Two Sides of the Conference Coin

I had the great good fortune to attend two HR conferences last week:  HRevolution in Atlanta and Bersin & Associates’ IMPACT: the Business of Talent in St. Petersburg, Florida.  HRevolution was a one-day conference; IMPACT was a two and-a-half day conference.

IMPACT was about introducing new research focused on HR effectiveness; HRevolution was focused on discussing HR’s opportunities to transform itself.  IMPACT is a traditional conference; HRevolution is an unconference.  And both were outstanding.

130 activist HR professionals descended on Atlanta on Friday afternoon.  This was the third HRevolution unconference organized by Trish McFarlane, Ben Eubanks, Steve Boese and Crystal Peterson, a team who wanted to provide an alternate HR conference experience to those who couldn’t afford the big ticket conferences and who wanted a community energizing experience to kick-start their learning.  The HR activists who attended this week came from all over the world, from all walks of HR life and who were bound together by the relationships they have created on the social web.  Yes, there were tweeters, bloggers, FaceBookers, LinkedIners: all manner of social web inhabitants.  All there to solidify their relationships in person and take their online discussions to a deeper level.

While billed as an unconference, HRevolution was more of a highly-participative structured conference.  An opening keynote by Liz Gottung, CHRO of Kimberly Clark started the day with a frank overview of HR’s opportunities and goals in a legacy-burdened, paternalistic culture.  Her candor about her leadership challenges was motivating to the attendees who then made their way to a series of breakout discussions on topics like “If HR is so bad, what you doing about it?” “Pop Culture, Politics, and HR”, “Diversity and Inclusion = Innovation in the 21st Century” and “Designing HR for Influence.”

Few of these sessions used PowerPoints and session leaders – discussion leaders, really – expected  attendees to jump in to the discussions at hand.  And they did!  It was fun to sit with Courtesy of Monster30 or 40 other knowledgeable HR-related folks and debate topics like “If a high EQ is so desired in leaders why do such a high proportion of CEOs have low EQ scores?” and “what is influence and how can HR professionals develop more of it?” and “why do we insist on creating activity-controlling policies for flexible workers when we should be focusing on measuring outcomes?” and, well, you get the point.

One particularly engaging session, “HR Slam,”  broke the attendees into groups and asked them to solve an actual business problem provided by the session leaders.  A small, family-owned chain of restaurants is experiencing sudden and unexpected turnover in its small group of managers and asked for suggestions on how to move through their crisis.  The group with the most compelling and complete set of recommendations won $50 gift cards, so the competitive juices were flowing.  The restaurant chain owners ought to pay attention to the advice that was generated:  it was remarkable.

The toughest criticism I heard all day was that there were too many great sessions led by too many great leaders to pick which sessions to attend.  I felt the same way.

At the end of the day, HRevolution was a success because it was flawlessly planned and executed, the attendees came to play, the session leaders engaged with their attendees, and a spirit of camaraderie pervaded the space.

IMPACT introduced several new Bersin & Associates research reports by its analysts, all deeply knowledgeable and engaging speakers.  The research overviews were impressive, presented in actionable bites and gave the attendees just enough information so that the value of the full reports was crystal clear.  Made me want to go home, get on their website and download everything they’ve got.  And I am doing just that.

Additionally, IMPACT featured a number of in-the-trenches HR leaders who shared what was happening in their organizations on such topics as the use of social media in strategic staffing (AT&T, Actuant, Darden), re-building HR as a critical business performance asset (UnitedHealth Group), improving organization effectiveness by creating a robust HR analytics/business intelligence function (Eaton, Accenture), successfully leading organization change (Kaiser Foundation, CA Technologies), and transforming business through learning (SunTrust Bank, Thomson Reuters, The Cheesecake Factory, Teradata Corporation, Cisco Systems).

Sponsors of IMPACT, solution providers, were provided a large Demo Room to set up tables and engage with attendees.  It was a sort of genteel expo, not the usual frenetic tchotchke-laden expo hall.  Quite enjoyable, actually.

I really enjoyed all the built-in opportunities to network with the other attendees.  There were 3 receptions and robustly timed lunches and breaks.  The whole conference experience was designed for 450 senior HR leaders (they sold out and turned away 40+ more!) who don’t need a lot of noise and hoopla to engage, discover and learn.  I did all three.

So.  Two great conferences.  Two great experiences.  Two different audiences (although 3 of us were at both).  I really appreciate that there are many options for HR professionals to come together and learn.  I like seeing the trend of HR professionals reaching out for what they need in new ways – and conference organizers responding with new kinds of experiences.  There truly is something for everyone.

My only complaint?  Sponsors at every conference I’ve attended this year have raffled off IPads.  I haven’t won any of them.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Two Sides of the Conference Coin

  1. I would like to find out how to get invited or attend these conferences. Looking for a little more than what SHRM and ASTD offers!
    Any assistance appreciated!

  2. It’s about time you quit duck’n me China! Great to spend a little time with you, looking forward to more time later this year. Your observations were well articulated and spot on.

  3. Debbie Brown

    You need to obtain an iPad- they are great- buy one already 🙂

    Great to see you!

    Debbie

  4. China it was great to meet you at HREvolution. I loved how you so openly share your thoughts with others. I see why everyone speak so highly of you. Thsnks for sharing your take on HRevolution. I look forward to hanging with you at our own IL SHRM. See you then if not before.

  5. Having presented at Bersin, as well as attending HRevolution, I couldn’t agree with you more. You nailed both conferences with your observations. Great to see you again, as well , sistah co-influencer!

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