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HR Conference Season Opens!

HR Conference Season Opens! | Human Resource Executive Online While not as exciting as the opening of baseball season, the opening of this spring's HR conference season is being closely watched as an economic indicator of the industry's health and a reflection of corporate travel policies -- for this year, at least.

Monday, May 4, 2009
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While spring means the blooming of snowdrops, crocuses and then forsythia in my part of coastal Connecticut, everywhere else it means the opening of the annual HR conference season.

These conferences also come in many shapes and colors.

First, the commercial conferences produced by for-profit organizations: the Conference Board's e-HR Conference (the early bird in January), HR.com's Employers of Excellence, ERE's Spring Expo on recruiting in San Diego, and Bersin & Associates Impact Conference in St. Petersburg, Fla. All have been held already.

Second, the nonprofit professional association meetings: IHRIM's 29th Annual in San Diego last month, SHRM's Staffing Conference, WorldatWork's Total Rewards Conference and ASTD's Annual Conference, the last two to be held this month. Plus SHRM's annual monster that devoured Cleveland (actually New Orleans this year), in June.

Third, independent user conferences such as OHUG (Oracle HCM User Group, including PeopleSoft) in Las Vegas in June.

Finally, vendor-sponsored user conferences such as Lawson's CUE (overlapping IHRIM in San Diego last month), Cornerstone OnDemand in Santa Monica, Calif., this month, and many others too numerous to mention.

Guess what? Attendance is down at all of them held so far. What a surprise!

In the case of the Conference Board, almost disastrously so, but that was in January when we were still in shock and awe at what the economy was doing. About 50 percent down at ERE Expo, long-time attendees tell me. Ditto SHRM's Staffing. But who's been hurt worse by corporate lay-offs than recruiters?

IHRIM was down the least of all, only about 25 percent. Bersin's Impact hardly dipped, but its research members pre-pay for conference admission with their annual fee, skewing the dynamics.

Does this mean HR conferences are dead? Hardly. Practitioners often have the budget to register, but not the corporate clearance to travel. It's that simple.

Why anyone would devote dozens of paragraphs (elsewhere) trying to answer the question -- is anyone still attending conferences? -- is a puzzle to me. People are obviously still attending, just fewer this year than last and certainly more again next year, unless the world truly falls apart.

I heard one anecdote indicating candlelight at the end of the tunnel. A Bersin executive reported a flurry of last-minute registrations from attendees who said their travel restrictions had suddenly eased. Imagine that happening already? Keep your eye on your own company's policies.

Obviously I have a lot of skin in this game with the HR Technology® Conference five months away, on Sept. 30. So don't believe anything you just read.

But IHRIM's relative strength did not surprise me.

Every industry is really like a small town: where everyone knows one another, has worked with or competed against everyone, hired and fired one another, flirted and whatever. Unlike a real small town, however, an industry town is virtual -- so geographically spread across the country that its inhabitants physically come together in one place only a couple of times a year.

And sorry, no virtual event, social network or Twitter offers the same value as sitting down and talking with colleagues, old and new.

For nearly three decades, IHRIM's annual conference has been that place for practitioners, vendors and consultants in the HR technology industry. And, in its 12th year, HR Technology® has become another one, happily separated from IHRIM by six months.

At IHRIM, I heard another catastrophic shibboleth put to rest. Tom Keebler, principal of Towers Perrin HR Services, reports that companies are still buying HR software and services! After so many doomsayers have contended they've stopped, except the vendors selling the stuff and having to make payroll, of course.

Towers' HR Services Delivery Survey this year found that nearly two-thirds of 331 companies are spending at least as much (43 percent) or more (21 percent) than in 2008.

Of course, that means some companies are indeed spending less: 36 percent this year versus 15 percent in 2008. But that's a 20 percent contraction, not a collapse.

Keebler's numbers are eerily similar to what end-users reported six months ago in an electronic poll at the HR Technology® Conference. So I guess everything is not going to hell too quickly.

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At both IHRIM and Lawson's CUE, I learned that, despite the economy, technology companies are still innovating and expanding their footprints.

SilkRoad has gotten the learning-management system it acquired in October onto its technical platform and expects to begin selling it this month. Kenexa also released its LMS, developed from an unnamed vendor's purchased source code.

As reported last month, SilkRoad's OpenHire recruiting product will soon offer its 600 customers the new ResumePal interface and matching engine from JobFox as an option.

Over at CUE, Lawson showed the latest (and continuing) integration of Microsoft Office into a front-end for its applications, called Smart Office. It's a very cool way to access all its HR applications. HR product head Larry Dunivan says it does not require a re-implementation, but is simply an extension of Lawson's Strategic HCM suite.

Elsewhere off the conference trail, Workday announced a new venture funding round of $75 million, which sounds like a boom-time number. While New Enterprise Associates put in an estimated $45 million, co-founders Dave Duffield and Aneel Bhusri (investing for VC Greylock) continued their proportional investment by adding $30 million, with Duffield contributing 80 percent of their total. Bhusri says the company expects to break even in a year-and-a-half.

Unaccustomed as I am to accenting the positive, the conference season seems to have opened with lessening declines in attendance, possibly early easing of travel restrictions, more money coming into our sector, new companies getting successful and still more new things to learn about HR technology than any one person can possibly absorb.

But I keep trying.

HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chairman of the 12th Annual HR Technology® Conference & Exposition, where you can now read the full program agenda online. The event is two weeks earlier than usual this year: Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 in Chicago. He is also host of The Bill Kutik Radio Show sm. He can be reached at bkutik@earthlink.net.

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