Thursday, April 17, 2008

Initial Thoughts from the HR Planning Society Conference

I wanted to look into some new conferences this year. Nothing against HR Technology or IHRIM, but I’ve been attending those for a while, and wanted to see what another group might offer. I’ve been to some of the HRPS affiliate meetings in San Francisco, and had heard good things about their annual conference. I was quite interested in the focus themes for this year: global work, talent management and sustainability – all issues I hear about from our customers. The audience for HRPS is not the typical audience I speak with at OpenWorld, or meet at HR Technology. They are primarily HR Leaders in Organizational Design, Executive Development or Talent Management. So the conference was an opportunity for me to see how the key themes we are hearing from customers are being presented to people who might be end users of our technology.

There were several surprises along the way. First, was the response of attendees when I told them I was from Oracle. Actual quotes from people at the cocktail hour:
“Doesn’t your CEO have a big boat?”
“I know the name, but I don’t know what you do.”
“You’re the guys who took over my PeopleSoft”
Key messages: Oracle is not a known vendor for these people. If they do know what we do, there’s a negative connotation tied to PeopleSoft. Announcing that I was a PeopleSoft employee during the acquisition garnered instant support from those who knew of or use PeopleSoft or Oracle applications, and empathy from other people who have been through acquisitions.

Another surprise: the level of interaction in breakout sessions. My usual conference experience is that the speaker presents for 45 of their allotted 50 minutes, takes 1-2 questions at the end, and then gets bombarded by people after the talk. The breakouts at this conference were interactive from the first slides. In almost every case, it was more like the presenter was facilitating a conversation, with some slides to point the way. Even in a “full session” – about 100 people in the room – people were still asking questions, clarifying, re-clarifying and commenting as much on others’ questions as on the presentation. A new experience for me in a conference, and I think I got more out of the sessions by hearing other people question and comment on the content.

This interactive approach continued throughout the conference, and addressed one of the potential risks of the conference: most of the 400 attendees were there on their own. Even companies that sent multiple attendees hadn’t sent more than 2-3. As a result, the conference could have been very isolating; it can be hard for people to show up alone at dinner or drinks. So the organizers drafted “facilitators” to start conversations, engage with people over breaks, and otherwise help attendees feel part of the conference community. They also reminded us at the end of each session that the dialog could continue at break, or lunch, or cocktails. After one keynote, the leader mentioned that you should be getting as much out of the breaks as you are from the sessions. This is often true at conferences, but I don’t remember attending another conference where they so deliberately addressed this need to connect and engage with other attendees. I walked away having had good conversations with quite a few people, and am looking forward to continuing the dialog online.

One more great idea from the conference, and this was from a vendor. Most of the vendors on sight were talent management consulting. The exception was Borders Books of Costa Mesa. They were on site with copies of every book ever written by the speakers at the conference, and they were encouraging all speakers to autograph books. Then, they offered my favorite service of the week – shipping books anywhere in the US for $5.00. “Oh, so I don’t have to lug books home in my overcrowded suitcase? In that case, I’d like to have 4-5 books instead of 1-2.” Great sales strategy Borders! I bet they doubled their on-site sales with this idea. Timely action too – the books arrived this afternoon!

A good conference, and great interactions. Oh, you want to hear about content? Next post please…

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