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Sep 26, 2022

Most people want life and HR conferences to get back to normal.

How do I know this? Well, it’s because last week’s HR Tech 2022 in Las Vegas looked and felt pretty much like HR Tech 2019 in Las Vegas.

With the exception of the occasional attendee wearing a mask (and that was only about 1% of the attendees, and far fewer than those who still wear them in my home state of California), it seemed to be just another typical HR Technology Conference.

I’ve been to at least a dozen of them in my time – initially in Chicago (before it moved to Sin City), and in those days, they were modest events, held at Chicago’s Navy Pier when the legendary Bill Kutik was still running things and growing the franchise. But Kutik retired and Steve Boese took his place and he now programs a conference that is the biggest HR technology showcase with some traditional conference sessions as well.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and it speaks to the tradition of the HR Tech conference being THE place for those who want to compare lots of technology solutions under one roof in just a few days. Yes, Unleash is also making a move to do that in the U.S. with something similar to their European event that will take place in Paris next month, but for now, HR Tech is the gold standard for American HR technology conferences.

This year’s HR tech was kicked off by conference co-chair Steve Boese, and he welcomed the crowd at the opening keynote session by noting that “we’re back after two and a half years of starts and stops … we’ve seen it all by now.”

That was a nod to the challenges of 2020 and 2021, but it tells you that except for a few offhand comments here and there, the brief mention by Boese was about the only real discussion about what everybody assembled for HR Tech has been going through since March of 2020. And, that’s how everyone who took the time to attend HR Tech seemed to want it.

If they were looking forward to a return to normal, the Day 2 keynote speaker – the same guy who was the big HR Tech keynote speaker in 2019 – stepped up and offered a large dose of it.

Bersin’s take on the state of HR Tech

HR technology analyst, Josh Bersin, gave the keynote on the first full day of HR Tech 2022, and as usual, he brought a ton of data and insights. In fact, he warned the audience from the beginning that he had far more data and information than he could possibly get to in a 50-minute conference session.

Say what you will about the mixed bag of speakers you usually encounter at a conference, but Josh Bersin always puts as much as he can into his presentations, and he is completely honest about what you can expect from him.

So it was when I heard him at HR Tech 2019, and I expected no less from him at HR Tech 2022. He’s always gives his audience a lot to think about.

One thing Bersin made clear from the start was that “we would not have survived the pandemic without HR tech,” because it was technology that allowed so many people to work remotely and still connect with their workplace colleagues and managers in real time with applications like Zoom. It’s a good point, and a perfect observation for an audience attending an HR technology conference.

Another area Bersin focused on is one you have been hearing a lot about recently – the employee experience – and as Bersin put it, the employee experience market has really taken hold. He also made the point that employee experience tools are “really employee development tools.”

He also talked about the rapid and evolving emergence of talent intelligence. According to Bersin, talent intelligence is about these four things:

  1. Recruiting
  2. Retaining
  3. Reskilling and,
  4. Redesigning

He also noted that “AI is now central to talent acquisition, (because) getting the right people is essential.” Bersin says there are more mergers, acquisitions, and start-ups in this sector, but he has these words of caution: “Remember — talent acquisition is human-centered… and the recruiter is the key.”

It’s not possible to dig into all that Josh Bersin talked about in his keynote at HR Tech, and as promised, he didn’t get through all he wanted to talk about. There were so many other areas – corporate learning, talent marketplaces, the skills tech market, employee listening, wellbeing, and more. I can’t go into all of it, but here are some of his insights that jumped out at me:

  • “The business you are in (HR Technology) is critically dependent upon the economy.”
  • “There’s an incredible shortage of workers… 40-45% of those who changed jobs during the pandemic also changed industries.”
  • “Employees are under incredible stress… it’s OK now to say you’re stressed out…(and) mental health is the No. 1 issue on the minds of CEOs.”
  • “Voluntary quits have been at 30% monthly over the last 12 months.”
  • “HR technology is the fastest growing part of the stock market… with a $12 billion investment in 2021…. there are more vendors and more products.”
  • But, “we are in an economic cycle where it is not easy to raise money.”
  • “Everything in HR is interconnected … and technology needs to facilitate this.”
  • “The big shift is from HR technology to workplace technology… and for big systems, the successful implementations were not tech implementations but business transformations.”

His final comment was telling. He said: “the most important part of this is what you do. You need a roadmap to know who the vendors are, and how to manage the data you have.”

Technology spending is still increasing

It’s hard to top Josh Bersin especially with all the data-driven insights he brings to the stage. But Stacey Harris gave it a good shot with a HR Tech preview of the research from the 25th Annual HR Systems Survey produced by the Sapient Insights Group. Comprising responses from 2,515 unique organizations in 65 different countries, Harris’s speech built on what Bersin had talked about the day before.

Here are some of the key findings:

  • More than half of companies over 500 employees (54%) increased technology spending by an average of 21% in 2021.
  • There are expectations for more increased HR Tech spending in 2022-23:
    • 55% of organizations with more than 5000 employees expect to spend more.
    • 54% of organizations between 500-5000 employees say they’ll spend more; and,
    • 35% with fewer than 500 employees say they’ll also spend more.
  • Not surprisingly, recruiting technology is the top spending need for all three company sizes.
  • The market is seeing smaller companies investing in HR tech, and the hottest HR tech market is for organizations between 500-5000 employees.

The fact that spending on recruiting technology still dominates makes it clear that organizations everywhere are still sharply focused on finding the talent they need to keep growing in the years ahead.

In fact, the HR Systems Survey found that 20% of companies believe they are in flux “all the time.” That’s a telling comment about the need for HR technology to continue to change and evolve to meet the growing (some would say never-ending), needs of organizations everywhere.

One last detail from the HR Systems Survey: Harris said that she was surprised that 0% – yes, zero or none – of the organizations said that diversity and inclusion is a metric they track. This startling finding is from the 698 companies that answered that question in the survey.

Make of it what you will, but in our current environment, that finding alone is hard to get your head around.

3 more HR Tech observations:

  • Conference Chair Steve Boese seemed to say this every time he was getting ready to introduce a keynote speaker, but it also speaks to life and HR conferences getting back to normal. What was it that Boese kept saying? “This is the biggest HR Tech Expo – ever.” That’s good news in any year, but especially in 2022.
  • If you don’t like to walk a lot, you shouldn’t be attending HR Tech at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas: It’s a good 15-minute hike from the hotel towers to the Mandalay Bay Conference Center, and probably 20 minutes for me coming from the Delano tower at the opposite side of the hotel. But that’s just the start. There is a ton of additional walking once you get to the Convention Center, and that because “it’s the fifth largest convention center in the U.S., with 2.1 million gross square feet of meeting and exhibit space,” according to the hotel website. In other words, lots of space for a conference like HR Tech to spread out. I have walked many a convention floor, but few are as demanding as the one at the Mandalay Bay.
  • Josh Bersin packs them in no matter where he speaks: Not only did Bersin speak to a full house in his Day 2 keynote, but he also spoke later that day in a breakout session where he presented talent and HR research from the healthcare industry as part of The Global Workforce Intelligence Project from joshbersin.com. It was interesting research. Did you know that 16% of Americans work in healthcare, and that it is the largest business sector in the U.S? But the room they gave Josh to speak in was far too small. It was so crowded that people were jammed into a SRO section at the back of the room as well as leaning against the walls on both sides all the way up to the stage. Those who assign rooms for speakers at HR Tech MUST know that Bersin draws a big crowd no matter where he speaks. There’s no excuse for having Josh in a room that is packed like a Beatles concert. Why didn’t the HR Tech staff anticipate it?

Final thoughts

There were more keynote speakers at HR Tech 2022 — including Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall, CEO of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and a former top HR executive at AT&T; Jason Averbrook, CEO & Founder of Leapgen, and a panel with three female CHROs on the need for technology-focused CHROs in the future. But while the HR Technology conference pulls in some good speakers, it is less about the speakers and more about people coming to check out the latest in HR technology.

I found this out years ago at one of the first HR Tech conferences I attended. Somehow, I got engaged in a conversation in the Expo Hall with the managing partner of a big Los Angeles law firm. He wasn’t at the annual HR Technology Conference & Exhibition for the content, but rather, had a much more pragmatic goal in mind — he needed a new payroll system for his office and knew that HR Tech was the very best place to comparison-shop and find it.

That’s when it hit me: for all of its HR focus, the annual HR Technology conference is really about people getting up-to-date information on the technology they need to make their organization more successful.

Yes, everyone knows that HR Tech is about the technology you are going to need in the not too distant future. But at the 2022 event, everybody seemed pretty happy that the way everybody has gone about doing that was finally getting back to normal.

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