By Kelly Tanner

11,000 Human Resources professionals from around the globe descended on San Diego last week for the Society for Human Resources Management’s annual conference, to explore ideas about what’s next for business, and the role of HR looking forward. Dovetailing with SHRM’s new image campaign and slogan, “We Know Next,” the conference emphasized HR’s importance in identifying and managing change while developing progressive business strategy.

An informal poll during a general session revealed that a majority of HR professionals have been heavily affected by the economic downturn, with most reporting smaller budgets, reduced spending, and a shift in focus away from issues of promoting diversity and recruitment. However, with hiring freezes being lifted and businesses expecting increased revenue in the next year, the mood was optimistic. Most sessions emphasized longer-term strategic concepts, such as organizational inclusion, how best to integrate corporate branding and social media, and HR’s role surrounding developing workplace law and health care reform.

Keynote speakers Steve Forbes and Al Gore both discussed the shift in Human Resources from the traditional “personnel” role to that of a business leader who can seize opportunity to address domestic and global challenges in the workplace. Forbes said, “HR has a place at the table, and you have a chance to be the leading edge of our economic recovery” in areas ranging from health care reform to input on changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act and other regulations.

Gore encouraged HR professionals to drive business talent diversity to take advantage of multiple creative perspectives at every level of an organization, resulting in corporate longevity and performance. With HR as a lynchpin in business, Gore believes that companies may be better positioned to make decisions that look beyond quarterly metrics to a longer view on performance and sustainability. Surprise speaker Edward M. Kennedy Jr. addressed the conference and discussed the importance of accommodating and facilitating the recruitment of persons with disabilities, which he feels is an underutilized talent pool with a notable drive to contribute to the workforce.

For the first time, SHRM combined the annual national conference with its global conference, as a nod to the growing global focus of business. More than 70 countries were represented, with a large number of learning sessions focused on international recruitment, merging cultures and strategy.

Many speakers proposed innovative changes in leadership and management styles as a way of driving employee engagement and loyalty. Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies Ltd., shared his own experience after overhauling his own business model to one he calls, “Employees First, Customers Second,” which has seen measurable results in both employee and customer satisfaction and retention.

Shannon Deegan, Director of People Operations, Central Staffing and Business Development for Google, emphasized creating a culture that rewards innovation and internal communication, and discussed Google’s policy of allowing employees to use 20% of their time to work on whatever projects they feel passionate about, and the creation of internal social networking to allow for the exchange of ideas and feedback loops.

During a panel discussion among HR business leaders, Michele Toth, VP of HR and Administration for defense contractor Northrop Grumman’s Information Systems sector, Paul Records, Chief HR officer for Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, and Conrad Venter, head of global HR for Deutsche Bank, discussed organizations’ need to be flexible and encourage innovation. This led to a somewhat controversial statement by Venter, who said that traditional Human Resources will be dead in less than ten years, as more and more companies outsource administrative HR tasks. The need for an HR player who is a leader of change and business performance will require incoming HR professionals to be better educated and to know their industry inside and out, and will reward non-traditional career paths from other areas of an organization.

At the close of the conference, management consultant and former researcher for the Gallup Organization Marcus Buckingham reinforced the role of Human Resources as a position of leadership. As sunshine broke through the “June gloom” of San Diego, Buckingham recommended a focus on developing employee strengths and leveraging employee talent within the workplace, steering away from the old model of identifying and attempting to correct “weaknesses.” Investing energy in what people are great at doing drives achievement, and doing so across an organization can separate a manager from a true leader.

The 2011 SHRM annual conference will be held in Las Vegas, NV and will feature keynote speakers Michael J. Fox and Sir Richard Branson.