#CIPD13 – Where’s The Inspiration?

So the dust has settled on another CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition. The vendors are busily following up the new leads and the delegates are returning to their desks, open workspaces or even their dining room tables (for home working, naturally) with lots of inspirational new ideas for making their businesses better places to work.

Or are they?

I’m guessing that the true test of an event like this is how many people return next year, how many new people come in 2014 through word of mouth (or online buzz) generated by this year’s delegates, and how many can put their hands up in the future and say that their businesses or culture have been improved, or their own personal vision and goals have shifted positively, because of something they heard – or some new technology they acquired – by having been at ACE 2013.

This is the hidden bit that no-one really knows. HR professionals like my friend Robert have ventured back and been surprised and encouraged by what they have seen. We know this because he is part of a vibrant online HR community that shares it’s views and commentary through blogs and social networks. We won’t necessarily know that much about the experience of those who have yet to embrace these tools.

Which is why the growing presence of bloggers and socially connected delegates at this event is so important. Whether we are giving coverage to what’s being said, perspective on some of the opinions aired, or merely bringing the event to life for those not in attendance, the online chat is now an integral part of events such as this. And kudos to the CIPD for realising this. By increasing the number, range and backgrounds of the ‘blog squad’ they ensured a vibrant online buzz around the two days – and it was great to see so many attendees and exhibitors on the hashtag #CIPD13.

We had a rousing start from CIPD CEO Peter Cheese. “The future’s already here. It’s just happening at different speeds in different companies” he said in his opening address. He was a highly visible presence throughout the two days, getting to as many sessions as he could, and always finding the time to stop and talk. I think this helped no end in making the event more personal, social and less formal. Maybe that’s why he opened the hack session by saying “I’m always up for new ideas

So here are a few of my thoughts on the event itself…

Two Days Better

The shortening from three to two days was a real positive. The whole event felt more compact, the content not spun out, and there was no ‘drag’ when delegates were maybe a bit conferenced out and exhibitors in need of a sugar rush to regain some enthusiasm. Three days is a lot of time for people (delegates and exhibitors) to be away from wherever they work, and the ones that I spoke to certainly seemed to favour the shorter event. I hope this remains next year.

Social Outreach Good

I’ve already mentioned the blog squad as a real positive, and I really did get the impression this year that we have moved, ever so slightly, on from having to tell people how and why they should embrace social…they were doing it for themselves! Certain sessions had their own hashtag, the twitter wall was showing in the main auditorium, and we got twitter handles for most of the speakers. I believe on the first day we trended on Twitter too! Long may it continue.

The Speakers

Hmmm…have to say that although I have blogged about the opening keynote from Jones and Goffee I was fairly underwhelmed by their presentation. I spoke to some who have seen them before and felt that this was below par – in which case I have to say WHY?? Opening keynote, in front of a large audience, to showcase their own research…and they were flat. No pace, perspective or chemistry, it felt a bit like an academic lecture, with plugs to purchase previous works. Considering the topic was building better workplaces the lack of passion and inspiration seemed really poor. Daniel Pink was much more robust and charismatic for the closing keynote, playing somewhat to the gallery. He’s an in-demand speaker and paces his presentation with facts, jokes, insights and audience participation. At HRTechEurope many were asking why there were so many US speakers and not enough Europeans. Well, the two keynotes here gave us one reason.

Elsewhere, as Sukh has noted, there was a noticeable lack of diversity, as well as a bias towards larger organisations. When I blogged from the HRD show in April I commented on a lack of passion noticeable in presenters from larger organisations as well as the lapse into lazy stereotyping. At CIPD13 we had Facebook trotting out a whole bunch of generational stereotyping cliches – come on guys, the average age of a Facebook user is 41!! The Facebook generation isn’t just a bunch of college kids! We did get some smaller companies showcasing their achievements. I went to one from UKFast about how to preserve culture whilst growing rapidly. For me though, this was as much cliche as some other presentations. The quartet of inspirations for their journey were Tony Robbins, Jim Collins, Muhammad Ali and Richard Branson. Whilst the speaker did radiate endless energy and enthusiasm for the business, there was little about preserving a culture and more about how to quickly grow a company from 2 to 200 whilst keeping staff happy. There were some interesting developments but I wasn’t sure what the culture was before or after, and felt the whole thing was a bit of a sales pitch – I’ll accept it’s just my view, others may have seen it differently.

Some Takeaways

As always when I’m live tweeting, certain phrases stand out and almost need no further explanation. Five of my favourites this time were…

  • What your company spends money and time on shows employees what’s important. It’s that simple.” Neil Morrison (Penguin Random House)
  • Start creating talent and stop fighting for it” Rob Zajko (Hilton)
  • Moving the customer to the centre changes everything. Job descriptions, incentives and behaviours” Monique Jordan (Pearson)
  • We’ve gone from buyer beware to seller beware. We’ve gone from information asymmetry to information parity” Dan Pink
  • The war for talent ended at Barclays 18 months ago. We had focused on graduates but had missed out on talent aged 16-21” Mike Thompson (Barclays)

The Talent Question

Two of those quotes came from a very interesting session on apprenticeships involving Hilton Worldwide and Barclays. I’ve covered future talent before from other CIPD events, but what I liked about this one was two large organisations coming clean about the focus on graduates to the detriment of those who either choose not to do a degree, or leave school at 16. There were some heartwarming examples given of young people who had been overlooked but thrived once given the chance. There were two particular themes that intrigued me.

One was whether companies were competing when they should be collaborating over the 16-21 age group. Someone who might be wrong for one company could be suited to another. If business is going to unite to help offer real hope and experience to some of the 1 million young unemployed then there needs to be more collaboration, particularly in identifying those who who ‘fall through the gaps‘.

The other was the realisation that ‘not right‘ really means ‘not right for now‘ and that each person not deemed suitable could become so in the future. To hear two large, global businesses talk in terms of each rejected candidate in this age group being a potential future customer, employee or supplier marked a change for me.

So, Where’s the Inspiration?

The overarching theme of the two days was about inspiring the future…so how many people left the conference feeling inspired? I’m not sure. Having been to a few HR related conferences recently there seems to be a certain format that binds them all. They are topped and tailed with keynotes from authors who have a book, new research or product to promote, and who have a (possibly vague) connection with HR. In the middle are a mixture of case studies and shared experiences from a range of medium to large sized businesses, often presented by someone who doesn’t always look like they want to be there – but it was their job.

Inspiration or perspiration? Practicalities or bigger themes? Do any of these really inspire HR for the future? Doug has raised the point of getting more CEOs along, and this would certainly help. But I think the real solution is to look outside the profession. Why can only HR people inspire other HR people? If we really want to embrace the future and take new ideas and thinking back to our businesses then maybe we need to look elsewhere for some insight.

The day after CIPD13 I went to a small, thought provoking conference in Brighton called Meaning2013. This was purely content – no exhibition or vendors – and drew from a wide range of fields. The common theme was that they were all ‘thinkers and doers from business, academia and activism, each bringing their view of the challenges and opportunities open to us‘. To hear (amongst others) Lee Bryant challenge on who was building the institutions of the future, Anne Marie Huby talk through how JustGiving was launched and the principles that drive it, Falkvinge showcase how to mobilise and influence people, James Watt share some fairly unbelievable stories of the risks that BrewDog took to get established, were all…well, inspirational. There was a real passion and energy about it, and a belief that things can be different.

So maybe the future for a conference like CIPD is to take chances and look outside the profession for inspirational speakers who may get people thinking in a different way. Whether this is through a fringe event, or part of the mainstream, inspiration for the profession doesn’t have to always come from within it. After all, as FlipChart Rick notes, Peter Cheese did say earlier in the year that HR need to become synthesisers and provocateurs.

I did enjoy the two days in Manchester. There’s certainly been some forward momentum in developing the event. Now, perhaps, it requires more of a leap of faith?

Which, if the profession are really to become synthesisers and provocateurs, may be no bad thing…


Everyone’s at CIPD13 – everyone’s a star 🙂

(Image courtesy of People Management)

8 thoughts on “#CIPD13 – Where’s The Inspiration?

  1. Hmm. Let’s see. My biggest interest in the CIPD is the emphasis on ‘better work and working lives’ which is part of our new purpose as HR professionals. I’ve already blogged on this, and tweeted it to Peter Cheese – who agreed it raises some interesting points in our cost driven corporate cultures. HR has stood by whilst, or actively participated in implementing, many anti-workforce initiatives are introduced including zero hours contracts, minimum not living wage, free internships etc.

    Barclays whinging on about losing the war for talent, when anyone with half a brain in L&D (or in a bus queue in Wapping) would know that talent is NOT about academic attainment, is really not that impressive.

    The conference is a side-show. What’s important is the purpose of HR and if the CIPD really does believe that we are about ‘championing better work and working lives’ then that is worth signing up for. Happy to help them make THAT a reality. So, next year – let’s see what changes have been taking place in the working environment – for the better – and how many HRDs have resigned on a point of principle as they cannot endorse something that worsens working lives.

    And the following years, let’s track those companies that do improve working lives and see their performance (and therefore return to shareholders) improve as well. Which it will do.

  2. Great post Mervyn – a very thoughtful review that provides lessons to any conference event, regardless of industry.

    I agree with your points around typical event structure – most conferences do this, sticking to the convention, to the safe option. Some of the best events I’ve attended have broken away from this and – as you say – brought in less mainstream presenters who have SOMETHING TO SAY, rather go though the motions of talking about the same old subjects with a frequent smattering of references to services their company provides.

    I go to conferences to learn stuff. I want a balance of things to think about and action points to take away – things I can’t wait to get back to the office to try out. Sadly, you don’t get this at all conferences. Funnily enough, it seems to be the bigger ones too. Perhaps the risk is too great. Which is a bit sad really.

    Maybe a sanctioned CIPD fringe event is the answer. Would be interesting to see where the visitors go.

    1. Often it’s down to the raison d’être for the conference. To make money? Help personal development? A service to members? Or try and change things. I agree with you Gary, we want to learn stuff that either gets us thinking or makes us want to try out.

      It’s a crowded place on the conference circuit – be interesting to see which ones go from strength to strength and which ones disappear.

  3. Hi Merv – I think maybe I’ve not made myself clear. I am not advocating more CEOs per se – here’s an extract from the post you kindly referred to:

    ‘I suggested that rather than obsess about CEOs it might be interesting to hear from someone who in an hierarchical sense is closer to the edge. Having had a few drinks, I offered up the role of bog cleaner as an alternative (role, bog cleaner….oh never mind). My suggestion did not meet with approval. ‘Why?’ ‘Why would you want to do that?’ ‘Why would that work?’ What I had to offer in return was something along the lines of, ‘Well everyone’s got their story to tell’. I mumbled on a bit about people close to and at the front line experiencing a different reality and having an equally valid tale to tell. I did not make the point very convincingly and I think it’s fair to say that at the table, I lost the argument.

    Putting the red wine to one side – as evidenced by Andrew Wolstenholme, there is real power in having a CEO take to the stage, and rather than have her or him accompanied by more of the same rank, instead why not add layers and depth to the tale through a mixture of disciplines and voices.’

    The CEO has her or his place – and everyone has a story.

    Cheers – Doug

    1. Thanks for the context Doug and apologies if I’ve slightly misrepresented it in the blog. I think there is a lot to be said for hearing the story from different employees at any level.

  4. Conferences that choose to play it safe and steer middle of the road will be like newspapers, news today, fish & chips wraps tomorrow, in short soon forgotten. If people take the time and effort to go and attend something the last thing they want is something that they could read about in an article, seen on a webinar or heard in a podcast. People go to conferences because they want to learn, to be inspired and to come away with excitement and vigour and with a kick up the backside. Conference organisers that do not recognise or adhere to this will soon see that the interest will dwindle. Extraordinary stories, different angles, perspectives and seeing not how every Tom Dick and Harry does it, but the little and different entrepreneur, the departments, the HRD’s the CEO’s the anyone that think outside the box will be those that will ensure people rave about something, recommend to others and ensure sustainability.
    One such example sadly never followed up or matched in any shape or form was the 2012 Linkedin Connect keynote in Las Vegas and in London about Recruitment 3.0 by Matthew Jeffery. It had every single element required, insight, inspiration, excitement, pace and not least the famous disruption. If ever there was an event that was long talked about and standing out this was it. Danger in things like these is that it sets the precedent for next time, why in the above case a near impossible task for the 2013 follow up, that was hardly anything to rave about.
    To dare is to win and it appear someone need to remind the CPID conference people about this, as damp squid events will do very little to win any interest or repeat participants.

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