The Story of #CHRU…

My take on the first ever UK unconference for HR professionals that took place on the 21st October.  It’s a long one, but hopefully worth it!  Enjoy.

The Venue


20 years ago that word was used to refer to some dodgy looking but rather expensive vegetables at the greengrocers.  These days it seems everything is organic but at least it’s a word we are all familiar with.

Just as well, because it was the only word I have been able to find in recent weeks to use when describing the venue for the ConnectingHR unconference to potential attendees.


I could have said any or all of the following:

  • Unfinished
  • Warehouse
  • Dusty
  • Urban

But, well, when you are putting on a gathering, even if it is an unconference, you feel a certain pressure to get the venue right.  And I confess that when I first went to see The Spring, our ultimate venue, I wasn’t sure.  I could definitely see the potential – I loved the space, ideal for the structure we wanted (Or lack of it) and the story behind the site is a compelling one, which fitted right in with our overall community ethos.  But ill admit I was having problems with the graffiti, dust, scaffolding poles for banister rails and the assortment of wires, cables and pipes hanging from every ceiling.  And did I mention the stairs?!  ConnectingHR The Movie, skilfully put together by Jon Ingham – gives you a flavour…..

We had made a point of looking for a ‘non corporate’ venue, as well as pointing out that an unconference is very different to a normal conference.  But we realised that for many, unless they had attended an event like it before, it would be a bit of a surprise.  “Unconference? What a cute name for a conference!” Hmmm.

Still, I left the Spring on that warm summers afternoon reassured by the fact that there was a refurbishment plan underway and tried hard to imagine the expansive space, polished concrete floor and crisp freshly painted white walls.

Nearly three months later, it’s the morning of the conference and I’m standing outside with Jon and Darius Norell – one of the great folk behind the project – and its dark.  And cold.  Very cold.  “I have some positive news on the heating front” said Darius.

At this point Jon and I turn to each other and exchange a knowing look:

Wireless: Check

Toilets: Check

Catering: Check

Heating: …………

Bugger!  Neither of us had thought to ask about heating.  Fear not though, as Darius informed us heating had been installed and so, as the shutters went up and we navigated the rather large skip dominating the entrance, I began to imagine what it will be like inside this new, white, warm and spacious oasis.

Oddly enough, it was exactly as it had been in the summer.  Only tidier! Oh, and a lot colder.  “Ill pop the heating on” said Darius, breathing life into four mezzanine mounted infrared heaters that lit up the space in a warm and strangely comforting glow – see the picture below.

As I’m basking in this moment of tranquillity, Darius delivers his killer line.  “They are good these heaters.  They heat the body not the air so you don’t lose heat through the ceiling.”

There can be few experiences that can compare to standing in front of a 65 paying attendees sitting in a big semi circle, most of whom are still getting over the shock of the sheer rawness of their surroundings but ALL of whom are still wrapped tightly in there coats, scarf’s and hats.  I kid you not.  All except me in my perfectly formed but ridiculously inadequate T-Shirt.

Jokes about the pertness of my nipples aside, it was a defining moment.

But, looking back now, and indeed as the day got underway, it became obvious to me that The Spring was the perfect venue (OK, perhaps a little warmer might have been nice!) and encapsulated everything we were trying to say.  There was nothing familiar to see or latch on to.  You had not choice but to give yourself up to it and I feel our conversations were much much richer for it.

On that note, I would invite everyone who attended to spread the word about the venue.  It is an admirable project that Darius and Andrew are leading there and I think it deserves our help.

The Grid

And as if standing there with a venue anxiety complex and a borderline fatally low core body temperature wasn’t enough, I thought the Grid exercise might just finish me off.

Oh The Grid.  Before organising this gathering, The Grid was something I knew as the next big thing in super connected computing

Needless to say it wasn’t that.  Instead it was a big wall sized sheet of paper with a timetable drawn on it and a lot of blanks.  Accompanied by a lot of blank coloured cards.

Despite circulating the list of subject contributions that we had gathered from attendees in the preceding weeks, pretty much everyone had forgotten to bring them with them and in the cold (Extra cold lets face it!) light of the day, there was a collective blanking of minds.  Including mine.

But then up stepped Jon and, with his mixture of enthusiasm and determination provoked the first meek volunteer into standing up, suggesting a topic and doing the walk of greatness to the Grid before plonking the card into a space.

Maybe it was the cold, the sense of bomb shelter camaraderie or perhaps even the hallucination inducing amounts of spray mount but slowly and surely, in a “No, I’m Spartacus!” kind of way, more and more people stood up, shouted out their subject of choice and made their way to the front.

Of course, there were the dissenters, milling amongst the crowd uttering statements such as “whose idea was this?!” And “I wouldn’t have done it like this” but despite that, it slowly started to come together.

What we ended up with was what we wanted all along.  An attendee driven, crowd sourced agenda – created right there on the fly.  Awesome.  Short of perhaps providing a copy of the previously suggested topics for the attendees as they arrived to refresh everyone’s memory, I wouldn’t change it.

At a normal conference, after an injection of coffee, you take your seat and then normally sit though an hour of one-way dialogue, with your brain in various states of engagement.  Here, you hardly had a moment to tighten your scarf before you were forced to engage, forced into considering what you really wanted from the day.  And I think it worked.

The sessions

Being one of the organisers, its fair to say my mind was as much on logistics as it was the sessions so I found myself flitting around “like a butterfly” (as Jon put it) perhaps more than most in an effort to take pictures and record some video.

However, I was able to drop in and listen to some really interesting debates and dialogue.  Apologies to those where I threw in a bomb or two then promptly got up and left!  It wasn’t intentional honest!

Despite my fears they were pretty evenly represented and distributed and, apart from the odd one here and there, I think most people got the chance to say what they wanted.

The session I most wanted to attend and participate – The crossover between Marketing and HR – I never made it to and the one I thought would be the least interesting was one on Diversity, led by Klothilde Ganzer.  It turned out to be one of the most thought provoking ones for me and perhaps one of the areas where social media can actually make a huge impact.  Unfortunately it seems, it’s not making such an impact right now.

During the reviews and breaks we discovered there were some ‘non believers’ (or muggles as Bill Borman prefers to call them) in attendance – good for them!  If anything, that’s exactly what #CHRU was about – getting more HR folk who are uncertain about the value of social media and collaboration into the debate.

In a stroke of genius, Abi Signorelli took a twittercloud snapshot of the mornings tweeting and it was very revealing – see below.

She repeated the exercise in the late afternoon and the differences are stark.  Two fascinating and thought provoking images.  Well done Abi.

The final sessions were a real mix and included a really off the wall session from Doug Shaw which he facilitated with his guitar.  If anyone questions the value of something like #CHRU and what impact it can have, read Flora Marriott’s great summary of his session and her takeaways in general on the Blog.

The last session I attended was the ‘Future of ConnectingHR’, a session inspired by Abi on where we should take the community next.  Some really practical ideas come out of it but, that aside, what really struck me was the willingness and commitment to the cause that came from the people in the group.

Up until this event, I wasn’t sure where this whole thing would go.  But now I can see many possibilities and a real opportunity to make a difference, not only to the HR community as originally intended, but also to a wider group that could benefit from the collective strengths of this movement. Watch this space.

The Song

The unconference was brought to a fitting end by Doug Shaw with a song written in a spontaneous moment for the unconference.  Its short, but very sweet – check it out below.

My Personal Takeways

We were the catalyst to some firsts:

Alison Chisnell, Deputy Group HR Director at Informa was inspired enough to start her first blog – read it here

Martin Goodman, independent HR interim was also inspired to start blogging at the rather curiously named

And Flora Marriott, Learning and Development Manager, Yell Adworks wrote her first ever external blog which gets its first airing on the ConnectingHR blog.

The first ‘crowdsourced’ blog was produced during a dedicated session which was inspired by the excellent blog series “If I could change one thing about HR” from XPertHR’s Michael Carty.  You can see the post here.

The desire to give something back, to do good, was significant.  There was a general agreement that we could utilise the skills from within the ConnectingHR group, or its influence, to do something for others outside of the group.  E.g. helping jobseekers with skills, supporting people’s development etc.  I hope these ideas will expand and grow as the community does.

Unstructure – coupled with the rawness of the venue it really pushed us out of our comfort zones and this lack of structure was the key to the breadth and depth of the event. With a few more hands to the pump in terms of organisation we could probably enhance the sessions with some more varied facilitation techniques but otherwise, I don’t think this should change.  It was a bit scary, but also a little bit exhilarating.

Stereotyping – Can we please stop talking about HR people like they are some type of clone.  There are many varied and interesting individuals in the profession as evidenced at the event so lets end this hackneyed and unnecessary compartmentalising of people.

KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid! Any fool can make things complicated but it takes a genius to simplify it!  It was great to see the involvement but I don’t want to overcomplicate it.  As we grow we should try to avoid the temptation to slip back into corporate, traditional thinking mode and compartmentalise or structure this stuff – even the community.  I’d like to see the thing grow in the way it began – unstructured, inclusive and driven by the wider group, not the few.

Style over substance – we often get a bit diverted by material things and I’m as guilty as anyone.  In putting on a gathering, especially a paid affair, you can often feel, as I did, a certain pressure to deliver something warm, corporate and cosy.  You fall into the trap of trappings.  You have a paying guest and you get caught up with thinking ‘they wont like it!”  But at the end of the day, it was a gathering. A conversation.  And it shouldn’t really matter where it is.  It’s the conversation, not where it takes place that counts.

The power of the crowd – A couple of years ago I would have engaged the engine that is our marketing department, at considerable expense to get this type of event off the ground.  But times are a changing and the creation and execution of this event was done almost entirely through social media and with the support of the attendees.

Twitter and LinkedIn were the primary marketing channels used to spread the word, and the excellent site provided the booking platform.  Additional publicity was provided by community members including Rob Moss from Personnel Today, Charlie Elise from HR Zone and Alan Whitford from RCEURO.

On the day, Abi Signorelli, Communications Consultant turned reporter took care of photography and audioboo interviews which were up on the web before you could say “I’m chilly!”

And some people are STILL going on about the ROI of social media?  Please!

HUGE thanks to everyone who supported the event, especially the ones who chipped in and helped out.

Final word

So there you have it.  An event stripped of all the expensive packaging, artificial structures and unnecessary additives.  In a word:


Other resources

Here are all the links I know of to the current crop of blog posts that have emerged since the event, some of which have been mentioned above.

Abi Signiorelli – Independent communications consultant, with a great all round, media rich summary of the event

Abi’s Flickr – Some great shots of the event, including some rather dodgy ones of the back of my head – Abi, what were you thinking?!

Will Cleare – HR Business Partner, raises the question of who owns social media in your organisation

Callum Saunders – Digital Marketing Manager at Courtenay HR, Asking where the ConnectingHR thing will go next and contemplates a social revolution.  UPDATE! 5 Days on – More thoughts from Callum including Burglar hats, epiphany moments and what its like to share a disused factory with a gaggle of frosty HR professionals.

Laura Chamberlain – Journalist with who pulled together the ‘crowdsourced’ blog contribution to the “if I could change one thing about HR” series on Michael Carty’s excellent blog

Alison Chisnell – Deputy Group HR Director, Informa steps into the void with her first blog post and shares the 3 things she is going to do differently following the unconference

Alan Whitford – Founder of RCEURO and technology guru sums up the morning of the event and include

Lucy Cotterill – HR Officer, Talis Information Ltd outlines her persona takeaways from the event

Sarah Foster – Chief People Officer, Talis Information Ltd uses a number of words including raw, brutal, radical and nutritional to sum up the event

The Rev. Bill Boorman – Shares his 10 lightbulb moments from the day and has renamed HR folk who have yet to get social media as ‘muggles’!

Gavin McGlynn – People Director at CultureBank asks if social media will ultimately be more beneficial to Learning and Development than to Recruitment

Flora Marriott – Learning and Development Manager, Yell Adworks produces another #CHRU first as she writes her first ‘external’ post and its up, exclusively on the ConnectingHR blog

Mervyn Dinnen – Consultant at Courtenay HR, ponders a revolution in social collaboration witihin organisations driven by HR.  And not a single reference to a song anywhere in the post! 😉

Val Garside – A ‘muggle’ as The Rev. Bill Boorman would say, who took a huge leap of faith and jumped into the world of social media and the #CHRU with two feet, two arms and everything else she had handy.  Read her story.

Jon Ingham – My co-organiser and partner in crime sums up his hopes for the future and makes some good points about involvement from the wider group, not just a few.  Thanks for all your help Jon.

Doug Shaw – Our resident songwriter talks about the word that sums up his experience of #CHRU – Encouragement – and the inspiration behind ‘The Song’

Charlie Duff – Editor of HRZone likens the experience to being in an episode of Spooks, contemplates a more suitable dress code and encourages you all to attend the next one. Hear Hear!

Patrick Hadfield – Reflects on the frustration of not being able to attend all the sessions he wanted to, how he enjoyed the ‘Pressure Cooker’ sessions (Pecha Kucha!) and remains sceptical about social media’s impact on CSR.

I’m sure there are more so if I missed anyone, please forgive me – pop me tweet with the link and ill update the list!


  1. I am really blown away by the creativity and passion you’re revealing in your Blogpost Gareth! What a nice and special view on the events of this unconfernce.
    Here in Germany we’re having a vivid BarCamp Community amongst developers and digital natives but not with HR- Professionals.

    I think it’s a great idea and your description really made me thinking about organizing one here in Hamburg! 😉

    I’m highly resonating with your call on “Stop Stereotyping”, the HR world is colourful and to my mind the HR- Professionals are the perfect Change Agents to a more collaborative and transparent working place.

    Thanks for sharing!


    1. Hi Jorn, thank you for your kind comments and its good to know there are others out there that know HR is more diverse than we give it credit for. Glad our unconference has inspired you in some small way. Looking forward to hearing all about it!


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