social media

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?

social media leap of faith

Social media seems to simultaneously intrigue and terrify a lot of businesses. They love the idea of their message and brand going viral and being cheerfully spread throughout the land by their adoring customers (at no incremental cost to the company). The problem is, they also want to control 100% of the message and when they find out they can’t control the message, they don’t want to play.

It’s a silly argument that is perpetual, redundant, cliché, and not going away: What if people say bad things about us? What if they hurt our brand? The response is just as obvious, cliché, and not going away: People are already saying bad things. And they are saying good things. The leaders of these companies are scared because they can’t control the conversation. They can’t control what others are saying.

What they aren’t seeing is that social media is not all or nothing. It’s not “we control the message or we won’t play at all.” The conversation is happening regardless. Pretending it doesn’t exist does nothing to stop the damage; does nothing to build the brand; does nothing to create strong relationships with customers.

That’s the key, isn’t it? In the past, the business / customer relationship was one-way. We used simplemindedly archaic terms like “customer loyalty” as though our customers owed the business something. It’s not a top down relationship like from commander to the troops or from dictator to the masses. It’s a relationship of peers and equals. Both parties have something the other party wants and values. Both parties can benefit from or be hurt by the relationship.

In Richard Bach’s book Illusions there is a story of an underwater society that clings to the bottom of a river so they won’t get battered by the current. One day, one of them, against all traditional wisdom, let go. He was initially tumbled and bruised as he was forced along by the current. But then, after this painful start, his journey smoothed out and we was swept along with, rather than against, the river. Suddenly, there was a freedom never experienced before. (I’m going solely from memory, but that’s the gist that stuck with me.)

I suspect that letting go of the idea that we must control the conversation is a very similar leap of faith. We have to let go and stop pretending that the conversation is always one-sided and people don’t say things about us. When we first listen, learn, and seek out what is being said it probably feels like we’re being hit with the full force of the current. Painful, chaotic, out of control. It’s a leap of faith.

But then, if we realize the tremendous power in actual two-way conversation, where we can respond and influence, instead of duck, cover, and retaliate, it smooths out. We shift from controlling very narrow messages to expanding and influencing and flowing with much larger discussions and conversations. The relationship changes and becomes much more potent for it.

Ultimately, I believe that influence is much more powerful than control. Control contracts. We can only control so much. Influence is expansive. We can influence far more people, messages, and relationships than we can control.

It’s a leap of faith though to shift from control to influence. When you are used to telling the customer what to think it’s a huge jump to welcoming discussion and conversation with the customer. It’s a shift from controlling the message to being transparent. This transparency shows confidence, vulnerability, and authenticity. It creates real interactions. It changes the conversation.

The thing is, it’s impossible to do a leap of faith half way. You can’t “sorta” do it. Are you willing to make that leap as a company? As a department? As an individual?


technology has changed, humanity hasn’t…

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate……..We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”

~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden

fear of a human business (the freak flag advantage)

Business is run by humans for humans so why is the business world so, so scared of showing their humanness?

With rare exception, corporate social media policies shout: “We’re terrified our customers will find out that actual people work at this company!” The policies are very clear that you should never, ever associate yourself with the company. Don’t reveal that you have opinions, actual thoughts, passions, dreams, hobbies, families. Don’t give customers the opportunity to appreciate each individual’s uniqueness, good and bad. Assume customers are so easily offended that they will boycott the company because of what an employee posted on a social media site. Give no one the benefit of the doubt.

It’s so sad, it’s funny. There’s so much good that comes from recognizing humanity and individuality. It makes companies and their products real and relevant. Companies (marketers anyway) want us to have a relationship with the brand, yet don’t realize that no one develops attachment to faceless, soulless, neutered, beige vanilla sameness.

One of the easiest ways to differentiate your company is to let your humanness shine. But few get that. They miss that the root of differentiation is being different. And that celebrating your authentic differences and actually standing out is daring and wonderful.

Yesterday, though, I came across a magazine advertisement for the Jaguar XF that blew me away. The company not only got it but made it the absolute core of the entire ad campaign!

At risk of plugging products I know nothing about, let me describe the ad. Maybe you’ve seen it: two page spread with three electric guitars and amps taking up almost the entire space, in the lower left is a small picture of a sports sedan, in the lower right is a small and understated  Jaguar company logo. The headline is: “Some of the other machines our designers play with.” It goes on to brag that the lead design of the new car is the “spike –haired, head-banging lead guitarist of his own band, Scattering Ashes…” and describes how he brought that amped up rock passion to designing this car.

Wow! An ad that gets attention, an admission (no, a celebration!) that they have passionate-not-quite-mainstream employees, and a darn good looking car. A great, eye-catching ad that takes a risk and shows commitment to shattering old images and shaking up the status quo. Then it gets even better. There is a QR tag to hear the music. Whip out your smart phone and you’re taken to a youtube video with a tongue-in-cheek opening warning and a Scattering Ashes song playing while three Jags make lurid slides around the tarmac.

Wanna see?

Some of the commenters on youtube mention that the song isn’t all that good and it seems out of sync with the Jag image. Yeah, it’s not the greatest song ever. And, yeah, it runs counter to an image of   traditional, stodgy, understated, quiet class. Cleary, Jag is looking to aggressively redefine their image. It’s an electric scream against the what you think they are and an overdriven invitation to join them where they want to be.

But wait! This isn’t a neon colored hatchback with extreme graphics being sold to the fast & furious crowd. This is a luxury sports sedan being marketed to people that can drop $50 – 70k+ on a car – you know, uptight, conservative folks in suits and ties. Shouldn’t you be telling them how much status the car will bring them, or focusing on safety, or winking at how sporty you’d like them to think it is?

Sure, you could. But then you’d be just like everyone else. Or you could celebrate the glorious passion and humanness of your employees, crank your company culture up to 11, and actually differentiate yourself by actually being, well, different.

Don’t know if the car’s any good or if the campaign will be successful, but I love the bold stance. Anyone could have done it, but only one did. Unfurl the freak flag and rock on!