The Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference is the same. Each SHRM conference has its own ebb and flow, texture and tone, flavor and feel. If SHRM Las Vegas in 2007 was about record-setting attendance and the unrestrained excess of Sin City, New Orleans 2009 will probably be noteworthy for the subdued atmosphere and big attendance drop in the Year of the Big, Bad Economic Downturn.
So here’s what I will remember about SHRM 2009:
- There’s a lot less angst, and talk, about “getting a seat at the table.” Former SHRM CEO Sue Meisinger used her farewell address last year in Chicago to urge HR professionals to “please stop asking for a seat at the table” and to instead “add value and become essential [to your organization] so that seat at the table has your name engraved on it.” I wish that it was Meisinger’s words of wisdom that helped cool the “seat at the table” talk here in New Orleans, but unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case. It’s probably more a sign of the times. Everyone is hunkering down and hoping to just crawl though the recession.
- There were more pragmatic presentations. I think Jack Welch set the tone on Sunday (as John Kotter did in his keynote Tuesday), but the speakers here seem to be less philosophical or rah-rah and much more focused on management, leadership and what HR can do to be indispensable to a business or organization. Again, this may be a sign of the times, but I am sorry it took the economy falling off a cliff to get SHRM to change its focus.
- The Blog Army turned out in force. This year’s conference will be noteworthy for the huge number of bloggers, Twitterers and other nontraditional “media” (if you can even call them that) that showed up to follow and write on every little bit of the SHRM conference. There’s a lot more coverage overall, but in my mind, the increase in the gross tonnage of conference coverage does not also bring appreciably more insight. Of course, I’m part of the “traditional” media, so what do I know? You be the judge of what this means, and if it is a good or bad.
- The invisible man. Really, I had just one big disappointment about the show, and you may already know what it is: the lack of any meaningful presence—emphasis on meaningful—from SHRM’s new CEO, Laurence “Lon” O’Neil. I wrote about this after Sunday’s opening General Session, and I don’t want to beat it to death, but I can’t believe I have spent so much time these past few days quoting former SHRM leader Sue Meisinger. Why am I doing it? Probably because O’Neil had very little to say other than the required ceremonial statement. As much as I criticized Meisinger over the years, I find that I miss her visibility and leadership very much. She got up and clearly said what she thought, even if it meant having to put up with critics like me. Maybe Lon O’Neil has such gumption in him. I hope that’s the case, but after seeing what happened here in New Orleans, I’m not going to hold my breath.
It seems to me that just as the recession has forced American consumers to dramatically change their ways, so has it forced human resources professionals to step back and re-examine what they are doing. As a result, the SHRM annual conference has also changed, maybe forever, and probably for the good.
That, I believe, is the big takeaway from SHRM New Orleans and the Year of the Big, Bad Economic Downturn. We’ll see if I’m right in June 2010, when the HR circus moves along to San Diego.
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