HR Technology 2013: Back in Vegas – Again! – For Bill Kutik’s Swan Song

I’ve got a lot of things percolating in my brain in the wake of this week’s 16th annual HR Technology Conference & Exhibitionin Las Vegas. Here are some of what seems to have made its way to the top:

Slightly less energy this time around

I had great expectations for the annual HR Technology Conference & Exhibition being back in Las Vegas again after last year’s final (I hope) appearance in Chicago, mainly because the 2011 conference that was also held at the Mandalay Bay had so much energy to it.

This year’s show was good, but not quite up to the same energy level it had the last time in the Nevada desert.

It wasn’t just me who felt this; just about every other exhibitor, vendor, and attendee I spoke with who was here at the Mandalay Bay two Octobers ago mentioned it too. HRT-Badge-2013

Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a criticism of this year’s HR Tech, but rather, a simple acknowledgement that not all things in life go up indefinitely.

But even if the energy level of HR Tech 2013 was reduced a little, it still has more going for it than 99.9 percent of the other HR and talent management conferences out there, and that testifies to Kutik’s talent in orchestrating things over the last 16 years.

As I noted back in 2011, when the conference was first in Las Vegas:

As conferences go, HR Tech has moved to another level. The amount of frenzied activity that takes place both in and around the event have made it very similar to the SHRM national conference in June. That is, it’s an event that you have to carefully prepare yourself for because it is on a scale that is all consuming once you’re there. …

It’s not that this conference has suddenly become something good, because it has always been that. What has changed, however, is that HR Technology has evolved from good into one of the very top HR-related “must attend” events that I would recommend to anyone who wants to quickly get plugged into the human resources/talent management arena.

Or to put it another way, there are two big conferences you need to go to each year if you REALLY want to understand what is happening in HR — the SHRM national conference in early summer, and the HR Tech conference in early fall. There are other worthwhile events, of course, but these are the two that you plan everything else around because you can’t afford not to be at them.

In other words, the HR Technology conference actually exceeds Bill Kutik’s over-the-top and unrelenting braggadocio about it, and that is a tough standard to meet, indeed.”

Two years later, I think that still describes the state of where the HR Technology conference is here in 2013, but here are a few more details from this week in Las Vegas:

New blood, new voices, new wrinkles

One of the (minor) complaints about HR Tech is that it has had pretty much the same cast of characters putting on sessions and making presentations from year to year. Well, this year seemed to be the year to do something about that.

Most notable was Monday’s First Annual NextGen Influencers Panel: Getting Out From Behind the Baby Boomers panel that was moderated by Kutik and featured Madeline Laurano of the Aberdeen Group, Jarret Pazahanick of EIC Experts, Trish McFarlane of Perficient anf HRRingleader.com, and Maksim Ovsyannikow of SmartRecruiters. This was a great idea because, as Kutik noted, these were all 40 under 40 HR technology experts, and that demographic hasn’t regularly been featured over the years at HR Tech.

But like so many great ideas, the execution needed more work because it didn’t seem like the panel discussion really captured the energy that was clearly evident in this group of somewhat younger technology thinkers. I’m sure there were lots of reason for that, but still, you have to applaud Kutik and his HR Tech staff for listening to the feedback and finally bringing some younger and different voices in. Here’s hoping that trend continues.

When a panel discussion gets interesting

Tuesday’s morning general session of the HR Tonight Show starring Bill Kutik (with Naomi Bloom) also suffered from the good idea/so-so execution problem. Kutik’s attempts to tell Johnny Carson-like jokes fell flat, and the panelists — which included Patricia Milligan of Mercer, Brian Sommer of TechVentive, and Leighanne Levensaler of Workday — were informative but not terribly exciting.

The session really didn’t get interesting until John Sumser of HRx Analysts joined the panel and proceeded to attack the notion that a great talent shortage exists in the U.S. when workplace participation is at an all-time low and unemployment is running around 8 percent. He also challenged the notion of workplace training, making the point (rightfully, I thought) that American business has largely abdicated responsibility for training and now demands ready-to-go workers when and if they do make a full-time hire.

Well, Sumer’s verbal bomb throwing jump started the panel and made for a lively debate. In fact, just watching the contorted body language of Mercer’s Pat Milligan, who clearly didn’t like much of anything that Sumser was saying or selling, made for a pretty entertaining session. I’d love to see this format again next year with perhaps a little better mix of panelists, but overall, it was a nice change from the typical HR Tech general sessions.

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Swan song for Kutik

The 2013 conference has been heavily hyped as Bill Kutik’s swan song, and like so many swan songs, it seemed a bit anti-climatic. Kutik was under the weather from the get go — I bumped into him picking up my badge on Sunday, and he was clearly fighting some kind of bug — and it seemed to leave him a little crankier than usual.

This was most evident during the Tuesday night Thanks for the Memories party that Kenexa threw for him, because Bill seemed to rapidly get exasperated when he got up to  say a few words of thanks to everyone and couldn’t get the entire room to shut up and listen.

So it goes when you ply people with food and free adult beverages for an hour beforehand, but Bill quickly gave up trying to talk over the crowd and cut his remarks short — a somewhat sad way to leave things with everyone, I thought. 

That frequently happens when things get hyped up to a fevered pitch, as HR Tech 2013 was, especially concerning it being Kutik’s last time leading it, but nothing that took place this year in Vegas can take away with how successful Bill Kutik has been making the conference into the hugely popular annual meeting that it is today.

Set to grow in Vegas

New HR Tech co-chair Steve Boese has big shoes to step into, but I believe, like many do, that HR Tech has grown into something larger than the vision of a single person.

Though many will miss Kutik — and I suspect he’ll be back at the conference again, leading a panel or taking part in some other similar role — it’s pretty clear that he’s done his job well, because things should roll on nicely without him in Steve Boese’s capable hands.

And, with HR Tech now firmly entrenched in Las Vegas — and, thankfully, out of uber-expensive Chicago — for the foreseeable future, everything is set up for it to continue thriving in the years to come.

Kutik should be proud of what he’s created. Here’s hoping he returns, in some other role, to continue helping it grow.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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