Do “HR Tech” conferences actually change anything?

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My WordPress just did one of those deals where you write a semi-long post and it doesn’t save. That was frustrating, so instead of trying to reinvent the wheel on this post I just wrote, I will instead present this as a series of bullet points and headers:

  • Who in the hell am I? I’ve probably been to two HR Tech conferences — the big one every fall in Las Vegas — and overall I’ve been to about 18 HR technology conferences held by different vendors, job boards, or whoever. I realize some people in that space go to 18 per month, so I’m on the low end, but I have some reps at these conferences and I probably write more about this stuff than most conference warriors do.
  • OK, so do these conferences accomplish that much? No, not really. A big conference has lots of people. When you have lots of people at a conference, it becomes about connection, seeing old friends, schmoozing, networking, free happy hours, a couple of vendor demos, etc. It’s not really about “changing the future of work” anymore, even if we may claim it’s about that. The human brain (and soul) craves connection. It does not crave another “Look at how my AI-powered suite makes sourcing easier!” moment. I’m just being honest here.
  • And then, here’s the elephant in the room: The real change would happen when the people attending this conference get back to their offices and jobs. In other words, you don’t fix a crappy hiring process from a vendor floor. But what happens when these folks get back to HQ? They’re in a world where often the top decision-makers snicker at their department as “Hardly Relevant,” and they certainly lack a seat at the big mahogany when dick-swinging decisions are made. Hell, a lot of times HR types don’t even have “a spend” when they go to these conferences. They can’t write a check themselves.
  • So these attendees often spend 3–4 days discussing “innovation” and “the future” and hearing all sorts of interesting talks (well, kinda), and then … they go back to a world where they are expected to be compliance and office cops. It’s a big dichotomy.
  • The 2006–2017 story: I once knew a woman who had to present at one of these conferences in 2017. She got busy beforehand, so she took a 2006 deck, changed the dates, made some new vague references to AI, and presented that deck. No one noticed. That’s how little really changes in HR circles in a decade and a year. People are still trying to fix the same shit and not doing it, and people are still thinking some deus ex machina tech is going to descend from the heavens and make them relevant.
  • Oh yea, and about AI → It’s not going to make HR any more relevant in the next five years. In fact, I would argue that at most places, it’s going to be trained to ultimately replace the entire HR department within 10–20 years.
  • HR is often “the play thing” of the business: They are expected to be seen, but not heard. I actually met a CEO at a coffee shop once who told me, and I think you can get sued for this, that he wanted his HR department to be mostly “hot young pieces of ass.” I would bet a lot of CEOs think that way; it’s just a question of whether they say it out loud in coffee shop conversations, you know? Sadly, most people don’t care about or respect Human Resources that much. Is that changing? Sure. Gradually. Is “respected HR” at scale in most organizations? Absolutely not. So a conference dominated by HR types where people are reusing 2006 slide decks? Is it really that relevant?

You need to understand the psychology of business

Many executives see themselves as innovative world-builders, even if the reality is that they’re cost-cutting buffoons.

When you think of yourself as innovative and entrepreneurial and building some widget to save humanity through organic bread for parrots or whatever the shit you make, well, you’re not interested in compliance.

Compliance is the opposite of how you view yourself.

So, there’s two areas that tend to touch compliance: Legal and HR.

But legal is costly. They make big hourly numbers. You know you need to respect legal and invite them into the important stuff. You need to protect everything you view as proprietary. You need arrangements in place to get your nut. Legal matters.

HR? Ha. No. They don’t matter. They do the non-essential compliance stuff, in the eyes of executives. And they hire rank-and-file workers. Peons, essentially. And they “onboard,” whatever that means. Aren’t we hiring A-Players who hit the ground running? (Update: We are not.)

HR does important things, and is a “steward” of other important things. But the way an executive typically perceives work and his/her company and tasks/role, HR is not relevant to that at all. That’s why HR has struggled for so long with the “seat at the table” discussion. It’s mostly psychological. Turnover and hiring and engagement and learning and these things we put under HR? They do matter, yes. But not to the brain of a hard-charging executive, no.

Here’s the articles you’ll see coming out of HR Tech this year

  • Bunch of shit about AI
  • Bunch of stuff about “tightest labor market ever” (not even really accurate)
  • Wellness suites
  • Diversity suites
  • Rise of the gig economy
  • Generic future of work articles
  • Learning as a service or some other thing that will make me vomit on a treadmill on Friday morning
  • The renaissance of the job board
  • Gag vomit buzzword gag gag vomit fart noise

And in 2023, after this same conference, here are the articles you’ll read:

  • Bunch of shit about AI
  • Bunch of stuff about “tightest labor market ever” (not even really accurate)
  • Wellness suites
  • Diversity suites
  • Rise of the gig economy
  • Generic future of work articles
  • Learning as a service or some other thing that will make me vomit on a treadmill on Friday morning
  • The renaissance of the job board
  • Gag vomit buzzword gag gag vomit fart noise

It doesn’t change, sadly. We talk about the same stuff and hiring doesn’t really improve, onboarding sure as shit doesn’t improve, turnover stays the same in many industries, learning is hoarded in people’s Inboxes and G-Suites, and so on and so forth.

Second verse, same as the first, little bit louder and a whole lot … worse.

Your take?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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