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Reflections on Unleash: Digital Transformation, The New Romanticism – at Work and Beyond and A Pair of Distracting Shorts

I do love a good conference. They make me feel like a student again. You spend a few days surrounded by all kinds of people (in all kinds of outfits), dashing from one room to another, trying not to lose your wallet, your laptop and even your jacket, and invariably it all ends with chatting to strangers over a beer.

But on a more serious note, the beauty of a good conference is that it can make you think differently, teach you something new about a subject you thought you knew pretty well, and (in my case at least) reinspire you in the day job.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend several conferences since I have joined SAGlobal, and I find that they’re particularly useful in keeping me connected with my HR roots, especially when I can feel myself being stealthily converted to the dark side of IT. You can read as many blog posts as you like, but nothing beats the immersive experience of a conference, and being surrounded by the conversations of people with similar interests and very different perspectives.

This week was Unleash at London’s ExCeL arena - a venue so cavernous it’s served by two stations on the doorstep (note to self, next time use the station which is nearest your actual event - this place is HUGE). Now in its 5th year, Unleash is one of a new breed of HR conferences - focusing almost exclusively on HR and workplace tech which is becoming so ubiquitous in organisations globally. I’d never been to Unleash before, and was drawn to it this year mainly because at least two of the headline sponsors (SAP, Oracle and Cornerstone) are usually notable by their absence from these events, and it’s always good to keep an eye on what the giants are up to.

With a couple of negligible exceptions, the keynotes and breakout sessions were impeccably organised, engaging, and informative, and have left me pondering the key takeaways that will stay with me in the coming months.

  • That phrase ‘HR in the flow of work’ (as coined by Josh Bersin) is still very much relevant and in vogue. From the smallest startup to the big players, everyone seems to be looking to put their products where people actually do their jobs, rather than pulling a self service user into a HR platform. This is leading to increasing fragmentation - and with most companies having at least 6 or 7 SaaS products in place, each with at least quarterly update cycles. Successfully driving and maintaining user adoption is now as much about managing the ongoing change as it is about the original deployment process.

  • Data, data, data. We’ve all got the stuff coming out of our ears (and nobody mentioned GDPR once, which made a pleasant change) and most folks are trying to work out what to do with it all - judging by how many times I ended up standing at the back or sitting on the floor in sessions with the word ‘analytics’ in the title. Those who have been successful in having genuine business impact through analytics have one thing in coming - they have all gone back to the basics of the business strategy, and what they need to know about their people. The questions come first, the fancy dashboards come later.

  • Everyone is obsessed by AI, and very few people can really articulate what it is. Find six people prepared to do so confidently and you will hear six very different explanations. Everyone knows it’s coming, and everyone wants to make use of the potential competitive advantages it can bring - but we may never have the inclination to learn what’s involved. Vendors need to make this accessible, and transparent, because we’re all a little bit scared that the robots are taking over.

From a selfish perspective, I’ve come away with a reaffirmed sense of how well positioned Microsoft are to make an impact on this market. Where we once used to see these sorts of events dominated by niche products aimed specifically at the HR market, we’re now seeing the beginnings of something different. Productivity packages that can incorporate elements of HR are starting to make an appearance (Slack CTO Cal Henderson’s day one keynote was most enjoyable - although I did find his shorts a little distracting on a chilly Tuesday in March).

Microsoft are, of course, already embedded in many businesses. The ‘flow of work’ for millions of people begins with Teams, Outlook, Word or Excel - and in an increasing number of organisations - one or more parts of the Dynamics suite. It’s now up to us as implementation partners and software vendors to take the promise of these products (now amplified almost exponentially by the Power Platform) and use them to realise our customers’ ambitions for real digital transformation in HR - providing experiences for employees that are so frictionless, so tailored, and so personal, that you almost don’t notice there’s IT involved at all.

My favourite speaker is a toss up between Tim Leberecht and Baroness Susan Greenfield, but on balance I’d have to say Leberecht pips it. His talk on the New Romantics of work inspired me so much I’d ordered his book before the applause had died down.

The leaving speeches, the birthday cakes, the secret-squirrel cards hidden in foolscap folders with a list stapled to the front and passed around (‘can you take a look at this for me when you get a minute Nigel’) - all of it. Mark from Achievers showed me a feature in their product which could be used to create a digital card (for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, divorces - whatever you like) and then digitally circulated for the team to add their own messages, before being sent to the recipient on the given day. I liked it so much I intend to spend my weekend trying to work out how to create something similar using PowerApps and Microsoft Flow.

Best conference swag - who doesn’t need a pair of bright green Survey Monkey socks?! Seriously though, these vendors have upped their game this year. Note to some who shall remain nameless - a plastic pot of jelly beans does not cut it any more. It’s like the competitive inflation we saw in children’s party bags in the eighties, but with more logos, and I for one can’t get enough of it.

About the Author

Tom Elliott

Tom Elliott

Tom Elliott is a Functional Consultant for SAGlobal, where he helps Human Resources teams design and deploy solutions on the Dynamics platforms. He has over 12 years of HR experience, with a background spanning recruitment, personnel administration, organisational development, management information and employee relations in a variety of sectors and settings.

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