Even though Electronic Insight and eiTalent are just getting started (companies can sign up for our demo), we've been able to attend a majority of the conferences in the HR/recruitment arena in 2013. I've been able to catch up with old friends (I'm looking at you Gareth and Mervyn), meet lots of new ones, learn more about an ever changing industry and have many, many great conversations with super smart people. By the way, in my eyes conversations can also consist of merely listening in to others talking, like I did when I sat in a room with less than ten people including Gerry Crispin, Bill Boorman and China Gorman. There's immense value in just listening and absorbing.
I have personally attended the ERE Recruitment Innovation Summit (RIP apparently), the SHRM Annual Conference, the ERE Fall Conference and last week's HREvolution and HRTech Conference. As a company, we've also attended the SHRM Talent Management Conference, Sourcecon and The Economist Human Potential Forum. We didn't sponsor or exhibit at any of the conferences this year. Our goal, as a startup in the white hot space of HRTech, was to meet people, get our name out there, and figure out what conference(s) to exhibit or sponsor next year.
I definitely have ideas on which conferences are best for an early stage (but well funded) startup in this space, but this post is about the value of conferences themselves. My take away from my yearlong conference roadshow is it come down to this for non-exhibiting attendees: Content, Context and Conversations.
Conference organizers do a great job attracting high-level keynote speakers. Whatever your political views, Hillary Clinton at SHRM was awesome. I also really enjoyed Don Tapscott and his talk on Radical Openness at HRTech. Organizers also do their best to lineup quality sessions, but these are very often hit or miss and rely on the quality of the presenter and freshness of content. I've walked out of more of these than I care to admit. Unfortunately, the presentations often evolve into a thinly veiled sales pitch given that they are commonly led by a vendor. I've struggled with this from the lonely side of the podium myself. It's a fine line to walk between talking about a subject you're passionate about and not talking specifically about what you are working on in relation to that subject.
My favorite session this year was actually 1/3 of a session by Ray Wang. He wore me out pacing the stage and challenging my thinking for 17 minutes. His talk was mainly about how P2P (Point to Point) has replaced B2B and B2C. P2P communication, which is one of the foundations of our company values, really resonated with me. Looking back over my Tweet stream from that session is like an intense storm of knowledge (from Ray, not me). My other favorite nugget: "Context is king. With Context comes relevancy". Spot on Mr. Wang. Looking beyond business to create direct connections based on where the person or company is coming from will pay huge dividends.
As far as I'm concerned, the real value of attending conferences comes from conversations. Both with old friends and complete strangers. In the same session as I mentioned above, Bill Kutik (retiring HRTEch Co-Chair) had a mini rant about how people are letting technology lessen their conference experience. He started his intro to the speakers by saying (paraphrasing) that he's amazed how people hide behind their device and that they should put down their gosh darn (cleaned that up a bit) gadget and walk across the room to talk to someone. He continued by saying that your next conversation could change your life.
Think about that for a minute. Count on your fingers how many times in your life you've had a conversation by chance that led to a great new friendship, changed your thinking, led to a big business deal or a new job, etc. I bet you can't do it with only two hands. Sure, social media has been a game changer in the shear amount of conversations we can have, but nothing replaces face-to-face, look them in the eye conversations. P2P
Great example: I was rushing to a session and spotted Sean Sheppard, someone I know a little from social media. I don't believe we've ever had an actual conversation off-line. I stopped a second to catch up with him and his newly acquired Nordstrom wardrobe (Ha Sean!) and he immediately introduced me to a recruitment manager at a very large company. His introduction made my connection with this person immediate and meaningful. Like he was my sponsor. All because I took the time to stop to formally introduce myself to someone I admire and it could lead to very big things.
I (and my company) found great value and gained lots of new potential clients by attending every conference we went to this year. (No, I don't think conferences are all about gaining new clients). My favorite conferences, from a conversations point of view, have been ERE events. They tend to be smaller in size, but Ron Mester and his team do a fantastic job in almost forcing conversations. I believe this is due to the physical setup and the format itself. I never felt disconnected from the conversation, which were often led by interactive activities.
The continued rise of the UnConferences illustrates my point. I'll never stop going to more structured, larger conferences, but this growing trend is changing things. The rise of TalentNet Live (a bit more structure) and the #DiceTru events are all about conversations. The topic only and let the conversation flow format leads to thoughts and ideas sharing among those participating that you don't get at larger conferences. I have attended both in the past and will be leading tracks for #DiceTru in three cities in the next week or so in Austin, Houston and Dallas.
P2P idea sharing vs. one to many, one way information sharing. Which is more valuable to you?