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John Hollon's Observations on SHRM San Diego

John Hollon and I both attended  SHRM in San Diego last month, and recently chatted about our impressions of the show. You can listen to a podcast of our conversation here: John Hollon Podcast 7.26.10

You can find John's blog posts from SHRM at John writes frequently on topical issues in the HR and talent management space, and I'd encourage you to follow his blog.

Below you'll find additional reflections from John about what made this a very successful event for HR professionals:

If you didn't make it to San Diego in June for the annual Society for Human Resources annual conference and exhibition, you missed a pretty good event. It was easily the best SHRM annual conference in three or four years, and perhaps one of the best ever.

How do I know this? Well, I have a little experience with SHRM's biggest annual event - the largest gathering of human resource professionals in the world - and have attended the past six conferences. Add to that the fact that I've probably spent time at 50-60 other industry meetings and events during that time frame, and you can see that I have a lot of experience as a consumer of HR-related conferences.

So, here's my take on the 2010 San Diego SHRM conference - the good, the not so good, the engaging, the thought provoking:

** What the conference does well - SHRM's annual event is at its best when the focus is toward more timely and pragmatic topics that speak to the workplace issues that human resource professionals are struggling with right here and right now. That focus was really sharpened in San Diego where the attendees seemed a lot more focused on buckling down and getting value out of the conference than they did in past years. The SHRM conference organizers were ready for that from the theme of the conference (“A New Time for Growth, A New Focus on HR,”) to the General Session speakers (well, some of them), to the breakout sessions and Masters series events. People seemed a lot more serious this year, and this new-found seriousness made for a lot stronger conference.

** What it doesn't do so well - I've said this before and I'll say it again: SHRM can't be all things to all people. I've talked to many, many HR Vice Presidents, Executive Vice Presidents, and high-ranking HR executives over the years, and what I keep finding is that most of them aren't actively engaged in SHRM anymore. So, this makes me wonder why SHRM continues to try to cater to this audience at the annual conference? I understand that SHRM's leadership wants to tout that they appeal to all HR professionals from the high to the low, but the reality is that the annual June conference is really something for mid-level HR professionals on down. Yes, a few higher ranking HR executives show up, but not enough to justify focusing much on them. Keeping the event more sharply aimed at the target audience on mid-level HR leaders and HR generalists would not only make for a better conference, but would simply acknowledge what everyone knows is true.

** Good, HR-focused speakers set the tone for the entire event. I've heard a lot of SHRM conference speakers, and usually, they give a stump speech that's motivational or inspiring. Recent SHRM speakers - from comedian Bill Cosby to Jordan's Queen Noor to former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong - all fell into this camp. There's nothing wrong with that kind of a speech, of course, but hearing one always makes me wonder: what does that have to do with HR? Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch broke through last year in New Orleans with a opening general session keynote that spoke directly to HR, but this year, former Vice President Al Gore really did right by throwing out his environmental stump speech and wowing the SHRM faithful with a talk that spoke “directly to human resource professionals about the work they do and the relevance of it in our modern world,” as I wrote over at And, Gore's focus on talking about HR to HR professionals set an upbeat and focused tone for the entire San Diego conference.

** A pent-up demand for insightful, solid information. Given the bleak feel to the 2009 SHRM annual conference in New Orleans, as well as the slow economic recovery nationally, my expectations for this year's event on the West Coast were very low. I originally thought that attendance might be slightly better than in Louisiana, but no more than that. How wrong I was! There is clearly a pent-up demand to travel, to learn, to network that has been building during the spring conference season, and it culminated with a SHRM conference in San Diego that had attendance on par with SHRM Chicago in 2008. Beyond that, the energy throughout the convention center was palpable. People were happy to be there, packing the sessions, and even Ted Kennedy Jr. showed up and spent a day hanging out and checking in with the HR professionals who attended.

I tend to be a skeptical (some might add cynical) observer of conferences and events, and I tend to judge them very simply by how relevant and focused the content is. By that measure, SHRM's 2010 annual conference in San Diego restored my confidence in mega-events that draw the better part of 20,000 people to a giant convention center for four days of fun and enlightenment. It was the best SHRM annual conference I have ever attended, by far, and it revved up my anticipation for next year in Las Vegas.

Who knew an HR conference could ever do that?

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