The first Recruiting Unconference in history: How #Tru is that? 7

Editor’s note: Any resemblance between Bill Boorman and Tommy Cooper is purely in the eye of the beholder.

recruiting-unconference-dust-upIn her recent post, Casual But Powerful: Conversations that Need to Happen, Rayanne Thorn incorrectly credits industry ol’ timer John Sumser with putting on the first industry “unconference.”

While Mr. Sumser can undoubtedly claim a “first” for any number of things—after all he’s been around longer than most—the enigmatic Jeff Hunter was, in fact, the first to organize an industry unconference.

It happened in January 2007 on the campus of Electronic Arts where Mr. Hunter was the resident recruiting intrapreneur. He invited me to come. I went, as did most of the “tribe.”

Here is  Mr. Sumser’s take from the ERN archives: Taluncon Recap.

On reflection Mr. Sumser asks of the effort,

“Did it matter?”


“What does it take to really make a difference? And, is a difference important?”

Six years on, pondering the exact same questions, I have nothing to add but conjecture. In an effort to clarify my own thinking I fear I may be confused things. Perhaps someone better qualified than I will see fit to pick up on Mr. Sumser’s unrequited rhetoric, setting me straight in the process.

In her post Ms. Thorn refers to John Sumser Presents the Recruiting Roadshow. As it happens, I had a hand at a few roadshow events, starting when RCI Recruitment Solutions underwrote the very first event in Atlanta, Georgia. Yes, the very first one.

While not the first unconference in Recruitopia as Ms. Thorn innocently misstates, the Recruiting Roadshow was, nonetheless, a first in its outreach to everyday, common HR folk. These were mostly accidental practitioners who lived outside of the well-trodden conference circuit. Typically, attendees were hardworking women with 2.5 children, who hailed from the administrative hinterlands of personnel, payroll, benefits, compliance, and affirmative action. Despite no offer of credits towards SHRM accreditation or coupons for posting on, there were no complaints about the Recruiting Roadshow grassroots evangelism.

On the other hand, the men—far fewer in number—distinguished themselves with titles like Manager of This, Director of That, and VP of This, That, and the Other. We even had a Dean of Admissions once. While the women in the audience would be gasping “Holy cow!”  seeing for the first time what you could see on Facebook, the men were there to sanctify the proceedings with a chorus of “Amen!”

Industry headliners drawn from the area—big billers like Hank Stringer and Bill Vick; muckers like Don Ramer, Shally Steckerl, and Steven Rothberg; and stocking stuffers like yours truly—came to shed light on all things Recruiting 2.0. It was quite an eye opener for us that our audience did not reflect the spectrum of talent management professionals clued-in to what we saw as game-changing developments. Instead, we found wide-eyed deer who thought Twitter was a job board for ornithologists, blogging described a technique for felling Christmas trees, lifestreaming was something to do with Planned Parenthood, and open source was how mint jelly should be served in polite company.

How ironic that, in such a relatively short time,  Jeff Hunter’s cliquey, collaborative, democratizing, open source, transparency, lovey-dovey prototype—in contrast to John Sumser’s noble effort to enfranchise the digitally illiterate post Taluncon Recap—has been all but forgotten to naive revisionism. And when the initial woopty-doo held so much promise… what a shame.

Looking back, while each of their formulas requires no apology for contrasting genius, acumen and community service, it is hard to see Mssrs. Hunter and Sumser (or even myself for that matter) could imagine one or the other was a sustainable model. On the bright side, I imagine Mssrs. Hunter and Sumser sharing a bottle of Napa Valley un-Champagne, kicking back in rickety deck chairs and looking out on a spectacular west coast unset, reflecting on their most notable unachievement from their forays into unconferencing territory.

“What might that ‘unachievement’ be?” you ask. How about paving the way for the likes of Norton Folgate’s affable “unblogger” Bill Boorman for starters?

Contrary to popular belief, Mr. Boorman was not the first “unblogger” in cyberspace although recruiting claims no other, nor was Mr. Boorman the first to advocate antiestablishmentarianism from the gutters of London’s east end. Not by a long shot. But no one could deny, he is an original. I wonder though, with the exception of recruiting unconferences perhaps, could Mr. Boorman ever measure up to a titan like Mr. Sumser? While Mr. Boorman is described as “explosive chaos,” by Mr. Sumser, the latter is something of a prophet!

Whether contrived or not, Mr. Boorman has managed to synthesize Hunter and Sumser’s spin on the unconference model and built his #Tru events into a global unconferencing franchise. But wait, hang on a minute. Just think about it…“Global,” “Unconferencing,” and “Franchise.” Mr. Boorman has expertly capitalized on this triplicate incongruity.  Really, hats off to Mr. Boorman for unifying these unlikely bedfellows to produce what I can only describe as the prototype for peripatetic ménage à trois. A first in our industry for sure! Hoot-hoot!

Last, but not least, God bless David Manaster and his big tent ERE circus. ERE’s decidedly staid and predictable approach to industry congregation is appropriately marked by the spring and autumn equinox. Specialty events for sourcers, HR innovators and third-party recruiters are similarly ordered by an alignment of stars. I ask you, how can the unpredictable timing of an unconference ever compare to the rhythmic schedule of ERE events that beat like an east coast/west coast metronome, set in motion by none other than Chronos himself? Perhaps it such divine providence that keeps people coming, happy to shell out big bucks for ERE’s keeping with convention, order, and its heavenly appointment.

Above the unconference fray, ERE doesn’t pay much attention to industry’s radicals who rage against the naked commercialism of traditional industry shindigs. ERE does not confuse the rhythms of  influence, leadership, and business as usual with off-beat drum circles that  call “shameless self-promotion” and “back-scratching” in reply. As if having early-bird specials, group discounts, slick brochures,  keynote speakers, an expo hall, very respectable sponsors, and a freakin’ schedule for God’s sake, somehow corrupts the whole thing is too preposterous for words. Puh-leeeeaaase! Is it any wonder these things are priced to keep the drumming riffraff out?

As most of us in this business can attest to, the HR community is acutely risk averse. When it comes to things that are deliberately disorganized, counter-intuitive, and that challenge the status quo—as is the case with an unconference—most sane people would choose keeping their job over changing the world. In a culture where control, order, and predictability are the norm, and where failure is not embraced as part of “becoming” but something that might end up with I “be-going,” the headiness of a first unconference can become a migraine when one gets back to cube-life.

Based on my experience with traditional and unconventional conferences, I believe most HR decision makers would rather make an ERE-type pilgrimage. The stage-managed parade of peers recounting from the podium how Organization X successfully pulled a purple squirrel out of a an empty box is far more believable than the off-kilter magic of an unconference. After a week of traveling, gorging, and possible extramarital sidebars, when called to account for why my conference take-aways have produced no results, I’d rather have a PowerPoint deck, binder and 30-day free trial to fall back on than some vague memory of  how microblogging worked great for what’s-her-name in the pea-green smock who now consults for the Manta 10,000 [or was it million?]

Here is the upshot: For as long as hobnobbing over vendor-catered hors d’oeuvres followed by a heads-down swag-grab feels safer than rubbing elbows with industry heavyweights like John Sumser and contemplating my Klout score with Ms. Thorn, Bill Boorman and his #Tru franchise will be among the very few exceptions—including Paul DeBettignies and his unconference spin-off of course—that prove the rule which is:

Until it’s acquired by Mr. Manaster, or another smart agency alumn who sees a viable business, unconferences will continue to make more noise than waves. As companies spend more money on their recruiting infrastructure, people, processes and technology, things like #Tru Wherever will only attract and retain a following of talking heads.

On that note, don’t expect to see me at any conferences this year. I’m saving up my money for a colloquium. Now that would be a first.

7 thoughts on “The first Recruiting Unconference in history: How #Tru is that?

  1. Reply Jessica Miller-Merrell Apr 18,2013 6:22 pm

    You are going to bash Rayanne for a mere 8 months? Your recruiting road show went to market just 8 months before John’s? This post isn’t about Ms. Thorne. This post is about your inability to effectively educate influencers and market yourself as an innovator.

    The person who makes the most noise wins which is why I too, thought that John was the first. He continues to inject himself and provide content and conversations into the HR and Recruiting ecosystem.

    Yes, unconferences are fun. They are a way to disrupt the marketplace and push the industry forward. Her post was written as a way to facilitate the discussion around the power of casual conversations in the industry. Just like blogs are to traditional media. What you might not know is that John is also the first marketing blogger before powerhouses like Seth Godin but you won’t see a blog post written by him disputing this fact.

    I’m in support of all conferences large and small whether unconference or other that help provide insights, information and education to help sustain and move forward the industry of HR. Tearing each other down only hurts the industry.



    • Reply Amitai Givertz Apr 19,2013 11:37 am

      Jessica, thanks for your comment.

      Reference “You are going to bash Rayanne for a mere 8 months?” I have nothing to add to my reply above except to say I don’t know what you’re talking about.

      To your other points, I can’t find one that I entirely agree with but I am glad you posted them here for others to read.

  2. Reply Rayanne Apr 18,2013 6:34 pm

    Thanks for driving traffic to my blog.

  3. Reply Amitai Givertz Apr 19,2013 11:24 am

    Oh, my.

    I received a distraught email from Rayanne Thorn expressing her horror at my post. She said that my comments were degrading to her and John Sumser. To borrow from her email in reply: “Wow!”

    For anyone who else who is similarly offended:

    The post is a personal muse on the nature of unconferencing and how I see the phenomenon having developed in recent years. There are underlying themes which echo, for example, Andrew Keen’s polemic The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture which Wikipedia describes “a critique of the enthusiasm surrounding user generated content, peer production, and other Web 2.0-related phenomena.”

    Rayanne’s post and it’s misstatement put me in mind of the Keen’s riling against “amauterism.” It is further borne out by Jessica Miller-Merrell’s comments that similarly express subjective views as objective fact [sic: “Your recruiting road show went to market just 8 months before John’s?” and “The person who makes the most noise wins which is why I too, thought that John was the first”].

    For anyone who got beyond the first three paragraphs, similarly tangential references are made which might be easier to find if you care to take the time and look. For example, Tommy Cooper, who, like Bill Boorman, in my mind at least, was better known for his ‘un-magic” than the mastery of his craft; or the association between his blog and the Liberty of Norton Fulgate, the concept of mutual aid embodied in that East London neighborhood and his #Tru events, and the recent torching of Peter Kropotkin’s Freedom Press around the corner, all of which, I might add, are un-fill-in-the-blank like Bill Boorman.

    Being roughly the same age, and clearly sharing anti-establishment sentiments, I thought Bill might like the nostalgic reference to Tommy Cooper and his “disorganizational” genius, and maybe appreciate the parallel of his unblogging evangelism with his historic East London counterparts.

    I could go on but then why bother reading the post? If there is an apology to be made it is for my taking delight in obscure associations, naively thinking someone might be similarly amused by the irony of it all.

    Otherwise just give it a surface reading to realize I think unconferences are less valuable to our industry as long as they remain cliquey and parochial–with the exceptions cited–in contrast to recruiting conferences which remain more widely adopted by the people who actually shape the future with their corporate decision making and buying behaviors.

    For you then, no offense was intended. I have long given up worrying about what other people might think of my blogging style, personal opinions and therapeutic writing. That is not to suggest I am not open to being questioned, challenged, criticized or corrected. To the contrary. I welcome it. Feel free…

    Succumbing to self-doubt I have re-read the post three times. I cannot find anything that I said that could be remotely construed as a personal attack on anyone who, I might add, should know me well enough to know I am a harmless commentator who blogs here for my benefit, not theirs.

    That said, I can’t for the life of me understand why people who promote themselves/agendas in public places are so easily offended by a contrarian point of view, especially if they “own what they say.” Perhaps if more care was taken in the reading one would appreciate that my goal is to provoke thought not ire.

    Now, back to the Boston bombings.

  4. Reply Gerry Crispin Jun 8,2013 12:40 am

    Excellent points but the history of recruiting ‘unconferences’ by the definitions offered above started shortly after the internet became accessible beyond the gates of academe…and even before as digital tools started getting into the hands of individuals.

    Ask Peter Weddle for the list of attendees and description of the ‘tracks’ discussed in what was then a truly underground event held in Stamford, CT in 1997. About 30-50 folks drove or flew in from around the country. It should not be surprising how many of the folks who showed up either were the earliest adopters and founders of job boards, technology recruiting tools and a few early heads of staffing…some of whom are still around.

    And while Sumser’s tour was mentioned, not mentioned is he was also part of meetings at the ‘The Well’ in Silicon Valley going back to 1985. Arguably broader, The Well which was spawned from the Whole Earth Catalog mindset grew into casual forums of the digirati and eventually internet forums and, arguably, was the first unconference model… to a lot more than recruiting- but recruiting was among the subjects.

    lol. What ya’ll are arguing about is ‘current affairs’.

    What I’m enjoying and taking from this discussion is a useful thread about the bumpy road we’re on shifting traditional adult/professional learning models to real-time, evidence based, peer-to-peer learning environments.

    • Reply Amitai Givertz Jun 8,2013 7:12 pm

      Gerry, thank you so much for stopping by and for the correction to my faulty history. I did not know about Peter Weddle’s efforts, or your earlier participation in underground activities. I can’t say I’m surprised.

      In my defense, A Christian will tell you that, according to New Testament reckoning, the year is 2013. A Jew on the other hand will tell you that the year is 5772, based on the timing of God’s Creation.

      An atheist will tell you that if you are going to use “creation” as a starting point we are actually in year 4,560,000,000, give or take a day or two. And, in the interests of cultural sensitivity, according to “Pol Pot Time,” the year is 38.

      I suppose history is less about “his-story” and more about “whose-story.” Forgive me.

      As far as Mr. Sumser’s pre-recruiting unconference rabble rousing, I did indirectly reference The WELL as a reminder to myself in reply to Ms. Thorn:

      That said, I can’t for the life of me understand why people who promote themselves/agendas in public places are so easily offended by a contrarian point of view, especially if they “own what they say.” Perhaps if more care was taken in the reading one would appreciate that my goal is to provoke thought not ire.

      I guess I could have made a more explicit reference to Mr. Sumser’s time at The WELL but, no doubt, someone would have failed to follow my thread, jumping to the conclusion that John had usurped Jack and was having an affair with Jill, and I—the back-link hustling, attention-seeking, sensationalist tattle-tail—had got “The WELL” mixed up with “the hill,” again portraying our hero as a villain.

      Besides, the topic was recruiting unconferences, not a reference to what some might say was The WELL’s psuedo-libertarian, techno-counterculture. On that I cannot comment. Nor was I aware of the connection between The WELL as a prototype for the unconference model, especially with reference to recruiting.

      Wrapping up, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the tagline for John Sumser Presents The Recruiting Roadshow was Bringing Physical Community to Online Social Networks. I suppose that is a pretty WELLian, isn’t it? I should have known better.

      Again, Gerry thanks for your input.

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