I rarely attend vendor user conferences unless I’m an invited speaker or otherwise participating at the request of that vendor, so I’m the last person to offer a learned comparison of conference venues, programs, parties, swag, logistics, etc. But one thing I have observed is how much of a vendor’s corporate culture is on display at these conferences along with all the new product announcements, product roadmap revelations, showcasing of partners and customers, networking events, thought leadership sessions and “get down and get dirty” product sessions.
And that’s what struck me about last month’s Ultimate Connections user conference (full disclosure below), their corporate culture. I had the run of the place, went where I wanted to go, talked with customers to my heart’s content with no handlers present, met with some Ultimate folks I didn’t know to include with my analyst hat on (although everyone knows that I’m not a real analyst in the research-producing sense), and was made to feel very welcome — as were all the customers with whom I spoke or on whose conversations I eavesdropped (and I did that a lot). I wish I had had time to write this post a lot sooner, when I was still feeling the glow from all that customer/vendor love, but life just got in the way. For another visitor’s most timely views, here’s a post from Amy Wilson of Constellation Research Group, whose founder/CEO Ray Wang was the other keynoter.
I didn’t attend the opening night festivities so can’t report on that event, but one thing became very clear that next morning. This was by far the largest customer event that Ultimate had ever hosted, and one of the key takeaways from CEO Scott Scherr’s heartfelt welcoming remarks was his huge shout-out to a very young staff member, Ashley Perkins, who had been the point person/major domo for all the conference arrangements. Now everyone looks young to me, but Ashley’s just in her mid-20’s, and she and the others working with her certainly had their hands full with such a large event. But there was their CEO, in his very opening remarks to all the attendees, publicly investing in her — and in his entire team by extension — his confidence and support.
That’s exactly how you get great teams to form in the first place, to stick together in good times and bad, to set high standards and big goals for themselves, and to do more than anyone ever thought they could do. As Scott continued his review of Ultimate’s progress, accomplishments and future plans, that theme ran all through his remarks. Every customer in that room was told that it hadn’t been all rosy in the past (as in we just came through the worst recession in our collective memories), that there would be challenges in the future (competitive, geopolitical and economic), but that the Ultimate team, in which every employee counts, had gotten them this far and would take them a lot farther. NO chest-pounding, arrogant bull-shit from this CEO, just a down to earth presentation of their company’s past accomplishments and intended future along with his clear confidence in the team.
A great message with which to launch their conference at a time of tremendous challenges for every HRM software vendor. If you think it’s been a tough competitive landscape up til now, just imagine how full the vendors’ plates are with global, social, mobile, embedded intelligence, predictive analytics, and the list goes on. Scott was followed by Laura Johnson and Adam Rogers talking about their product roadmap and then my keynote, which hit on all the work ahead of them and their competitors. Big agendas, lots of work and challenges ahead, and only great teams will be left standing. That was the core of Scott’s message, and I agree. Our industry’s consolidation is well underway, and there’s been a lot of churn in leadership roles, but it’s my opinion that great leadership teams, just like great product or development or sports teams, take time to jell and learn to operate at full force.
Another example of Ultimate’s culture was on display at the end of the conference’s first full day. There was a general session Town Hall meeting at which a panel that included each of the execs running key parts of Ultimate’s business took questions from the audience, and some of those questions were zingers. Tough questions, not always tactfully stated, some calling attention to very customer-specific product and service issues were met with candor, often surprising candor, and humility. No Scott or Marc Scherr on the stage, just the key person responsible for these functions. For anything that was under their control and didn’t go perfectly, these Ultimate folks discussed the background of the issue, the corrective steps taken, and their commitment to doing better via specific process, product or other improvements. Sitting in that room, I was struck by the lack of bad vibes, uncomfortable at times but not negative. There were just tough questions and responsive answers. And most to all of the customers present, really most to all of Ultimate’s customers, are running their absolutely mission critical payroll processes on Ultimate. These payroll processes may not be strategic or even very exciting, but when jeopardized, they suck all the air out of anything else that HR, IT and Finance folks may want to do. So Ultimate’s customers know that they are on the firing line every day, and it was clear that Ultimate takes seriously being there with them.
Separate from the display of corporate culture, something else that struck me at Connections was the interest attendees had not only in what’s coming but also in how to make the most effective possible use of what’s already here. Given Ultimate’s long-standing capabilities in core HR recordkeeping, payroll and benefits, it was interesting to speak with customers who have rolled out, or are in the process of doing so, a range of talent management capabilities that are also a part of Ultimate’s product suite. Are these talent management capabilities as sexy or deep and complete as those from the best of the talent management suite vendors? Not on a feature by feature basis, although they have an aggressive roadmap for 2011. But the fact that they are truly integrated across the entire system of record does matter, and the fact that they are truly SaaS (except for a rapidly shrinking set of long-standing on-premise customers) means that new functionality will be coming right along at a pretty fast clip and without the pain and suffering of on-premise upgrades.
We are very fortunate in our industry to have some exceptional corporate cultures and leadership teams, to have long-standing and very passionate groups of leaders who are committed to excellence in human resource management products and services, and Ultimate is by no means the only example of this important aspect of vendor viability. If I were a buyer of these products and services, in addtion to paying close attention to the underlying object models and architectural characteristics of their platforms, something I’ve written about extensively on this blog, I’d also pay close attention to the folks with whom I’ll be doing business. In a self service and SaaSy world, signing up should still be viewed as getting married to your vendor (and to its leadership) because moving from one vendor to another is a MAJOR disruption when you’re talking about an implemented core HRMS or integrated talent management suite. The biggest takeway for me from attending Connections, which really isn’t about Ultimate per se, is that I must add to my thinking about HRM software/services vendor evalution a lot more emphasis on what to look for in the management team. To be continued….
Full disclosure: Ultimate Software is a current client. I was compensated plus having my travel expenses covered for delivering the first day keynote address at Connections 2010 and for doing a Town Hall-style Q&A session at the end of the second day with Jason Averbook, the founder/CEO of Knowledge Infusion, whose company was a Connections exhibitor. I’m also an uncompensated advisory board member at Constellation Research Group. Spending additional time at Connections to meet with Ultimate executives, talk with their customers, attend sessions, etc. was entirely on my own time.