Kutik on HR Technology: “Companies Need to Help Employees Become the People They Need Tomorrow”

John Hollon HR Tech, HR Technology, Influence

Editor’s Note – FOT Contributor John Hollon is on the ground this week reporting from the HR Technology Conference & Exhibition in Las Vegas.

If it’s October, it must be time for the annual HR Technology Conference & Exhibition in Las Vegas.

This year’s event is expected to set a few records, according to Human Resources Executive magazine: Not only are they projecting more attendees than ever before, but the 2019 edition of HR Tech 2019 has a record 500 vendors and exhibitors, and 100 of those exhibitors are start-ups, which is also a record.

It’s clear that HR Tech has changed a great deal since it’s early days in Chicago, so it seemed like a good time to catch up with the guy who spent so many years building the event into what it is today — Bill Kutik.

Bill is still busy, but his LinkedIn description is short and to-the-point in a very Jeffersonian way: “HCM Analyst, Columnist, Host of video series “Firing Line with Bill Kutik,” Father of HR Technology Conference​.”

Fistful of Talent caught up with the Conference Chair Emeritus right before HR Tech kicked off Tuesday.

A bewildering collection of content”

Question 1: It’s been six years since you chaired your last HR Technology Conference in 2013. What are the biggest changes in the conference, the vendors, and the attendees that you have seen in that time? 

Bill Kutik: When I ran the thing, my average conversation with anyone was 24 seconds, and now I can actually stop and linger and catch up with old friends, which I enjoy tremendously. The biggest change is that the conference was the world’s largest about HR technology when I left it, and it’s become so much bigger in the six years since then.

The new programmer has literally increased the content by 50 percent, which I find incredible, and which really is too much for any one person to get his arms around. I know I couldn’t do it. So I think he has some people helping him and he’s subcontracting pieces of it. In some ways, it has become a somewhat bewildering collection of content. And it really taxes our known technology and user interfaces to explain it to people.

Question 2: You’ve also seen a lot of trends come and go. What are the big trends you’re seeing today? Which ones are the real deal and which are overblown?

Bill Kuitik: Well, obviously the returns are not in on how useful AI and machine learning and robotic process automation are really going to be for HR. It’s just like the client server back in the 1990s; everyone says they have it but very few people do.

What I think is a trend is that the technology is not so complicated, and what seems to be important is the focus on teams. We’ve long known that whatever software you used had to spit out an org chart for your organization, and the chart was out of date the second the printers stopped rolling because things have changed. We also all know that work in companies is done by people from different departments working together on an ad hoc basis. And most HR software cannot really track those teams, cannot help put them together, cannot evaluate them. I really think that the new focus on teams, which ADP among others is promising to do, is the key development and really important.

It’s about making the pipeline better

Question No. 3: Tim Sackett wrote recently about how Amazon is hiring for 30,000 jobs, got 200,000 applications, but may actually need more than 1 million to fill those spots. Will talent management technology ever be able to streamline complicated hiring challenges like that, or even simpler tasks like fixing the candidate experience problem? 

Bill Kutik: The simple answer to that is “no.” I’d like to repeat my favorite story, which is how the military does HR.

The military actually does a wonderful job of creating officers. It has lots of pipelines for that. It has ROTC on college campuses. It has West Point, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy. It even has officer training school for guys they missed after college who are worth hiring. They have their own supply chain for the first lieutenants that they need so desperately and who are their frontline managers.

When they run short, they can’t just walk across the hall at the Pentagon to another military service and try to steal some of their first lieutenants with stock options. If they haven’t developed them themselves, they’re screwed. And that’s what’s happening in American corporations today.

They have to be developing the new people they need internally because they just can’t go out and buy them anymore. That’s particularly true during our current really good economy, when people have a choice of jobs. Companies have to start doing what they did back in the 1950s when General Electric famously had its executive development program, probably the last really good one, in the United States.

Companies need to help employees become the people they need tomorrow and not just be content to let them be the people they are today. They need to go out and hunt down the people they need tomorrow.

it’s well known that Cisco starts training and meeting students in high school in Silicon Valley. And if Amazon needs more warehouse workers, they’re going to have to start going to community colleges and connect with potential warehouse workers. I don’t know exactly what kind of jobs Amazon is hiring for, but the fact is, it’s not about the technology to increase the pipeline. It’s training to make that pipeline better qualified.

Question 4: I saw you listed recently as one of the Top 20 HR leaders on Twitter, and that surprised me because I don’t think of you as a big Twitter user. I know that lists like these can be fickle and arbitrary, but do you really think of yourself as as HR leader? And how much time do you spend on Twitter? 

Bill Kutik: That’s funny. The people who do those lists generally don’t know their (rear) from whatever.

Obviously, I’m not an HR leader. I’ve never held an HR position. I’ve never been a CHRO. You might want to call me a thought leader, and you might want to call me a lot of other things, but certainly, l am not an HR leader.

I’m amused by some of the fecklessness with which those lists are put together. However, that said, I am a huge fan and a huge user of Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook to market my deliverables, to market Firing Line with Bill Kutik, to market my column that I’ve written for 30 years — a column, as you know, that’s for human resource executives.

I am delighted that the tools of marketing have been put in my hands and I no longer have to rely on a marketing person to do what I want, and I have to tell you, I’ve become pretty good at it. So the fact is, I actually am a huge user of Twitter, but unfortunately, some of my friends criticize me for it. I don’t use it for meeting people, or engaging in important discussions; it’s just for telling people what I’ve got for sale — and what I’ve got for sale is free.

“God, I think I’ve met a legend”

Question 5: One last thing … The HR Technology Conference has been part of your Fall agenda for a great many years. Is that ever going to change, or are you just going to keep attending until they wheel you out? And what would you do if you weren’t here?

Bill Kutik: Can you think of anything you’ve done for 22 years that you’re going to stop doing? Not only do I intend to continue doing this until they wheel me out, I intend to have my memorial service here. And given that it’s a trade show with a proper emphasis on income, I’ve been asked by the head of business if I have a sponsor for my memorial service, and I do, but I can’t name the sponsor right now.

So yeah, the answer to your question is I’m going to just keep on doing it because it’s my baby, and now it’s a teenager, and I want to see how it’s doing. And I’d love to see it get into a good college if it can.

And, on a purely fantasy, egotistical level, it’s hard not to love it when some 28-year-old comes up to me and says, “Are you Bill Kutik?” And I say, “I am.” And they say, “God, I think I’ve met a legend.”