Unleash Your People – 5 Key Learnings from HR Tech World San Francisco

Veni, vidi, vici…


Like a latter day Julius Caesar, Marc Coleman and his HR Tech World garrison came, saw and conquered the US with a rambunctious inaugural HR Tech World in San Francisco on 14-15 June.


HRN’s unique blend of inspirational speakers, fabulous production, a terrific choice of venue (the Fort Mason Centre for Arts & Culture) and the best parties in town demonstrated to a US audience why HR Tech World is the fastest growing trade show in our space. (See Matt Charney’s take on how HR Tech World compares favourably to the competition here).


The underlying theme of HR Tech World was the need for companies to ‘Unleash Your People’. Here are 5 key learnings from the show that will enable you to do just that.



When someone as respected and knowledgeable as Josh Bersin (see Slideshare of Josh’s keynote here) says that we are experiencing “the most disruptive time I’ve ever seen”, you know that we are living in an unprecedented period of turbulence. Many organisations and especially their HR functions seem paralysed by fear about what the future holds. But this isn’t a time to be cowed. It’s a time to be bold. Instead of, as Peter Hinssen urged in his opening keynote, focusing on today or even tomorrow, companies need to devote more time to the day after tomorrow. This means focusing on the new ideas, new concepts, new models and new technologies that could change the game. Employees and by extension HR are pivotal to this. Fascinating keynotes from Vivek Wadhwa and Robert Scoble demonstrated that the pace of disruption is set to intensify. What does this mean for HR? It means that the HR of 2025 will likely be unrecognisable from what exists today. I concur with Jason Averbook, who ended his closing keynote (see Slideshare) by saying that there has never been a more exciting time to work in HR. We have an opportunity to shape the future of our organisations and the experience within it for our employees. Let’s not squander this once in a lifetime chance.


  1. Align HR with business strategy

This should be obvious, but you’d be surprised (or maybe not) to learn how many HR strategies are completely separate (and sometimes even diametrically opposed) to the strategy of the business. HR IS part of the business and executed well can make an extraordinarily positive impact on organisational success and employee wellbeing. As Peter Hinssen, Josh Bersin and many other speakers vocalised, we have reached a tipping point where the traditional structure of an organisation (top-down, hierarchical, bureaucratic) is no longer fit for purpose in the digital age. To execute on strategy and fight off both traditional and increasingly new competitors, most businesses need to radically change how they are structured, how the actual work gets done and improve the experience of its employees. HR has a critical role to play, so it was refreshing to see CHROs from many of the biggest companies in the world describing how they are doing just that in their own organisations. Of the CHROs I saw, I was particularly impressed with these three:


  • Karen Parkin (Executive Board Member, Global HR, Adidas) – This is Karen’s first role in HR, which is perhaps why her presentation on turning Adidas into a culture led organisation was so business focussed (see Slideshare). Two quotes from Karen highlight this. First “We don’t have a culture to feel great, we have a culture that delivers results. It’s what drives us,” and “I don’t want the people strategy to be about HR” Amen to that.
  • Pat Wadors (CHRO, LinkedIn) – Pat’s assertion that whilst diversity and inclusion is necessary it is not sufficient without the third critical element – employee belonging – really resonated, and was entirely in line with the ‘people first’ theme of the event (see Slideshare).
  • Obed Louissaint (VP HR, IBM Watson) – Obed provided a fascinating walkthrough of how IBM has infused machine learning throughout its talent management journey to accelerate employee experience and impact on the business (see Slideshare)


  1. People first

The over-riding theme of the whole show was a need for companies (and HR) to adopt a ‘People First’ approach. This isn’t fluffy HR either. As Gary Vaynerchuk so powerfully articulated in his keynote, investing in people and culture is financially viable. The need to create cultures where employee experience and belonging is put front and centre was described by the majority of speakers. We all know now that employees expect a similar experience at work to that they receive as consumers. Personalisation and the ability to provide and receive feedback are now mandatory. As Josh Bersin said “it doesn’t matter what (HR Technology) you buy if it doesn’t improve the employee experience”. It’s heartening to see then the explosion in technology that supports employees with personalised career paths, learning and opportunities. HR Tech World also showed how companies are applying tactics long-used with customers to understand employee sentiment and feedback to improve performance, productivity and employee experience. Companies that harness these capabilities, whilst placing ethics, trust and transparency to the fore, are likely to be those that outperform the competition and retain its best people. This is a huge area of opportunity for HR and I wholeheartedly agree with Jason Averbook on the absolute necessity for HR to own this experience and not share or abdicate it to marketing or corporate communications.


  1. Turn HR data into value

It is difficult if not impossible for companies to implement technology to personalise services such as learning or career paths without first investing in capabilities in people data and analytics. Indeed, this is one of the trends driving the growth in people analytics, which I shared in my presentation at the show (see Blog and Slideshare). Data is the new currency within HR and despite misconceptions from many HR leaders that they don’t have data, they do. The alchemy is in turning that data into value – insights that drive improved business performance as well as better employee experience and wellbeing. Investment by companies in people analytics is increasing and most CHRO now concur with Josh Bersin that “Analytics is no longer a ‘good idea’ for HR – it is now mandatory.” As such, the presentation by Madhura Chakrabarti (see Slideshare) of the preliminary findings from Bersin by Deloitte’s research on people analytics was fascinating. The need to build data literacy across HR, engage with the right stakeholders in the business and to infuse people analytics into business decisions were powerful and auger well for continued growth in the space.


  1. Redesign your organisation for the 21st century

What does all this mean for our organisations in terms of how they are structured, how work gets done and the experience of our employees? In short, it means that most of our organisational structures are simply not fit for purpose in the digital age. Bureaucracy and hierarchies need to be consigned to history and our organisations need to be redesigned, rethought and reflect the world we now live in. As Peter Hinssen said this doesn’t mean “taking analogue processes and making them digital” but instead radical reinvention. People analytics and organisational network analysis can help us understand how work gets done in our companies (likely emphasising networks, teams and skills). Technology can help us provide personalised services to employees that improve experience and drive business outcomes. But above all, it will likely be having the right culture that will fundamentally be the most important attribute driving organisational success. The role of HR in business is increasingly in importance and is likely to rise exponentially in the coming years, which is exciting and daunting at the same time.


Some final words on HRN, #HROS and others

Thanks to Rita Vass and Kat Khramova for inviting me to speak and congrats to you both as well as Marc Coleman, Viki McCann, Peter Russell and the rest of the HR Tech World team. You did it! Congrats also to Jason Averbook, who was an outstanding MC and also probably the hardest working person at the show given he gave the closing keynote and ran a workshop on the day before the conference too.

A quick word too for the HR Open Source (#HROS) initiative, which I’ve written about before (see The Future of HR is Open Source). HR faces big challenges in learning and then applying everything it will need to do to help their organisations thrive in the future of work. As such, the #HROS ethos of collaboration and shared learning is the ideal initiative to help accelerate learning. Congrats once again to Lars Schmidt and Ambrosia Vertesi.


Finally, the best shows are all about great networking and HR Tech World was no different. Other than those I’ve already mentioned a big shoutout to Al Adamsen, Arun Chidambaram, Manish Goel, Amit Mohindra, Jackie Ryan, RJ Milnor, Tej Mehta, Damon Klotz, Didier Elzinga, Lexy Martin, Bill Boorman, Felix Wetzel, Elizabeth Williams, Antony Ebelle, Tom Quayle, Peter Haasz, Rhonda Taylor, Bob Blake, Kevin Moore, Anita Lettink, Ernest Ng and the countless others that I have temporarily forgotten – it was wonderful spending time with all of you.


For more on HR Tech World in San Francisco check out the HR Tech World Slideshare page for all the presentations from the event, as well as this handy collection of links and material by Kate Graham.



The post Unleash Your People – 5 Key Learnings from HR Tech World San Francisco appeared first on HRN Blog.


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