Reflections from GE Crotonville-hosted Conference 

From November 14-16, 2018, I had the privilege of attending the quarterly Future Workplace member meeting at GE’s renowned Crotonville campus, the dedicated training campus for GE’s leaders. Being at the campus at this point in time was particularly poignant, given the recent public news of GE’s challenges–yet here the campus stood, with its 60-year history, serene and resilient, a testimony to GE’s bedrock belief that investing in its leaders will help them transform the company to face the future, as they have many times in years past.

The meeting included a broad representation from Future Workplace’s membership – senior HR and Learning & Development leaders from organizations including Bank of Montreal, Dow Chemical, Verizon, Fidelity, E&Y, IBM, and, of course, GE. The main themes of the meeting were AI, the skills of the future, and improving the employee experience. Sessions covered topics, such as “The Evolution of the People Analytics Function”, and “Artificial Intelligence to Re-Imagine the Candidate Experience”. I was surprised–these were topics I would anticipate having discussions about in 2020, yet many of these were based on case studies on initiatives that have already been completed.

After the conference I took a moment to step back and reflect on the themes that I heard, and organized them into these four areas:

Theme #1: Employee development and experience are more important than ever

The business environment is changing so rapidly that highly skilled employees are becoming even more crucial to organizations. There is thus an imperative to recruit, retain, and upskill employees to help steer their organizations into the future. The important skills that were mentioned could be divided into three areas: digital skills (technology, AI, etc.), methodologies (agile, design thinking, etc.), and so-called ‘soft skills’ (global cultural fluency, networking, storytelling, leadership, etc.). As one head of HR said, “The skills we need more of in the future are human skills, hybrid skills, and new ways of working together.” It is incumbent upon HR to provide opportunities to develop these important skills.

In terms of attracting new employees and keeping existing employees, companies have to focus on creating a compelling employee experience. One executive who is her company’s Chief Marketing Officer, and recently was also named Head of Learning & Culture, talked about the imperative to continually market (authentically) to internal employees, to cultivate engagement and build a strong culture. She stated: “The line between employees and outside customers is going away.” This reflects today’s reality that a larger segment of the workforce is more mobile than ever.
The way to keep employees engaged in terms of learning is to provide opportunities for them to develop, as GE does with its BrilliantYou portal, which provides employees access to best-in-breed selection learning content. There is also a strong appetite for badges and credentials so that learners can demonstrate their capabilities, and take these with them in their careers.

Theme #2: HR has to rethink how to engage and develop employees

What is abundantly clear is that these trends expand the scope of what is required from HR. In this new skills economy, the traditional job paths are becoming obliterated, which injects greater uncertainty into internal and external recruiting approaches. A candidate who used agile methods to manage supply chain changes might be the best fit for a marketing position to test and manage campaign rollouts. When screening applicants, traditional backgrounds are not as reliable signals of promising candidates. In fact, the optional half-day before the conference started was a “hack-athon” where attendees re-imagined how companies could move from credentials-based hiring to skills-based hiring.

The internal hiring process is receiving a re-think as well. Companies have a great deal of data that can guide employees and hiring managers. Not only do they know what role trajectory employees are on, but HR leaders also have competency and performance data along with prior work experience (though not all; one HR leader lamented that ‘LinkedIn knows more about our employees’ skills than we do). A major potential upside: HR can provide information and guidance for those employees who may be looking at outside opportunities, when there may be desirable matches within the organization. Guidance could also be provided to hiring managers to help them consider new types of candidates or look at different factors in evaluating them.

Theme #3: Technology holds tantalizing promise for HR, enhancing both efficiency and effectiveness

I know AI is all the buzz in general business circles, as it should be (Exhibit A: autonomous vehicles, Alexa, Netflix recommended content, etc.), but I didn’t realize how much it affects, and indeed is already being utilized by HR. Several of the Future Workplace members described their efforts in experimenting with or utilizing AI. One common example are chatbots to sort through applicant resumes, or handle simple HR questions. There was a good discussion about bias and how chatbots could be utilized to help counteract bias, though the technology could introduce other issues or drawbacks, of course. Future Workplace also talked about their inaugural AI4HR course (the next session of which is running Feb 18 – Mar 22), which has received tremendously positive feedback (and incidentally, is being run on the NovoEd platform).

A second exciting area that was discussed was predictive analytics, as it related to people. One large organization looked at data to determine employees’ “propensity to leave”, and brought that to the attention of managers. There were even algorithms to estimate the investment that would be required to retain those employees, which could be compared to the estimated impact of the loss of the employee. (As a side note, use cases like this generate the credible hard #’s that HR often longs to establish in making a business case).
A third technology area that HR leaders were experimenting in was VR. One member organization talked about how it introduced VR training simulations, using the tech provider HTX Labs, who was also present, and offered an on-site demonstration. The scenario that generated buzz was ‘Active Shooter’ an office simulation with an emergency situation involving a gunman, that had participants ducking under virtual desks, and nervously standing up, even when the simulation was over. This type of application seems well-suited to training use cases which simulate dangerous situations (e.g. plant safety, etc.), but there was also talk of public speaking simulations to help build presentation skills.

Theme #4: HR leaders are being called upon to upskill themselves to innovate and find new ways to engage and develop employees

The previous themes lead to this final one, which was not addressed explicitly, but was apparent throughout the entire conference: the skills of HR leaders need as much upskilling as everyone else – to enable these other changes to happen. Here are some examples that stood out to me:

  • One CLO uses scarcity intentionally when rolling out new training programs, as a way to ferret out early adopters and to help drive the natural adoption process, without any marketing. [Skill: viral marketing through behavioral psychology]
  • A VP of Global Talent Development created virtual collaboration meeting rooms that had the feel of ‘sitting around a campfire’ in different offices. [Skill: Systems integration of hardware and software]
  • A financial services organization utilized its innovation lab to help incubate a startup that developed a custom chatbot for recruitment. [Skill: Tech startup incubation]
  • A global head of People Analytics is hiring business program managers, whose function will be to interface with the rest of the organization, understand needs and explain how its AI programs can help the organization. [Skill: Product management & marketing]
  • GE’s BrilliantYou team works like a startup in the organization, understanding learner needs, and then building the experience that provides the best learning environment [Skill: Design thinking, Lean startup methodology]

Looking at this small sampling, it seems obvious now, doesn’t it? HR leaders now don’t just need to be experts about all things personnel-related, as they had to be in the past, but now in technology, design thinking, agile methods, marketing & behavioral science, technology integration, and experimental pilot incubation. HR leaders have to truly be renaissance leaders and possess many of the same skills that they are trying to equip their workforce with. What a challenge–that is like an orchestra conductor, who has to have a working competence in every instrument type! As is apparent from the conference presentations, many HR leaders are already well-skilled in several of these areas, and they will be continually pressed to develop themselves further. And from what I observed at the conference, and in talking with these HR leaders, they, and doubtless their peers, are ready and excited for the challenge.