Non HR-observations from a big HR conference on the other side of the world
I recently attended the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, or CIPD to its friends, conference and exhibition in Manchester, UK as part of my professional development – it also helps me to develop and maintain relationships with others from HR membership associations from around the world. I try to get to this conference and expo as often as workload and finances permit, and I average about one visit every two years.
This year HRINZ National President, Catherine Taylor, attended too – it’s important that the HRINZ President gets to attend at least one CIPD conference, and preferably at the beginning of their term as it can take a while to build all those relationships that are vital to an organisation as distant from the rest of the world as ours is.
Manchester in November can be pretty bleak but this year we arrived to a late heat wave with temperatures hitting 16 degrees for a few minutes some days and some watery sunshine – on one day we even had a day of clear blue skies with not a cloud in sight. Now you’re probably wondering how we managed to see the sky given that we were there to work, but we planned our trip to arrive on the weekend to recover from the inevitable jetlag that comes with 26 hours of flying and 10 hours of killing time in transit lounges at various airports.
On Monday evening things got underway with a welcome reception for international delegates followed by a dinner for those from HR membership associations from around the world so that we could compare notes and talk in-depth about HR issues affecting each of our respective countries’ workplaces and memberships. The conference started on Tuesday morning and ran for three days.
Catherine will cover HR highlights from the sessions we attended in her blog post and magazine article but I thought, as the CEO of HRINZ, I’d talk in my blog post about the operational differences I picked up between a large UK HR conference and exhibition and a small NZ conference and expo. While it’s not about HR per se, there are some interesting ‘people’ observations to share.
Names and numbers
Both countries call it a conference, unlike the US (congress) and Australia (convention) however it’s an exhibition in the UK but an expo at home. They look pretty similar though, once you allow for the sheer scale of these things. This year’s conference was smaller than usual with around 1300 delegates – Britain is still in the grips of workplace uncertainty and the effects of the recession and the Euro crisis are being widely felt – though past conferences have seen numbers hover around 3,000.
The US Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conferences attract around 13,000 delegates, so with about 300 attending the average HRINZ conference scale does play a pretty big part in creating a different experience. Their expos are much larger too and they promote quite different products and services to the HRINZ HR Expo but more about that later.
Registration on the day is managed using electronic kiosks – delegates print their own name tags and collect a conference bag off a stand – and help is available for those that need it if you don’t mind queuing. Every time a delegate enters the expo hall or moves into the conference sessions’ areas the bar codes on their name tags are swiped with an electronic reader.
As delegates enter sessions they’re handed an A4 booklet which contains the speakers’ slides, some pages for note taking and an evaluation form. Slides are not provided post-conference and the evaluation forms are completely manual, which must take forever to be entered into a spreadsheet before being analysed and reported on.
I’m told that this system is going to change as it’s fraught with difficulties, especially when speakers don’t supply slides or decide to change them on the day. Not to mention the whole sustainability issue for the environment (and the cost of producing them).
Cell phone etiquette is the same in both countries and ignored equally, though with larger audiences the incidence occurs more of course. The same can be said about delegates arriving late and leaving early. When there is time for questions the number of statements made by some delegates still tends to outweigh the number of actual questions asked, and are nearly always prefaced with “Thanks for a really interesting session which I found incredibly valuable…” and then they go into a long convoluted story about an issue or experience that they’d like to share, but with no question in sight, or perhaps a patsy question. When there is only limited time for questions this can be really annoying for the rest of the audience and you can almost hear mutterings of “Do it in your own time!”.
I think our audiences are far more direct in their questions.
Pitch seems to be a perennial problem the world over – it’s almost impossible to please everyone in the audience as they all come from such different backgrounds and stages in their careers and some need transactional / operational information (usually in very specific detail with lots of graphs and charts) while others like me want to hear about the big picture stuff that is preferably fresh / new, or at least approached from a different angle. And whatever is presented must be robust and credible and presented well, preferably with a bit of humour or quirkiness.
Fortunately I always manage to attend a few sessions where the speaker is brilliant (usually in the concurrent sessions) and after the session while the speaker is packing up their notes I rush to the front of the room waving my business card and asking if they’d like to speak at the best little HR conference in the world.
I’m rarely turned down as almost everyone wants to come to New Zealand (I never mention how long it will take to get there or to recover from the jetlag at both ends as I don’t want to burst their bubbles), though it doesn’t always work out, usually because of their existing work commitments or unrealistic fee expectation. Once they’ve been to New Zealand they tend to stay friends of HRINZ for life, or at least exchange the odd email for a few years.
One thing I love about the CIPD Conference, but which we could never do, is the fact that there are so many international delegates from all over the world. CIPD creates an international lounge for us within the exhibition hall and it’s great for networking, using for meetings or just chilling in during some of the breaks. They need to work on the quality of the coffee though…
Speaking of catering, there’s another huge difference between our events when it comes to lunches. Delegates are provided with a hot lunch each day, which is set up rather like a large workplace canteen. You line up with your plate and are given two options – with meat or without meat. Their idea of ‘dietary requirements’ is addressed very simply – you’re either a carnivore or a vegetarian. They don’t serve fish or chicken for those who like to eat white meat instead of red, and the meat is invariably mince.
We had cottage (shepherds) pie and carrots on day one, chilli con carne on rice on day two, and lasagne and salad on day three. Vegetarians were offered the same meals but with vegetables replacing the mince. The food was wholesome and tasty, portion sizes were predetermined by the serving staff, and energy levels kept high. There were no desserts for those with a sweet tooth, but free lollies and chocolate abounded on the exhibitors stands for those needing a ‘white death’ fix.
As someone who gets involved with special dietary requirements when we hold HRINZ conferences, and knowing how much time and effort meeting everyone’s ‘special dietary needs’ can take, I was intrigued at how CIPD handled this. So much so that on day two I asked one of the catering staff how they managed to cater for people with food allergies, intolerances and preferences.
There didn’t seem to be any special bay with trays of personalised meals hovering and no-one seemed to be asking for anything special. The chap I asked looked at me blankly, paused for a moment and then said “There’s a vegetarian option”. I persisted and said “but what about people who can’t eat dairy / gluten / nuts / eggs etc?” to which he replied, “There’s a vegetarian option”. I gave up at that point.
I wonder how they manage the complaints. At our conferences as we spend almost as much time on sorting out dietary requests as we do putting the programme together. Well a slight exaggeration but sometimes it feels like it, and it’s really soul destroying when those specially crafted meals aren’t even collected by the individuals who have requested them.
Because the exhibition hall in Manchester is huge (it’s held in the former railway station which has been beautifully restored) there is room to have stands from quite different suppliers to the ones we have room for in New Zealand.
There’s the usual EAP and counselling offerings, software providers and a range of tools and solutions on offer. There are education providers (though I noticed less this time) and of course remuneration and recruitment organisations.
But the thing that really stood out for me this year was the sheer number of exhibitors offering incentives and rewards. Child care facilities or programmes were a close second. Alcoholics Anonymous had a stand too – that was a first for me, though there have been similar support agencies exhibiting in previous years. The US SHRM expo I visited in 2006 was over represented with weight loss programmes (Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers mainly) probably to counter the Dunkin Donuts which were supplied at coffee breaks!
Dotted around the expo hall were spaces for cafes, face to face networking areas as well as social media networking, and even several seminar areas which exhibitors presented mini seminars at – all possible because of the sheer vastness of the venue.
I picked up a few pearls which include little things like providing a phone battery charging service and a proper coat check service to avoid coats being mixed up and taken by the wrong people.
And the CIPD use a neat little mini programme with sessions on one side and a map of the venue on the other – we’ll be adopting this to get around having to print conference handbooks which probably no-one reads anyway.
Overall I enjoyed the conference on several levels – it’s always good to feed your brain, to take a break and do something different for a few days, and to observe how others do things. The networking is always good at these events, but the best thing is reminding people that New Zealand, despite its tiny population size and remoteness from the rest of the world, can hold its own in the area of doing pretty good HR and delivering small, but perfectly formed, conferences to a world standard.