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HR Technology Column

An Amazing Conference

My reflections on smart devices and social technology plus insights and observations from others about the recently concluded 14th Annual HR Technology® Conference. It was an outstanding event -- drawing together a worldwide community of 4,600 people who care about HR technology.

Monday, October 17, 2011
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I fear smart devices may increasingly erode the value of face-to-face conferences, such as the HR Technology® Conference concluded on Oct. 5.

Certainly not because of the limited appeal of virtual conferences, with their collections of webinars usually available elsewhere, and their vendor websites posing as booths.

Virtual conferences only get compelling when you can talk to people you "meet" at them, like in Second Life and hopefully better than instant messaging. And when you can view live, rather than recorded, product demos from exhibitors who respond to requests!

Nor am I thinking about social networks. More than a hundred people attended HR Technology® for the first time after being members of our LinkedIn group, plus hundreds of other members attended as prior attendees.

Social-network access to people only whets your appetite for the real thing, face-to-face, up close and personal. Funny, how you feel you know the people whose pictures you've seen, opinions you've read, but have never met.

The erosion I'm talking about is simply attention and human bandwidth. Every session I attended in Las Vegas, I saw dozens of people staring at various size screens -- iPhones, Crackberries, Droids and iPads -- responding to email, tweeting or working on documents.

OK, I know I'm out-of-step and old school: I prefer laser-focus on one task at a time. I rarely get it in today's interrupt-mode of work, but when I do, I sometimes burn a hole right through the task at hand!

At one session, when I pulled out my new Droid Pro (thank you analyst Marcia Conner for the tutorial) to check my email, I became totally immersed in that familiar world and did not hear a single word the speaker was saying.

I know others are much better at multi-tasking. I watched Marcia do eight different things repeatedly in 20 minutes, including texting me sitting next to her! Why was that easier than whispering to me? You'll have to ask her yourself.

Maybe I can see tweeting about a speaker you're listening to. A bit like taking notes with (gasp!) a pen and paper, maybe even on a printed handout of the speaker's slides, adding the live thoughts to the canned thoughts and consolidating your information in one place.

But my prejudice against live tweeting remains: A speaker's comments need only penetrate your brain a quarter inch to tweet it out to your followers. Might the time be better spent thinking about what you just heard?

Unless, of course, you're tweeting for professional, promotional purposes and personal brand management. Actually, are there any other reasons to do it? I know: sharing.

Of course, all this is just me: the late technology adopter and curmudgeon.

So how was the conference? It was amazing -- didn't you read the headline?

Personally, I was amazed that the label I put on this new emerging software category I wrote about last month, "work management," started sticking. SAP embraced it, as well as start-ups 4 Spires and CubeVibe, both in the "Awesome New Technologies" session. 

The bigger picture about the conference is told by the numbers, whose size turned a quantitative difference into a qualitative difference after 13 years:

* Paid attendance was nearly 40 percent above last year's record

* Six companies attended for the ninth year in a row with teams of HR people: Accenture (11), Blue Cross & Blue Shield (four), Charles Schwab (five), Deloitte (10), Scotiabank (four) and State Farm Insurance (five).

* Some other great teams came: 10 from Google (who used to build their own HR software), 17 from Raytheon, Archer Daniels Midland (eight), Procter & Gamble (seven); Target (nine); UPS (eight) and Pixar Animation Studios (four).

* People attended from a record 27 countries, and skip reading this list from east to west if you must, but it makes my heart sing: New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Russia, Poland, Norway, Hungary, Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, UK, Canada, Mexico, Colombia and Brazil. All the fast-growing BRIC countries.

* Good representation from the public sector and higher education including the CIA, NSA, MIT and Dartmouth. Nuff said, right?

* The press/analyst/blogger list ran to 13 pages. HR Technology® attracted every important HCM analyst, and not one attended Oracle Open World, running simultaneously in San Francisco with 45,000 or 85,000 (reports vary) attendees. In fact, Steve Miranda, Oracle's No. 1 applications executive, came to Las Vegas to run our first Vendor Expert Discussion. Some analysts did scurry off to Open World after our second day.

* The Expo had a record 220 vendors exhibiting, many with ginormous booths, including our first 50-footer. They made a total of at least 57 new product announcements, many from major players.

* Prowling the show floor like hungry jungle cats were dozens and dozens of money guys -- financial analysts, investment bankers, venture capitalists, hedge fund and private-equity firms -- offering companies help selling themselves, buying other companies, going public or getting new investors.

So what's the point of all this beyond pride and shameless bragging? Add the 70-plus speakers, endless consultants, about 1,700 vendor folks in the Expo (in my book, always full members of our community), and what have you got?

A worldwide community of 4,600 people who care about HR technology, the largest ever assembled: only in one place, once a year for two-and-a-half days at HR Technology®. Sort of like Brigadoon, if you know the old Broadway musical about a Scottish town that appears only once every seven years.

That's what really made it amazing.

As for how good it was, if you're prepared to believe me, you probably think software demos are true. Instead, let me point you to the first blogs that have already come out. Unlike some conferences, we never pay analysts, press or bloggers to attend: not even their expenses. We give them a free registration, let 'em loose and take whatever comes.

Of course, we don't link to the negative ones. Integrity only stretches so far. Go find those yourself.

Because we're both reporters at heart, my favorite early blog for the second year in a row is by John Hollon, editor of the website TLNT, owned by ERE. John is producing his own first general HR show in February and has managed not to copy a single speaker from HR Technology®. Hats off to him for being a class act. This year he declares there are only two (last year it was three) really important national shows in HR every year: SHRM and HR Technology.

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Multi-channel communicator (blogger, HR Happy Hour host and HRevolution organizer) and rising thought-leader Steve Boese seems to agree with John. But he also waxes wisely on the broader significance of the event in our rapidly changing world, dubbing it the annual "State of the Union" address of the HR technology industry.

Consultant and analyst Mark Stelzner not only has a better broadcast voice than I do, but is also a more stylish writer. For the first time, he describes a unique truth about the conference that no one has before: how it has become the modern agora for the HR technology industry. This year, half a dozen people told me how some acquisition, partnership or new product announced at the conference had also started there a year or two before.

The most detailed blogger report on session content comes from Chris Brablc of RecruitingBlogs, surprisingly not focused exclusively on our recruiting sessions but also on The Second Great Technology Debate and the wonderful session with Facebook, which I actually managed to attend.

Conference speaker Ahmed Limam has some typically brutally frank observations on the conference, the venue and some new products and alliances debuted or announced there. All from his uniquely French perspective and sensibility living in Paris. Of course, he hated Vegas. Well, I'm not too thrilled about the glass pyramid at the Louvre myself and will take The Luxor instead any day.

Finally, purely for laughs, the funniest conference swag video I've seen starring Dwane Lay, LeanHR blogger, and straight man, Paul Smith, blogger for Welcome to the Occupation. Paul shows himself to be a great deadpan comedian in the tradition of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. Five minutes not to be missed.

HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chairman of the 15th Annual HR Technology® Conference & Exposition, returning to Chicago for one year, October 8-11, 2012. Speaking proposals can now be submitted on line. You can comment on this column at the Conference LinkedIn Group, which does not require prior or future conference attendance to join. He is also host of The Bill Kutik Radio Show® and the new video series Firing Line with Bill Kutik. He can be reached at bkutik@earthlink.net.  

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