great job in his inaugural appearance.
Now let’s talk about presenters. Regardless of your political views, nearly all attendees I spoke with were thrilled with Al Gore having spent the time and effort to truly tailor his speech to human resources. It wasn’t just a casual mention but a full-blown call to action. My suggestion is that SHRM work with Michael J. Fox and Sir Richard Branson (SHRM ’11 keynoters) to ensure that their presentations are similarly on point. It is member dollars that are funding these speaker fees and they deserve to walk away with something relevant.
My last point on speakers is this – where is the diversity?? I’m hoping someone kept score but it appeared that only white males were available for a trip to San Diego in late June. Of course I’m exaggerating, but I did not see a proper representation on stage. Hell, SHRM itself only has one female executive leader in the hopper, and she hasn’t started her job yet. In an industry dominated by women, we need to do a better job of lifting them up and celebrating their contributions and accomplishments. This picture does not do the membership justice (and people really do take notice).
I want to hit this on two fronts.
First, SHRM rolled out their entire leadership team and we witnessed some (unfortunate) dancing from a few of them. Much to my surprise, CEO Lon O’Neil even launched his Twitter account (although he had some phantom tweets appear while he was on stage). However, I did not walk away feeling the level of transparency and openness that we saw under prior leaders such as Sue Meisinger. Where’s the annual financial report? Where are those heartfelt and unscripted moments? And Lon, where in the hell is your SPHR certification? You can’t claim that it’s a tremendous asset to HR leaders while never having secured it yourself. It’s been almost two years, so either acknowledge that it’s not important (which will never happen) or make this a top priority. Pot, meet kettle…
Second, I was sadly disappointed by the attendee reaction to a keynote featuring a panel of HR leaders, including Google, Northrop Grumman, Kaiser Permanente and Deutsche Bank. SHRM’s membership is generally not comprised of the senior-most HR professionals from the world’s largest firms, so when they actually take the time to show up, share best practices and offer advice, you damn well better pay attention. Attendees swarmed from the session, first in 2′s and 3′s and then by the dozens. Are you there to listen to Steve Forbes and Al Gore or should you perhaps learn from those who have theoretically arrived at your career destination? And if you did walk out early, you missed a gem from Deutsche Bank’s Conrad Venter when he predicated that HR will be obsolete in ten years if we stay on our current course. I tend to agree.
The oddity began the moment I arrived on Sunday. While walking through the expo hall, a senior VP of HR locked eyes with me from fifty yards away. She was trashed on free margaritas from one of the vendor booths. Swaying down the red carpet, she made her way toward me as I looked over my shoulder to assess who in the hell she was looking at. When she grabbed me by the shoulder, I realized I was her target. Holding my shoulder with her left hand, she then silently stroked my cheek with her right. (Yeah, this really happened.) Then gravity took over, she swayed around me to the left and continued her bumper-car journey of bliss.
She never said a word.
I know, you’re thinking this must be one out-of-control attendee from a sea of well-behaved professionals. But let me tell you something. I have been to well over one hundred HR conferences in my career and this is more “normal” than you might expect. HR people get shit-faced, misbehave, rant, party, dance and flirt to excess at these shows. My theory is this – all year long they have to model behavior as the dream corporate citizen. So, when the opportunity arises to hang out with their peers and finally let their hair down, they take full advantage. In some respects, I can’t blame them, but I would ask that people get their act together and maintain some dignity. While walking to my car last evening, I saw two thirty-something SHRM 2010 attendees, one rubbing the back of the other while she threw up in an alley. Both were still wearing their badges.
This continues to be SHRM’s number one challenge. Many attendees came for the party, others came for the HRCI credits, and others probably realized they needed pens, dolls, stuffed animals, notepads and bags of other bizarre tchotchkes. I saw droves of attendees just sitting around, doing crossword puzzles, checking email, walking in and out of sessions and generally moving listlessly through the convention center. Some were just simply overwhelmed by the sheer size and scope of the event, and that really concerns me. I suggested to some SHRM staffers that they consider a pre-event orientation (via video) that can be viewed remotely and help prepare first-time attendees for the experience. Heck, this would even help the veterans understand the venue, logistics and surrounding areas. Or, how about a mentor/protege program where more experienced attendees would help their newer peers?
Although this is SHRM’s biggest revenue generator, something needs to change. Attendance does not guarantee learning or action, and if SHRM truly intends to use this event to advance the profession, the issue of engagement must be addressed. I know, I know… it’s difficult to meet the specific needs of 250,000 members and over 10,000 live attendees. But when dozens of people say to me, “maybe SHRM is just too big?”, you know that there is a groundswell of discontent and a questioning of value.
And this brings me to my last point – member voice. I am very concerned that SHRM is no longer capturing the true needs of its constituency. For example, I asked at least twenty SHRM staffers how the legislative agenda is set. No one knew. So when millions of dollars are being poured into lobbying and policy changes, is SHRM confident that it’s voice is truly that of it’s constituents, or is this an educated guess made by a sequestered committee? I’d like to know.
What Do You Think?
Whether you attended or not, I’d love your thoughts. My goal with this 1,500+ word post is not to rant and complain, but instead to bubble up some of the systemic issues facing our industry. I implore SHRM – the largest, most influential body in our industry – to read these words with an eye toward member value (versus top line revenues), engagement (over sponsorship) and the future needs of the profession (over certification credentials). We’re all in this together, and we must keep an open and honest dialogue going. I’ll look forward to your comments.