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What I Learned at HR Technology

Thursday, November 19, 2009
Every year, about 2,000 HR practitioners, vendors, executives, consultants, analysts, investors and academics flock to their "field of dreams" -- the HR Technology® Conference -- our annual industry town meeting. Mostly they seem to love it, returning in good times and bad. But as Kevin Costner asked late in that movie: "What's in it for me?" Surprisingly, the answer for me also applies to you, whether or not you attended.

By Bill Kutik


What did I learn at HR Technology®? A lot less than you did, if you attended the conference and went to some of the sessions.

I've long been frustrated that, after sweating bullets for eight months creating what everyone seems to agree is the best conference in the world on the subject, I don't really get to attend it.

Of course, I'm physically there.

And I get to moderate a handful of important sessions: the Analyst Panel, Cool New Technologies for HR and the Talent Management Shootout. And when I'm not worried about the next funny thing to say, confusing the names of cool start-up companies or making mistakes in the remaining times for the Shooters, I do learn a lot at them.

But mostly I'm running around: thanking practitioners for speaking, meeting panelists whom I haven't personally recruited and generally playing host. My average interaction with any one person usually lasts about five minutes. Not exactly the learning -- and networking -- experience regular attendees enjoy.

But this year, I did learn a hugely important generational lesson, and it's one worth sharing.

Like me, you've probably sat through innumerable presentations in the last few years about "the challenge of managing four generations in the workforce." (Frankly, I've never met a corporate "challenge" that wasn't actually a "problem.")

And my response used to be: What's the big deal? Haven't we always had four generations in the workforce? Really ignorant question.

Jason Averbook, CEO of the hot strategic consultancy Knowledge Infusion, and his VP Jason Corsello began bringing me into the light two years. At an SRO Friday morning breakout, Averbook pointed out that all of us who grew up without computers were digital "immigrants." And that those who did, all of Gen Y and some Gen X, were digital "natives."

So just as no one had to teach young baby boomers how to dial a telephone or operate a television -- which we expected to be ubiquitous -- no one had to teach Gen Y to use a computer. This basic divide is becoming a generational chasm in the workplace -- and one source of the problem.

This year a much finer point was put on that subject. For the first time, we attracted a huge number of bloggers to the conference and here are a few of their expectedly opinionated postings:

Single blog posts came from Gartner Managing VP Jim Holincheck, a 10-year veteran of our Analyst Panel; former panelist and Aberdeen analyst Katherine Jones; Mark Bennett; Lance Haun; Trish McFarlane; Jason Weingarten; and analyst Mark Smith.

Others posted several times: former Meta Group analyst Ron Hanscome on Day Oneand Day Two; Mark Stelzner on Day Oneand a wrap-up; Kris Dunn twice in his two blogs: HR Capitalist, hereand here; and Fistful of Talent, hereand here; Mike Krupa on Day Oneand a wrap-up. Also, Steve Boese posted three times: Day One, Twoand Threeand analyst Josh Bersin hereand here.

Plus two late entries just about winning the Talent Management Shootout, from Ron Hanscomeand Josh Bersin.

Some of these are baby boom veterans like me, but a new group of Gen X bloggers attended for the first time, including Kris, Mark, Mike, Steve and Lance (who may qualify as Gen Y, depending on which demographer's generational dividing dates you accept).


Then at the Recruiting Technology Panel (moderated by guru and curmudgeon Gerry Crispin of CareerXroads), the now predictable show of hands revealed that half the companies in the audience blocked office access to most social networks.

One of the bloggers in the room commented (sorry, I can't remember who): "Twenty years ago, would you have asked employees to leave their Rolodex at home because they might call a friend? Now you're asking some employees to leave half their brains at home by cutting them off from their network."

People talk about how knowledge management (once thought to be giant archives of searchable documents managed by IT) has morphed into social networking with a person who knows something sharing it with another who doesn't.

So now we're talking about collective intelligence being put to the service of corporate needs, which I would still contend is not yet the "wisdom of the crowd" since personal networks are a little more selectively put together.

What could be more powerful? What could offer better employee productivity? Yet HR (probably joined by Legal) is stemming the growth of collective intelligence out of fear!

Their unease is understandable, but panelist Frank Wittenauer, internal head of HR technology for Deloitte, put their fears into historical perspective. He pointed out that when offices first got telephones, only senior executives were given them in fear the lesser folks would abuse them.

When e-mail first arrived in offices, HR fretted that some employee might write something inappropriate to the CEO! Which really wasn't a problem in those early days, since most CEO's had their administrative assistants screen and print out all incoming e-mails, and then they scribbled notes on the paper or dictated replies to be typed.

And I think most of us still remember the corporate terror that ensued when all employees first got access to the Internet. The market boomed in spyware, so HR could make sure employees weren't "wasting time" surfing the Internet or worse, looking at pornography.

People can now do that at home with their own broadband connections. And the only market for spyware is among parents, who still have legitimate concerns in all those areas. But they're dealing with children, not adults.

The point is, all new communications technologies take time to reach full and confident adoption. Fears eventually wither away and die.

Corporations still have legitimate concerns about system security and legal liability for allowing social networks in the door. The most forward-thinking companies, such as IBM, have written employee "guidelines" for social-network use, understanding that "rules" are unenforceable.

What's become clear to me is that companies that take the plunge to become earlier adopters of social networks (many have already) will gain enormous competitive advantage. And the sooner, the better.

So that's what I learned at HR Technology®. If you attended, please write to my e-mail below to tell me what you learned. If you couldn't make it this year, I hope you'll attend next year, Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, again at Chicago's McCormick Place. And maybe we can grab more than five minutes to talk.

HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chairman of the 13th Annual HR Technology® Conference & Expositionin Chicago, Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, 2010. Speaking proposals for next year are due in six weeks and must be submitted online by Dec. 31. He is also host of The Bill Kutik Radio Show®. He can be reached at

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