HR Tech Conference - pre show thoughts

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy October 6, 2014
HR Tech still needs to answer the question: what about transformation in the workplace.

HR Tech 2014
As I get ready to saddle up for HR Tech Conference, I am wondering just what it will deliver. In 2013, Sameer Patel wrote:

HR as a function has been beaten down (emotionally) to a pulp over the last decade. This function has had the ugly pleasure of, one one hand, getting near zero credit for those very rock stars they sourced who were responsible for blazing performance in good times, but yet were handed the dirty job of laying off thousands in bad times. Now is their time to design for and to transition into the ultimate brokers of real people intelligence.

He was being diplomatically kind. In my experience, HR has barely moved beyond being the keeper of records and master of payroll. If that sounds unkind then it isn't.

If you trawl through the HR hierarchy you quickly find that it is dominated in number by women. As an objective fact, women are massively under represented in positions of power. In technology businesses, there are a pitifully low number of female CEOs and women are leaving the business in mumbers. Fortune reports there are only 24 women CEO's among the Fortune 500. Given that skewing of the data, is it any surprise HR is often the poor relation in the C-suite?

Going back to my old undergraduate social science days, I could readily pen a long treatise on why this happens and make the argument it is worse now than 20 plus years ago when I was at university. Culture has a lot to answer for but today we have the added pressure of the ill-conceived notion of 'social-everything' being larded to systems of record as though somehow they magically transform boring old HR into sexy systems of engagement. That isn't the case. As Patel asks this year:

Is Cloud HR technology just mostly copy-paste of what’s on premise but with a prettier UX or has our ability to leverage talent fundamentally transformed as we make these investments?

That's a great question.

If you look at how many technology companies are positioning the 'new' HR, it has a feel of 'lipstick on a pig.' The vast majority of the depressing press requests I've received are all about 'look at our shiny new thing on top of the ugly old thing.' To me, this utterly misses the point. And for the record, I deleted them all after reading a handful of lines.

When you look at 'old' HR it is all about what organizations DO to their employees and not what employees DO for the business. Think about what organizations do...

  • Dole out pay and perks
  • Grant and mediate vacation, sick time, family time or in rare cases own project time.
  • Shift people around in the org chart.
  • Decide people's roles and responsibilities.
  • Sometimes give training.

...and on and on.

None of this has much to do with employee choice and even less about engagement, even when sparse processes are implemented that give the impression of inclusion.

And for roughly 80% of people, that's just fine. They are the ones who work to live, not live to work. Choice would be nice and I'm sure a sense of inclusion matters to the extent that it lifts spirits but work is not the center of their universe.

For the 20% that deliver 80% of the value an organization wishes to capture, they will at best pay lip service to HR processes while organizing themselves around the informal networks designed to avoid the 'squeaky wheels.' Ever it was so.

Based upon that view of the world, I'd like to know how businesses are adapting to what many tout as the new work environment. Will we see more control dressed up as social? Will we hear about genuine innovation in the workplace? I don't know.

What I do know is that the advice of Steve Boese is equally depressing. Should it really be necessary to tell people who deal with people that:

If you are attending the Conference with some of your co-workers, (which is great), make sure to not spend all of your time traveling in tandem. Split up and cover some different sessions, make sure to engage with other folks during general sessions and meals, and maybe even (horror), hit some different parties after hours. You want to make sure you are not just seeing and interpreting things through the same lens that you use back in the office, sometimes breaking away from your co-workers, even for a little while, can help you to do this.

I know it is offered in good heart but still, I find it depressing that the co-chair of the largest world's tech conference devoted to HR feels it is necessary to say such things.

Jason Averbrook on the other hand offers a controversial view of the 'new' HR that will get plenty of people whipped up into varying states of frenzy. Averbrook talks about the need for roles around data science (buzzword compliant), content strategy (can you write coherently?), social media management (that bothers me at multiple levels) and game development (do people want to be gamed?) in the context of talent management. I'll be picking these themes up with him for what I hope will be a robust discussion.

I sincerely hope that conversations are not dominated by 'cloud' this or that debates. That's not the point except to the extent that cloud acts as an enabling technology. I've never yet met an executive who asks: 'Can I buy some cloud?' They're much more likely to ask: "I have a problem, can you help me solve it?" Even so, the thought of Dave Duffield, co-founder of Workday delivering a keynote will likely be warmly appreciated.

For my part I plan to meet as many customers as possible. I want to hear first hand how they're getting on. I want to meet with smaller vendors who are doing differentiated things that add value to the lives of people in the workplace as their primary objective.

Whichever way it goes, HR Tech will be interesting and who knows - maybe I'll be surprised and delighted?

Bonus points - if you're trying to get past that first hurdle of a job interview. Check out some tips from Google. They're genuinely useful.

Disclosure: Workday is a premier partner at time of writing.

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