HRTechEurope – A Review

My review of the morning session at HRTechEurope London spring warm up.

This week I was in London as a guest blogger at HRTechEurope’s spring warm up event. I wasn’t able to stay long so sadly I missed William Tincup (though we did catch up for a quick chat which was lovely) and Jason Averbrook – both of whom were speaking in the afternoon. I like these guys and in my experience they offer something different, provocation with rigour and intellect to back it up.

First up in the morning was Adrian Furnham who I confess I didn’t recognise at first as his profile picture was taken several hair cuts ago. I’d heard lots of good things about Adrian and was keen to hear him speak, his subject was:

HR Technology – Quantifying The Appetite For Social & Technological Change Inside Your Organisation.

I got rather lost in Adrian’s talk – he had a good sense of humour, ‘guru is the word used by journalists who can’t spell charlatan’ got a big laugh, but I felt that a ton of tired slides and a few well placed jokes covered up the sense for me that Adrian wasn’t really taking us anywhere. Since 2007, Adrian has been ranked in HR Magazine’s top 20 most influential list, and I think a potential problem with influence is it relies to some extent on consistency, which is an enemy of creativity and innovation.

So what did he talk about? These photos show Adrian positioned HR with his good news/bad news openers. These statements, both the good and bad, felt like opinions with nothing much to back them up and for me, the bad news stuff didn’t really hit the mark. 

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Adrian said that HR reacts to change, doesn’t instigate it, and he said that HR doesn’t network well. These are sweeping generalisations and based on my experience I don’t agree. Listening to the huge buzz in the breaks at the conference I’d say HR networks really well.

Adrian shared with us some reasons why HR Managers never become CEOs

Why HR Managers Never Become CEOsNever huh? Well I guess at least that stops any more aspiring HR people aiming for the top, according to this guy you’re never gonna make it folks. Seriously though – absolutes are rarely the answer and the way this stuff was presented closed down the debate rather than opening it up. And as Adrian continues to bombard us with slides, he asks, ‘Do you teach leadership by PowerPoint? Not often.’ I agree – so why are you inflicting a bazillion slides on us?

As time went on, Adrian clicked through big chunks of the presentation without commentary and when I spoke with others in the break, we felt that the bulk of this deck was something Adrian uses regularly, with just a few tweaks to suit. When I come to a conference I want to feel like I’m getting something new – and this talk just didn’t have that feeling. Overall I thought Adrian’s session was funny, he threw out some interesting challenges clouded with too much generalisation, and it feels like he needs fresh material, or failing that, at least tidy up and put away the stuff that isn’t going to be used on the day.

Mark Martin was up next speaking about:

WAKE UP!! Your next train is about to leave!

Mark spent a good deal of his time slagging off HR, and I felt he was provocative for the sake of it. I love to be provoked, but for it to work there has to be some substance behind the edge, and I couldn’t detect any.

Mark said ‘Why are we so inexact in HR? No other function would get away with that.’ I don’t understand – people are inexact, thank goodness! Work and life are inexact, that’s what makes them fun. Deal with it. And when was the last time you saw a sales forecast predicted with 100% accuracy? And have you never seen a finance department adjust a budget?

Going Down the Toilet

Mark said we don’t want happy people at work because that is ‘not strategic’. He told us that most executives he works with, ‘aren’t strategic’. He said, ‘people care about purpose and relationships, businesses don’t.’ He told us ‘If you have your cake and eat it, you run out of cake.’ I really don’t get where he was coming from, though he was right about the cake.

The last session I heard was delivered by Neil Lewis from Nationwide.

Implementing an HR Systems Transformation to Underpin a People & HRSS Strategy

Not the most exciting title I’ve ever read, but as a customer of Nationwide I was keen to see how Neil linked the employee and customer experience. Sure enough he was straight on to the importance of these two things before getting in to some of the how.

Neil told a story about his birthday and the well respected tradition of bringing cake to the office. He decided to bake cake instead of bring in some from the shop, and while I think about it, baking cake is a way you can have more cake and eat it, we should let Mark know about this. Neil’s point was about how he gained some of the baking knowledge he needed through Youtube and from there he linked into how Nationwide has become much more open to how technology can help employees access stuff they need directly, learn in ways they want to, and give better service.

Neil talked about steps involving: compliance (well they are a financial services company), reducing complexity, removing risk and manual process, and needing the culture to make it work. Neil spoke about the time stuff takes, removing half the customisation from their systems to make them simpler, took around five years. I appreciated his acknowledgement that patience is required, and the implication that tech is not the speedily delivered silver bullet, at least not always.

Neil’s talk was far too pitchy – he mentioned his tech supplier far too often, and in a short video he showed they got another bunch of namechecks. Come on vendors and speakers, you must know by now we hate that stuff, right?! Get the namecheck in and then tell us your story.

Something I really liked was the observation that better conversations among colleagues led to better service for customers. That’s inexact, unmeasurable and hugely valuable. Pitching notwithstanding, Neil’s session was far and away the most helpful and interesting one I saw.

The spaces in between

I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t around for William’s talk. That didn’t stop us getting checked out by the Storm Trooper security guards. I also referenced the buzz and conversation that went on in the breaks. Too often I see the exhibition as something people dart through nervously, keen to avoid eye contact for fear of being sold to. Not here. Maybe this was in part due to the high quality swag on offer – but there was conversation and interaction in abundance here. 10/10.

Taking everything into account, I had a useful fun morning. I subsequently heard that the afternoon picked up more pace and that William and Jason’s sessions were energetic and worthwhile. As more post event blogs emerge I will link to them from here.


I shared this post over on Facebook and received this additional comment from another conference attendee:

That’s a fair review of the first two speakers Doug, although I would be a bit harsher on the Mark Martin talk. Overtly aggressive (deliberate provocation to HR) and full of his own belief, meant that some of the ‘anti hr showboating’ distracted the audience from some valid points. HR does need to be challenged, HR tech vendors need to be challenged, but trying to piss them both off isn’t the best approach in my book!

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

5 thoughts on “HRTechEurope – A Review”

  1. Useful review. Thanks for sharing Doug. It seems to me that its all too easy for presenters to jump on the HR-bashing bandwagon. No function is perfect and most HR people are passionately committed to doing a better job for their employees and their organisation. They want to hear from people who can help them do that not people who tell them they’re rubbish and don’t stand a chance.

    1. Thanks Antoinette. It was an odd position to take, both from Adrian Furnham and Mark Martin. Furnham was perhaps more benign than bashing (not saying that is necessarily better), and Mark Martin was just very poor. Unless his point was to belittle the profession he has just left and presumably hopes to earn a living from consulting with, then I didn’t get it.

    1. Hey David – you just know how to put a smile on my face. Your humour is fantastic, I really appreciate it. The shoes I took away are Keira’s size – she has headed off to school today in them (fund raiser casual day today). So – we are both soleless brothers 🙂 Good job we got soul 😉

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