HR people doing business. Wait. What?

I’ve been to 14 HR-related conferences in the last 12 months, with one more to go.  I’ve spoken at 10 of them, with one more to go.  When I speak, my topic may vary but the foundational message is the same:  HR people need to be business people first and HR people second.  You can get the gist of my message on a previous post here.

This year I’ve been to and spoken at SHRM conferences and un-conferences in the U.S. that were non-profit endeavors and I’ve been to and spoken at conferences and un-conferences in the U.S. and the U.K. that were for-profit endeavors.  And all of them but one share a singular mission:  to provide professional development for HR professionals.  And they offer HRCI recertification credits by the bushel.  That’s a good thing.  Every professional, regardless of functional focus, needs professional development.  We’re never done learning.  Certification and re-certification are important in managing your career and creating credibility.

But there’s one conference that treats HR people like business people.

Wait.  What?

One conference treats HR people like they impact the bottom line.  Like they are business leaders capable of making business decisions.  And spending money.  And that’s the HR Technology Conference organized by longtime HR analyst Bill Kutik and media partner Human Resource Executive Magazine, an LRP Publication.

The 2011 HRTech conference was held last week in Las Vegas, and was unique in my experience,  in many respects.

The most obvious is that vendors, sponsors and analysts are not only welcome, the organizers shine great big white-hot spotlights on them.  Other conferences see them as a necessary evil.  In fact, one might feel that the primary focus of this conference is giving vendors, sponsors, attendees and analysts a unique opportunity to get to know each other – and if the attendees learn something along the way (and get recertification credit) then everyone wins.

Unlike the nonprofit conferences of all sizes and the smaller unconferences, HRTech is a place where business gets done.  All over the place.  In the expo, in the hallways, at receptions, at afterparties, in sessions, in the press room, in the venue bars, lounges and restaurants.  Vendors, sponsors, analysts and attendees all pitching and being pitched to.  Making deals.  Buying.  The air was electric.

I also appreciate that the organizers hold the opinion that many vendors and sponsors are, in fact, experts in their fields.  Putting them on the stage, pitting them against each other, loading them up on panels creates an energy that is palpable.  And the attendees learn from state-of-the-art thinkers and business leaders.  There were practitioners on the stage, of course.  But I sensed the attendees – HR practitioners for the most part – really valuing this real time information about what’s new NOW, what’s coming SOON, and what’s to be expected NEXT YEAR.  With a focus on the business.  On ROI.  On productivity.  On impacting the bottom line.

Not exactly where most HR conferences focus.

And clearly the attendees count on this.  HR leaders from organizations of all sizes came with shopping lists.  The expo felt a little like shopping on Black Friday:  lists in hand, attendees came looking for solutions to their organizations’ people problems.

A social rewards and recognition system?

A new ATS?

An upgraded payroll system?

Want to investigate a video interviewing platform?

Need a new approach to assessments?

An outplacement 2.0 solution?

How about moving portions of your HRIS to the cloud?

If I were an HR leader and had the appropriate budget, I’d try to go to three conferences a year:  a SHRM conference (either national or state), the Bersin Impact Conference, and HRTech.  And if I had to pick only one, I think I’d pick HRTech.  I’d send my team to as many SHRM and unconferences (like HRevolution) as we could afford.

But I’d be at HRTech.

Because I’m a business person.

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25 Comments

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25 responses to “HR people doing business. Wait. What?

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  5. I love this post China! Long before I attended so many of the other events, HR Tech was on my “must do” list – often using vacation and my own money to attend.

    This year – the air really was electric! People weren’t just talking about future plans – they were ready to get rolling and signing contracts. It was so amazing to watch.

  6. Jac Fitz-enz

    Jon’s comment about not forgetting the people is appropriate. However, when we emphasize one issue such as being business focused does not mean we do not recognize people. This thinking is typical of how Aristotle screwed up western logic with this 2nd Law that a “thing is either A or Not A”. Actually it is both as the eastern philosophers pointed out everything is a part of everything else. I’ve fought this battle for 30 years every time I talk about measuring the work of HR some limp wrist complains that I have forgotten the human aspect. My reply is that there has never been a time when the human aspect is more important (except perhaps in the early days of the industrial revolution with its destructive labor practices). HR professionals will never forget the human aspect, but they also have to get invovled in the market and business issues as China points out.

    • Great points, Jac. And I totally agree. I never understand when HR folks believe that by being business literate and informed that that somehow implies they’re not focused on people. Frankly, I don’t think HR professionals can really go to bat for their “people” without being credible business leaders. And they’ll never rise above the furniture analogy without business credibility. Without that credibility they’ll continue to be relegated to party planning. Thanks for visiting, Jac. And thanks for your comments.

  7. Jac Fitz-enz

    Jon’s comment about not forgetting the people is true. However, when we emphasize one point such as being business focused it doesn’t mean we are excluding other points. This is how Aristotle screwed up our logic when he said a thing is either A or Not A. Actually, eastern philosophy is correct. Everything has a bit of everything in it. We have to switch our thinking.

  8. Jac Fitz-enz

    CHINA
    i’VE BEEN TELLING HR PEOPLE TO BE BUSINESS FOCUSED FOR MORE DECADES THAN I CAN COUNT. GLAD TO HEAR YOU ARE CARRYING THE MESSAGE FORTH. BUT ATTENDING 14 CONFERENCES IN 12 MONTHS WHEN DO YOU HAVE TIME TO PRACTICE WHAT YOU LEARN?
    Jac

  9. Great insight, China. I also think it is worth mentioning for those who have been at other for-profit conferences where the spotlight was shone on vendors etc.: the folks who put on the HR Tech show strike a wonderful balance.

    I never, ever feel like I’m attending a sales pitch disguised as a presentation. The presenters are all top notch and know better than to sell from the podium. Unfortunately, that is not always the case with some of the lesser conferences. Fortunately, most of those are either out of business or headed that way.

  10. Dan McConnell

    Great post China and I agree with your assessment of the conference and the important role that HR needs to play in driving the business. As you suggested, this HR Tech Conference highlighted the rapid evolution of the role that technology plays in supporting the business role of HR, moving away from a traditional role of supporting transactions and moving towards a new role of using data to help achieve business outcomes. I also think that the business is starting to recognize this new role of HR and elevating the expectations for HR to drive improved management and allocation of talent to differentiate the business and improve the bottom line. As we witnessed – the technology is there. As we have experienced – the talent is there. So now the question becomes whether or not HR is willing to accept the challenge and the increased expectations to take their seat at the table and deliver as a key contributor of the business.

    • This is the underlying message of most of the keynote speeches I deliver to groups of HR professionals. I refuse to use the “furniture” analogy, though. I think it’s demeaning and petty. I have the belief that most HR pros — especially those certified by HRCI — are functionally competent HR professionals. I also think most of them know how their businesses work. Where they need development is understanding the market dynamics in which their organizations operate — locally, nationally and globally. Connecting the dots between what’s happening in the education system and how that impacts the local and national talent pool is important. Understanding how what happens in Washington impacts the labor supply locally and nationally is important. Understanding what’s happening in the Chinese and Indian economies and how that impacts the US economy… Understanding how the external environment limits or supports growth is important. This, I think, is HR’s real opportunity to lead in their organizations.

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  12. Bill Kutik

    From the honeymoon! Please post as a comment on main LinkedIn discussion. Like Mark, you make a point no one has ever made before. Please share it with 6,500 (?) readers…Bill

  13. Hi China – hmm. I also thought this was a great conference, but I worry about the business person thing. Yes, we need to be a full part of our businesses, but that’s not all we need to be. We need to help our organisations become more compelling places to work, and for that we need to be most centred on our people. It’s an important point for HR technology too. http://strategic-hcm.blogspot.com/2011/10/hrtechconf-minus-three-thumbs.html

    • Hi Jon: Thanks for reading and commenting. I think we’re in total agreement. I really believe that in order for HR to be influential leaders in their organizations on the critical issues of culture, strategy and people, they must be functionally competent and they must be “business’ competent. HR will be relegated to the “Department of No” unless and until it can lead, think and speak like business leaders.

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  15. HRTech really is a different place. I also felt that this year there was a better feel of excitement that things can change within a company due to good initiatives done right. (including the technology that will support those changes)
    I also agree that the discussion level at HRTech is elevated and is about business. It is about doing business better. That is why I go to HRTech.

  16. China, I couldn’t agree more, which is why I spent nearly six days in Vegas –learning, learning, learning. Do you remember the song: “there’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear…” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5M_Ttstbgs Well, I’ve spent today with HR execs who are business people first, and it was such a pleasure.

  17. Really great post China and couldn’t agree more.

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