VMSA West — A Breath of Fresh Air for Contingent Workforce Conferences

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This week, on Aug. 14 and 15, I had the opportunity to attend the VMSA West conference held right on the coast in beautiful Half Moon Bay, California. This was the first conference on the West Coast for VMSA, which wanted to create a contingent workforce event more accessible to businesses on this side of the country (the annual flagship conference VMSA Live is held annually in Florida).

The conference venue, perched on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific, made for a quiet, unhurried environment for a certain type of conference that the VMSA organizers intended. About 130 ecosystem professionals (a balanced mix of buy-side, MSP, supplier and other providers) met in an intimate setting to breathe, explore topics and learn from one another. In comparison to many traditional business conferences, this event actually made me think of those academic symposiums often held in some beautiful location and relaxed setting.

Indeed, the standard fare of PowerPoint presentations was noticeably missing from the conference, and most of the event was taken up by hourlong roundtables, “meet-up model” sessions and panel discussions offered to the whole community. The conference also offered pre-scheduled one-to-one meetings between MSPs and staffing suppliers and how-to workshops. The pace of the event was measured (fast enough to be stimulating, but not rushed or too compressed). There was ample opportunity for interaction and conversation that seemed to flow naturally across the event.

In what follows, I want to provide a sample of the content of the conference and discuss VMSA’s overall “conference philosophy.”

Yes, there were keynote talks

Not entirely a departure from the traditional conference format, there were a number of “industry-specialist” keynotes for the full-assembly of conference attendees. But, they were slideless (ooh la la) and certainly not boring.

The Wednesday morning keynote speech, by Larry McAlister, the VP of Global Talent at NetApp, delivered an animated talk titled “Putting Humans in the Center of Your Strategy.” McAlister set the tone for the conference with a talk on the directions at NetApp to put workers more at the center of the business, by “ripping out ratings rankings” and replacing traditional reviews with quarterly “conversations” and organization/team meetings focused on improving executing the mission. NetApp has about 10,000 employees and an external workforce numbering around 7,000, so McAlister also had much to say about engaging the alternative workforce (just a little tease).

The Thursday morning “keynote,” “Putting Talent at the Center of Your Company’s Strategy” — you get the pattern — was actually a diverse panel of industry ecosystem members: Rick Bowman, CEO of Shiftgig (technology), John Poore, Senior Global Director at PRO Unlimited (MSP) and Todd Davis, Global Talent Acquisition Leader at IBM.

The panel was moderated by Sourcing for Services’ CEO Michael Matherly, who primed the panel and audience discussion with these questions: “What do you see as the opportunities in the marketplace for contract talent? And what are you doing to take advantage of them?”

Davis noted that the war for talent is over, and talent won. And he spoke about IBM’s focus on the “new collar workforce,” abandoning some traditional sourcing practices and putting more emphasis on the skills and talent, and perhaps less on speed and cost.”

Poore spoke about PRO Unlimited’s program element that he referred to as a “social contract with workers” — meaning doing more to support them when they are on-site and more to support career continuity.

Bowman talked about technology and innovation and how Shiftgig’s Deploy platform not only enables staffing firms to provide “on-demand” workers to clients, but also provides a way to understand more about worker preferences or themselves. Bowman recounted a story of how a very large number of warehouse workers suddenly began messaging on the Deploy platform that box cutters were not sharp enough. That info proved useful to the warehouse operator.

Matherly’s final questions to the panel was: “What do you think was the most impactful technology of the relatively recent past?” And “what would the next impactful technology be going forward?” There was a remarkable consensus: All panelists said social media technology was the most impactful in the recent past. And as for the future, AI and, in particular, predictive analytics was the unanimous choice.

Yes, there was some fun and games (but serious stuff)

Jack Kaine, a negotiation specialist, gave a talk to the full assembly on negotiation strategy/tactics and a hands-on workshop. Similarly, former TV journalist and raconteur extraordinaire Carmine Gallo gave a talk on persuasive storytelling, also followed by a hands-on workshop.

For more of a walk on the wild side, the half-keynote/half-workshop session held by Dr. Peter Lovatt went into how body movement is linked to the mind, cognitive performance, feelings and more. Lovatt, who refers to himself as a Dance Psychologist and holds a doctorate, was a professional dancer and now runs a research lab in the UK at the University of Hertfordshire. To demonstrate how the research findings applied, Lovatt taught us some new moves. As you can guess, there was a lot of shaking going on; but the insights were even more valuable as practical takeaways. Here’s a snapshot of Dr. Peter in action:

Dr. Peter Lovatt (Source: VMSA website)

As I said: fun and games, but serious stuff.

And lest you think it was not serious enough, Mark Zisholtz, partner at law firm Baker Hostetler, gave a full-session legal update on emerging issues. Legal presentations can often be a soporific.  Zisholtz did not have a song and dance routine, but his slideless presentation of the subject matter was lucid, engaging and sprinkled with a touch of humor. One of the updates was a caution to staffing suppliers on “predictive scheduling laws,” which would prohibit employers of shift workers to cancel a shift within n days prior to the scheduled shift, or face penalties. These laws that are being passed in large cities and states could have some employers dancing.

Roundtables and Meetup Dialogue Sessions

The large selection of one-hour roundtables over the two days was impressive, though an hour may be a bit too long for my taste. But it was much better than the typical 15-minute lightning round rotations that one is usually forced to rush through, somewhat insanely.

I particularly liked the MeetUp sessions, which basically meant about 20 people in a room with tables facing each other and an industry practitioner who lead an open discussion of a particular subject. Emily Adams, CW Program Lead at KLA-Tencor, led a session I attended, “Mid-Market Big Bang,” on launching a new program almost from the ground up. I also attended another session, “Future-proofing Your CW Programs through Direct Sourcing,” with David Swanz from Alexander Mann Solutions. In both sessions, I found a good mix of buy-side practitioners, MSP execs and staffing professionals and observed down-to-earth, practical discussions.

Buyers talk buying

On the first morning of the session, buy-side practitioners (only) were brought together and asked to write down three topics that were important to them and then to rank them. Across all the participants there were many different topics (such as contingent workforce forecasting, supplier optimization best practices, contingent workforce inclusion strategy, HR or procurement ownership, et al).

From the collective topics, the first and second most frequent topics were identified.

  1. Developing internal processes for SOW and best work practices.
  2. How their companies forecast contingent workforce spend and headcount.

These priorities will likely raise few eyebrows among SpendMatters readers.

VMSA Philosophy

I had an opportunity to catch up with Jim Coughlin, the creative director of VMSA who helps carry out the vision of VMSA Founder and CEO Jeannine Parise.

Talking with Coughlin, I was able to learn a bit more about VMSA’s philosophy for engaging the contingent workforce ecosystem.

“It's all driven by the need of the market,” he said. “We’re always trying to first determine what is going to motivate the enterprise buy-side executives and to bring them together to collaborate and talk with their peers first. And that’s the idea behind our local day-long meet-ups we hold in different cities throughout the year.”

Coughlin continued, “The idea is to bring out ‘what does the enterprise client want’ and how can we create a valuable platform for them. The idea here is, introduce your topic and then have us dialogue around it. A platform for people to interact, discuss, question, collaborate so the topic comes alive.”

“Then there's this whole supplier community,” he said, “that we feel needs to up their game in terms of how they're selling themselves to the enterprise and the MSP. And that's what led to the Supplier Summit program, which is where we have MSPs and suppliers meet one on one. It’s just one day without the enterprise practitioners.”

“At VMSA, we are extremely entrepreneurial and always will be, because we've got to move with where the market's going. So we have to be flexible and creative. Sure, there are other players in the conference industry, but we don't approach the ecosystem, driven by the need to compete with those other players. We want to do what we think the market needs and do it well.”

For would-be conference goers:  VMSA East 2020 will take place in Fort Lauderdale, FL, January 16th and 17th.  VMSA West 2020 will be held again in Halfmoon Bay (same venue) in mid-June.

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