“I was expecting people to be dragging large sacks of rocks behind them,” said Ben Brooks, VP and Practice Leader of Human Capital Management (HCM) at a giant risk-management firm. “But it wasn’t like that at all. Speakers were forward thinking yet practical, and people at the event were talking about real business challenges in the context of the huge potential of social software.”

When sharing his impressions of last week’s human resources geek-fest, the HR Technology Conference, put on by Bill Kutik and HR Executive Magazine, Ben voiced what many people not at the event probably feared too.

Human resource management, in general, not just those who focus on HR information systems, is rarely considered a glamorous career. HR Executive magazine recently reported that 80% of HR officers believe their stress level has gone up considerably in the last 18 months. The recession and a lack of focus on business metrics has given them more work and set their chairs on fire. Many in hot seats feel they’ve carried around those rocks for long enough.

Although McCormick Place, with its escalators facing the wrong direction and a shortage of women’s bathroom stalls might seem prophetic, this wasn’t a show around a small campfire or inside a cave. You could almost see the sun rising over people’s heads and them looking up in anticipation of the new dawn.

The conference began with a keynote by Tammy Erickson, author of What’s Next, Gen X and Retire Retirement: Career Strategies for the Boomer Generation. Her message left me longing to hear how she believes HR execs can begin initiating collaborative projects (her focus was on why they should). A quick poll afterword of those sitting around me, from a “20th Century icon” company, however, said her message was what they needed to hear. She painted a picture of the inevitable future in language they could use back in Detroit to talk about where HR needs to go. They believe that HR leaders need to overcome the perception they only care about payroll and benefits. Those are still important, but they represent only a small piece of their job to create a workplace for the future.

My favorite part of Tammy’s talk illuminated how scientists know Cro-Magnon collaborated. They don’t see emails or cave wall cartoons talking about meeting up after work. Evidence comes from tools that have been found which required more that two hands to create. This supports a point I make often: collaboration is not only about the conversation; rather it’s about what we can create jointly. Together we can do more.

Before the keynote, I sat down with Bond Talent US CEO Tim Giehll to talk about what he calls the Human Capital Supply Chain. I wanted to know how this differed from what I refer to as a “people-centric value chain.” Like the covers of our books, which look eerily similar, our perspectives overlapped in many ways. We share a frustration with the lack of rigorous yet people-friendly systems to accurately analyze conditions for people-management to succeed. We both look to optimized supply chain methods, not just as metaphors, but actual practices to improve the employee lifecycle. Although a manufacturing focus may seem impersonal, Tim points out that it can make sure the right people are in the right jobs at the right time.

The Social Learning breakout session, lead by Jeanne Meister co-author of The 2020 Workforce, was one I couldn’t miss. Panelists included Robert Campbell (VP & CLO, Cerner Corporation), Don McLaughlin (CLO, Cisco), Laurence Smith Laurence Smith (VP, Global L&D, LG Electronics), and Susan Steele (National TD Director, Deloitte). Each introduced formidable case studies for learning together at work. Examples included Deloitte’s inside the firewall D Street online social network to Yelp consumer-oriented local rating service. Each focused of what people were learning, not just connecting with people they know. The only thing lacking in the session was a clear definition of social learning—which Jeanne had tried to crowdsource from the audience. People said things like, “it’s collaborative” and “tools to help leverage learning from people,” which are accurate but lack the foundation needed for people to say, “yes, that’s social learning/no, that’s not.” I define social learning by first defining another loose term.

Social media is technology used to engage three or more people.
Social learning is participating with others to make sense of new ideas.
What’s new is how they powerfully work together.

In meetings that afternoon, I spoke with luminary Gary Durbin, who I hadn’t seen in over a decade. Never one to soften a blow, he said it was OK for me to quote him saying, “The beaches are littered with the bones of HR people who had a good idea but couldn’t do anything about it.” His latest company SynchSource is working with Advantec doing compelling work in the human capital management space offering extremely flexible, scalable and workflow-oriented solutions. They had just announced that two years and 600 small to mid-market clients later, they were in stealth mode no more. The red medical scrubs touting the Kardiant logo visually pounded out that point. I look forward to following their progress and watching their hearts beat.

Meeting with Saba VP and GM of People Management Solutions, Yvette Cameron, was for more than just hearing what’s new in Saba’s “people strategy.” It was a candid conversation about the challenges learning management systems (LMS) vendors face when trying to show the market their vision and solid tool-suites represent a way to power up people. I applaud Saba for moving into the Enterprise 2.0 space with Saba Live because it shows the intersection of identity and reputation-driven profiles built through their HCM and talent management systems, and the little interchanges that lead to making informed decisions at work. Don’t expect me to overturn my call for organizations to consider turning off their LMS if it has trapped the organization’s thinking about what is learning rather than recording it, then setting memes free. LMS hold learning like a jar trying to hold sunshine. Let’s hope Saba’s move into HCM and talent management, and now E2.0 finally shows the marketplace it time to set the light free.

Dave Duffield and Aneel Bhusri, Workday co-founders, began by asking themselves what they would do if they could do what they did PeopleSoft again. For starters, they’d focus on how busy people would use their HR systems. The user-experience would be friendly, mobile, easy to update, and in the cloud. I met with Leighanne Levensaler and Andrew McCarthy to talk about Workday’s HCM strategy and quickly moved into a conversation about the vital role Workday Labs plays in bringing innovation and enhancements into future products. They are currently looking at things like natural workspaces, data filters, and, well of course for people-people, collaboration. We also talked about how Workday Community provides a sandbox where customers learn from one another rather than rely on the vendor to provide all the answers. In each workday, together we are smarter than any one of us.

The general session on the second day was as educational as it was entertaining. Jim Holincheck and Jason Averbook debated most every aspect of HR. Referee and conference host Bill Kutik spurred on talk about how the profession could use social technology to round a corner and what role analytics would play in HR’s success. What Jim and Jason lacked in street fighting skills they made up for in depth and candor. While we all truly missed Naomi Lee Bloom, it was wonderfully modern of her to be tweeting Bill new questions, RTing interesting points and being there in more than spirit. Her brains were on deck. I encourage every conference host to take a page from this playbook. Put two good speakers with strong points of view on stage to go point/counterpoint on the issues facing attendees, in not today then ahead. Think of this as the conference-circuit’s equivalent to reality TV. All the emotion and drama without the rehearsals or scripts. Conference 2.0 needs to show honesty and real-life theater, bubbling up in the moment, showing no one has all the answers. We’re each doing the best we can.

The Bloggers Insights panel, lea by Kris Dunn (The HR Capitali$t) was another best practice, not just talking about technology but how people put it into use. Bryon Abramowitz (The HR Technologist) and the newest blogger on the panel explained why it’s never too late to start writing if there’s a blog inside you. Trish McFarlane (HR Ringleader) opened attendees’ eyes by sharing that St. Louis Children’s Hospital hired her because of what they learned about her from her blog. Mike Krupa (InfoBox) talked about how and why HR technology is the perfect topic for him to blog about. And Laurie Ruettimann (The Cynical Girl), perhaps the best speaker I heard at the event, modeled that HR leaders can and should be themselves. She offered quips like, “Most HR info out there is ungodly boring…this is why our blogs do so well…we’re storytellers,” and, “The people in Chicago aren’t unemployed because the pictures they post on Facebook.” She reminded everyone that oftentimes HR’s focus on policies and procedures gets in the way of talking about what really matters. A blog is a modern means to provide a human voice and lead the good charge.

One big surprise for me (aside from not getting home Thursday night because of East Coast storm flight delays) was a meeting with PeopleMatter CEO, Nate DaPore. In addition to his Ross Mayfieldesqe appearance and effervescence, he’s found an underserved market, a brilliant intersection of previously disjointed talent management-oriented processes, and a spot on UI. When asked if he plans on talking this approach to other verticals, he said “no” emphatically. Other vendors should sigh with relief.

Two quick highs came from talking briefly with HR Executive Publisher, David Shadovitz (whose letters from the editor are possibly the only ones I read faithfully in any magazine), and a 10 minute 1:1 catch up with Dave Duffield at the annual PeopleSoft Alumni party. I could devote a year of blog posts to lessons Dave’s taught me about work, life, and doing what you know is right.

Two more extended highlights came as a result of lengthy private discussions. One was with Laurence Smith, VP of Global Learning & Development at LG Electronics. We talked about the challenges he faces in Korea relating to knowledge transfer and a workforce culture where people equate learning with multiple-choice tests. He admitted that he’s forced new practices by sharing some key messages only to an internal microsharing network—spreading the word verbally that people had to log in there to learn what’s up. The tactic worked, by the way, and while there, people saw other threads they wanted to weigh in on. Our conversation also uncovered that we’d each worked with two characters who had influenced us in powerful ways. One an English entrepreneur, the other a former Yale professor. It was unlikely enough we’d each worked with both of them (at different times) yet each of us crossing their paths still seems statistically impossible. It reminded us that a simple lunch will provide a springboard for further learning from 6986 miles away. Do I think we’d have met if it weren’t for the HR Tech Conference? Possibly. Would social media ever foster an exchange about these mutual colleagues? Unlikely. “Friends we have in common” requires those friends are social online and so far not everyone’s onboard.

The other invaluable conversation was with the insightful Ben Brooks. Before meeting in person, we met one another over Twitter at the #ibmexperience event a few weeks before in New York and then again in a session at HR Tech. We were simultaneously capturing and tweeting many of the same points, mostly about the humanness collaborative technologies bring into the workplace. We were also co-smirking at comments like, “[The HR] space is mega exciting” and tweet-applauding speakers for avoiding jargon to talk about the upside of a profession that should never lose sight people matter most of all.

I look foreword to next years conference in Las Vegas and witnessing HR leaders stepping back into the light, using technology and their deep care for people as a way for organizations to shine.


NOTE: This post has been translated into Romanian

HR Tech Conference Recap: Evolution of a Social Industry
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