HR industry leader Arne Barends shares some of the key learnings, trends, and insights that came out of UNLEASH Amsterdam World Conference and Expo 2018.
There’s a romantic side to UNLEASH Amsterdam, as though it has been an annual fair in this vibrant city as long as we can remember. Tradesmen, artisans, soothsayers, and clowns bring stories from all over the world. Locals far and wide anticipate the gathering for months. They know this will be the place to meet old friends, make new ones and absorb the latest gossip.
Reality might not be so different from this romantic picture. But step back for a moment for a global view. UNLEASH is undoubtedly the most significant show in the field of HR tech across the US, UK, and Europe. It brings together leading service providers, industry influencers and some of the world’s biggest brands, and as such, it is a formidable meeting place. You only have to look at UNLEASH’s rebrand and expansion to the US with China Gorman [https://chinagorman.com/] at the helm to get a sense of its enormity.
This year’s European event led by Marc Coleman and his team brought to life the importance of two aspects of HR that I consider an essential combination. In my own work, I call it tech and touch, and at UNLEASH we saw digitization, happiness and workplace relationships take center stage. HR industry leader and influencer David Green opened the event by stressing the need for HR to make the workplace more humane in our digital era.
On the exhibition floor, latest industry gossips were exchanged, and for me the common threads that emerged are:
Tech needs touch
The real soothsayers are those who are one step ahead of the field giving much-needed direction and insight. Sociologist Esther Perell, author and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and futurist Stefan Hyttfors all stressed the need for happiness, connection and trust between people and shed light on the human part of HR.
Big brands are prepared for the next wave
On the client side, those who presented a more holistic perspective on the tech side include Agnes Jongkind from Deutsche Telekom, who explained how to deal with transformation uncertainties, and Cecilie Heuch from Telenor, who also stressed the importance of preparing the organization for the next wave of digitization. Tracey Allison from Avery Dennison dealt with the need for and how to scale a global recruiting strategy.
Company culture is the new competitive advantage
A bit higher up the abstraction ladder were Niklas Nordling from Nokia and Tony De Graaf from Wehkamp, who focused on the importance of a winning company culture. All our beautiful HR tech tools will help, but without a strong commitment to company culture, companies will never become more customer focused and agile.
HR Tech is at its peak
Now is the time to invest in HR tech to drive organizational goals. Some fundamental techniques like smart processing of human text, pattern analysis, and data visualizations are currently at such a high level that they can now be confidentially used as an ingredient in more generic tools such as applicant handling, global engagement surveys, and talent screening.
Price/performance ratio of AI is taking over
For repetitive tasks, the price/performance ratio of human vs AI is now definitely in favor of the latter. We’ve already accepted that administrations and workflow management is better off in the hands of machines, but now AI improvements both in terms of price and performance in fields like applicant screening, competence training, and job marketing are taking over.
Venture capitalists are leaving clear footprints in the market – as well as a massive gap
They know that software companies have a much higher value than traditional consultancies because they are more scalable. In their quest for the highest yields, many scale-ups backed by venture capital focus on the tech side. As such, they contribute to the rapid development of our profession. But from a user experience point of view it’s not only the technique or the latest features that drive the end-result but the implementation and running that follows. More focus needs to be given to the human side of HR solutions.
Adaptation and adoption is lagging
While HT tech solutions are developing at high speed, for multinationals and enterprise, adaptation remains their biggest challenge. It was like seeing children drooling in a candy store but realizing they can’t have any: their company culture and matrix structures are not agile enough to fully benefit from the latest tech hitting the market.
HR industry needs to set its standards
Most tech companies now understand that they will not be the one and only panacea. They are working more seriously on integration and connectivity to the big platforms. It remains a pity that our sector lacks standards and guidelines. To my big surprise, the importance of data privacy protection and simple user interfaces were less stressed than I think these topics would deserve. HR deals with personal data at such scale that, with GDPR in play, more focus should have been dedicated to this vital subject.
Unfortunately, as with every event, the downside could be found among the tradesmen who arrived hopeful and ready showcased their most beautiful wares at their stalls. Great, amazing and revolutionary products were sold. Of course, some of the tradesmen turned out to be the clowns of the market. Stupid and simple algorithms were presented as machine learning. More advanced algorithms were passed off as artificial intelligence. These moments ripped through the romanticsim of UNLEASH.
It will be interesting to see what unfolds in terms of trends, insights and focus when UNLEASH heads to the UK and US in the first half of 2019. While UNLEASH may well remain focused on tech, more CEOs need to turn their attention in this direction too. UNLEASH will surely reach a new level when vendors have the skills and confidence to sell the business impact of HR directly to CEOs.