Weekly Wrap: At HR Tech Chicago, a Surprise and a Great Debate

Editor’s Note: Weekly Wrap is on the road at the HR Technology conference in Chicago, so we’re wrapping up that event here this week.

By John Hollon

There’s one hard truth I took away from the 13th annual HR Technology Conference & Exhibition held this week at Chicago’s McCormick Place: it actually lives up to the hype and promotion you get bombarded with from Bill Kutik about it.

The HR Tech co-chair isn’t shy about letting you why this is not only the best and largest technology show anywhere, and his relentless pitch — it’s more like Obi-Wan Kenobi doing his Jedi mind trick thing with your head — never wavers. In other words, Kutik (pictured here as Obi-Wan himself) is always ready to tell anyone and everyone how great his damn tech conference is.

But as the noted philosopher Dizzy Dean once observed, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.” And when it comes to the HR Tech conference, Bill Kutik certainly does back it up.

I have not attended HR Technology in a few years (since it was still held at Chicago’s Navy Pier), so I was surprised this time around – surprised by the size, surprised by the larger scope, and most of all, surprised by the engagement of the attendees. They were here to learn and eager to dig deeper into HR technology in all its many permutations.

That’s not to say the show suddenly became good (it has always been that), but rather, that it has evolved quite a bit. I wouldn’t have said this three years ago, but from my perspective, HR Tech has become one of the top three HR-related “must attend” conferences that I would recommend to anyone who wanted to quickly get plugged into the human resources arena. There’s no Jedi mind trick of Kutik’s causing that.

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So with that said, here are some observations after three days of meetings, speakers, breakout sessions, after-hours parties, and all manner of discussions here at HR Technology in Chicago:

  • The Great Technology Debate was sort of great. There is always a well-received panel discussion of technology experts here at HR Tech, but the format was changed this year and turned into a “Great Technology Debate” instead. It was supposed to be Jim Holincheck of Gartner versus Naomi Bloom of Bloom & Wallace, with Bill Kutik serving as moderator/referee. But sadly, Bloom had a death in her extended family and unfortunately could not attend the conference, so Jason Averbook, CEO of Knowledge Infusion, pinch hit for Naomi. I won’t recap the debate on workforce planning (John Zappe did that earlier) but I will say this: it was a nice break from the usual talking-heads panel discussion.

The head-to-head debate format seemed to work pretty well, and the discussion didn’t get too technical or wonky for the audience. And although Kutik refused to declare a winner or poll the audience for their view on who won, I will. It was Jason Averbook. His argument was more forceful, more persuasive, more specific, I thought, and although Jim Holincheck clearly defended his position well, I felt Averbook got the better of him in the “Great Debate” this time around. Maybe next year Averbook can come back to defend his Great Technology Debate title against Naomi Bloom.

  • A keynote title that doesn’t do justice. I really wasn’t expecting much from the opening day keynote speech from author Tamara Erickson, mainly because of the mind-numbing title – “Building Organizations that Leverage Collaborative Technologies: Transforming a Century of HR Assumptions and Practices.” That hardly does it justice, however, because it was actually a thoughtful and engaging talk that really centered around something that is important to everyone, and that is, “why is the adoption of new ways so difficult?”
  • HR Tech by the numbers. One of the things that jumped out at me was how big this conference has gotten. What I wasn’t prepared for was how big: the PR people for the show say they had around 2,500 attendees and just over 200 exhibitors. I’m not sure how that 2,500 breaks down between actual paid attendees, exhibitor attendees, speakers and media, or other such groups, but regardless of that, there still were a lot of people here. I’ve attended a lot of HR-related conferences and this seemed to be one of the bigger ones I’ve seen – second only the SHRM’s annual event in June.
  • Next year in … Las Vegas? If there is one thing everyone knows about the HR Tech show, it’s that it is ALWAYS held in Chicago around the beginning of October. People have come to count on that, but next year, everyone will have to adjust to the fact that HR Tech is making a move to Las Vegas. It seems to be just a one-year diversion, but clearly, it will be a different event at the Mandalay Bay in Sin City than it is here in Chicago. You be the judge if whether the distractions of Vegas will get in the way of what has been a pretty winning technology and HR event.