HR Tech Gets Smarter

Thousands of attendees at this year’s HR Tech Conference got a good look at the future of the human resource function.
By: | November 7, 2017 • 23 min read
Technology conference

If you weren’t aware that artificial intelligence and machine learning are having a major impact on the human resource profession, then attending this year’s HR Technology Conference and Exposition® at the Venetian in Las Vegas would certainly have enlightened you to this new reality.

A decent number of the roughly 440 vendors on the exposition floor specialize in harnessing AI, using some of the estimated $5.5 billion of venture-capital funds that have been poured into HR tech since 2014 to mobilize chatbots that will walk candidates through the initial stages of applying for a job and keep them informed on their application’s progress, or use machine learning to help companies identify the sources that consistently generate great hires. These and other innovative new tools can take much of the busywork out of process-laden functions such as recruiting, freeing up HR staff to do more important things. This, of course, will cause some disruption: For example, will HR staffers have what it takes to step up and actually do those more important things?

One clearly important thing — and one that HR does not yet appear to be actively involved in — is the task of preparing employees to work alongside robots and AI in this new world of work. Only 35 percent of the companies that are doing this report that HR is actively involved in the effort, noted Bersin by Deloitte’s Principal Josh Bersin in his closing keynote, citing data from Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends report.


There are, of course, plenty of opportunities for HR to get involved in helping their organizations prepare for this exciting yet unpredictable future, as outlined by Laszlo Bock, Google’s former chief people officer, during his opening keynote, which outlined six things HR can do to help their companies be more innovative and productive.

Of course, no one could overlook the horrific tragedy that occurred a week prior to the conference just a few miles down on the Las Vegas Strip, when a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concert-goers, killing nearly 60 people and wounding 500 more. Officials credited ordinary bystanders with helping to keep casualty numbers down by stepping forward while the shooting was still going on to move wounded victims to safety and treating their life-threatening injuries until they could be transported to local hospitals. It was a profound reminder that in the face of horror, ordinary people can and typically do rise to the occasion with extraordinary bravery and grace.

Ed Chase, vice president of LRP Conferences, commemorated the moment during the opening day of the event, announcing that parent company LRP Publications had donated $10,000 to a fund for the victims and their families.

What follows are the highlights of this year’s event, which featured more than 60 speakers.

Six Principles for Innovation

What’s the secret to having an organization filled with productive and innovative employees? Is it creating a “skunkworks” facility in which workers can innovate to their hearts’ content? What about giving lots of inspirational speeches and having outlandishly ambitious “moonshot” goals? Showering your top performers with bonuses and public praise so that others are motivated to similar levels of achievement?

Absolutely not — these and other approaches often don’t work and can actually be counterproductive, said former Google People Operations leader Laszlo Bock during his opening keynote address at the HR Tech Conference in Las Vegas, titled “From Moonshots to Roofshots: What Everyone Gets Wrong About Innovation and How to Get It Right.”

Instead, a much better approach includes having a mission, trusting your employees and “massively reducing fear,” Bock told the overflow crowd in the main ballroom at The Venetian Resort and Casino.

“There are some underlying psychological and environmental things that need to happen in order to drive innovation,” he said.

Bock, who now leads a start-up firm called Humu, based much of his talk on what he learned at Google, which grew from 6,000 employees to more than 72,000 during his tenure there.

HR and corporate leaders need to do six things in order to boost and sustain innovation and productivity at their organizations, he said.

No. 1, said Bock, is to connect people with a mission.

“The traditional ways we tried to inspire and motivate people was with revenue targets and launch dates,” he said. “But meaning is way more powerful than those things. After all, once you’ve hit a goal, what’s left to learn?”

Bock cited work done by Wharton School Professor Adam Grant, co-author of current bestseller Option B, who found that the productivity of call-center workers whose job was to raise funds for student scholarships more than tripled when the students came to speak to the workers about how the scholarships had helped them.

No. 2 is tapping into intrinsic motivators, he said. “Those are far more powerful than extrinsic motivators, like bonuses.”

Bock related the story of Google’s Founders Award, in which the company would reward employees who came up with breakthrough ideas or inventions in order to spur greater innovation.