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iHuman Resource Executive's-i Ninth Annual HR Technology Conference & Exposition

October 5, 2006
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Event: Human Resource Executive's Ninth Annual HR Technology Conference & Exposition

Date: October 4-6, 2006, Navy Pier, Chicago

What: Described by its organizers as "the world's leading conference on all aspects of technology for HR executives and professionals," the HR Technology Conference brings together 200-plus technology vendors in the exhibit hall and a wide variety of technology-related seminars and speakers.

Conference info: For more information about the HR Technology Conference

Conference Notes, Day 3—Friday, October 6

Free speech? There is a certain tone and patter to most trade shows and conferences. In fact, there is such a sameness that sometimes the only differences are the quality of the speakers, the venue and maybe some of the parties and after-hours events. The HR Technology Conference generally followed normal conference style and was, for the most part, a pretty typical gathering.

But, there were a couple odd things:

  • Trying to squelch a presenter's comments because they might undercut another conference the show's organizer is putting on. During the industry analyst panel on Day 2, the moderator urged panelist Naomi Lee Bloom, managing partner of Bloom & Wallace, not to say too much in response to a question about business process outsourcing, and instead, to "just tease the audience" so people would want to come and hear what she has to say on the subject at the HRO World conference in New York City next spring.

  • Chiding a presenter because her comments weren't vendor-friendly. Again, during the Day 2 industry analyst panel, the same moderator chided Lisa Rowan of IDC when she suggested that "we need more (industry) consolidation because we have too many competitors" in the HR technology sector. The implication was that her comments would in some way have an impact on the number of exhibitors at future HR Technology Conferences.

    But Rowan stuck her guns on the need for industry consolidation, and was supported by Bloom, who agreed that there are just "too many vendors who don't have a truly integrated suite (of products)." Bloom told the moderator: "Don't worry. Next year there will be some new category with a whole new set of vendors."
(Full disclosure: Human Resource Executive magazine, the organizer of the HR Technology Conference, competes against Workforce Management. But the panel-control techniques would be weird even if the magazine wasn't a competitor.)

Friday breakout sessions: Friday was a short conference wrap-up day, so there was just one group of breakout sessions.

Loree Farrar, VP for global rewards at Yahoo, and Wally Smith, president and CEO of Enwisen, an HR communications company, gave a good look into how even a technology-based company like Yahoo had to go outside to find a vendor to better communicate the total rewards and benefits picture to its employees. By giving all the Yahoos a clearer presentation of the company's contribution to their personal bottom lines, the company lowered voluntary turnover, increased 401(k) enrollment and even implemented some cost-sharing for medical in a positive way.

Friday keynote: Bloom wrapped up the conference with her talk "It's the Technology, Stupid!" Her main point: If you are buying new technology for your company, be skeptical of the vendor's sales pitch. She said you should trust what they say, but only with verification. "When someone says, 'No problem, we can do that,' your follow-up response should be, 'Thank you. I'd like to see that.'" Research, testing, doing your homework and lots of questions are the only way to get the technology that best serves your needs, she said.

Bloom had a good speech and a great message, but it's too bad she was scheduled to give it at the very end of the conference, when there were so few people left to hear it.

—John Hollon

Conference Notes, Day 2—Thursday October 5, 2006

Morning general session, Day 2: The late-arriving early-morning crowd got to hear four analysts (Naomi Lee Bloom of Bloom & Wallace, Paul Hamerman of Forrester Research, Jim Holincheck of Gartner and Lisa Rowan of IDC) talk on industry tends in HR technology—particularly business process outsourcing. Some of the highlights:

  • Early BPO deals have gone well, for the most part. Companies are generally happy with these deals, Rowan says, but there are some margin difficulties (profitability issues) for BPO providers due to the complexity of the deals, particularly with the early BPO deals. BPO deals will become more profitable for providers, but it will take time.

  • Oracle has been doing good things lately with its Fusion and Applications Unlimited initiatives, according to Hamerman, particularly in the support of applications moving ahead without forcing an upgrade. He did say, however, that Oracle might be charging a bit too much for maintenance and risks losing customers to SAP or Lawson as a result.

  • On technology being a "magic bullet" for HR, Bloom said: "Companies that have always done a good job without technology (in their HR practices) will find that technology will be a big help, but if you haven't done a good job, there's nothing on the showroom floor that will help."

  • Holincheck asked, "How does an industry survive where nobody is making money?" To change this, he says, the industry needs a standard set of services that BPO vendors and customers agree on, with a standard list of technologies below that.
The future for BPO? As Rowan put it: "We need more consolidation. We just have too many competitors."

Industry shootout: On of the more interesting sessions is the "shootout" between vendors showing how their technology would solve a series of basic business problems given to all the vendors involved in the exercise, with the audience voting on which product performed the best.

The Thursday-morning session ("The First Integrated Performance & Learning Management Shootout") drew another overflow crowd and matched Saba, Plateau Systems, Cornerstone on Demand and Knowledge Planet on building development goals and activities to support a performance plan, including job development and succession planning.

There were four different tests for the four companies to run through, and about halfway through the shootout it got a little confusing remembering what each company's software had done. Still, it was an interesting side-by-side comparison of how well these performance management products work. The winner? It was Plateau Systems, although Cornerstone on Demand made a strong showing as well.

Most intriguing session: The afternoon session on "Hot New Technologies for HR" was even more crowded than most of the breakout seminars—probably because attendees wanted to see what these hot new technologies were. Unfortunately, the technologies they were talking about (podcasting and blogging) weren't quite so hot or new (so much for truth in advertising), but the session was still informative, including:
  • Using blogging as a recruiting tool. Steve Rothberg of Collegerecruiter.com called blogging a "powerful recruiting tool" for companies in telling prospective employees more about what they do inside after someone gets hired. He listed three rules for the success of any blog: 1) High-quality content; 2) Blogging frequently (better not do one than to do it on an infrequent schedule); and 3) Blogging regularly (once per week minimum, with three to four times per week being best).

  • Video games as a marketing tool. Scott Randall of BrandGames talked about using custom video games to engage prospective employees and to use in training new employees. He pointed to Arrow Electronics' use of a video game for would-be or new employees and how it helps to immerse them in the history and culture of Arrow.

  • Video and podcasts for succession management and workforce development. David Fabianski of Pearson Performance Solutions showed examples of Pearson's "50 Lessons" series, in which business leaders share their knowledge and wisdom in a brief video. The benefit? "We capture the essence of the human experience through storytelling," Fabianski says.
—John Hollon


Conference Notes, Day 1—Wednesday October 4, 2006

Show basics: The HR Technology Conference is a good one to attend if you want to maximize your exposure to HR technology in one fell swoop. With 213 booths in the exhibit hall, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 attendees, it's one of the largest gatherings of people interested in HR technology. The seminars seem to be an especially big draw, with overflow crowds at just about every one we attended. They were broken up into five basic tracks:

  • Strategic view
  • Performance and compensation management
  • HRMS, portals and self-service
  • Recruiting
  • Outsourcing

The structure of the seminars made it impossible for anyone to attend all of them, or even most of them, and the conference organizers made note of this by urging attendees to bring "more of your colleagues next year so you can cover them all." Nice idea, but at a steep $1,345 per person to attend (early registration discounts were available), we’re not sure how many companies would take them up on that.

Keynote speaker, Day 1: Stanford Business School professor (and Business 2.0 columnist) Jeffrey Pfeffer talked about making evidence-based management work to move your business ahead. "In HR, as in life," Pfeffer says, "we don't always make decisions based on the facts."

He went on to show how the failure to use evidence hurts companies in everything they do, from compensating executives and employees to growing and building the business. In fact, he pointed out that organizational decisions are often based on:

  1. What senior leaders have done in the past and think has been effective--their "experience."
  2. What others are doing--casual benchmarking.
  3. Ideology and belief--ideas about how things ought to work.

None of these lead to better decisions, according to Pfeffer, and he called for organizations to use more evidence-based management to make decisions. He gave described evidence-based management as:

  • A way of thinking--the attitude of wisdom (knowing what you know and knowing what you don't know) and being willing to act on the basis of what is known at the time while learning as you act.
  • Being committed to "fact-based" and "evidence-based" action.
  • Being committed to hearing and telling the truth.
  • Treating your organization as an unfinished prototype—and having an experimenting/learning mind-set.
  • Knowing what the theory and evidence are, and using them in formulating decisions and actions.
  • A set of standards for evaluating information and making decisions.

More Pfeffer: He was particularly critical of the famous "forced ranking" system--used at GE and made famous by Jack Welch--that has managers "grade" all employees on a curve. The problem is that top performers receive outsized awards, lower performers get summarily dumped, and the middle group of workers is largely ignored. This does little, he says, to really improve the business or the overall performance of the employees.

Vendor angst: Elaine Orler of the Newman Group gave a highly amusing and informative breakout session on "When and How You Should Switch Recruiting Vendors." Underlying the talk was her premise that "very rarely is it the right decision to switch vendors" because it is very expensive to switch platforms and re-establish a vendor new relationship. She gave three valid reasons for making a vendor switch:

  1. The relationship is damaged beyond repair.
  2. A consolidation of solutions or foundation platforms is needed.
  3. The company needs a broader application footprint for future success.

She also gave three reasons that are NOT valid justifications to make a switch:

  1. I liked the product used at my last company better.
  2. We've changed our business model (again).
  3. Another vendor promised me a better price.

Speaker you had to see to believe: Conference speakers are a diverse group, but even having said that, Day 1 lunch speaker Belle Halpern was one of a kind.

Halpern, founding partner of the Ariel Group, gave her lunch keynote on "Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate and Inspire." That sounds pretty tame, so imagine the audience's surprise when Halpern came out singing her presentation. Yes, singing--along with piano accompaniment. Just call her "The Singing Consultant."

She didn't sing her entire presentation, of course, but Halpern's unexpected and unconventional presentation style was jarring to much of the audience because it was like one of the old Bill Murray lounge singer skits on Saturday Night Live. Halpern probably had some good things to say about how you can create a greater presence to increase the impact of what you say, but the odd and unexpected singing made a lot of the audience bolt for the doors.

Said one attendee as she got up to leave: "This is absolutely the weirdest lunch speaker I've ever seen." Or heard.

—John Hollon

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