As the vibrant hues of golden leaves blanket the cobblestone streets and the aroma of freshly baked pastries wafts from charming Parisian cafes, the magic of fall in Paris captivates the senses. Yet, beyond the picturesque scenery, another enchantment awaits—the annual UNLEASH WORLD conference in Paris. Hosted by Marc Coleman and his exceptional team, this event stands as one of my most anticipated events in the global conference circuit.
Having traversed numerous technology conferences, both within and beyond the realm of #HRTech, my first experience at UNLEASH was nothing short of transformative. Unlike many conferences that predominantly feature vendor halls vying to sell software, UNLEASH cast a different spell upon me. It centered on forging connections between technology and real-world human challenges. Each conversation held an earnest focus on addressing these challenges, sparking profound discussions that left an indelible mark. I found myself drawn to the vendor hall, eager to delve into the innovative solutions on display. By my third UNLEASH, I had come to look forward the opportunities for learning and networking the vendor hall presented. Those of you who routinely attend large conferences know that is a feat in and of itself. But the conversations really are that good.
So let's get to it. Here's some of what you can expect and what's on my radar:
As has been the case for the past few years, AI remains a paramount topic of discussion, evident from the conference agenda's extensive coverage. The agenda encompasses 27 distinct sessions delving into AI's transformative impact on HR and TA, commencing with Josh Bersin's opening Keynote on Tuesday. Bersin is a respected authority in the field, has championed AI's potential to revolutionize the world of work. His insights highlight the immense promise that AI holds, with its potential for high-value ROI and real-world applications. However, what sets his positive perspective apart from the rest who are bullish on AI is he hasn't fully abandoned a cautious approach, emphasizing the need to identify critical considerations before diving headfirst into this rapidly evolving technological landscape. I appreciate that as someone who is slightly more skittish about diving headfirst into this rapidly developing area of technology.
A vital caveat arises when exploring AI's capabilities: "Artificial intelligence" is not sentient, nor is it immune to bias. What we commonly refer to as "AI" largely constitutes deep machine learning, reliant on the data it is trained on. This becomes crucial because if the training data carries biases, including gender constructs or societal stereotypes, the AI's outcomes will inadvertently perpetuate those biases.
This is not a hypothetical dilemma; bias has been found to manifest tangibly in AI training. Biases rooted in gender, societal norms, and ableist ideologies are embedded in the language used for training data. This is seen in recurring linguistic features of language such as naming, social ordering, stereotypical descriptions, and metaphor. Even the mere presence of certain demographics in text can introduce bias. For instance, the frequency counts of group mentions in text can signal strength to the machine, reinforcing latent bias unless countermeasures, such as interpretable latent feature-based neural networks or or a quota system for demographic balance, are implemented.
In a notable case, Amazon abandoned its AI recruiting tool in 2019 due to these very issues. After extensive training with 500 computer models on 50,000 job-related terms and patterns from past candidates' resumes over a decade, the algorithms still yielded gender-biased results (2). Though progress has been made since then, the issue remains unresolved and warrants our collective vigilance.
Then there is the problem of 'noisy data,' which has been found to exacerbates bias and disparate impact. Perhaps the most notable example of this is the impact on minority populations in lending and credit scoring. Algorithms are only as effective as the data they rely on. Often "data is frequently imperfect in a way that allow these algorithms to inherit the prejudices of prior decision makers" and reflecting societal biases (3). HR, in particular, grapples with enormous amounts of disparate data and substantial "dirty data," which, when analyzed, may appear to reveal useful regularities but are, in fact, patterns of inequalities preexisting in the data.
While the potential for AI is undeniably vast, uncritical dependence on data mining and machine learning can amplify harm to already disadvantaged and vulnerable populations. So as you navigate this Parisian week of technological exploration at UNLEASH WORLD, do not shy away from questioning software and solution providers about their efforts to mitigate bias and ensure equitable outcomes across different demographic groups. Your people deserve it.
In the marketing realm, the concept of connected customer journeys has gained significant traction, as evidenced by Salesforce's 2023 State of the Connected Customer Report. This report underscores the importance of the experience a company provides, emphasizing that 80% of respondents see it is as crucial as the products or services it offers. Customers expect swifter service, driven by technological advancements, and nearly 3 out of 4 customers desire online experiences that rival or surpass in-person or phone-based customer service. Eighty-eight percent of customers say good customer service makes them more likely to purchase again. The lesson is clear: good customer experience is a key driver for customer loyalty.
The same principles apply to candidates and employees, transcending organizational silos. The employment experience is interconnected, extending from the initial attraction to the entire lifecycle of an employee. For instance, trends and challenges in talent attraction and recruitment exert a ripple effect on retention. Madeline Laurano and her team at Aptitude Research in collaboration with Plum, have recently published research affirming this interconnectedness in their report, "Recruitment & Retention: Two Sides of the Same Coin," as shown in the table below. Their findings also indicate that companies aligning their recruitment and retention strategies witness a twofold improvement in quality of hire and retention. This alignment also yields productivity gains, among other benefits.
Aptitude reports companies that align their recruitment and retention strategies see two times the improvement in quality of hire and retention. There's productivity gains to be had as well, but you should download the report to learn that and more. If you're going to UNLEASH WORLD, then you should make a point to catch Madeline's session with Anika Grant on Tuesday at 10:05 CEST as well: Lessons From Building a Global Gaming Workforce. It looks fabulous and just like this section, the theme of connectedness carries covering the topics of AI, Future of Work, Skills Development, Talent Acquisition, Talent Development and Talent Management.
This theme of connectedness permeates UNLEASH, spanning topics such as Artificial Intelligence, Automation, Change Management, Communication, Company Culture, Compensation and Benefits, Data and Analytics, Digital Adoption, Diversity, Economy, Employee Experience and Engagement, Equity and Inclusion, Future of Work, HR Technology, Learning and Development, Organizational Design, Skills Development, Strategy and Leadership, Talent Acquisition, Talent Development, Talent Management, Talent Mobility, Wellbeing, and more. Notable sessions on my radar include:
These examples merely scratch the surface of the rich agenda awaiting attendees this week. I'd be remiss, for example, if I didn't note the one session specifically on Neurodiversity: Looking into Untapped Talent Pools. With nearly one in five workers identifying as neurodivergent in my 2023 research, this topic merits our collective attention. I anticipate sharing insights on technology solutions to enhance employment outcomes in the future. In the meantime, I am pleased to see a session dedicated to neurodiversity and hiring for neurodivergence. It's a topic that we should all be paying attention to.
The session features professionals like Pierre Escaich from Ubisoft, Dr. Marcia Goddard, an esteemed author specializing in the talents of the autistic brain (5) and whose work I absolutely admire, and Bas van de Haterd (He/His/Him), who relies on the scientific method and technology to select talent. This session promises a deeper exploration of Quality of Hire (QoH) in connection with diversity of talent, a topic worth delving into. Be sure to tune in on Tuesday, the 17th, from 12:35 to 13:05 CEST to catch this enlightening session.
Whether you are attending UNLEASH WORLD or not, I invite you to share your thoughts on what captures your attention or what you would like to learn from those who will be in attendance. This week promises profound insights and discussions that will undoubtedly shape the future of HR and technology.
(1) Recommended reading on this topic for those who want to dive deeper is An Intelligence in Our Image: The Risks of Bias and Errors in Artificial Intelligence by Osoba, Welser IV, and Welser (2017).
(2) Dastin, 2022. Ethics of Data and Analysis. pp. 296-299.
(3) Borcas and Selbst, 2016. "Big Data's Disparate Impact." California Law Review. 104.
(5) It's in Dutch and you have to translate to English, but worth it.