Diane Gherson: The next agenda for delivering value

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Diane Gherson

Diane Gherson is Chief Human Resource Officer for IBM, where she is responsible for the development of IBM’s 400,000-strong global employee base. During her time at Big Blue, Diane has led IBM’s leadership development, talent, and compensation and benefits functions worldwide. Her work led IBM to be named #1 in Fortune magazine’s Global Top Company for Leaders study – the first company to earn this recognition two consecutive times (in 2013 and 2011). In her spare time, Diane also was awarded a US patent in the field of predictive analytics. We asked her to walk us through the evolving HR value agenda.

Let’s start with a simple question. What’s the future of HR?

You jest, but it isn’t often that a group of professionals can say with confidence that they stand at an important moment in history. This is one such moment for HR. If that sounds like overreach, step back and consider that over the past decade, we have seen the convergence of three historic shifts that are reshaping business and technology: data, the cloud and social engagement on mobile platforms. Data and analytics provide more granular and customized information about not just past patterns and trends but inferences. Predictive and prescriptive analytics are reshaping entire industries, as Netflix has done in home entertainment. Likewise, with cloud, we now have more than just a source of greater productivity, but the basis for fundamentally new business models.

With social, physical locations matter less than social connections. Facebook-type technologies inside the enterprise have allowed people to share and build on one another’s ideas, data, and work products, creating a richer dialogue and workspace than ever before (and certainly a step change from email). Any one of these forces would have been enough to usher in a new era of technology. Together, they are redefining the agenda of global business.

How are these technology trends reshaping HR?

We can now buy HR software and HR Information Systems (HRIS) as-a-service on the cloud, instead of investing in costly and inflexible on-premise systems. We’re also able to make people-related decisions and compensation or training investments through advanced analytics rather than standardized processes or benchmarking. We can serve up more programs—from learning to health care enrollment—on mobile devices. And we can use social chat features to enhance management development or respond to issues. These trends are radically changing expectations of what HR can and should deliver—both in terms of HR services and in terms of strategic impact.

How will HR services change by putting user-experience at the center?

Take the recruitment function, for example. Already we’re seeing a shift to passive recruiting using Google+, Instagram, Xing, WeChat, Weibo, and YouTube—as well as through online contests, video interviews, and integrating the candidate experience on smartphones.

But while advancements in recruiting offer a glimpse into the future, by and large the rest of HR services still feel less like Zappos and more like the IRS. That means we have enormous opportunity to modernize our approach. Two main areas that I believe will have a disproportionate influence on the future of our profession are analytics and engagement.

Why analytics?

Today, with analytics, we can mine huge amounts of data and offer more granular, customized solutions, including more flexible responses. Using outcome data like revenues, productivity, hiring yield, individual performance, or employee engagement, we can help our leaders understand the probability of success of certain decisions. For example, many companies (likely including our own) have struggled for years to create appropriate behavioral norms and rules for sales incentives. With modern analytics, we can define more accurately which incentives work with each employee and for which assignment.

We can also define the extent to which goals should be “stretch” versus doable, and we can change goals depending on the situation. In addition, at IBM, analytics now enable us to predict an employee’s propensity to leave. In fact, several of our HR employees have obtained a US patent for our proactive retention algorithms. Social analytics also give us advance warnings. In some emerging markets, for instance, we have been able to anticipate labor unrest and respond before external activists’ interactions resulted in disruptive actions.

How can analytics help with workforce management?

Skills—including depth of skill—have become an important currency in flatter, more fluid organizations, and there is an increasing need for real-time assessment of skills gaps and redundancies. Analytics can be used to infer employee expertise from the vast data sources inside companies—blogs, publications, resumes, projects, and so on. But because skills are changing so rapidly in technology, skills inventories are hard to keep up to date. At IBM, we developed an app to find employees with specific expertise, anywhere in the world. The search returns each expert’s areas of expertise, organizational chart, common connections, and smartphone contact information. This is now being used at an enterprise level for workforce planning.

What about engagement? How do we create meaningful employee experiences?

That’s a real opportunity and challenge. With the move to mobile access and social technology, employees experience organizations differently than in the past, and their bar is much higher. Their experience on retail platforms has taught them to expect a high level of personalization, feedback, transparency, and adaptation in real time. They want all systems to know them; they want to participate in the design and improvement of programs that affect them; and they want to be able to give feedback or ask questions in the moment and get a response within 30 minutes.

To respond, we’ve had to shift from a process efficiency mindset to one that offers employee-centric convenience, access and personalization. For example, a new employee needs to get a laptop from IT, a badge from security, office space from administrative services, benefits and payroll paperwork from compensation, onboarding from learning, and a welcome from her manager. We need to offer employees a customized and integrated onboarding experience, including a chance to socialize with other new hires and share questions and answers. The same can be said of employee separations, which often generate a painfully complex array of disparate tasks for the manager. And this brings us to the real potential of combining analytics and employee experience. We will be able to anticipate what employees may need. Using agile methods, HR professionals will operate less as subject matter experts and more as custodians of the employee and manager experience.

So, no more business as usual?

Absolutely. No matter how you come at this, the answer isn’t extending existing HR practices. It’s completely re-imagining how our work is done, how processes run, and how we integrate the core of the enterprise with the capabilities of individual professionals. When we do these things in HR, we can create a workplace that is more effective for our people, and one where they feel like they matter—and have a say in the things that matter to them.

I am an optimist about the future of our profession. For years (or even decades), HR has sought to make an impact. Technological advances are once again enabling HR to shift to higher ground, just as we shifted from personnel to human resources years ago. Today, it’s about how we capture the incredible wealth of data and insight about talent that will shape a company’s future. Talent is the center of everything we do. To compete in new industries, we have to create an environment that builds talent—with people who can learn, adapt, lead, and innovate in a workplace that is interactive and transparent. HR, with a focus on analytics and employee engagement, becomes the transformative force to shape the future of the enterprise.


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