Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, home of this year's American HR Technology Conference. Photo: Erin Khoo, Flickr

Tuesday 21st October 2014

The hunt for Tech October

It's the HR technology conference season. Gareth Jones pops along to Vegas to discover more

As most of you are settling back into post–summer working life and preparing for Christmas (Only 65 sleeps now, don’t you know) I find myself hauling my weary body around the globe in search of innovation and insight during a period that I’ve decided to call Tech October.

Yes, it’s technology conference season and anyone who is anyone will be attending at least one of the two big events – the HR Technology Conference in the US (this year, it was Las Vegas) and the HR Tech Europe Conference, taking place in Amsterdam.

I’m not sure what it says about the HR profession that the two potential sources of technological innovation are based in two of the most hedonistic places on earth. But who am I to argue?

So right now, we’re bang in the middle of this tech fest. I’ve just returned from Las Vegas and will be heading to Amsterdam next week. It’s worth pointing out that despite sharing the same name and theme, the conferences are organised and run by completely independent entities.

It is also worth noting that, subject matter aside, they are very different in terms of experience. The US is more informal and highly networked, Europe more conservative. It’s chinos vs suits!

Who goes?

It’s a heady mix of all the main players including major vendors such as SAP, Oracle and Workday. But also, more recently, the startup community too, which is perhaps the most interesting bunch.

Also included are leading thinkers and consultants In the HR/talent space, such as Josh Bersin and Jason Averbook, two of of the most interesting guys in the field. Their research and thinking is on the money and very relevant, so I recommend you check out their thinking if you haven’t seen their stuff before.

What value will you get from attending?

Like most large conferences, they do suffer from trying to appeal to the widest common denominator. In other words, if you consider yourself well researched and expert in your field, or an early adopter, you’re likely to hear a lot of content you’ve heard before. But if you’re none of the above or it’s simply a while since you ventured onto the circuit, there’ll certainly be content you find interesting.

By far the biggest value comes from accessing the wider network of attendees. By ‘network’ I’m not just talking about other HR/talent/learning professionals. It is the rich mix of suppliers, entrepreneurs, bloggers, press representatives, consultants and HR pros that provides the real insight and a view as to what is hot, what is not and what is coming down the pipe.

What are the big themes?

Without doubt, the top three themes are:

1)    Data

2)    Data

3)    Data

And did I mention data?

Seriously, the main takeaway is that Data should be on the top of your agenda. The quality of data we hold in organisations is patchy. Our customer facing operations do largely have reasonable data, but the biggest hole is in the HR function, specifically what is referred to as Talent Analytics. The aforementioned Josh Bersin has lots of excellent material on this on his site, which will give you a good appreciation of what the implications are and where the market is going.

Photo: HR Technology Conference, US
Photo: HR Technology Conference and Expo


Anyway, here are my tips on getting the most out of a tech conference:

Plan ahead

We’re all busy, but if you are going to invest a non-too-insignificant sum in attending, it really is worth planning ahead.

Work out which sessions you want to attend and, on the supply side, which of the exhibitors you want to speak to. Top tip – if you have your eye on a particular supplier and want to avoid the hard sell, find out if the head of product or pre-sales will be in attendance on the stand (they usually are), drop them a line beforehand and suggest a scheduled chat over coffee. It will be a more productive and less pressured conversation.

Seek out startups and the emerging, smaller solutions

The world of technology is moving very quickly and whilst HR lags behind, say, the consumer market, it’s catching up. The established, enterprise, end-to-end providers such as Oracle and SAP are not going away any time soon, but neither are they the only option.

It really is feasible to consider a best of breed proposition and these new, smaller players have an agility and competence that the big boys are struggling to match. If nothing else, talking to the new kids on the block will open your eyes to what is possible. Trust me, it’s getting very exciting!

Check out the ‘back channel’

If you’re not active on social media by now as an HR pro, you should probably quit. (Just kidding – I think). At these conferences, check out what’s being said on the social channels. Google the event hashtags, follow the industry spokespeople, especially the bloggers, and soak up what’s being said and shared.

There’s a tremendous amount of insight and insider information to be had from this incredibly undervalued resource. And it’s all free.

Visit the expo

If there was one thing I used to hate as an HR pro looking for new solutions, it was running the gauntlet of the sales reps manning the stands.

I used to avoid it or practically sprint through with my head down. But now, I’ve learnt to use it to my advantage and you can too. Believe it or not, none of the vendors want to waste their time or yours, so just be clear beforehand what you are interested in and what you’re not.

Take the opportunity to put the ones you are interested in on the spot. Don’t let it be a one sided conversation. Grill them with questions like, “How do you really differ from competitor X?” or, “If your solution didn’t exist, who would you recommend, and why?”

Network and party

I know, you’re probably pulling a face at this one. But honestly, a lot of the real value and insight comes not from the conference programme but from the people you meet in between the sessions.

If the event is big enough for the vendors to throw ‘after-parties’, then go to them – seriously. It’s where the real conversations happen, the deals are done and yes, they’re a bit of fun too. But it’s also a great opportunity to pick brains, find others with similar challenges and create opportunities for further conversation.

About the author

Gareth Jones

Gareth is Partner and Chief Solutions Architect at The Chemistry Group. A corporate freedom fighter with low conformity issues, his passions are people, technology and the future of work. You can find more opinions from Gareth on corporate life in general at