After a two-year sojourn in Paris, HR Tech World returned with a bang to its spiritual home in Amsterdam for its biggest show yet and a rebrand to UNLEASH!

With 12 stages running in parallel, it has become increasingly impossible for a single person to write a comprehensive ‘key takeaways’ of this superb event. So in the spirit of the community that UNLEASH imbues, I’ve decided to opt for a crowdsourcing version. Therefore, I’d first like to thank the following for contributing to this article: Jason Averbook, Faye Holland, Gareth Jones and Andy Spence. You can check out their collective thoughts at #8.

#1 – UNLEASH your people

First things first, the new name – UNLEASH. I like it. It’s big, it’s bold, and it’s loud. Just like HR Tech World. Marc Coleman has often spoken about the show creating the impetus and inspiration for companies to unleash their people. The world we live in now and the world we will live in the future makes this increasingly important. HR Tech World is the best conference on the planet about tech and the future of work. UNLEASH promises to be even better.

#2 – People first

The overwhelming theme of the show, just as at HR Tech World in San Francisco, was the need for companies (and by extension HR) to put their ‘people first’ and harness technology to humanise (and personalise) the employee experience. Like many speakers, Peter Hinssen implored HR to think like marketing and create bespoke experiences for employees. This is a huge opportunity for HR and providing that ethics, trust and transparency are placed at the fore, we really can create better and healthier work experiences for our employees.

#3 – Talking about mental health is no longer taboo

As the proponents of Thrive and the Overwhelmed Employee discussed mental health in the workplace in front of a packed and captivated auditorium, I was struck that the topic is thankfully no longer taboo. The main message I took from Arianna Huffington and Josh Bersin’s discussion was that wellbeing and performance go hand in hand. Arianna’s keynote was immensely powerful and clearly resonated with many people. One person I spoke to aafterwardwas inspired by Arianna to rebook an earlier flight the next day so that they could get home in time to see their young child before bed. That’s what I call impact. Josh’s earlier keynote had highlighted the explosion in HR tech related to wellbeing, which inspired me to tweet that employee health and wellbeing should be a core responsibility of HR – so far that Tweet has had over 250 likes and retweets. The next challenge for HR is not only to own employee health and wellbeing, but also to prove through analytics that it translates to business performance. That is the only way to make large organisations and investors wake up and smell the coffee.

#4 – Technology is disrupting HR like never before

My favourite keynote of the two days came from Josh Bersin, who just seems to get better and better. No one except Josh can cram as much content into 30 minutes and still bring the trends he describes to life with powerful and relevant examples. Josh’s assertion that it doesn’t matter what HR tech you buy if it doesn’t improve the employee experience really resonated. I was especially interested in what Josh had to say about people analytics, which he described as going ‘mainstream’ and how coupled with organisational network analysis is helping companies unlock insights into productivity, networks and collaboration. With analytics being central to initiatives to digitise HR and personalise the employee experience expect the discipline to move from the periphery to the core of the future HR function.

#5 – People analytics moves centre stage

On the subject of people analytics, the Smart Data track I moderated was once again immensely popular with standing room only throughout the two days. I presented research (see here), which highlighted that the readiness of European headquartered organisations regarding analytics in HR is behind that of the rest of the world. I was at pains to point out that this did not mean that there weren’t clear examples of excellence in Europe, which was ably demonstrated by Patrick Coolen (ABN AMRO), Esther Bongenaar and Tashi Erdmann (Shell), Camilla Björkqvist (ING) and also Carsten Knaut (Qiagen). There were also excellent examples of how people analytics is being used to improve recruiting at Footlocker (Alexis Trigo) and Jumbo (Jennifer Kors). Finally, Daniel Murphy’s presentation of how EY has proven how teams with high employee engagement have better retention and business performance was particularly impactful.

#6 – Our governments and organisations are letting us down – can HR fill the void?

Daniel Thorniley’s keynote on day 2 was crammed full of humour, but was also decidedly scary. The picture he painted of our political leaders stuck in a damaging vortex of austerity, floundering organisations obsessing about the bottom line and the rise of populism would provide an excellent script for Blade Runner 3. Unfortunately, much of what Thorniley described is not science fiction but painful reality. His description of hedge funds clamouring to replace employees with robots in our major organisations is typical of the self-interest that exists amongst this dubious group of people. If any function in our business is going to stand up to this folly, surely it is HR? Is this asking too much? Maybe, but if not who?

#7 – The future of work is in our hands

Apart from his creepy robot doppelgänger, closing keynote Henrik Scharfe painted a much more positive picture of what the future of work could hold. Whilst he conceded that 50% of work today will be automated in the near future (even if 85% of us still think it will affect other people rather than ourselves), Schrafe argued we still have a choice to make a better world. I definitely preferred Schrafe’s optimistic vision of the future to Thorniley’s!

#8 – Crowdsourcing the UNLEASH community

As indicated at the start of this article, here are some key learnings generously supplied by Jason Averbook, Faye Holland, Gareth Jones and Andy Spence. Thanks to the four of you for contributing. If you were in Amsterdam and would like to add a takeaway, please do so in the comments section below.

Gareth Jones (follow on Twitter @garelaos)

  • Analytics is shifting management thinking – Arianna Huffington talked about work life integration and getting a life. About the importance of getting enough sleep and actually how we are damaging ourselves by not doing so. And how by taking care of ourselves, by not burning out, by not succumbing to presenteeism, not only will we benefit, but the company does too. Ironically, a small number of people, including the great Ricardo Semler were saying the same thing 30 years ago, but few listened and many scoffed. Now, we are using hard data to finally provide evidence to prove the folly of our previous ways. Not so many scoffing now are there? Well, actually yes there are. Denial is still huge in the western corporate world. But it’s changing. Data creates insight. Insight raises questions. Questions challenge convention.
  • The HR Tech market is hot – Very hot. With more start-ups in the last 12 months in HR Tech than in the previous two years, you can now see a rich landscape of solutions that can at last give the enterprise incumbents a run for their money. Small isn’t always perfectly formed, especially when faced with the complex requirements of a large, multinational corporation. But ‘making do’ with a global system that costs enough to make you weep isn’t always better than betting on a new, more agile and more user focussed alternative. It will be interesting to see who and what survives the inevitable market consolidation.

Jason Averbook (follow on Twitter @jasonaverbook)

  • Digitisation is a must now over Automation – we have automated as much as we can; it is time to reimagine through digitisation how we can create new value.
  • Workforce Experience as a holistic function has overtaken the need for simply a good user interface. An experience is much more than the technology.
  • As a HR function, our skills in HR/technology are VERY dated! It is time to reskill focused on design thinking, marketing, branding, and most of all, ability to reimagine how we service the workforce.

Faye Holland (follow on Twitter @FayeHollandUK)

  • The Startup zone is growing up – In Amsterdam there were nine companies that started their journey in the Startup Zone and have now graduated to the product demo area if not the main exhibition floor. For me this is real testament to how UNLEASH nurtures and mentors the start-ups and the value they get from attending.

Andy Spence (follow on Twitter @AndySpence)

  • HR is ‘unleashed’ into the workforce – The rebranding to UNLEASH is good timing.  There was a real focus on workforce tools that help employees manage their work, become more effective and track wellbeing. Historically the focus has been to target HR buyers on tools to manage HR processes e.g. core information systems, recruitment, payroll, and learning. The next UNLEASH conferences will broaden the appeal to those with an interest in effective people management, which of course isn’t just HR but others such as finance and operational teams. This change of emphasis is consistent with the long-term trend of unleashing HR from a vertical silo into a more outward-facing role deep into organisations. Technology will have a key part to play in this transition.
  • Many of our current workplace practices could do with improvement from finding talent, candidate verification, managing employment contracts and tracking qualifications to paying workers. The benefits of distributed ledgers such as Blockchain, and digital smart contracts will help with these workplace challengesEuan Semple talked about the benefits of decentralisation, efficiency, trust and authority in his speech in Amsterdam.  Workers owning verified information associated with their work history and qualifications will be one part of more efficient and fairer work platforms.  The payment of contract workers in cyrptocurrencies almost immediately after completing a day’s work is already being trialled in the UK and Australia.  Back in March this year I wrote, “How will Blockchain impact HR?” and have since developed my thinking with a research project with the Tapscotts’ Blockchain Research Institute.  This is a rapidly changing area, so watch out for more Blockchain solutions from big tech providers and start-ups in the next few years.

#9 – The Startup Zone was buzzing

The StartUp Zone was buzzing once again with lots of exciting new tech vendors exhibiting their wares. The ones that stood out for me were:

  • Workometry – text analytics based employee feedback tool
  • Starlinks – early stage start-up focusing on personal and organisational network analysis
  • Robot Vera – incongruously named and the winner of the StartUp Competition from Russia – a sourcing, selection & interviewing robot
  • VCV – an AI powered robot recruiter
  • Talking Circles – knowledge sharing, coaching and training platform
  • Peachy Mondays – employee feedback and management tool – now live in 68 countries
  • Peakon – employee feedback and recognition tool

For a full summary of the companies in the StartUp Zone, check out Faye Holland’s excellent series here.

#10 – Congratulations & thanks to

To Marc Coleman, Peter Russell, Viki McCann and the UNLEASH crew. To Rita Vass, Leah Narodetsky and Kat Khramova for booking me as a speaker and for once again moving the bar even higher with an outstanding program. To the ebullient Jason Averbook for an immaculate performance as MC of the Future of Work stage. One of the tricks of being a great MC is to actually care about the delegate experience, and no one does this better than Jason. Hat tip too to the other main show MCs – Johnny Campbell and Bill Boorman; sadly I didn’t spend much time in either the HR Tech or iRecruit stages but by all accounts you both did a superb job. Indeed, the one session I missed that I wish I hadn’t featured Johnny in a judge’s wig adjudicating between Nick Holley and Josh Bersin as to whether Big Data was guilty as charged. This could only happen at an UNLEASH conference!

Finally, for more on the show in Amsterdam check out the UNLEASH site as well as the UNLEASH Slideshare page for all the presentations from the event, as well as this handy collection of links by Kate Graham. See you in London on 20-21 March 2018.