#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)