The Revolution Will Be Televised: 6 Takeaways from UNLEASH America

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Las Vegas may be an incongruous setting for the birthplace of a revolution, but when the history of what may well become known as “The Workplace Revolution” is written, the first UNLEASH show in Sin City will likely feature prominently.

The underlying theme of the show was a clarion call for companies to “unleash your people,” and the expertly crafted program, featuring six breakouts plus the Main and Start-Up stages, brought this recipe to the fore.

Every revolution requires a mandate for change, and the ambitious manifesto that emerged from the cavernous Aria Resort & Casino during what was a rambunctious two days featured the following six imperatives for HR to hoist aloft within their organizations.

Bureaucracy Must Die

These were not my words, but rather those of opening keynote Gary Hamel, who got the proceedings off to a uproarious start with a tirade against the folly of bureaucracy and the devastation it wreaks on performance, engagement and productivity. Hamel provided several examples (you can read some here) to support his view that bureaucracy continues to spread its ugly tentacles. This is dangerous because bureaucracy slows organizations down, stifles innovation and has a negative impact on employee well-being. All of these are bad for business, terrible for employees and the exact opposite of what is required in the 21st century. Hamel provided examples of organizations that eschew bureaucracy (e.g. Haier and Morningstar), where decision making is disseminated within the organization and innovation is allowed to flourish.

Hamel’s crusade against bureaucracy is difficult to argue against, and, as when I have heard him speak at UNLEASH shows in Europe before, there weren’t many dissenters in the house. So why are things getting worse rather than better? Perhaps it’s because the vast majority fail to take the fight from the conference floor into their organizations. The battle is not an easy one to win, but if we collect the data and build the case for exorcising bureaucracy, we can build a movement within our companies and act as the agent of change that our companies and our employees so desperately need.

Technology Needs to Empower Rather Than Overwhelm

Despite the indisputable benefits that rapid advances in technology have given us as consumers, it’s harder to accentuate the positive when it comes to the workplace. As data presented by Josh Bersin revealed, productivity growth is getting slower, engagement levels remain at an all-time low and an increasing number of employees are feeling overwhelmed. Technology only seems to have exacerbated the situation, so we shouldn’t be surprised with the research Bersin presented that people (including in California of all places) are becoming increasingly skeptical of technology.

HR technology needs to empower both the individual and the team, enable experimentation and above all pivot from an emphasis on “one size fits all” to “one size fits one.” This is a radical change but one that UNLEASH demonstrated is starting to emerge both through vendors on the exhibition floor and via pioneering HR leaders sharing their stories. The shift to technology that personalizes and improves the employee experience, that encourages and acts on feedback and that is built on a core foundation of data and analytics is one that is long overdue.

Embrace The Future, Don’t Fear It

This is another mindset that needs to emerge from within the organization rather than from our increasingly floundering leaders. There’s a lot of hokum pokum peddled about the future of work and how a robot takeover is inevitable. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Firstly, the evidence to date does not support this dystopian view, with data presented by Bersin showing that technology and automation have thus far created more jobs than have been lost. Secondly, the advent of technologies such as augmented reality (AR) offer immense potential in helping make workforces more effective. Roy Ashok delivered several powerful examples of how AR is empowering workers with the data and insights required to make decisions in the field. The potential that AR offers to revolutionize the employee experience in areas such as recruiting, onboarding and learning is quite staggering. Finally, as Mo Gawdat demonstrated throughout his powerful account of how to deliver innovation at scale, the vast bulk of what we believe will eventually be conceivable through technology is already possible.

Trust Is the Most Precious Ingredient of All

The subjects of ethics and trust are considered by the vast majority of practitioners I speak to as the most important part of doing people analytics. As such, Rachel Botsman’s keynote on “Why Trust Matters — Now More Than Ever” held particular resonance. Botsman demonstrated that trust in all four of our major institutions (NGOs, business, media and government) is at an all-time low and that the digital age is magnifying the situation. Certainly, the reported move by China to rate its citizens is Orwellian. Botsman’s description of trust not simply being a value or an attribute but a process and a series of interactions is something we should place at the fulcrum of our approach to redesigning HR processes. Trust needs to be the glue that holds all our interactions together, whether they are human or enabled by technology.

People Analytics Can Provide Value for the Employee

On a similar theme, Bersin described how the field of people analytics has increasingly become much more focused on the risk associated with collecting, storing and analyzing people data. I had the pleasure of opening the Smart Data breakout in my session “The role of ONA in People Analytics” (see here for slides and preview). I also moderated the remainder of the Smart Data sessions over the two days. Collectively, the speakers ably demonstrated how people analytics has rapidly become a core component of HR, with the focus increasingly being on providing value to the employee. Highlights included:

  • Charlotte Nagy described how USAA has empowered managers by equipping them with the data and insights they need to make decisions in real time.
  • Daniel Morales explained how McKinsey has introduced a new approach to assessments that creates a lower-stress environment for candidates.
  • Jason Pagan outlined how Ascension harnesses natural-language processing and sentiment analysis to amplify the employee voice and support the services it provides to patients.
  • Sheri Feinzig and Mary Ellen Slayter presented the findings of research jointly undertaken by IBM’s Smarter Workforce Institute and UNLEASH (see here) into how analytics and AI support internal mobility.

Our Time Is Now

As Jason Averbook so passionately argued in his superb final keynote, there has never been a more exciting time to work in HR. We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to shape the future of our organizations while giving primacy to employee experience and well-being, all underpinned by a culture of trust. Let’s not squander this golden opportunity.

Final Thoughts

Some final reflections on another terrific UNLEASH show:

  • The FOMO factor reached fever pitch because with so much choice and my Smart Data moderator duties I missed several speakers I wanted to see. These included Kathleen Hogan, Bill Boorman and the all-female tech CHRO panel of Katelin Holloway, Kristen Robinson and Katarina Berg.
  • The Start-Up stage and zone was buzzing. Kudos to Anna Ott for the huge impact you have had in taking what was already the best show for startups in the industry and making it even better.
  • As highlighted earlier in this article, much of the innovation in the space is coming from the vendor community. A special shoutout to VideoMyJob, which is surely set for big things. Other vendors that caught my eye included Zyvo, SwoopTalent, Leapgen, Small Improvements, Start-Up Award winner Click Boarding and the already well-established Culture Amp, which continues to go from strength to strength.
  • The aforementioned Averbook once again did a tremendous job as emcee of the Main Stage, bringing together a heady concoction of knowledge, passion and sheer unbridled energy.
  • Finally, congrats to Marc Coleman, China Gorman and the whole UNLEASH team for bringing your unique flavor to Las Vegas and showing others how to put on a HR technology conference that delivers, with a special note of thanks to the show’s head producer, Kat Khramova.

See you all in Amsterdam for the big one: the UNLEASH World Conference & Expo on Oct. 23-24, 2018. Be there or be square.

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