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Jun 23, 2014
This article is part of a series called ERE Media Conferences.

New York Times columnist and best-selling author Tom Friedman was the big draw on Day 2 of the Society for Human Resource Management’s 66th annual Conference & Exhibition on Monday, but I actually thought that SHRM Board Chair Bette Francis had a message that was a lot more relevant to the thousands of HR people here in Orlando.

That’s not meant to take anything away from Friedman’s talk, which was timely, relevant, and a little but scary (more on him in a bit).

Yes, Friedman was good, but the message Bette Francis delivered before Friedman’s keynote was a lot more pointed — that increasing HR’s workplace influence is a challenge that all human resource professionals must be willing to face.

HR needs to earn their organizational influence

This is not a new issue. After all, the overdone seat-at-the-table argument that so many got so terribly tired of was basically about HR’s influence within the C-Suite.

Bette Francis, SHRM Chairperson
Bette Francis, SHRM Chairperson

However, what Bette Francis had to say on Monday was something completely different. It was about HR working to earn influence within their organizations, and not just demanding that it be given to them.

One of the biggest barriers HR faces? According to Francis, “It’s ourselves. If we want HR to be the best we can, we must change our thinking.”  She added, “We need to get out of the HR-centric work ethic, (and) we must have a voice in the future of our business, (because) if we don’t speak for the human capital in our business, who will?”

Francis quoted the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who made the observation that, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” It’s an apt quote, because as she also noted, “most of us (in HR) need to push outside of our comfort zone and deepen our understanding of our business.”

I think a lot of what Francis had to say may have gotten lost on the thousands of HR professionals who were gathered early on a Monday morning in Orlando waiting to hear Tom Friedman. They may not have been expecting an admonition like this to come from her, and to be honest, I’m in that group too because I wasn’t expecting a speech like that from her either.

It was a smart, targeted message that many in HR really need to hear. I hope a good number of those in Orlando took her words to heart.

The workplace impact of the technology revolution

As for Tom Friedman, he jumped head-long into a theme from a lot of his books and writing — that the world is not just connected today in the early 21st century, but it is hyper-connected due to the merging of globalization and the IT revolution. And, this is impacting every job, every business, every school, every institution.SHRM2014

In fact, he described the current technology revolution as “the biggest shift in how information is turned into knowledge and business  since Gutenberg” invented moveable type and started the printing revolution.

But, Friedman mostly talked about the changing nature of work and the decline and ultimate end to the notion of “high wage, middle skill jobs” that sustained so many Americans for the better part of 50 years. He pointed to the city of Baltimore, where 50 years ago, the top employer was Bethlehem Steel, a place where a great many could make a good living without an education or special skills.

Today, Friedman noted, the top employer in Baltimore is Johns Hopkins Medical Center, “where even the guy mowing the lawn has a college degree” — and things like that are creating great anxiety in our labor force.

In other words, “average is officially over” and there are no good jobs anymore that are easy to get and hold on to. Everyone must bring a “unique value contribution” to the table, and, they must be creative, adaptable, and self-motivated if they want to work and survive in the future.

Wisdom when you least expect it

This is scary stuff, but what Tom Friedman had to say was not all that different from what Bette Francis talked about before him. Yes, we all need to be focused on continuing to re-create ourselves, whether that means building influence throughout the organization or staying flexible and bringing more valuable to the job every day.

These were great insights for Day 2 of SHRM 2014 in Orlando, and like so many words of wisdom, they came when some may have least expected them — like early on a Monday morning in a cavernous hall of a Florida convention center.

Sometimes, wisdom just gets dropped into your lap — when you least expect it, and whether you want it or not.

This article is part of a series called ERE Media Conferences.