acdcI don’t get out a whole hell of a lot, at least as far as the trade show circuit is concerned; taking the time out of my day job for “thought leadership” inevitably leaves me running behind schedule. Factor in the fact that my company pays me on the basis of billable hours, and the opportunity cost for taking this kind of time off is pretty much prohibitive, at least where our business and bottom line is concerned.

Which is why it was so unusual for me to find myself attending two different conferences in two consecutive weeks recently. All I can say is, the future of recruiting is truly terrifying – and the view ahead for conventional HR looks even worse, if you can believe it. I probably wouldn’t have if not for my most recent road trip, honestly.

Two weeks ago, I was in New Orleans to attend the Collision Conference, and the week after went from the Crescent City to the Windy City to attend the HRO Today Forum in Chicago.

While there’s a ton of talk about how repetitive and interchangeable most industry events or trade shows can be, I have to say that these two conferences were about as disparate in terms of focus, agenda and attendees as any two events could possibly be.

Hell, I’m going to bet that the GOP Convention in Cleveland and the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Philly have more in common than the two consecutive conferences I’ve just covered. Seriously.

Fly on the Wall.

I mean, it should be pretty obvious that one of the world’s largest showcases for high tech startups and a closed industry symposium dedicated to the exciting world of offshoring, outsourcing and other contingent workforce issues.

One, obviously, was dedicated largely to company growth, as Collision brought together thousands of entrepreneurs, potential investors and partners; the other, inherently, focused largely on company retraction – that is, how to eliminate the costs and associated liability (legal and fiduciary) of full time employees by partnering with a third party provider to make headcount count for more (in theory, at least).

Despite the diffusion and disparate dialogue, however, both of these conferences turned out to have a somewhat surprising connection, a commonality that starts with the fact that both the HRO Today Forum and Collision stood on opposite sides of what is in fact, upon closer inspection, the exact same line.

HRO Today brought together the senior HR leadership and executive management representing some of the world’s biggest brands and biggest MSP/RPO/BPO providers – a very Gordon Gecko kind of crowd.

Collision, by contrast, was the usual startup suspects, all hoodies and moustaches and skinny jeans, a largely male crowd that looked a little bit like the Hobbit gone hipster.

The strange thing was, even in the startup Shire, it was almost impossible to avoid HR and recruiting – literally dozens of the products and platforms being pitched and previewed in New Orleans were dedicated to fixing what’s broken in HR and recruiting, which have emerged from something of a provincial backwater into one of the sexiest sectors in the SaaS startup space.

Like the HRO Today attendees, the entrepreneurs showcasing their stuff at Collision have dedicated themselves (and their businesses) to improved talent acquisition and management outcomes, only their approach to doing so probably couldn’t be more different, in style or in substance. It was clear that over these two weeks, I was watching what represented the two opposing factions fighting the proverbial “war for talent,” one that seems to have slowed into something of a stalemate.

It’s pretty much The Empire versus the Rebels right now, startups versus the status quo, the traditional world of work versus the technological (or Gen Y versus the Boomers, if you want to get all HR about it).

Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap).

acdcI’m aligned squarely with the latter camp, and from the point of view of those of us wild and crazy kids fighting for what’s new and what’s next, all I can say is that we’re not only hungry – and ready – for a fundamental change in the way the world of work works, but also, confident that we can finally move the needle on the slow, unchanging, stodgy, bloated and largely ineffective function entrenched in the mindsets and methodology of the old guard fighting for the Pyrrhic Victory of professional preservation.

The traditional HR practitioners of HRO Today see “disruption” as a pejorative; the emerging entrepreneurs and twentysomething techies see “disruption” as a possibility. One fears change, the other needs it – and the tension between these two contrary camps can prove tangible, as the last two weeks seemed to suggest.

It reminds me of the dichotomy that I saw startups positioning themselves as would-be disruptors to the hugely ineffective and inefficient healthcare industry a few years ago.

While the biotech and pharma sector traditionally has limited competition due to manifold barriers for entry, including rules and regulations designed to stifle competition and slow innovation under the ostensible guise of “patient safety,” somehow, even this most staid and stable of segments has seen its status quo inexorably altered by the startups largely responsible for driving much of the conversation – and change – within the healthcare industry today.

If you don’t believe the fact that we’re seeing an unprecedented change of pace in patient care, just look at the proliferation of step trackers or wearable tech (ala FitBit, Nike Fuel, the Apple Watch) even the least geeky of your friends probably has on most of the time these days. The rise of these personalized technologies as a core component of our collective approach to preventative health proves the fact that if there’s a chance for change, and change is needed, it will find its way into whatever space it’s most needed.

The goal, of course, is simple: to solve even the most perpetually pressing or persistent of old problems through new approaches, solutions or technologies. This possibility is the very foundation upon which pretty much every startup starts up – the possibility of positive change is one of the most powerful motivators there is.

The fear of this change, conversely, can also be one of the scariest scenarios in business – or in life – because, well, the fear of the unknown is something most of us know all too well, really. The question becomes, is the problem we know worse than the unknown change required to finally fix it?

The verdict in HR and recruiting, it seems, remains somewhat split.



Clearly, the legacy of legacy applicant tracking systems (ATS) and human capital management (HCM) systems shows just how far many HR leaders would go to avoid change, renewing with the same shitty service provider year after year only because starting from scratch seems like too much time, effort and money. Of course, the fact that your system is probably running on an archaic code base and has the UI/UX sophistication of an Atari 2600 (and the processing power to match) proves who really pays the costs for software or systems stasis.

It’s the end users like me and you, not the HR leaders signing the contracts, who are the ones getting screwed. This also explains why so many recruiters treat specious social networks like Facebook and Twitter like some sort of silver bullet, only these “brand new recruiting technologies” are at least a dozen years old (LinkedIn, for example, has been around 14 years – which was around the last time Taleo or Successfactors updated their interfaces, coincidentally).

HR would like to believe that they can control the way change happens, on a timetable that they define. Change much more manageable a step at a time – even if HR should probably be leaping more often than they’re looking. HR sees change as incremental, a new policy or procedure or process or platform, but the fact is, the most meaningful changes are the ones that employers have nothing to do with – because the truth is that HR is no longer the primary agent of change within our function, our employees are.

That’s why we’re occupied with projects like determining an employer brand, or teaching recruiters how to tweet, or planning on an enterprise wide approach to posting Glassdoor reviews as part of some pilot program you’re working to roll out across the company.

Or some bullshit like that. You see, we distract ourselves from the real changes happening all around us by creating problems that don’t really need fixing, but allow us to sweep the big stuff under the rug for someone else to deal with at a later date. You’re too busy creating employee social media policies or requiring your staff to attend some sort of stupid “social recruiting” training instead of, say, figuring out what the best messages, mediums and messages might be for the candidates you’re actually trying to target.

We’d rather create rules and red tape than change or innovation, and the result is a profession whose “best practices” are anything but, frankly.

Flick of the Switch. note to my HR peeps out there: more regulations, more rules and more rigor is NOT the answer to slowing or stopping change – as the cliche goes, change is inevitable, and whether you like it or not, you can’t defend against change. It’s gonna come, and if you’re not ready, you’re screwed – and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.

More rules calcify the system and the status quo; we should be looking to shatter structures instead of embrace them, in fact. Business as usual is anything but in the business of human capital.

You already know most of this, of course, and probably if you’re one of the HRO Today crowd (the “adults,” if you will), you think that you’ve not only gotten that seat at the grownup table you’re been bitching about for years, but that those of us still sitting at the “kid’s table” have no idea what the hell we’re talking about.

I mean, there’s no way that those wild and crazy Millennials can understand the realities or the intricacies inherent to recruiting and retention; fat chance they have the wherewithal to deal with senior leaders or the C-Suite, which is just as well, lest we remind those P&L powerbrokers of the fact that we’re a huge cost center heavily scrutinized internally for potential cost savings while having to also stay out of the external spotlight, avoiding employee relations pitfalls and bad PR while keeping and employees and clients happy.

This is what keeping your HR job takes, and the fact is that even the most junior recruiters or freshly minted HR pros are acutely aware of the fact that keeping your head down is critical to keeping your headcount. That’s why we’re so used to putting up and shutting up, common sense and bottom line be damned.

Because recruiters, as the canary in the economic coal mine, know work is largely temporal – and when our time is up, turns out, is when the HRO Today crowd steps in.

The HRO Today Forum, held in the swanky Drake hotel in Chicago, felt to me a little like some sort of exorcism crossed with a cheesy self-help seminar. Think Joel Osteen meets Rosemary’s Baby, or “Chicken Soup for the Faustian Capitalist Soul,” with every session on the agenda, every topic, and every conversation designed to scare the shit out of attendees and convince them that not only is the end nigh, but that by adopting what’s new and what’s next, that change can be slowed from a seeming deluge into a trappable trickle.

For example, no one in HR and TA really cares all that much about metrics, but time-to-fill and cost-per-hire only show what’s happened, not what can happen – which is why the “predictive analytics” and “big data” sessions at the conference were all presented as tools for HR leaders to support business cases and decisions they’ve already made, rather than influence the ones we’ve yet to make. This is great for convincing our CFOs to give us budget – after all, you’ve got numbers that tell whatever story you need to save your ass, even if that means outsourcing the rest of your colleagues or replacing FTEs with contract recruiters.

Hey, why look at past profligate spending when you can look at potential cost savings instead? HR likes safe, and there’s nothing safer than knowing how a story ends before it begins.


Plug Me In.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the flow of the money, and you’ll see that the real use of technology in this space is to reassert control and slow change while appearing superficially different and cutting edge. The vendors selling into HRO Today are peddling products in search of a problem; the entrepreneurs at Collision, conversely, seemed to be engineering real solutions to solve real problems, or the exact opposite approach as most HR Technology plays or recruiting tools out there today.

As a marketing guy, I’m kind of a geek for copy and collateral, and took tote bags full of printed handouts, product one sheets, biz dev business cards and, of course, shitty swag from both events – and when I got back from my two weeks, as drastically different as these two events obviously were, I admit, I had a hard time telling which conference each set was from, at least at first glance. The thing is, whether you’re pitching to VCs, starting up a startup or selling software into an enterprise, you’re focusing on the same stuff as everyone else: scalability, reliability and support.

Of course, client logos and testimonials from business leaders at big brands are far more commonplace than technical specs, meaningful product information or even some sort of cogent case use or quantifiable justification for exactly how whatever product is being pitched will actually save time, money or energy – much less provide any sort of numbers whatsoever, except maybe a price point – on the one hand touting analytics while on the other completely ignoring the fact that most of the claims in this collateral is almost impossible to measure.

“Quality of hire” is tilting at windmills; and you can’t measure stuff like an “employer brand” or “corporate culture,” really, which is why we love measuring ourselves on these nebulous concepts so damned much.

It’s no secret that the key to sales is by “selling the problem,” as they said in Glengarry Glen Ross; you’ll never listen to a pitch for a better painkiller until someone reminds you just how miserable migraines can be, and how bad your headaches can be, even when you’re taking your usual aspirin. Sure, the new stuff is a lot more expensive, but who wouldn’t pay to avoid unnecessary pain, right?

The only problem is that in wandering the expo hall in Chicago and stopping by the recruiting and HR tech startups in New Orleans, I realized that it’s impossible for these vendors to “sell the problem,” because in most cases (video interviewing, looking at you), there’s no problem at all.

Just a bunch of solutions in search of someone to spook – from competitive intelligence to compliance to compensation, these vendors all have the perfect fit to the stuff that really scares the shit out or HR practitioners, because they more or less invented this stuff. There’s nothing to fear but fear itself – unless you’re selling HR Technology, in which case, it might just be your best friend.

Now, while it seemed that the kids in the Collision crowd were trying to tackle bigger problems and actually provide solutions to the stuff that actually needs solving, the fact is their inexperience, outsider perspective and naivete about how the real world of work works – particularly for the end users who have to live inside these products every day – leads them to propose silver bullet solutions, “disruptive tech” or “game changing software” before really understanding the rules of the game, their clients’ business problems or the specific challenges HR and recruiting practitioners and leaders are trying to solve.

They have all the answers – the problem is that they’re not sure what the question really is.

No Bull.

beevisMaybe, just maybe, this bifurcation is the split that’s really the bigger change in business, beyond simply the tech and tools – the emerging providers, platforms and partners out there, the Collision crowd, seem to be completely obsessed with solving pain points or overcoming problems, whether or not they’re actually fixing stuff that’s really broken.

Conversely, the more traditional HRO Today crowd seems to be obsessed with categorically denying those pain points or problems exist at all.

Talk about “maturity cycles” – ignorance is the first step towards obsolescence, which, like their legacy systems, seem largely where most enterprise HR leaders are heading these days. It’s not too late to change, though; what if – and I know this sounds crazy, but bear with me.

Instead of saying, “it takes a ton of time, money and a 3 year contract to take a chance on a new ATS and migrate away from the old one; we’ve invested so much into that system already, let’s not bother with changing to one that actually works,” we could say:

“Very little of the data coming from our ATS is valid because we have so many damn point solutions filling the capability gaps in our process, and because this patchwork of tools is almost impossible to train recruiters on, much less get them to adopt, let’s cut our losses and blow the whole thing up.” 

Better yet, since we’re starting from scratch, maybe it might make sense for us to take a step back and redesign our processes and policies so that they’re more simple, straightforward and streamlined instead of adding more complexity through another layer of technology. And while we’re looking at what tech will work the best for our specific business needs, let’s maybe look at what’s going to be the most impactful for our long term business and bottom line results instead of just buying a replacement based off strictly off of RFP and price point.

Makes sense, right? I don’t think the Collision crowd or the HRO Today crowd has this middle ground figured out, at least not yet. But I’m encouraged that the two sides, the disruptors and the traditionalists, seem to be converging closer than ever before.

If the two can compromise, then that’s where the real change will happen. It takes more than someone who sees the future to choose the best tools and technology – it takes someone who knows the past, too. It takes someone who knows what’s new and what’s next, but only if that person can also consider what’s working and what’s always worked (or never has). I

t’s this place where pragmatism and possibility meet that real change really happens – and I’m convinced that these two sides are actually closer than most of us probably think. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that, as someone once said, “find an industry where there are always lines or there are no fans if you really want to disrupt things.” HR is a pretty good choice, by this litmus test. Cable companies, telecoms and once venerable brands like Blockbuster, Kodak, Nokia and Circuit City already know the steep costs of stasis, and the terrible price of hubris – which begs the question, is HR and TA going to be able to embrace real change and move far enough ahead of the market to avoid a similar fate as these once venerable, and profitable, businesses and brands?

Or are we going to stand there and watch the flood waters rise, unable to tread water fast enough to swim ahead? One thing is clear: we’re already drowning, and after HRO Today and Collision, I can tell you that while both conferences represent different styles, approaches and philosophies to technology, both the New Kids on the Block and the Powers that Be can agree that we’re in this together

If we don’t get it right, right now, we’re not going to be around long enough as a dedicated function to get another chance. And that’s one opportunity cost none of us can afford to pass up.

ellisAbout the Author: As the VP of Inbound Marketing at TMP Worldwide, James Ellis has been a digital strategy thinker of the MacGyver/Mad Scientist school: hacking disparate digital ideas together to serve a strategic business objective.

Whether it was bringing Bucky Badger to the social world or content marketing to the pharmaceutical space, James pushes boundaries regardless of the industry. He currently helps Fortune 500 companies attract and retain the best employees.

Connect with James on LinkedIn, follow him on Twitter @TheWarForTalent or check out his work at SaltLab. 

By James Ellis

James Ellis is an authority on employer branding, focusing on companies who think they have no choice but to post and pray for talent. He is the principal of Employer Brand Labs, a bestselling author, keynote speaker, practitioner, and podcaster with a wealth of experience across multiple industries for almost a decade. You can find him on LinkedIn or subscribe to his free weekly newsletter The Change Agents.