DIY, mosh pits, and HR conferences

Why conferences?

Are you going to a conference this year? Why?

No really, why? As an HR professional, why are you taking time out of your life to go? Is it because you’re a professional and professionals go to conferences because other professionals go to conferences? Is it because you need to keep up on your certifications? Is it because you have no other opportunity to talk to vendors? Is it because you feel it is the best or most cost effective way to keep up with the field? Is it because you really need a three day drinking binge? Is it because your company pays for you to go? Why go?

How will you decide which conference to attend? Location? Price? The keynote speaker(s)? The size of the conference? Reputation? Theme? Topics?

I have a confession to make: I haven’t been a huge fan of conferences. My sense is that conferences have often been more about the status quo, rubbing elbows, and comparing merit badges. The organizers play it safe and stay (far!) away from controversy, have a known keynote, offer professional/educational credit to justify the employer paying for it, and make sure that everyone has a pleasant time. It seemed less about advancing the field than celebrating where it is right now.

So what about those who see the status quo as a very low bar? Where do those who want to create, innovate, and push the boundaries go? What’s available for those who simultaneously love Human Resources and ask, ask, and ask again those tough and awkward questions about how to make it truly better – those who want to tear it down, shake it up, and create something meaningful and powerful?

This fall I went to a conference for the first time in probably six years and discovered the world changed while I wasn’t looking. More and more options seem to be springing up. Unconferences, small non-traditional conferences, conferences that are re-thinking the model. Conferences I’d be excited to attend.


Back in the day, before blogs, there were ‘zines. ‘Zines (short for “fan magazines”) existed on the edges of the music world. Self-published, they ranged from a few pages slapped together at Kinko’s to actual magazines with (sort of) national presence like Maximum Rock ‘n Roll and Flipside. This was a place where the status quo was kicked, the unknown could voice their opinion, and those who hadn’t quite made it yet were first introduced to the world. If you knew who Nirvana, Soundgarden, or Rage Against the Machine were prior to ’91 you were likely reading ‘zines.

Did HR have the equivalent? It amuses me to think of the contrarians, innovators, and boundary pushers sitting around the office after everyone has gone home and creating crudely photocopied flyers and ‘zines with tips, editorials, best practices, rants, and ads for HR seminars being held in someone’s basement or an old warehouse. It makes me smile to think of the DIY punk spirit infusing the old model uptight bureaucratic world of “personnel”. And in its own weird way, I think it has.

Today, we meet the misfits, the voices in the wilderness, and those screaming out for better through social media. In its own way, social media has turned the punk rock misfits of HR into rock star thought leaders. Thanks to social media it’s easier than ever before to know of and about the people who are pushing the boundaries and asking “why?” and “what is possible?” It’s bringing legitimacy and momentum to innovation and change.

I suspect that’s really changing the conference model to look more like a music festival than a conference. An event where the lineup matters at least as much as the topics. A place where the new, exciting, loud, and challenging are brought together. A place where there is the main stage big names and the side stage up and comers. A place where people are there because they really dig HR and want to feel it, enjoy it, and do it better.

Social media has made rock stars of thought leaders, but it’s also humanized them. Made them accessible. Through their blogs, tweets, comments, and postings, it feels like we really know the person. We probably have a good sense of their family situation, their jobs, their hobbies, favorite books, etc. It feels like we really know them. As though they are old friends we just haven’t met. I want to go to conferences where, not only can I see my heros, but I can talk and interact and share ideas and just hang out with them.

The golden question of conferences

Until this year, every conference I attended was paid from of my own pocket. I suffered both the cost of the conference and the loss in billable hours. When I’m losing money two ways, whatever I’m spending it on better have a very high return on investment.

Consequently, that has become my standard for conferences: would I pay my own way without hesitation? Does it provide so much value for me that I would burn up vacation days to go? Would I be as excited to pay for it as I would be to buy tickets to see my favorite bands? Would I get on an airplane to go? Would I make apologies to my family while I was packing my bags? Would I enthusiastically inconvenience myself in several ways and on several levels to attend?

HR mosh pit

What makes me excited to open my wallet? I want speakers whose ideas challenge me to rethink and think again. I want participants who are enthusiastic, passionate, and are creating so much Awesome-with-a-capital-A for the world that I’m inspired to raise my own game. I want to be so fired up and enthused that I’m hassling my boss and team with all the ideas pouring out of my head before lunch on the first day. I want speakers and presenters who want to rub elbows and learn from me as much as I learn from them.

I don’t want to have safe, neatly packaged thoughts handed to me while I look on and clap politely as though I were at a niece’s piano recital. I want to mix it up in a chaotic stage diving, slam dancing, mosh pit of HR ideas, philosophies, innovations, maybe-could-be’s, and practicality. [Have I pushed the analogy too far yet?] I don’t want to be a passive attendee, I want to be an active participant.

Tomorrow is today

I’m clearly not alone and that has me looking forward to 2013 in a big way. Lots of great conferences, big and small, out there with more springing up all the time. Let’s talk, question, push boundaries, and #playbigger.

Which conferences are you most excited about?

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