There are many reasons the Shootout has become the most popular and signature event at the HR Technology® Conference in Chicago.
My shallow Hollywood side tells me it's the gladiatorial, blood-in-the-sand aspects of the event: four leading vendors competing head-to-head with live, custom-software demonstrations solving scripted problems typical for employees, managers and HR professionals.
Then the audience votes: not just with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, but more precisely with an electronic keypad -- three separate times. So there are winners and losers, and who doesn't like that?
More seriously, though, I think the popularity comes precisely from the comparison structure. The Shootout is the only opportunity in the world to compare HR software side-by-side.
Any HR executive with budget could, with four phone calls, get competing salespeople to come to the office. But each salesperson would smartly demo something very different than the competition. That can get so confusing that after two or three demos you wouldn't believe you had seen the same applications!
Even in a formal vendor selection with your own scripted scenarios, contenders never demo in five-minute segments one right after another in the same room. Can you think of a better way to compare them? If you can, please tell me.
Despite the demonstrated popularity, we've continued to innovate with the Shootout structure, which promises to make this year's the most interesting and educational among all 13 Shootouts we've staged in nine years. Or the bloodiest, if you're in the mood for a re-enactment of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
Thanks to Leighanne Levensaler of Bersin and Associates -- who has co-authored the script for the fourth time -- this year's Shootout has abandoned the line-by-line instructions of previous problem sets. The old scripts told contestants precisely how we wanted to see them solve the problems, forcing them to show exactly the same thing.
Frankly, this had the unfortunate tendency to turn the event into a contest over who had the prettiest user interface and who was the most compelling presenter. No more.
This year, the script only states the problem and the required solution. The path to get there is left completely up to the vendor, though the script includes some suggestions.
So, for the first time, contestants can show their competitive discriminators -- the whizziest stuff they've got to help you and your employees work better -- as well as their own creativity using the functionality to solve problems.
But there's more making this year different and more interesting. The contestants are two ERP vendors and two Talent Management suite vendors -- a match-up I've wanted for years.
We all know the smaller suite vendors have sold new customers by contending the ERPs' applications for Talent Management are not as functionally rich or as integrated as theirs. While, at the same time, ERPs such as SAP and Lawson have been furiously building out their applications' functionality and integration to meet that challenge.
Now you can finally find out who was right, at least among these four.
Recently, I happened to detail the Shootout on the phone to an HR executive at a large insurance company, who said: "Gee, we're an SAP shop. We should really be there."
And that's true if you're a Lawson shop or Oracle EBS or PeopleSoft Enterprise or whatever HRMS you are currently using.
If you're not one of the estimated 7,500 people who have attended a Shootout before, it's important to know the selection process. There are no regional Shootouts or qualification rounds. The contestants are more or less self-selected.
Leighanne and I sent the first draft of the script to almost 30 vendors we thought could solve its problems. Did we miss some companies? Maybe. All of the vendors reviewed the script and were able to suggest changes: Some we accepted and others we didn't. Then they reviewed the second draft with the opportunity to suggest different changes.
From the beginning nine years ago, the point of the Shootout has always been to reach a consensus on the script in order to show four vendors solving the problems, not to embarrass any company that can't.
For their own reasons, many companies decided to stop participating at various stages in the process. They were not eliminated in any competition. They simply opted out.
At the end, we had about twice as many companies willing to take part than we had Shootout slots available. So we pulled names out of a hat, shutting out some equally qualified and willing vendors from participating for no reason other than chance.
The simple point is that the four companies on stage Oct. 1 are not necessarily better than the 26 who aren't.
Finally, the Shootout has always required demonstrations be presented (with someone else on the keyboard) by the CEO of HR-only software companies and the executive in charge of HR products at companies that do more. So that's exactly whom you'll see:
* Larry Dunivan, SVP Global HCM Products, Lawson
* Paul Sparta, CEO, Plateau
* David Ludlow, VP Suite Solution Management, SAP
* Kent Plunkett, CEO, Salary.com
They've all presented in previous Shootouts, so for that and all the reasons I've detailed, I expect this will be the most exciting and closely fought Shootout in the history of the conference.
And despite my Hollywood headline, each one is too good to get massacred.
HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chairman of the 12th Annual HR Technology® Conference & Exposition in Chicago, Sept. 30 to Oct. 2. Register before Sept. 18 when many discounts expire. He is also host of The Bill Kutik Radio Show ®. He can be reached at email@example.com.