Too Good To Be True? Here’s An HR Conference Storyline That’s Worth Checking Out

John Hollon HR, John Hollon

May is here and the spring conference season is getting into full swing. It’s also getting a little more crowded — and maybe a little more interesting too.

No, I don’t mean WorkHuman interesting. I’m not sure any other HR or talent management event is ready to challenge them for what my friend and Fistful of Talent Grand Poobah Kris Dunn describes as “the most progressive HR Conference available” where “it’s hard to get a free Diet Coke … because that stuff is bad for you.”

But progressive HR (whatever that means) and Diet Cokes aside, the spring conference season just got interesting because of a new and intriguing event called UNLEASH America that’s taking place May 15-16 at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.

UNLEASH isn’t entirely new; they were around last June in San Francisco as HR Tech World. This led me to believe that UNLEASH would be a challenger to the big HR Technology Conference that takes place each fall in Las Vegas.

That seemed like an interesting prospect — another HR technology event setting up shop in the very city where HR Tech has had so much success and where they will be holding their 21st annual show right after Labor Day in early September. Just as HR Tech has displaced IHRIM as THE premier talent management technology event, perhaps UNLEASH is hoping for a similar outcome.

It’s a great storyline, but unfortunately, it may be too good to be true.

China Gorman, the managing director for UNLEASH America, and someone who knows a thing or two about conferences from her days as CEO of Great Place to Work and COO of SHRM, tells me that’s not the case. (Full disclosure: I serve with China on the Kronos Workforce Institute advisory board and have known her personally since she was at SHRM.)

A Q&A about the UNLEASH conference

Here’s a bit of a recent Question and Answer I had with China about this event that explains just how different UNLEASH is from the HR Technology conference.

QUESTION: Given how many HR conferences there are these days, and how many have some sort of technology focus, why do we need another one?

CHINA GORMAN: Good question. UNLEASH’s focus is wider than HR technology. Its premise is that, in order to unleash the power of an organization’s people, it needs great technology, great leadership, and a focus on the future of work. So, UNLEASH isn’t just an HR technology event. It brings together leaders from the C-suite of large, medium, and start-up organizations, academic pioneers, and some of the smartest innovators in the people solutions space into one venue for two full days of discussion, engagement, demos, and knowledge sharing.

QUESTION: How will UNLEASH 2018 differ from HR World 2017? Why the name change and what exactly is different? 

CHINA GORMAN: HR Tech World became UNLEASH at the end of 2017 because Marc Coleman, our founder, believed that it was time to broaden our remit to include all C-suite leaders—not just CHROs—and to include content that delves into the future of work and organizations.

HR technology is a critical component of the future of work, but it isn’t the only component. Leadership, strategy, science, research, and people all will play important roles as we hurtle into the future. This integrated event reflects all of those dynamics.

QUESTION: OK, how will UNLEASH differ from other HR technology events out there?

CHINA GORMAN: This isn’t just an HR conference or an HR tech show. This is the place where groundbreaking discussions happen between organization leaders, innovators, bleeding-edge start-ups, and true thought leaders. UNLEASH creates the space, the stage, the experience—ALL the ingredients needed—to have world-and-business-changing conversations.

Additionally, our Start-Up Zone and competition, which was first innovated by Marc Coleman, will be a significant feature. Bringing together more than 24 start-ups, investors, and buyers creates a buzz in the expo that’s hard to explain—and hard to resist.

The start-up competition will feature a number of new entrants in our ecosystem competing for the UNLEASH Start-Up Award. It’s an exciting and significant part of the event that has resulted over the years in more than €1 Billion ($1.21 billion US) in direct investments.

Many organizations that are successful fixtures in the HR solutions world got their start at an HR Tech World event and have used that experience, learning, and investor/buyer introductions to successfully scale their businesses. Many of our multi-year sponsors were once competitors on our start-up stage.

More female speakers than you EVER see 

Here’s my take: Conferences come and conferences go, but no conference can continue to grow and be successful unless it evolves. That seems to be what’s behind the change from HR Tech World to UNLEASH, and it will be interesting to see if they can truly broaden the conference agenda beyond technology in the HR and talent management space.

I’m eager to see how it goes, but not everyone is convinced.

One technology analyst I respect told me that the “subtle new positioning” for UNLEASH was “invisible” to them. Another told me that they weren’t sure how successful the conference would be with vendors.

Everyone has their own view, of course, but until UNLEASH actually has put on a conference under the new format, who knows? I’ll take them at their word until proven otherwise.

However, one thing I did notice as I looked over the UNLEASH America agenda: It has more female speakers on the agenda than I have ever seen at any other HR or talent management event, anywhere.

By my count, 42 out of the 86 speakers and panelists listed on the conference website are women. That’s nearly a 50-50 male to female split. That’s incredibly diverse in the world of conferences, and China tells me that it’s even more diverse than that when you get into the ethnic, age, and regional mix of the scheduled presenters.

Very few conferences are doing that, although a lot—including HR Tech with their Women in Technology track—are trying, so kudos to UNLEASH for getting ahead of the curve.

A storyline that’s hard to resist

That UNLEASH vs HR Tech storyline, though, keeps popping up … maybe because it’s just so damn interesting.

In fact, I hear through the grapevine that the folks who run the HR Technology Conference aren’t happy with UNLEASH America moving to their turf in Las Vegas. That would be understandable IF … UNLEASH was a direct competitor to HR Tech, but it’s still not clear that’s the case.

But, I’m always a sucker for an intriguing storyline. Either way, it makes it worth attending just to see how things actually play out.

I’ll know more after my two days at UNLEASH in Sin City later this month.