When someone offers you the chance to spend a few days deep in the topics you love, in region that swells your heart, you don’t let that opportunity pass. So it was for me at the #LoveHR conference in Slovenia in April 2019.
This was also a chance to put Slovenia on CultureConnector’s cultural map, so I got to spend a few days in the capital Ljubljana too, finalising an intercultural guide to Slovenia with business performance and leadership consultant Mojca Istenič. (Check out Slovenian business culture by signing up at www.cultureconnector.com).
Things seemed to be going well when a rainbow pointed the way to the conference location in the small town of Bled in the southern Alps. Its perfect postcard-friendly castle, lake, churches and mountain providing an inspiring backdrop for two days of HR talks. I was there as a speaker, but mainly as a learner, because the program promised insights on some topics which really matter in working life, and wider life.
Lukas got us immediately onto the right track with his opening words, connecting HR to the really big issues facing Europe and humanity: the juggernaut progress of computing power and its inevitable transformative impact on our lives, demographic change, climate, populist politics. I felt in the right place. Damn, I had to cut all that stuff out of my 30 mins talk because, well, there just wasn’t time to show the connectedness of intercultural competence to the success and wellbeing of our societies, so I was delighted that Luka had said right from the start. What HR people decide and do affects so many lives in so many ways. It could all go wrong, but we could help things go right. And we’re off! This is going to be a good conference. Thanks Lukas and EAPM for driving this progressive message.
We’d started well, but HR trend-watcher Tom Haak was able to switch the futurology up a gear. Doesn’t he have the coolest job? Yes, it’s a real job to observe the seeds of the future of work being planted today. Tom presented cases of innovations using virtual job try-outs, gamification, sentiment analysis, wearable trackers, prescriptive analytics, microlearning, data-driven office design, organisation network analysis for talent identification, facial recognition for measuring learning, optimisation of meetings, skill-correlation mapping. Sounds like the worst kind of buzzword bingo, but these were real-world cases that hint at how we’ll be working in years to come.
The trends he asked us to keep an eye on included
- Personalisation of digital employee experience, for example in recruitment such that “technology fuels diversity”
- Trust (Edelman trust barometer link)
- Ending paternalization (where HR offers unattractive “employee journeys” and assumes an ideal standard everyone should follow)
- Portability of HR data
- Simplification of HR and employee interactions
- Agility of small teams
- Moving HR out of its managerial comfort zone
“By using technology we can become more human”
Tom’s recommendations to HR: we’ve got to be data-savvy, use science, ensure we are able to design high-impact solutions, using technology for people, not against people and keep moving forwards.
Our endlessly cheerful host David Urankar radiated warm into the room, and also had a big blue ball with a microphone in it for audience questions. I asked the first question. I had GDPR on my mind. When I threw the ball to the next person, it was the first time a woman had spoken. We were well into the morning program.
WTF? – where are the females?
The WTF button in my conference hotel room was the first sign that not everything was coming from the diversity textbook.
The conference made me realise how much progress towards equality women had made back home in Finland, because the EAPM women or the Slovenian HR people have some battles to fight which are already won in Finland.
The format for the second session was a panel of female HR experts chaired by a silver-haired man. Ouch! Who came up with this innovative way of sharing knowledge?? Ah yes, it was someone from the 1950s. I would have liked to get a full session from the panellist Natal Dank who spoke passionately with the voice of experience in favour of agile HR.
Come on EAPM, you can show the way on diversity!
Finally a science-based approach to unconscious bias at work. The economist Aljoša Valentinčič ran through the areas where prejudice affects decision-making, from capital markets and executive actions to HR processes such as recruitment, promotion and reward. The data tell us that pretty faced-employees different get different outcomes.
Despite the provocative title of his talk, Aljoša Valentinčič showed us how we can use our new awareness of bias to ensure that our organisations get the best out of everyone.
Lucija Mulej Mlakar
For 45 minutes Lucija Mulej Mlakar floated above the conference hall like the castle in the clouds above the lake connecting ideas at a level far too high for my LQ (limited intelligence). Possibly a state of Nirvana was reached at the point when Lucija Mulej Mlakar presented the definition of SQ (spiritual intelligence) “holistic underpinning of processes of bridging and linking classical fragmental thinking earmarked for dualistic and rational mindsets”. The people in the conference hall who had succeeded in following the talk were able to collect a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Ljubljana on the way out.
Next up was my talk on intercultural competence and the measurement of impact. I wanted to start with some basics, how do we recognise that something intercultural is affecting business operations? What skills are needed to navigate cultural difference? The audience interaction was great and I got the feeling that the HR people in the clearly had an appetite to learn about success in diverse workplaces. The many layers of culture in the tiny nation of Slovenia made it an ideal location for the talk. Thanks to Saša Fajmut and the Slovenian HR Association for putting this on the programme.
One love, we get to share it. It leaves you baby, if you don’t care for it.
Next up, Emil Tedeschi and a perspective on HR from a business leader. This CEO had something important to say about respecting differences, he enjoyed this platform to say it, and he owned the stage. Emil Tedeschi gave us a video collage of people around the world singing “Stand by Me” a vivid demonstration of how connected diverse people can be though music and common humanity. Later we got a clip of Bono and Mary J Blige doing some damage to the song “One”. His positivity and humour were infectious. generated such warmth with his stories of to the extend that he could deliver the punchline “ you know son, everyone can **** in their own way” (censored) without offending anyone. We’re one, but we’re not the same….
Winner of the fastest HR person on two legs was Ilja and the fastest woman was Alenka. The theme of the closing talk later in the day would be personal transformation, and it fitted Ilja’s story, as he told me. Ilja Kijiroski is Product Manager at EVN and a recent convert to running. He also told me about the history of his home Macedonia, right up to the country’s new name and its destiny as a NATO and EU member. With generous sponsors and contributions from running and non-running conference delegates, the event raised thousands of Euros for a local children’s home. I decided to give my second-place charity run prize to Alenka. Next time I hope the organisers will have prizes for the fastest women.
Day Two got under with a call for the long-term mental fitness of CEOs. Pierre Casse from Bled Business School specialises in the corrupting influence of power, and offered some suggestions for senior people to stay sane after 5 years at the top:
- Empowerment not delegation
- Learning to translate values into behaviour
- Review and challenge every traditional assumption
- Create a “mind extension” environment
As a final thought, Pierre Casse said we should give up the idea that communication is the process by which we understand each other. We don’t understand each other. Communication is the process by which we invent each other.
Next came two presentations which were more traditional, well inside the HR comfort zone and directly useful for the delegates in the hall. If you came to Bled for practical takeaways, Wouter Van Linden from Belgium and Martin Klaub from Germany had much to offer.
Wouter took us through piece by piece a magnificent onboarding process which KPMG is rolling out in the EMEA region after proving its effectiveness in Belgium. With onboarding there is a big risk of management by checklist, of designing processes which are convenient to run but ineffective and incapable of personalisation. Wouter had a fact-based approach with a built-in feedback loop which checks effectiveness by checking the performance of new-hires over the long-term. KPMG impressed us with its willingness to close down ineffective elements of onboarding and install improvements and innovations in their place. Wouter presented the many different formats in the process, from automated emails through apps and analytics to real conversations, activities, feedback and live sessions. H summarised he whole operation as the “four Cs”:
HR can have a key role in organization success
Martin Klaub gave us some live demos of how IBM are using artificial intelligence to create a data-driven, objective, algorithmic self-service platform for recruitment and other HR processes. IBM uses its Watson technology and “serious” gamification to nurture candidates and pass them through a series of assessments. IBM is using analytics to find links between career history and individual performance. Martin Klaub presented IBM’s determination to boost objectivity and to trust in the data. We hope that the reliance on historical data does not cause replication of the bias of candidates’ previous organisations or the wider society.
In the afternoon of the second day we made the shocking discovery that women can do this too! Who knew?
Saša Fajmut of the Slovenian HR Association had an on-stage fireside chat with the recently promoted general manager of the billion-euro Slovenian game-maker Ekipa2, subsidiary of Outfit7, producer of Talking Tom. Milena Sulanović is a psychologist who runs the business in a people-centric way. Despite working with software developers (which has its advantages for Milena when a new HR application is needed quickly), she considers that Ekipa2 is not data-driven. Rather, the running of the business is data-supported. One of the challenges Milena is solving for Ekipa2 is attracting international talent to relocate to Slovenia, a headache she shares with other CEOs in central and eastern Europe, according to the latest CEOsurvey.pwc.
The round table after lunch brought together five wise men to share their thoughts and take questions on HR competences for the future. Many themes came out, including critical thinking, the importance of evidence, analytics, diagnostics. And as the borders of the organisation become increasingly unclear, networking skills. This session featured a new Q for me, included in the HR competences of the future was TQ, technical intelligence. A highlight of the conference came with an observation from the audience comparing this session with the previous one: “I notice that it takes five men to do the job of two women” (cue lasting applause).
John Amaechi and Mr Stewart from Stockport
John Amaechi was next on, and also commented on the composition of the previous panel, looking all one way. Certainly they didn’t look like John Amaechi. He’s a giant and a former NBA pro. But his rise to success in his chosen sport was far from inevitable. He gave the conference’s closing talk. The theme was personal transformation. If you needed inspiration to propel you home after a good conference, this did the job. John Amaechi is a competent speaker, but he did not rely on fireworks, hyperbole or rhetorical tricks to bring the audience under his inspirational spell. He used the power of his own true story and simple ideas spoken with intelligence, self-awareness and commitment, not to mention some science. John Amaechi (and his mum) told us that change is hard. It’s not like getting famous on reality TV. “You need compelling reasons to change because it will be difficult and you without compelling reason, you’ll run out of fuel before you get there.” While Mr Stewart, John Amaechi’s physics teacher in his Stockport school tried to discourage him from his improbable goals, John Amaechi was willing to pay the fee to succeed, starting his journey by writing three thousand paper letters to institutions asking for a basketball scholarship. He showed us that every decision, no matter how big or how small, is either a step towards or a step away from your goal. He asked us to consider every decision as if it were the most momentous decision of our life – it could be. Many decisions, many days will be hard. He left us with a question. ”Transformation could be yours. Are you willing to the pay the fee?”
In the lobby as my car to the airport was waiting conference delegate Ivan Kuzma of hrprofil.eu told me his own inspiring story of personal transformation. John Amaechi had certainly connected with this audience. The Slovenian HR Association had done brilliant work to bring together people from across the region and Europe to share their love for HR and to inject purpose and meaning into our work. Hvala vam Slovenija!