human resources systems event expo

19 Nov 5 Key Takeaways From 3 Major HR Events (plus pictures from the events)

November 26th, 2019 | Jeremy Ames

This October, I was at HR Tech Conference, in Las Vegas, as well as Unleash, in Paris. I also more recently attended my first DisruptHR, in Boston. In my enthusiasm, my impulse is to recount every conversation, session and vendor demo. Instead, here are my experiences, distilled into 5 key takeaways.

Takeaway #1 – Future-Proofing and the Anticipation of a New Set of Skills

This topic was threaded throughout the conference season, but perhaps most concisely in my panel session at Unleash: Bridging the Gap Between Talent and Technology

Co-panelist Nathalie Delacotte, of Orange Business Services, talked about the critical importance of ensuring that your organization has mastered the skills domain of the future. She explained how skills anticipation itself should be linked to business strategy. This should be translated into talent acquisition strategy and work execution.  

Co-panelist Lori Jenson, from DB Schenker, backed that up by explaining that in this age of disruption, it’s the organizations themselves that are fighting to be the disruptors. So, what are the skills required to affect disruption and what roles will need to be filled in the future?

In HR specifically, high volume, repetitive transactions that have either been handled directly by HR administrators or in shared services are going to be replaced by automation. “So, what do we do with our employees and how do we upskill them to add value to the organization?” asked Lori. That’s also applicable to HR Business Partners.

Building on the skills discussion, an awesome session on the Unleash main stage by fellow Bostonian Heather McGowan highlighted work types and what should be done with them:

  1. Automated – These needs to be shed.
  2. Atomized job-it-out work – These also need to be shed.
  3. Human and Augmented – These should be our focus.

Also discussed in many sessions was a top layer-of-skills which encrusts the more functional skills. This concept maintains that traditional task-oriented skills now require a whole new set of capabilities. An example of this is the ability to work well in distributed teams. In both the panel discussion at Unleash and an interview at HR Tech, I suggested that a key characteristic of today’s worker is grit.


Takeaway #2 – Digital Transformation and Employee Experience 

To kick off the conference season, both of these terms were highlighted in a “Buzzword Death Pool” session I led as part of Advisor Collective meetings in Vegas. Mark Stelzer was correct to point out that “technology fatigue” is a major threat to employee experience, which explains the upward trend of vendors like ServiceNow. 

 Based on how many more times they came up over the course of the 3 events, neither term is even close to dead and this could easily have been positioned as the #1 takeaway. I specifically put it as #2 because, for me, even though there’s real work happening here, there’s also fake work. Those who sell based on the buzzwords would really need to explain to me what they’re doing before I’d ordain them legit.

On the HR Tech World stage I moderated at Unleash, Marisa Santisi of Booz Allen (side note, Booz & Co. was my first client back in 2010!) was able to make it into the legit column. She talked about HR and IT partnering – Ooh! Aah! –  on the employee experience and working together to improve how employees consume information. She was specific, which helps, including calling out how the role of the CIO should change and should be evaluated based on how they partner with HR, Finance and Marketing. 

“Differentiated employee experience” was another highly touted concept that does actually make sense, although how well the software vendors are currently accommodating that is dubious at best.  

The idea of not boiling the ocean in an organization’s transformation also resonated. For example, back to Marisa’s talk, she described focusing on 3 projects, one of which was to enable productivity day 1. The “gold glove” treatment that resulted could be considered a “transformative experience,” so I left Paris feeling a little less jaded.

Perhaps my biggest doubts arise from a lack of common descriptions and methodologies around these buzzwords. Luckily, I got a little advice from Heather McGowen that I’ll be researching here in the coming months.


Takeaway #3 – There Ain’t No One-Size-Fits-All – For Anything

Honestly, this might be my biggest takeaway, and one that was generated by listening. One approach for technology, experience, strategy or anything, really, is a myth. It boils down to a variety of dimensions. Here are some:

  1. Organizational Size. While not exclusively, these events do tend to focus on the enterprise-level client. That means that while some organizations are trying to solve for Robotics Process Automation, others are trying to make sure the last payroll’s errors are corrected. I found myself applying my own filters to presented information in my various duties in order to represent the mid-market demographic.
  2. East vs. West. Very specifically, Peter Hinssen pointed out that there’s a tech stack in the East and there’s a tech stack in the West. “They are the battlefields of the new cold war,” he warned. “[Poor] Europe has missed the boat in innovation.”
  3. Invisible Cultural Boundaries. Erin Meyer talked at Unleash about how understanding these boundaries are critical to successful global business. An example of this is how “contextual” cultures are matters of communication; low-context cultures like the US and Germany depend on the written word, whereas high-context cultures like Japan are more comfortable with silence.
  4. Product/Service. Sometimes we act like all companies are building a rocketship to Mars. Back on earth, Tracie Sponenberg, CPO of The Granite Group, reminded us at her at DisruptHR Boston talk that some companies are charged with “Bringing Sexy Back… To Toilets.”


Takeaway #4 – On-demand Payroll Is Here

This takeaway was probably my most specific. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s just what it sounds like. It’s the ability of employees to access their pay outside the standard pay cycles. When I first heard of it earlier this year, as an option to implement for my company, it didn’t make a ton of sense. Then, with a couple of our clients, where hourly, variable schedules are quite intense, I started to get an inkling of how impactful it could be. 

Granted, Finance isn’t loving the idea – that’s an understatement – and there are still a limited number of vendors accommodating it. However, it’s clear from discussions with clients and at the conferences that the workforce needs the money. If controls can be put in place (for example, whereby only a certain percentage of the funds can be released), the trend will continue to grow.


Takeaway #5 – Accessibility Is an Afterthought – It shouldn’t Be

One of the last, and in my opinion the best, sessions at the HR Tech World stage of Unleash was Thomas Otter’s Accessing Work: Examining state of (in)accessibility in recruitment today.

Thomas presented his detailed research in to the online candidate experience of a blind person at 10 different organizations. The results, which he shared with those lucky enough to be in the room, were appalling. He started to indicate that there was a positive exception at a German retailer, then he pulled the rug out when he informed us the test didn’t work in Internet Explorer, which is what blind people use almost exclusively. The takeaway from that session was a sense of responsibility for bringing this neglected issue to the forefront.

There you have it. This is but a nutshell of what I gleaned from these events, but hopefully enlightens those who missed them and confirms what others might have seen and heard.



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