The Best and Worst of #SHRM15

LasVegas

I wrote my first conference recap post – then called “Rants and Raves” – in March of 2010. This has become my favorite blogging experience of every conference I attend, because it really causes me to think about what is happening around me and whether I love it or hate it – or if I am just momentarily in a mood. This is why I always wait a day or two until conference end. And by focusing on just a few items per section, I can really try to look at the big picture, particularly that part of the picture that is really the responsibility in whole or part of the conference organizer. For example, if I don’t make at least 5 new connections (a magic number proposed by Steve Browne on the Smart Stage), that is my own damn fault.

So with that qualifier . . .

BEST

The Smart Stage. If I had known this was going to be one of my “best” while I was actually at the conference, I would have made some effort to find out exactly how long it has existed, instead of trusting my senior memory. I think this was the third year of Smart Stage, and someone will correct me if I am wrong. However long it has existed, it just keeps getting better and better.

For those of you who have never been, the Smart Stage is an open stage in a large common area of the conference, usually near the bookstore, registration, info booth, etc. The speakers talk about relevant topics, but in short intervals of 20-30 minutes. Most of the topics are really fun, and the smaller audiences allow for more interaction. As I mentioned above, Steve Browne gave a talk about how to make personal connections while at the conference, and you can believe that he made some of the people connect right there in the audience. I also watched Jonathan Segal give a talk about Mad Men and HR, which had us singing the Coke “Hilltop” advertisement at the end. (If you aren’t a Mad Men fan, I am not going to try to explain this to you. See below. If you are, no explanation necessary.) Even though I have blogged about Mad Men several times (here, here, and here), I still gained insights into some current business practices compared to the 1960’s world of Mad Men.

It’s topics like these that are perfect for the Smart Stage, and I hope that SHRM continues to find the value in programming that is relevant, informative, and meaningful, which may also be fun, engaging, and a little wacky.

Electronic Delivery. They are not all the way there, but SHRM made another big leap into paperless this year by delivering newsletters and papers via email. Their conference app has been around for a few years now, but even more features made it an even more useful tool. I didn’t stay at a hotel on the SHRM circuit, so I didn’t walk out of my room to find a newspaper on the threshold like I usually do. I am crossing my fingers that SHRM didn’t deliver them at all (I forgot to ask), thanks to electronic delivery. But my inclusion as a “best” comes with a caveat – quit giving attendees paper anything. Force them to become more environmentally friendly and to embrace better business concepts. If you make them use the app and read information electronically, SHRM starts walking the walk. Given the frequent complaint that attendees slow down the flow of people by using their electronics – one woman stopped and started texting right in front of an escalator immediately after a general session – SHRM shouldn’t take any complaints of electronic incompetency too seriously.

There is another benefit of going totally digital – you wouldn’t need to get a sponsor to pay for all of those useless tote bags. I tried to donate my tote on Tuesday and wandered to the registration looking for the donation box (there has been one at other conferences). I couldn’t find it, but there were hundreds and hundreds of bags on tables behind the registration desk. SHRM should be environmentally aware of the cost, in fossil fuels, of those bags to be made and trucked in. Just because someone else paid the bill doesn’t absolve SHRM from responsibility for the destruction caused by their needless presence.

#SHRM15Blogger. The inclusion of this category as a “best” may strike you as unfair, so it probably is on some level. But the bloggers really drive a lot of conversation out into the world at large. Once again, “hashtagSHRMyear” was made a trending topic – no easy feat. And while many people are tweeting, a lot of those tweets are from outsiders seeing the excellent content that the bloggers tend to put up on twitter and repeating it. More exposure for SHRM and the conference is always a good thing. So I would like to personally thank Dice for sponsoring us, and SHRM’s Amy Thompson, Andrew Morton, and Mary Kaylor for doing things in the lounge that were engaging and delightful. Bringing in a caricaturist for everyone to sit for was my favorite perk, and I am told that was Mary’s idea specifically. Sell those things on the convention floor next year as a fundraiser for SHRM Foundation. I had a lot of people ask where mine came from.

JoanCartoonSHRM15

WORST

Las Vegas As a Venue. It was crowded. Hot. Expensive. And I generally like Las Vegas. But as a SHRM Annual site it sucked. “Hot” means over 100 degrees, every single damn day. I personally didn’t have to walk much outside, but my heart was crying for those people who even had to travel to the hotel next door for a bus. In Vegas, the hotel next door is a long way away. No wonder the cab line was about 100 people long when I left the convention center on Monday. How hot was it standing there waiting?

Expensive in Vegas isn’t about room rates, although that was pretty bad. My personal example is Starbucks. In sunny (and much cooler) Naples, Florida I pay $3.13 every single day for the iced tea that I drink. In Vegas, I paid $5.00. How much were other things marked up there? I’m not sure, but Vegas being what it is, my guess is everything was. A lot. Quit being an elitist organization, SHRM, and embrace everyone who needs you. Lots of pros need you and can’t afford you, and Las Vegas proves that.

Sugar Overdose. Besides experiencing this myself, I had several people specifically mention it to me, which validates it for inclusion here, it in my opinion. And I am not talking about iced tea (which I drink sweetener-free). I am talking about session content.

I have no problem with keynote speakers being cheerleaders – what SHRM calls “motivational.” If the keynoter doesn’t deliver a certain amount of rah-rah, I am apt to get a bit testy. But once the keynoters have left the stage, the sessions should be about real world practitioners giving usable examples that attendees can take back and implement. Cheerleaders are an important part of the game, but they aren’t on the field or court actually playing it. The players – or attendees – need help. That is the level that the session speaker should work at.

I love the concurrent sessions – it’s the most basic reason I go to SHRM Annual. But other than The Smart Stage speakers I have already mentioned, only one of my session leaders actually delivered specific, real world-usable examples of how to achieve the cheerleaders goal. That speaker was Joe Rotella, who was talking about Social Media Concepts. I am sure there were others, but I can’t go to all of the sessions. SHRM’s job should be to make sure that all of the session leaders are less a cheerleader and more a coach.

Lack of Discussion. The Friday before #SHRM15 started, the US Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision that prevented governments from banning gay marriage. Was it too late for SHRM to have a panel discussion around this issue? They claimed it was when I asked a few people. Did they discuss it in 2014? Or 2013? No. But it wasn’t too late in either of those years, so timing was really just an excuse.

I think SHRM needs to get into the education -not advocacy- business about current issues. If they had a panel discussion encompassing several points of view about minimum wage (an issue that affects my industry profoundly), I would have been in the front row with tongue hanging out. Quit telling me why you can’t (something I heard repeatedly), and start finding ways to do. This is the message we should be telling our attendees about everything. Current affairs shouldn’t be different.

“In all my years I have never heard, seen, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yes – I’m for debatin’ anything.” – Peter Stone, writing for the character Stephen Hopkins, delegate to the Continental Congress from Rhode Island, in the musical play 1776.