I recently got to attend the HRD Summit in Birmingham.
I feel like I need to qualify that statement. For a start, the “D” in “HRD” stands for “Director” – something I’m not. Moreover, I didn’t pay to go and nor did my employer. Instead, by dint of my status as a long-time blogger for HR News, I was privileged to be offered a media pass. Age UK Gloucestershire, meanwhile, paid for the train ticket and gave the days paid, while I covered the hotel.
As a consequence, therefore, I now feel deeply obligated to make sure that all the generous parties responsible for this opportunity get compensated with great content and learning. Which is fortunate, because the event was a positive explosion of great content and learning! I’ll be unpacking a lot of what was said and what I absorbed over the next few weeks and months, but I wanted to start by asking a much more basic question that’s relevant to the general theme of this blog.
For HR leads at SMEs and in third-sector organizations where money is tight and every penny of expenditure relentlessly scrutinized, and where the opportunity to wangle a press pass can’t be easily grasped, is an event like this one actually worthwhile? The associated costs are not insignificant. Quite apart from the ticket price – which will typically run into the hundreds of pounds – there’s the travel, subsistence and accommodation not to mention just being away from the office for what may be several days.
Well, unsurprisingly, the answer is “it depends”.
The fact is that events like the HRD Summit are in a bit of a cleft stick. On the one hand, they want to maximize attendance because it means more ticket sales, more energy and plentiful audiences for the various events and activities. But on the other, their exhibitors don’t want to be speaking to the Office Manager of a small manufacturing business who handles HR on the side. The exhibitors fall into two categories: those that have something to say and those who have something to sell. Some straddle both categories, but regardless, they want to talk to people who make big decisions. The “something to say” people want to convey their ideas to major opinion formers whose reach covers thousands if not tens of thousands of employees and who have influence over the direction of employment nationally or globally. The “something to sell” people want custom, and they want it big. If any conversation is going to take 30 minutes, they want to have the 30-minute conversation with the HRD with a million-pound purchasing budget, not the HR Manager who doesn’t even have a stationery budget.
From the other direction, you do need to be realistic about what sort of HR practice you are operating in your organization. If your priorities are issuing contracts, conducting exit interviews and managing employee relations casework, then <Jedi hand wave> these are not the events you’re looking for. If, however, you think you’ve got the HR basics sussed and are wondering what to do next then, regardless of whether or not you’re an HRD of a multinational or a standalone manager for a local charity, you should give serious consideration to attending. Yes, it will seem like a lot of money, but it has the potential to set your organization’s HR agenda for the next three to five years and longer.
If you’re starting to ask yourself hard questions about HR – Are our employees engaged? What sort of leaders are we trying to grow? How can we attract and retain millennials? How can technology make us a more efficient business? – then you’ll find… well, perhaps not answers exactly, but at the very least you’ll find the people who are the doorkeepers for answers. Some of those answers – especially the ones about technology – will come at a cost, and you need to be honest with both yourself and potential vendors about your limitations in that respect. But for a lot of the others the only real cost is the willingness to start having a conversation, with other delegates, then with yourself and then with your colleagues and leaders.
If you’re thinking about going to a major HR Conference, then your first step should be to look carefully at the agenda. Does it interest you? Does enough of it seem relevant to your business? Do you have specific issues or questions to which you think you could find answers? If so, then it’s almost certainly worth going.
If the price is off-putting for your business, but you know the business has specific HR issues the conference could answer, then it could be the cheapest top-quality HR consultant you ever employed. If necessary, ask about part-funding it yourself. And contact the event organizers. They often provide discounts for not-for-profit organizations or there may be a last-minute discount if the event isn’t full. I should add that many also offer discounts for early booking. If price is a big issue for you, though, I’d not encourage that as a strategy. Until the exhibitor list and agenda is finalized it’s hard to be sure that an event is going to offer what you need.
I’ll write more about specific ideas and experiences at the HRD Summit in the future, but I think the most important impression I was left with, looking back, was the energy, not just of the exhibitors but of all the delegates. HR people – especially in SMEs – often find ourselves working in isolation because our work is confidential or just not directly of interest to others. So if you’re not sure if what you do is important, or you wonder if it can ever make a difference, going to hang out with some of HR’s most important thinkers for a couple of event-packed days is a great way to take a shot of positivity about our world, it’s impact and its continuing, intense relevance not just to work but to the very essence of life.