Jason Lauritsen - Crushing talent dogma to free human potential

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#HRevolution x #Recruitfest + Monster = The Death of the Traditional Conference

Throughout my corporate HR career, I’ve always liked to attend conferences. Generally, I find them to be a good way to pick up new ideas and make new industry contacts. I genuinely like conferences.

But, there are a few issues I’ve always had with conferences. The first issue is cost. Most conferences cost so darn much that I can’t seem to justify putting that kind of money into my budget. When I can find money in the budget, it gets put aside to send the members of my HR staff so that they can have that developmental experience. Even this has become increasingly difficult to do, particularly as the economic conditions dictate that we squeeze our budgets as tight as we can.

My second issue is that most conference agendas primarily involved being talked at. They don’t make much room to learn from and connect to other conference attendees. Usually, whoever I sat next to at these conferences ended up dictating who I networked with. And the networking was generally limited to quick comments between sessions. (Confession: I am one of those people who feel compulsively driven to attend every possible session during a conference because I feel like I owe it to my employer to gather as much info as possible–translated, I don’t blow off sessions to hang out.)

Both of these issues have been major frustrations for me and I suspect for many others. And these seem to be problems that no one cared to address until recently. For those of you who haven’t been following what’s been going on in this space, there have been a couple of recent events that have dropped a grenade into traditional thinking about conferences. I know about these events because I’ve been fortunate enough to have been involved in both of them and to witness first-hand this revolution in the making.

The first event is Recruitfest which just wrapped its third annual iteration this past week. The event was the brandchild of Jason Davis and the team at www.recruitingblogs.com (now www.recruiter.com) . In its first two years, it paved the way for what many began to call the “unconference.” The label “unconference” has come to mean many things, but at the end of the day it really represents a conference format that is flexible and highly participant-driven (i.e. those attending are actively engaged with the session leaders/speakers through commentary and questions). While I was not in attendance at the first two Recruitfest events, I’m told that they were highly successful events packed full of energy, ideas and optimism. Another thing that differentiated this conference was that while it was still an in-person event, it was very low cost compared to other conferences in the industry.

Recruitfest was cool and it was working. But, then came 2010. Even a great event like this one couldn’t escape the grasp of a down economy. It seemed that even this low cost event was proving too expensive for most people. So, they did the unthinkable. They decided to broadcast their event LIVE online for FREE. People couldn’t get to the conference, so they brought the conference to the people. And it worked. Turns out that nearly 4,000 people participated in the conference over the internet all across the country and all over the world. It remains to be seen what happens next, but this event should have sent a shock wave through the conference industry.

The second event that I believe has broken the model is HRevolution. This event has happened twice, once in the fall of 2009 and again in May of 2010. I wasn’t at the first one, but was in attendance at the second. As the legend goes, this event came into existence when two HR professionals, Trish McFarlane and Ben Eubanks were venting over twitter about their frustration that they couldn’t attend any conferences because of the costs. Through the sharing of their mutual frustrations, they ultimately decided that they could create their own conference and HRevolution was born.

What made HRevolution important is a few things. First, this “unconference” event was created, planned and hosted both times by a group of passionate and committed volunteers. This group of visionaries didn’t create the event to make a buck or to promote any agenda. They simply wanted to create a conference learning/networking experience that was engaging and low cost (it cost $100 to register for the event). The other amazing thing about this event was that it was solely promoted through social media channels and word of mouth. It sold out and had a waiting list of attendees. And it was an awesome, energizing, and engaging experience for all of us who were lucky enough to be there.

What’s most interesting about both of these untraditional, model-shattering, mind-bending new approaches to conferences is that they were both title-sponsored by Monster.com. Think about that for a moment. This industry giant is investing in these cool alternative conference events. If you haven’t been paying attention lately, Monster has become way more than a job board. They are doing a bunch of amazing things in the HR space, not the least of which is encouraging the kind of creativity and innovation behind events like Recruitfest and HRevolution.

So, what does this all mean? 

  • Conferences don’t have to be expensive and there are an increasing number of alternatives out there to the traditional expensive conferences. 
  • Conferences can be both informative and interactive. 
  • Social media and the web has changed and decreased enormously the value of the traditional conference model. 
  • Monster has taken on a new and critical importance in our field. They are actively fueling a whole new generation of innovators and leaders within our industry. 

None of this means that the traditional conferences need to go away. Much to the contrary, we need to be coming together to connect and learn as an HR community now more than ever. What it means is that the organizers of traditional conferences need to shift their thinking and evolve their events. At least they should if they truly care about the interests of the customers who attend their conferences. There’s a new game in town with new rules. And this is all great news if you are a member of the HR world.

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  1. Dave Ryan

    Great post Jason. Your are hitting the nail square on the head. The times they are a changing!

  2. Ben Eubanks

    Appreciate the HRev shout out and completely agree with your sentiments. Price and the lack of interaction really hamper the opportunities a lot of people need to see the true growth and development in their careers. I'm going to be attending one of those "normal" conferences next week. I can't afford to attend, but they're letting me in since I promised to blog about the event. Without that alternative (getting a free ticket in exchange for blogging), I wouldn't have been able to attend *half* of the events I have in the past year!

    Like you pointed out with Recruitfest (which was amazing), these things have been around for just a few years, but they are really filling a desperate need. Can't wait to see where it all leads!

  3. Trish McFarlane

    Thank you for sharing the story of HRevolution. I've been to a ton of conferences, both traditional and unique in my career. I think they all have a place because there are many types of learners. As someone who really wanted to go to Recruitfest (but didn't because it was my birthday) I was thrilled to see the live streaming and I shared with all my work colleagues. We loved it! I'm hoping more conferences incorporate other types of media to share event information. By live streaming, following the tweet stream, listening to podcasts, etc. even the people who can't afford to go in person can still get many of the benefits of the event and learning.

    Stay tuned in 2011 to see not only the HRevolution in Atlanta on 4/29- 4/30, but the other "traditional" conferences where HRevolution will appear in some format. There will be several.
    Great post!

  4. Chris Frede

    I could not agree with you more Jason. Most conferences are so expensive with little return. The exception was HRevolution – which was not only outstanding and one of the best "events" I have attended but an outstanding value. Great post.

  5. Jason Lauritsen

    @Dave – Thanks for the reinforcement. Let's hope that the big conference folks are paying attention.

    @Ben – Thank you for throwing one of the sparks that is starting this fire. It took some guts to put HRevolution out there. Keep up the great work.

    @Trish – Wow, an HRevolution world exclusive perhaps? At least I now know where I will be the end of April 2011. Can't wait to see what's in store for this year. You are an inspiration and a leader for the HR industry. Thank you so much for leading the way.

    @Chris – Thanks for the comments. I look forward to making some noise with you at HRevolution 2011 in Atlanta!

  6. John Jorgensen

    Excellent points Jason. I am an organizer of a traditional conference and I realize we will need to adapt to many of the things offered by the new "unconferences" and we will.

    I also agree with you that the traditional model will not disappear but "evolve" into something different over the next few years. There are a few good values in state SHRM Conferences out there, many at a fraction of the cost of SHRM Annual. All of them are good and all have their place in the market.

  7. Caryn

    Great post! Agree that the value derived from smaller state SHRM conferences and HRevolution far exceeds what I personally have gained from the large, very expensive SHRM annual conferences. The opportunity to truly engage in meaningful dialogue, share thoughts, ideas, agree and disagree with very bright, effective HR pros was what clicked with me in the unconference format. I'm with John in hoping some of the "traditional" conferences will adapt. In the meantime, count me in again for HRevolution!

Jason Lauritsen