HR Tech 2023: It was the Josh Bersin show again (thank goodness)

Josh Bersin was once-more the star attraction at this year's HR Tech Conference - and with good reason, says attendee, John Hollon:

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Oct 17, 2023

Here’s a thought that crossed my mind while listening to analyst Josh Bersin give yet another keynote speech at last week’s annual HR Technology Conference & Exposition in Las Vegas.

It’s this: what will conferences like this do for high-level technology insights when Bersin finally decides to hang it up?

It’s a good question, because everyone who follows technology and HR or talent management-oriented events know that Josh Bersin is ‘the’ person with the most up-to-date insights in the world of HR technology.

For example, he was the main keynote speaker at the last pre-pandemic HR Tech conference in 2019, and was also the keynote for the first two “normal” (that is, non-restrictive) post pandemic events in 2022 and 2023. My guess is that he’ll also be back in Vegas in 2024 – and for as many years as he wants.

That’s because there is no other analyst who can do what Josh Bersin does, and if there is, I wish someone would point them out and offer a little evidence why.

That’s also why it makes sense to give you a heavy dose of what Josh had to say at this year’s HR Technology conference, because as the leading analyst in the space – aka, the one guy EVERYONE listens to – he’s got a lot of great insights you won’t get anywhere else.

Yes, there were other keynote speakers with interesting things to say (more on them in a bit), but the most important keynote once again was Josh Bersin’s talk on HR Technology 2024: How AI Will Transform the Market Forever.

Why AI is so important to your success

One of the things that makes Josh Bersin so interesting is that he does a great job at breaking down just what is the most important thing going on in HR technology right now. And, as you have probably heard, it has something to do with a little thing called Artificial Intelligence, better known as AI.

Here’s how Josh explained why getting smart AI is critical to everyone’s success [note to reader: It’s a deliberately long quote – keep going till the end!]:

“I want to give you a sense of why AI is going to be really important to your company, whether you like it or not, or whether you’re afraid of it or not.

“We’ve now been through, since 2008, almost a 15-year economic cycle. I don’t remember in my career ever going through a 15-year period without a real recession. Obviously, we had the pandemic, but you can see the pandemic didn’t have a huge impact on company profits over the long term, and during that same period of time, the unemployment rate has been going down, down, and down. And that is a very significant piece of data because what it basically shows is that the economy has completely changed.

“The symptom of this is that CEOs are all waking up in the morning thinking about people. They’re thinking about change. They’re thinking about transformation. They’re thinking about what industry they’re in. They’re thinking about what technology platforms they have…. [and] 61% of CEOs now say we need to spend more time on transformation and less time on execution. So, we’re in an era of accelerating change, accelerating technology, and stress, and I can’t underestimate this problem of workplace stress.

“I’m in my late 60s, so I’ve been working since the 70s, and I’ve been through stressful periods of my life. [But] I’ve never seen data that month after month after month shows how much agony employees are going through and it’s now manifesting itself in employees saying, “I’m not going to take it anymore. I’m going to go on strike.” And in the last maybe three months, I think there have been five or six major labor relations upheavals in the United States, including the president of the United States standing on a picket line, and that is forcing executives to think about employees first, not necessarily customers, stakeholders, shareholders, and so forth.

“So, what you guys do in HR is now a C-level issue. I came to this conference 25 years ago or 20 some odd years ago … and we talked about talent management and pre-hire to retire and onboarding and all that stuff, and it was great. It was all HR stuff. This is all very C-level business stuff that we’re dealing with and it’s going to get worse, and the reason it’s going to get worse, and you can read about this in this white paper, is we’re not having many children. You’ve probably seen this research. Young people have put off getting married. They’ve put off having children, or are having fewer children, and the overall size of the labor market in most developed economies is going to flatten and shrink.

“This has already happened in Germany. It’s already happened in Japan. It’s starting to happen in the UK. It’s going to happen in the other Northern European countries over the next decade. So, we’re all going to have to do more with fewer people and what that means relative to AI is that we are entering an economic period where we have to learn how to run a company with fewer people generating higher levels of productivity, having more flexibility in their jobs, having more empowerment, and more skills than we had in the Industrial Age.

In other words, every employee, including you guys in HR, are going to be super powered workers. And THAT is why AI is important.”

The key to the future is higher productivity

Josh went on to point out that productivity has increased each time a big change in work took place; from the Agrarian Age to the Industrial Age to the Computer Age. Now we’re at a point where the birth rate of would-be workers is dropping, productivity is starting to slow, and the way to change that given current trends is pretty simple.

It’s AI.

Bersin put it like this:

“We’re reaching a point right now, with AI, where this accelerated rate of productivity is going to be the only way you’re going to be able to grow your company, and I guarantee you, your CEO is trying to figure out ‘where’s our next growth vector?’ This is where it is. So, if we can’t adapt and take advantage of this AI and all the work we do, our companies aren’t going to be able to meet their goals.”

He continued: “That’s what’s going on economically, and you can download (the new Bersin) white paper and read about it. We call it the Post-Industrial Economy. And I think it’s important to think about it because before you run around and buy a bunch of tools, what we tend to do with clients is we go through workshops discussing which part of your company needs the most help in this area of growth, productivity, skills, and so forth.”

Given how many people are still confused by why Artificial Intelligence is such a big deal, hearing Josh Bersin lay it all out like this is EXACTLY why he is such a sought after conference speaker and a the big draw keynote presenter at so many events like the annual HR Technology conference.

Microsoft’s empire ‘strikes back’

There were two more things from Josh that I think are worth mentioning.

One is about a big, new player to the HR tech scene, and the other is Bersin’s first-ever list of “trailblazing

Here’s the first one — Josh on the big, new player in the space:

“HR tech is a great investment. If you look at the well-run HR technology companies — Workday, ADP, SAP, and so forth — they have outperformed the S&P 500 because of this shift to a greater and greater percentage of the economy being driven by the human capital parts of companies. So, this is a very healthy space. I would say that recently, the investors kind of pulled back, but for the last year, they’re starting to come right back in again. There’s lots of money coming into the market, and as a result of that, some of the really big players are changing.”

He continued: “The one I want to highlight in particular is Microsoft.

“Most of you remember maybe two or three years ago, there was no Microsoft to this conference — ever. We went up to Microsoft a couple of years ago and talked to them about the corporate learning stuff and they were kind of getting interested in it, and all of a sudden, they jumped into the market with Teams and Viva, and guess what? Viva is now the number one platform for the employee experience. … 35 million people have licensed Viva in less than two years. You find another product that went from zero to 35 million users in two years. I don’t think you’re going to find one. And yesterday, Microsoft announced a feature of Viva called Skills for Viva, so all of that skill stuff that’s out there on the trade show that you’re looking at is going to be embedded into the Microsoft toolset.

“So, when the market gets big and healthy like this, the big players spend more money, and that of course changes the way it works. Now, I’m a big fan of Microsoft because I’m old enough that I used to use PCs back when they had green screens, and I actually think this stuff is very, very modern now and it’s been upgraded, and of course they have OpenAI and all those kinds of great things. But it’s going to change and that means that some of the smaller vendors are consolidating.

“As a matter of fact, if you look at the data on consolidation, there have been a lot of acquisitions in the last couple of months…. This is a kind of a hairy market. For those of you who are vendors and work in smaller companies, you’ve got to be wary of what’s going on because the big elephants are now stomping around looking for their space in this and they tend to be very inquisitive as things grow.”

Bersin’s 15 “trailblazing” companies

Here’s the second one – Josh listing his 15 HR technology “trailblazers” for 2023.

He prefaced his list with this:

“I have the privilege of talking to hundreds of vendors. Most of them give us an hour or two in-depth briefing of their products, and we get to know what they’re doing as best we can. And what I’ve noticed in the last six months … (is that) everybody is trying to do AI in different ways.

“There are some really amazing examples, so what I’m going to do is give you 10 or 15 examples. I’m not recommending that you buy things from these companies. I’m not endorsing them, but I’m just telling you that I think these are trailblazing examples of how AI is going to transform HR.

“So, think about this as education, not promotion of these vendors, even though with some of the vendors, you’re going to be very excited.”

The 15 “trailblazers” he listed are:

OK, that’s a LOT from Josh Bersin, but he has a lot to say, and that’s why he’s the keynote speaker again and again (and again).

He also packs a lot into his presentations — far more than I can do justice to here — and it’s so much that my head is ready to explode after 55 minutes. It’s a data dump of the first order.

And as always with Josh, there’s one more thing at the end:

“I think if you look at the way some of these AI systems work, we’re going to be able to pull massive amounts of heterogeneous data together.

“The AI can make sense of it. I mean, you can play around with ChatGPT or Bard and you’ll see how easy it is, and that problem will get much, much simpler. There’s going to be a massive change in the listening and people analytics market, and I think that area of analytics is going to be coupled to this area of talent intelligence.

“So, you’ll be able to say, ‘Here’s the reason we have retention issues. Here’s the reason we have performance issues. And by the way, let’s look at that data relative to the outside market too and see what we can do to benchmark ourselves against other companies in our industry to improve.’

“So, this is going to be really, really fun and, for geeks like me, it’s going to be a really, really interesting area of HR.”

The best of the rest:

There were other keynote speakers at HR Tech, and all of them are good, insightful and worth hearing — even if they aren’t a rock star like Josh Bersin.

  • Marcus Buckingham was back at HR Tech 2023 with a new book and a keynote presentation titled Marcus Buckingham Presents on: The Most Human Human at Work. And as the session description notes, “Learn from Marcus Buckingham what the data shows about what humans truly want at work. Hear what people need in their jobs and discover what systems and tools must change to design work that humans really love. You’ll learn about some of his recent discoveries, described in his latest Harvard Business Review book and cover article of what individuals can do on their own teams to foster humanity at work. Buckingham’s latest book, Love + Work, covers most of what Buckingham said at HR Tech and is well worth a read.
  • Geena Davis, Academy-Award winning actress and this year’s HR Tech kickoff speaker talking on Gender Equality: How the Modern Media Reflects and Influences the WorkplaceI wondered if this session would be “woke” or political, but it was actually just a very personal and heartfelt talk by a successful actress on how her struggles to achieve success — and how the media makes success so much harder for women to achieve. Geena Davis has a great message to tell that is a common-sense lesson for everyone.
  • Stacey Harris, Chief Research Officer for the Sapient Insights Group on Key Findings from the Industry’s Most Comprehensive Study: The 26th Annual HR Systems SurveyThis is ALWAYS a great HR tech keynote that is almost ALWAYS left for a bad slot on the last day of the conference, when most people won’t get to hear it. She highlighted “the top HR technology investments for 2024 and understand how those investments are being turned into business outcomes.”

A final thought

The HR Technology Conference has come a long way since I used to attend it at Navy Pier in Chicago.

Whether it was an HR Tech luncheon with guys jugging chain saws in Vegas back in 2011, or writing about former conference chair Bill Kutik’s final HR Tech in 2013, there were always a lot of good reasons to attend “the world’s largest and most important HR Tech show” as current conference chair Steve Boese pointed out again last week at the 2023 edition.

And, with HR Tech now going worldwide with events in Asia and a new one in Europe that is debuting next year in Amsterdam, the big question is whether the HR Technology conference experience will work as well in those places as it did in Chicago and Las Vegas.

It might, if they get Josh Bersin to give one of his patented keynotes there.


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