Joanna Daly discusses how HR has evolved and how to adapt

Vice President of Compensation, Benefits, and HR Business Development delivers a more engaging experience

By | 7 minute read | August 23, 2019

This story is part of Talent Pioneers, a series of profiles on leaders transforming the future of HR.

Perhaps it’s all of her international travel that has made Joanna Daly rethink boundaries to be less about constraints and more about opportunities.

In the world of IBM HR, where technologies such as artificial intelligence are pushing into new territory, Daly welcomes the challenge, seeing new ways to shape the future – for example, by delivering a more engaging experience to underrepresented job candidates.

“Now we have the opportunity using AI and a highly personalized candidate experience to have a conversation,” she says. “Don’t narrowly define yourself. Tell me broadly about who you are. Tell me about your experiences.”

Meet Joanna Daly, world traveler, enabler of new HR solutions without boundaries.


What were your career aspirations as a child and how has that shaped who you are and how you operate today?

I always had a passion for learning about other countries and cultures. As a child, I used to sign up for foreign pen pals. I remember having one who lived in Spain, and I used to try to write her letters in Spanish using a dictionary – without any idea how verb conjugation worked. That curiosity led me to study international relations, to study abroad in Spain during university, and, later in my career, to jump at the chance for assignments in Bangalore, London, Madrid, and Singapore. I think these experiences lead me to seek to understand the cultural and personal reasons why someone may be taking a certain approach or position on a matter and make me more effective in meeting them where they are.

Throughout your career, how have you transformed as a person?

I’ve gained a lot more confidence and I don’t worry as much about things. I remember an interaction with someone at work about 10 years ago that was bothering me. I was spending a lot of time and mental energy feeling offended and wanting to push back in some way and then I thought to myself “Why am I letting this get to me? I probably won’t remember this person’s name in 20 years.” That’s become my test for whether I should let something bother me – you’d be surprised how few things pass that test.

What has been your single greatest professional challenge? And personal? What have you had to overcome to be an effective boss, parent, friend, spouse?

In 2006, I was the interim director of compensation and benefits for IBM India. The role was two levels above my level at the time. I’d never been to India before that, but I said yes and relocated sight unseen with two suitcases. In retrospect, I didn’t know what I was signing up for. That year, we were growing our headcount by more than 20,000 employees, and both attrition rates and salary market movement were upwards of 20%. It was an incredible set of conditions that I haven’t seen before – or since. Add to that my team was all “freshers” – recent university graduates with about six months experience. Despite the challenges (and there were many), my team delivered results at a level far above their experience. I still rate this as the most transformative experience of my career, and I am proud of what my team members have gone on to accomplish in their HR careers.

Why do you think evolving the HR function is so crucial?

It’s crucial because talent is increasingly the critical issue that will lead a company to succeed or fail. Talent is not tangential to business strategy. A company’s ability to have a workforce with the right skills is central to business strategy in every industry and top of mind for the C-suite. And I’m not just talking about the ability to recruit talent; it’s the analytics to forecast skill demand, the ability to deliver high quality learning fast and at scale, the ability to move talent internally to where demand is, the ability to pay for skills that are in demand, and not overpay for those that are less so.

In this moment that we’re in, what should talent acquisition and talent development leaders be thinking about?

I think each function has undergone a lot of innovation in the last few years, both at IBM and looking at our clients. Talent acquisition has been focused on candidate experience, focused on infusing AI into the candidate experience and the recruiter and hiring manager experience. Talent development has as well, but where I see a big opportunity is now looking at it holistically from a hiring manager’s point of view, or an employee’s point of view. How do we find the right candidate for the role, whether it be an internal employee or an external candidate? How do we give both employees and candidates the right advice about the skills they need to be competitive and applying for jobs? I think that will be the next wave of opportunity is looking together at what we can now do.

What should HR leaders be doing to ensure that they have a clear understanding of skills and where they have gaps?

What we’re seeing now is the huge importance of skills, and the half-life of skills is getting shorter. The skills that someone has when they graduate from school are not going to last 10 or 20 years. Every two or three years, we need to be updating our skills and keeping them current. So, for HR and talent leaders, there are a couple of things that we have to get right.

One is what skills do our employees have? Sounds easy. It’s one of the biggest challenges because asking people to tag skills, review it, approve it, it’s a lot of work and it’s very hard to keep it up to date. This is where analytics can have a huge impact because we can use inference techniques to look at an employee’s footprint. What learning are they doing? What blogging are they doing? What projects are they contributing to?

And the other thing that’s going to be important for HR leaders when it comes to skills is how do we forecast what skills are coming up in demand and what ones may be waning in demand. And if we can again use analytics and external research to get better headlights, then we can give both our business and our employees’ advice on what we need to do to stay relevant.

What would you say is the biggest impact that AI is going to have on HR?

I think one of the biggest impacts that AI is going to have for HR is allowing us to deliver personalized recommendations to all employees and to do that at scale. What we’ve been able to do in the past is segment our populations. You could apply recommendations or actions to all of your sellers, for example, or maybe all of your developers. But that’s still really treating pretty large portions of your workforce as if they’re the same and as if they have the same needs. What AI enables us to do is pinpoint exactly what that employee needs, whether it’s a learning recommendation, whether it’s using machine learning to give a manager advice on a compensation decision. And to be able to deliver these recommendations and insights to individuals at scale. I think that’s going to be the biggest impact that AI has in HR.

Can you give me an example of this personalization?

When you think about the old way of interacting with a career site a candidate would go in and select from the dropdown list: “This is my field. This is my location. This is my profession.” They were narrowly defining themselves so that we could tell them what jobs to apply for.

Now we have the opportunity of using AI and using a highly personalized candidate experience to have a conversation. Don’t narrowly define yourself. Tell me broadly about who you are. Tell me about your experiences. Show me your resume and then I’ll show you a wide possibility or Watson will show you a wide possibility of jobs and careers that you might consider.

And when you think about roles in technology where women are underrepresented, for example, this enables us to show people a whole set of possible jobs and careers that they might not have considered. And if that increases the number of women who apply to jobs in technology, then I think AI is a good thing for us in HR.

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