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#In321 with Bill Kutik, HR Tech Expert

1. Bill, you're the undisputed Father of the HR Technology Conference, which flourished beyond anyone’s wildest dreams under your care. What were your secrets to making that an industry shaping event?

HR Tech opened in Philadelphia in 1998 with 600 people inside, counting everyone: paid and unpaid attendees, speakers, analysts, press (no bloggers then) and vendor personnel on the show floor, which had 92 exhibitors. Sixteen years later in Las Vegas in 2013, we had more than 7,000 people inside (again counting everyone, but no janitors) who cared about HR technology and 303 exhibitors paying dearly to express and display their devotion on the show floor. What happened in between?

First was the unwavering recognition from Day One of the gigantic gap in the people being served by a conference or trade show about HR technology. At one end was IHRIM, then as now, a professional association superbly serving the needs mostly of HR IT systems analysts and managers in the trenches running and maintaining systems. At the other end (then) was the Andersen Consulting Software Spectacular in HR and Financials (open only to clients) and the always very high-priced Conference Board events.

How many trucks could you drive through those two ends filled with thousands of HR directors, vice presidents and CHROs? They were and remain the target attendees, especially senior HR executives with ultimate responsibility for technology-buying decisions but often without the personal knowledge necessary to make them. More recently, also HR generalists who are touched every day by technology and need to learn a lot more about it.

And knowledge, learning and education were always what it was about. We never sold speaking slots to vendors – a practice nearly gone from commercial shows – so attendees heard product pitches only at the trade show, never in conference sessions. The rarer that became, the more they loved it at HR Tech.

Second was the understanding that a conference and trade show are part of Show Business. Maybe down on its lowest rung with street mimes and subway buskers, but part of Show Business nonetheless. If you don’t entertain attendees just a little, they will learn even less. So I always applied what I shamelessly called my "shallow Hollywood values," even to the most serious topics.

Third was understanding that we are an increasingly world-wide community that needed an annual Town Meeting because of the distances separating us. Having edited a weekly newspaper in a New England town still small enough to have a Town Meeting, I know what one looked and felt like. It required attracting the right movers and shakers, and I know my old friend Dave Duffield helped a lot by saying publicly six years ago, before it was really true, but now repeated every year: "Everybody goes because everyone is there." Now everyone is there. 

Lastly, like any work well done, it required sweating all the details, no matter how small. When I stepped down after last year’s event and turned the programming reins over to Steve Boese, I was delighted to feel I had built something that would last well beyond me and frankly was surprised when people said it had helped shape the industry. I guess so.

2. The HR Technology category is laden with alphabet soup: HCM, HRO, RPO, HRMS. What’s here to stay and what’s going away?

What I know is going away as a separate category is the Talent Management Suite (TMS). Corporate HR departments want a unified, organic system including Core HR (or HRMS, which will never go away) and TMS. That won't happen right away and TMS vendors will continue to flourish. But eventually.

Most people in HR have always hated the term HCM or Human Capital Management, thinking it depersonalizes the employees under their care. But every vendor uses it to mean the unity I describe above of Core and TM and WFM (Workforce Management, formerly called Time & Attendance or Time & Labor, but now with much greater functionality), so I think it will stay.

HRO (comprehensive HR Outsourcing) has failed for larger companies because HR is not standardized and therefore the economies of scale providers hoped to achieve never happened. Unless they moved clients to a standard system, like NorthgateArinso’ EuHReka with 150 customers. It will disappear.

Instead individual outsourced process continue to thrive like RPO (Recruitment Process Outsourcing), Payroll and Benefits Administration. Small companies will continue to be attracted by the comprehensive HRO offered by Professional Employment Organizations (PEO). Until they get big enough to want to do it their own way.

3.  If you hadn't spent your career in this category, what would you have done instead?

That’s easy, I would have done what I did before dropping into this industry 26 years ago: journalism. I still do it as the monthly HR technology columnist for Human Resource Executive and the host of The Bill Kutik Radio Show® bi-weekly. But I would have loved to continue doing it full time, after doing work (generally briefly) for The Boston Globe, The New York Post, The New York Daily News and The New York Times.

There is nothing more fun than journalism: poking your nose into places where it doesn't belong, asking questions of important and powerful people who feel obliged to answer because of your institutional identity, and feeling (at least in the old days) that you were working for truth, justice and the American way.

The reason the Constitution gives special protection to the press is because it was conceived as the “fourth branch of government” to keep tabs on the other three. The press was meant to be the collective voice of all the people too powerless to confront the powerful directly. Which is why, again in the old days, reporters would sometimes be so arrogant because they felt they were asking questions, not for their articles or even their newspapers, but on behalf of everybody.

Heady stuff back then. Rarely true now as editorial and advertorial become indistinguishable. The modern term I hate the worst right now is “brand journalism.” If it’s for a brand, it ain't journalism.