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