Pure Imagination and HR Tech.
In May, I had the opportunity to go to the International Sweets and Snacks Expo in Chicago, which is the world’s largest trade show for the merchants of death known as Big Sugar. It’s like most conferences, I guess; you go in, get your branded tote bag, and walk the floor.
Only, the floor is covered with rows of exhibitors ranging from Ghirardelli to Coca Cola to the Wonderful World of Haribo, and each of the thousands of booths had their full range of product ready for sampling.
We’re talking rich neighborhood on Halloween samples, too – and after I finished losing my left foot to the diabetes walking the trade show floor, I still managed to fill my tote bag up with king size candy bars, sundry varieties of jerky, and more varieties of dried fruit and mixed nuts than at a SHRM event (boom).
Oompa Loompa: Another Riddle for You.
It was, in short, the complete antithesis of the HR Technology Conference. One, it was inherently fun – like, a badge entitles you to be a literal kid in a candy store, only the candy store takes up the entirety of Chicago’s McCormick Place, the largest convention center in the United States (and occasional HR Technology destination).
Unless you’re a sadist or auditioning for a Karen Carpenter biopic, you actually care about product launches (Bugles are back, and their friend CornNuts now come in Climato flavor) and big picture market trends (this year, apparently, the most noteworthy emerging categories are bug-infused candies and umami chocolates).
The best part: you get to try the product. There’s really no games or gimmicks. There are literally hundreds of booths with different variations on the same saturated fat and processed sugar theme, but you know, and I know, all candies aren’t created equal.
The company that was giving out Circus Peanuts and those hard strawberry candies that you can normally only find in nursing homes and nail salons, for example, had a big booth, maybe 50 by 50, but c’mon.
Anyone who’s eaten a candy corn (the specialty of the house) knows better than to be sucked in by their swag and giveaways – frankly, no matter how cool their event marketing plan is, you still can’t hide the fact that Abba Zabba is no one’s friend (with apologies to Thurgood Jenkins).
Sure, there are some hidden surprises if you look really hard – like who knew they would have Andes Mints and Blow Pops at the Tootsie Roll booth? But mostly, if was pretty upfront. Here is our product. Try it. If you like it, you buy it. If not, then you spit it out and move on.
Pricing was completely transparent, and there was no talk of roadmaps or integrations or implementation. There was no solution selling, no guy wearing one of those Rent mics talking through a PowerPoint about how the snack industry is broken, or how one product would change candy as we know it (so, Slugworth, your Everlasting Gobstopper is a pipe dream).
The Candy Man Can.
Again, this was the first one of these I’d been to, but it was a nice departure from the average recruiting related event, to say the least. Like HR Tech, candy doesn’t really change a whole lot from year to year; in fact, nostalgia is one of the confection industry’s most blatant marketing techniques.
Like HR Tech, the major players don’t really need “innovation” or “disruption” to maintain market share – they own distribution and visual merchandising, which matters the most. It’s a similar advantage to that which on-premise vendors used to enjoy.
A captive consumer will always choose convenience over capabilities, because going out to market is a giant pain when you’ve got something similar that’s superficially the same thing, particularly if the pricing is marginally better.
Oracle, SAP, ADP, and the legacy vendors are, essentially, the store brand of SaaS solutions. Not the best, but largely, not worth shopping around for better alternatives, either.
Cheer Up, Charlie.
I apologize for the long lede and extended analogy (never met a metaphor I didn’t like), but I don’t go to a whole lot of major trade shows outside this industry, so I found the experience illustrative.
Because while to see me is to know I have some expertise in snacking, I don’t know what I don’t know, and it turns out, that’s pretty much the entire Consumer Packed Goods industry.
Similarly, while I think a lot of attendees at HR Technology think they’re pretty sophisticated when it comes to people products, the fact is, most people don’t actually understand the machinations of the market or the esoteric stuff that goes on behind the scenes.
They only know that while the product might taste like expired Indian food, at least it’s edible, and when you’re in HR, sustenance is really tantamount to survival, so you keep eating whatever you’re fed, because hey, a terrible ATS is better than no ATS, the thinking goes (spoiler alert: this is absolutely not true).
So while I’m sure there were some mediocre vendors peddling subpar snacks at that show, I couldn’t tell you most of them (except Brach's and Necco, maybe). I don’t have sophisticated tastes. The booths were inviting, the branding enticing and the people from the companies seemed superficially nice.
Then I realized, this is exactly the same reason Oracle, SAP and Workday control around 40-50% of the overall spend in the enterprise HCM market, continue to consolidate that market share (TA is slightly more fractured, but it’s an outlier, like beef jerky or Takis at the Sweet and Snack show).
Really, for the companies with the biggest booths and most elaborate activations, the vendors with the most ubiquitous and obnoxious event marketing programs, all they have to do is show up, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang style, and lie in wait until the kids inevitably come crashing into their candy store.
“All the candy you can eat, and all free today” sounds like a good product pitch, until you end up orphaned on an island while Dick Van Dyke sings you a terrible Sherman Brothers song as you’re trying to fall asleep.
Similarly, Workday Recruiting for free sounds like a can’t miss value when you’re in the market for a core HCM system, until you’re trapped in a 3 year contract and have to actually make a hire.
Sweet dreams, sucker.
I Want It Now.
This year marked the tenth year in a row I attended the HR Technology Conference. That’s right. I’ve been doing this a decade, and that’s easily the most depressing thing I’ve ever written.
Last year, I came away from the event with two big (mostly rhetorical, largely unrelated) questions that I realized, even after all these years, I still couldn’t figure out.
- Why do trade shows still exist?
- Why do the companies with the biggest market share always have the worst technology?
It took my random trip to the Sweet and Snack show to figure out that I would never be able to answer these questions if I went to HR Technology burdened by things like facts, empirical evidence or being technically proficient enough to know that “mobile” and “the cloud” shouldn’t still be selling points in 2018.
This year, for the first time since my first HR Tech, I went in with a completely open mind. I thought, maybe I could experience what it was like to approach a vendor without any preconceived notions about product, the market or the competitive landscape, I’d have some revelation.
I don’t know what. Maybe like, “oh, yeah. I guess Oracle’s font kit is retro, not a reject from the Back to the Future title cards” or, “hey, I get why video interviewing should be a standalone category” or “The Ladders really is the Black Card of job advertising.”
If nothing that specific, maybe, just maybe, I’d stop being so damned cynical and learn to fall in love with the category again.
I didn’t take briefings. I didn’t schedule analyst meetings, or demos, or even apply for media credentials. Hell, I didn’t even go to any sessions, because, well, case studies are B2B marketing’s term for “annoying product placement bordering on infomercial,” and even with an open mind, I don’t really care about what some regional bank could do with their payroll solution.
Objectively, I’m not sure who does, but someone must, because there are a lot of those on the agenda, every year. And a lot of the time, I suffer through those, since they’re more bearable than hearing some “analyst” take a deep dive through “research” that’s like 250 people responding to a SurveyMonkey poll on benefits selection.
I should have gone into the snacks business, where a “wellness program” involves a manufacturer’s rebate for buying in bulk, instead of publicly shaming employees through biometric data and “gamification.”
But I ended up here. In Las Vegas.
At my tenth consecutive HR Technology Conference. No agenda other than walking the trade floor with Allegis’ leadership and seeing what was cool and if there was anything worth investigating more closely.
I've Got a Golden Ticket?
My goal: pretend I knew as little as your average VP Talent or HR. So, I grabbed my IBM ThinkPad, outdated Samsung phone and my handy copy of “Glassdoor Presents: Employer Branding For Dummies” and set out to figure out whether I should be scared of AI or not. And by not looking for any answers, somehow resolved my most pressing questions.
1. Trade shows exist so that people with real jobs (eg “buyers”) can be out of the office, feel like they’re up on trends, tech and tools even without any context to know whether or not what they’re selling is worth buying, and because the people who make SaaS decisions based on experiences at in person events are the exact same people who never answer emails, calls or messages.
This means for vendors, this is their only chance to glad hand someone who’s clearly so oblivious they allow their badge to be scanned for a “chance” at an Amazon gift card (with a guarantee of 100 marketing emails and calls to immediately follow).
These “decision makers” then buy products not because they’re actually making a decision, but so they don’t have to – which is why HR Tech is one stop shopping if you’re trying to CYA by finding point solutions to fix the exact same problems caused by implementing your current vendor, or trying to CYA before re-upping with said non-viable provider under the guise of due diligence.
2. The companies with the biggest market share (and biggest booths) also have the worst technology because they don’t care about product or people, only profits. And this strategy continues to work, so there’s no point in changing it.
Candidate experience is only a problem so vendors can charge for a solution instead of reinvesting in UI, and the “AI revolution” is basically marketing’s justification for product not actually making an impact on anything…yet.
The future of work is never going to be here, so might as well monetize it right now, right?
Remember, there are no such things as 'Golden Tickets' for candy or 'Silver Bullets for sourcing' and recruiting. But reality doesn’t matter when intelligence is artificial.
As long as the Schnozzberries still taste like Schnozzberries, and HR Tech still smells like BS and quiet desperation, that is.