Leading off the 11th Annual HR Technology Conference and Exposition® in Chicago, opening keynote speaker Michael Beschloss guided most of this year's some 2,000 conference-goers through historical vignettes aimed at bettering their understanding of presidential leadership, and leadership in general.
Author of six best-selling books, including Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989, Beschloss is also the presidential historian for NBC News and a frequent guest speaker on PBS.
He humored the crowd on Tuesday with some little-known stories from the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman and even George Washington to underscore his point that "leaders are best depicted in those times when they are forced to be spontaneous and off-guard."
When Johnson built his presidential museum in Austin, Texas, across from the University of Texas football stadium after his final term, for instance, the country was facing social and economic hard times. No one was coming to his new Presidential Library. In a streak of quick thinking, Johnson worked with stadium officials so announcements were made at every game that "anyone who needs water or restroom facilities can go across the street to the library," Beschloss told the crowd. "The ploy worked and the library went on to become one of the best-attended of the country."
When George Washington was about to leave his presidency, said Beschloss, "he had a hunch the British would invade and the country would cease to be the country we know it as today."
"So he did something unpopular. He agreed to a treaty with the British in order to ensure the longevity of the United States."
Whether heading HR or IT -- or nations -- leaders sometimes have to make decisions at the risk of popularity for the greater good.
"But make sure you can explain yourself, convince your people why such a move is necessary," said Beschloss. When Lincoln risked his popularity by trying to convince a nation that freeing the slaves should be the true cause of the Civil War, he said, "He paid the ultimate sacrifice with his own life."
Proclaiming himself an Independent, Beschloss went on to offer a few predictions for the 2008 presidential election, namely that Sen. Barack Obama might have fewer obstacles getting to the White House than Sen. John McCain.
Rarely has history "ever given the White House to the same party three terms in a row," he said. However, Obama's "progressive ideology, his admitted lack of experience" and the "disturbing possibility that some voters may be influenced by race" also come into consideration, he said.
"Whoever wins," he said, "will have to lead a struggling nation and do a lot to heal the toxic climate in Washington."
The conference, held at the McCormick Center, continues until Thursday.
Human resource leaders need to move away from an "HR-centric point of view" when thinking of talent management, said Heidi Spirgi, president of HR strategy advisory firm Knowledge Infusion, as she co-moderated "The Second Annual Talent Management Panel" at the conference.
"True talent management," she said, "is about the process of managing the supply and demand of talent to manage business results."
HR leaders often fail to focus on business results as the true goal of talent management, she said.
To do that, Cassie Fireman, vice president of talent for Echelon Resorts and one of four panelists speaking at the session, said HR must move away from "HR speak" and learn to speak the language of business.
"It's really important to not look at talent metrics in a vacuum," she said. HR leaders need to layer those metrics with business strategies and financial performance.
Co-moderator Jason Averbook, CEO of Knowledge Infusion, cautioned the audience, however, that generic processes and strategies won't be successful. Talent-management initiatives have "to be tied back to the organization's business goals," he said.
Instead of thinking of ROI and cost savings, he said, HR must begin thinking of VOI -- the value of the investment.
"You can't make the talent-management business case on cost savings," he said. "It's going to be about effectiveness, not efficiency."
And with the economy in turmoil, wise HR executives will start thinking of the opportunities inherent in the situation instead of focusing all of their attention on the downside, said panelist Bill Ingham, director of global talent management for The Clorox Co.
"This really represents a unique time to be opportunistic," he said, urging the audience members to think like Warren Buffet. "How do we invest when everybody else is selling?"
He noted that "this is ... an excellent time to upgrade talent but it's also a great time to protect your critical talent."
One retention strategy, Kelly Lowe, director of organizational capability for Intuit, is seeing her company work on is creating a system that profiles the aspirations of employees -- compiling information on skills and capabilities and cross-referencing that with "where the business most needs them."
"We are just on the cusp of this," Lowe said.
Mary Leahy, vice president of talent management/systems for Franklin Templeton, said her company was working on a similar process. "Talent profiles are probably one of our biggest initiatives as well as talent acquisition in terms of new technologies," she said.
When pursuing the idea of talent-management strategies, Spirgi said, HR should listen to what business leaders are asking for.
And when choosing technology vendors, the panelists said, HR must know in advance what it is the company places its greatest importance on. Each vendor has its own strengths and weaknesses, so HR must decide "what do we most, most need," Lowe said.
Web 2.0 at Work
Web 2.0 technologies -- such as wikis, blogs and social networking -- are almost a fait accompli for organizations.
That was one of the messages from the six-person panel including both senior-level HR leaders and top HR technology vendors at the Web 2.0 in the Enterprise Panel session. The panel consisted of Gretchen Alarcon, vice president of global HCM strategy for Oracle, Larry Dunivan, vice president of global HCM products for Lawson, David Ludlow, vice president of solution suite management for SAP, Brien Gruber, vice president of HR for Capital One, Jo-Anna Rubin-Berman, vice president of HR for Commerce Bank and Matthew Hanwell, senior manager of new Web experiences for global HR at Nokia.
These technologies "are coming into the company whether we want them to or not. Clearly there was some interest," said Gruber, whose company has been aggressive in adding Web 2.0 elements such as blogs, employee profiles, discussion threads and wikis as well as allowing employees to rate and comment on intranet articles.
It soon will be adding "tagging," that will make searching of information easier; the ability to add "friends" to employee profiles; and RSS, a syndication tool that will allow for personalization of the company portal by individual employees.
Web 2.0 is a "grass roots" initiative. "We haven't pushed the change on anyone," Gruber said, noting that the concept "is about participation."
Bill Kutik, who moderated the session and is co-chair of the conference, noted that that is what is "so scary" about Web 2.0 for many organizations.
"It's really a bottom-up kind of thing. It's not a controlled top-down kind of thing," he said.
Even in companies where it is not welcomed, some employees will use such technologies, such as the "rogue group" of recruiters at Commerce Bank who are exploring social-networking sites looking for talent, said Rubin-Berman.
While such work is not "officially sanctioned" as the bank has many security and governance issues with Web 2.0 technologies, recruiters are exploring the tools on their own, she said.
While all of these elements are technologies, Hanwell said, it's important to remember that "it's all about people and it's all about people having the ability to participate.
Among the Web 2.0 technologies available for employees, he said, is the ability to add photos and bio information to the company phonebook; an employee "jam," where ideas for innovation were shared; and the ability to comment on and rate intranet news articles.
In the works, he said, is a "blog hub," which is an aggregation of employee blog sites, an internal video site similar to YouTube, and Nokia Conversation, a tool for consumers and employees to communicate, and "more of the same -- more social networking, mobile social networking."
As for security issues, Hanwell said, "I think you have to take the bad with the good when you go into this. ... You can be stupid in a lot of ways. It doesn't have to be Web 2.0."
Alarcon agreed, saying "you let people be adults ... .You need to let it go and make course corrections as you go along."
It's also important to make it easy for employees to find. It can't be an isolated effort, Dunivan said. It needs to be "integrated into the fabric of the way [employees] work" or the tools won't be adopted.
During a session entitled "The What, Why and How of Workforce Planning at Aetna," Melissa Cummings, vice president of workforce planning for Aetna, detailed the Hartford, Conn., insurance company's approach to workforce planning.
In pursuing a workforce planning initiative, Aetna targeted five critical job groups that were selected based on their importance to the company's overall business strategy.
"These were jobs central to where we were going in our three-year strategic plan," Cummings said.
At the heart of the initiative were one-day workshops that included a combination of qualitative and quantitative dialogue about possible scenarios, she said. Participants in the sessions were carefully selected ("They needed to be high-level enough to make a decision, but also people involved in the day-to-day business ... .") and provided with key data in advance of the meetings, she explained.
"We needed to get business leaders to think about the different scenarios -- the 'what ifs' -- and then put together an action plan for the future," she said. "We needed to identify what were the gaps ... and how do we fill them in a sequential way?"
Typically, Cummings said, "organizations are good at thinking about themselves, but not always in the context of what's happening around them."
Aetna used a software tool developed by Aruspex to capture the data used for the workshop discussions. Part of the value of the product was its ability to automate and standardized the process, she said, adding that the software was customized with the look and feel of an Aetna tool.
By themselves, Cummings said, the software and the group discussions wouldn't have resulted in a meaningful action plan. But together, she said, they provided Aetna with a powerful tool.
"We were able to get people to think about what things are going to be like 2011," she said. "We were able to get them to live in the future."