HR Tech Conference Day 1: Magnified HR

Few corporate functions give themselves a more thorough beating than HR. Hardly a day goes by without someone at an HR conference somewhere delivering a good tongue lashing about being too focused on tactics at the expense of strategy or the lack of skills and ability to take a seat at that ever-elusive executive table.

At the annual HR Technology conference this week in Chicago, the opening keynote speaker gave us more fodder for self-flagellation. Tom Koulopoulos, founder of Boston-based think tank Delphi Group and author of eight books including Cloud Surfing, asked the audience point blank how many dreamed as they grew up of one day being in HR.

From my vantage point, not a single hand was raised.

It sounds harsh as I wrote these words but Koulopoulos delivered the message with humor and hope as he made the case for why HR is indeed the place we want to be, even if we didn’t dream we’d be there. His basic argument: The rise of technology – and cloud computing services in particular – requires a shift in how we conduct HR in our organizations today.

The annual HR Tech conference, produced by Human Resource Executive magazine and now in its 15th year, brought together nearly 6,000 people from 28 countries, according to Bill Kutik, veteran HR journalist and show impresario. I’ve been to the show five times now and every year I walk away impressed by the conference itself, but also by the passion and commitment to the community among the practitioners and vendors alike.

Each year, the conference takes on a different theme both directly via the speakers and indirectly through the conversations happening in the halls. This year, it’s about the cloud – the rise of powerful software programs hosted remotely that tap into the deep well of shared data available across the enterprise.

The cloud is disrupting the established patterns of HR practice and process, Koulopoulos argued, and rather than innovating and changing we instead get caught in our patterns of behavior. Instead of breaking out of the box, we spend our time and resources tastefully decorating the box. That box  is way too small for HR’s ambition and potential, Koulopoulos said.

The shift to the cloud is about behavior, not technology, he continued. The hyperconnectivity that the technology enables is leading to fundamental shifts in behavior and how we manage. As the marshals of organizations’ human resources, we have a position and power within the organization that few others have. Yet our attachment to these patterns of behavior are the source of our greatest weakness, as a profession and as an organization.

To be successful and change how HR operates, we need to be open to new possibilities, what Koulopoulos called detours. We can’t be so sure of the future that we’re not open to a potential change in the route. Each of us in HR carries a lens through which we view the world and our practice. As we look to the future, that lens is more like an anchor.

Lens, Meet Microscope

While each of us individually may be carrying a lens, the HR technology industry is under a microscope.

The market is on fire this year and investors have taken notice. SAP snapped up SuccessFactors last year, Oracle grabbed Taleo and IBM is acquiring Kenexa. Long-established consultancies moved into technology, including Corporate Executive Board’s acquisition of talent assessment platform SHL and Mercer’s launch of iKnow. Cornerstone OnDemand reported positive earnings after going to IPO last year and ERP provider Workday filed for its own IPO, setting an initial valuation of $4 billion.

The M&A activity is matched by the pace of product innovation coming from the HR industry. Rather than taking a wait-and-see attitude, many of the HR vendors I met with this week are rapidly pushing into new markets, launching new services and pioneering new function. Stay tuned here for a wrap-up of the news later this week.