A view from Las Vegas…

las vegaAs the week draws to a close and the last of the jet lag ebbs away, I’m compelled to put finger to key and share some initial thoughts from my trip last week to the HR Tech Conference in Las Vegas. I have more to say on some of these highlights but for now, this is my reflective round up, in no particular order.

End to end is coming to an end – I recently sat listening to a panel of investors who had been posed the following question by an audience of HR Tech start up hopefuls: “What do you look for in a potential HR tech start up? Their answer was “an end to end solution, a one stop shop.” That may be true, but from where I’m standing, the HR tech landscape is awash with enterprise “end to end” solutions and they are failing to deliver on the promise, especially when you look through a lens of usability and innovation.  The major ERP vendors built their position in the legacy client server market and they struggle to meet the increasing demand for agile, simple and intuitive solutions that will ultimately win the usability war. I see a tipping point coming…

Personalisation: Where’s the personality? – Personalisation has been one of the biggest drivers of the web for the last decade or more. On the consumer side, things are becoming very advanced; you cant tread anywhere online these days without the algorithms second guessing your next potential purchase, trying to guess if you are pregnant/suffering from herpes/about to commit a murder* (*Delete as appropriate!) Whilst this is getting ever more sophisticated, it’s largely personalisation around habit, history, similarity or preferences. In a conversation with TMP, they talked about their goal to breathe new life into career sites by “personalising” content. “Career sites should deliver a ‘personal experience’ said Fred Pratt, Vice Resident, Digital Platform Sales of TMP. True, delivering relevant content to the candidate is a good idea. But who decides what this relevant content is? Not the candidate it seems. We are becoming so obsessed with serving up something more interesting than the life sapping generic career content that we are in danger of assuming that “rich multimedia approach” is a panacea. It isn’t. I don’t see anyone in this space tailoring or personalising content to reflect the users ‘personality profile’. This, in my view, is far more relevant.

Software with soul – over the course of the Conference I met with many vendors. Most I knew, some I didn’t. And along the way there were some interesting propositions. In a very small number of cases there was a glimpse of something really interesting – more on those later. But one stood out. They stood out not because they had some ground breaking functionality or killer app. They stood out because they had ‘soul’. They had vision. Real vision. The strangest thing is I’d never heard of them – www.Haufe.us. I met their rather charismatic CEO Kelly Max. Just diggin’ that LinkedIn photo dude ;). He didn’t talk to me about software, he talked to me about the potential of human beings. He talked culture, not technology. There’s no doubting his passion. He was the only person I met who asked me more questions than I could ask him. I’ve had a brief look at their tech when I visited the stand. I need to look deeper. It might be no better than anyone else’s of course. But with that kind of vision, i doubt it.

The ERP integration wars – Despite several attempts to track her down, the only way I could catch up with my stateside friend Trish McFarlane, VP HR Practice and Principal Analyst at Brandon Hall Group and author of the HR Ringleader Blog was to attend her session entitled “How HR Leaders can prepare for Technology Solution Implementations.”  Sounds painful already right? What is going on with our attitude to implementing technology? One guy I met was taking a “career break” after completing a workday implementation in Australia! We talk about these implementations like they are some form of internal war of attrition. Those experienced in delivery sound like veterans. This has got to change. Things are moving so fast, that 6,9 or 12+ month lead times for implementation are just too slow and the complexity of the projects way too high. “Yes, but…” I hear you cry. No but’s. Im sorry. We are not trying hard enough to drive for simplicity – complexity is too easy. And we wear this complexity like a badge of honour.

“We are really a big data play” – There’s no doubt about it, the theme of the conference this year was data. Anyone who is anyone is making a ‘big data’ play. Even some of the most run of the mill solutions are pitching it – “We may look like a time and attendance system but really we are a big data company”! Oh really?! Despite the hype, this focus is a good thing and for the first time I can see the HR function getting with the data program. Of course, we are a long way away yet, but with a serious shift towards predictive analytics and evidence of new solutions blending much wider and previously inaccessible data sources to challenge existing ways of, for example, predicting behaviour or identifying potential, things are starting to look interesting. Unfortunately There are still a significant number of doubting Thomas’s in the HR profession, even at senior level. My advice to them is to look outside of the profession, into the consumer world. One of the best sessions of the conference was from Andrew McAfee from MIT (Smart guy) who talked about the Second Machine Age. New sources of data and processing power on a massive scale, combined with machine learning are creating mind blowing new insights. It might take time, but these approaches will eventually make it into the world of the human at work.

The startups move in –  A welcome sight this year was the introduction of the ‘start up pavilion’, a dedicated space for up and coming start ups in the HR technology space. Against the backdrop of the of the established market leaders, they did feel a bit like a bunch of traveler’s moving onto a well manicured country park. Nonetheless it was good to see them there. I realise “Enterprise” is the core market for an event such as this, but given where the market is going and the speed at which it is travelling, there is a compelling need to put start ups front and centre. Next year it would be good to go further; let’s have them in the centre of the expo, in a collaborative space that rocks, not a collection of high tables that would look more at home in an airport Starbucks. It’s important that the HR buying community is aware of these new technologies and that real alternatives to the existing “one stop shop” enterprise players exists.

Network and backchannel – If you still don’t get social media as an HR pro then my advice would be to resign and go get a job as a chef. The food industry probably moves at a better pace for you… However, if you do get it then hopefully you would have explored and exploited the “backchannel” and resulting face to face network, which I have to say was smoking this year. For those who are relatively tech savvy, it is the physical networking and insight that comes from the twitter/blogger spheres that add the biggest value. The sessions themselves, by definition, have to be aimed at the most common denominator in terms of knowledge and understanding, hence if you are an early adopter of any sorts, some of the sessions will be of little value to you. However this is actually good news as it means you can devote more time to exploiting the value of the network.

Special mention – has to go to an amazing guy by the name of Broc Edwards. I met Broc via twitter some 3 or so years ago but like so many of my non UK online contacts, we had never met. In the run up to the Conference, Broc announced that he wasn’t planning on attending the conference, but would “drive down to Vegas” for the chance to meet in person. This, ladies and gentlemen, was a journey of 7 hours! Even by US standards, I’m led to believe this is an unusual trip to make, just to say hi! But do it he did and I’m so glad, and a little bit humbled, that he did. If you don’t know Broc, connect with him via twitter and his excellent blog Fool With a Plan. He’s a great guy, an unassuming strategic thinker. A conscientious objector in the war of corporate pointlessness. A great guy. We had dinner, put the world to rights and sealed our friendship. Job done.

Thats it! Thanks for reading my round up. I will be expaning on a couple of these themes on future blog posts over the next week so look out for them. And finally, the usual disclaimer – I don’t get paid by anyone to think or write anything so the thoughts and mentions are entirely personal.

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