IBM’s HR Chief Shares Best Advice On The Future Of Work

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IBM Chief Human Resource Officer Diane GhersonDiane Gherson/IBM

When it comes to the forefront of the global human resources landscape, Diane Gherson is someone you want to know.

As Chief Human Resource Officer at IBM, Diane has helped to revolutionize IBM over the past 13 years. Under her leadership, she has transformed global workforce outcomes through talent analytics and data, with special emphasis on predictive analytics.

I interviewed Diane to learn her thoughts on several topics, including the future of work, how technology is disrupting human resources, how to build a lasting culture, the best way to give feedback, her favorite interview question, her best career advice and where she eats breakfast.

Zack Friedman: It’s no secret that technological innovation brings rapid disruption. The field of human resources is no different, and we are seeing massive change in data, analytics and artificial intelligence. What are the historic shifts impacting human resources today?

Diane Gherson: I see three major disrupters that are upending HR:

  1. Consumer-grade expectations. Employees and job applicants have new expectations because of their rich digital experiences outside of work. They express themselves and connect on social media; the world is searchable and transparent; their questions can be answered 24×7 in a live chat. And then they come to work.Our job in HR is to create that connected, transparent, mobile, personalized, searchable and 24×7 universe through our workplace and our tools. It means investing in new technology and reinventing all our processes through the lens of the employee.
  1. Ready access to artificial intelligence and deep learning is creating the opportunity to spot patterns and predict outcomes.This improves our decision support capability and workforce management – whether it is to select candidates who will be more successful, match an employee to job openings or infer an employee’s skills from her digital footprint. We also can use bots to improve our productivity – for example, our analysis tells us that last week we saved 500 hours of Q&A time by training a Watson AI powered bot that answered more than 10,000 questions.
  1. Skills obsolescence. Companies are being massively disrupted by technology and they have a desperate need for their employees to reskill themselves for the digital age.

At the same time, the half-life of skills is shrinking, and so employees need to continue to learn at an exponential rate. HR has to step up to this demand for continuous skills renewal. It comes in all flavors – creating an irresistible learning platform, rewarding for skills of the future and building learning into the way we lead and work.

Zack Friedman: What does HR look like in the era of cloud, analytics, mobile, social and security technologies?

Diane Gherson: I would say HR is characterized by speed, personalization and democratization. In the pre-digital era, HR optimized for efficiency and standardization, with shared services and the separation of front and back office activities.

In the digital era, we are focused on the end to end experience and this can be delivered seamlessly with the new technology, with personalization. Our slow but efficient bureaucracies of the past are being out-performed by this new model. The most exciting aspect is the two-way nature of the technology. HR used to announce new programs, and the conversation was essentially one way.

The new technology makes all our employees co-creators of the culture and our programs. They are no longer consumers of HR, but co-producers.

Zack Friedman: What’s the number one job skill that the next generation will need to thrive at work?

Diane Gherson: The ability to work with data and analytics.

Zack Friedman: Given the focus on data and analytics, what is the future of work?

Based on my reading, I do not see us falling off a cliff with millions of jobs lost, but just about every occupation will change and new occupations will arise, as they did in the shift to the industrial era.

Based on what I am seeing in the technology space, the premium on speed and innovation means that work will be highly collaborative, iterative and performed by teams that can assemble and dis-assemble quickly, responding in real time to external and internal signals. So, work will need to be co-located in agile workplaces. Virtual work at home worked well in the industrial era where work could be conducted sequentially, but at least for these core teams in organizations, they will need to co-locate.

That doesn’t mean the ancillary work can’t be done from home, but increasingly this is where the gig economy is exploding. I think coding will become what typing was for the Baby Boomer generation – something everyone ends up doing when they grew up thinking it could just be relegated to a few experts.

Zack Friedman: How do you build a successful, enduring culture, and how do you sustain that culture?

Diane Gherson: It starts with knowing your purpose and who you want to be. Then it’s about every decision, even the small ones, that you make after that.

Zack Friedman: Let’s talk more about knowing your purpose. Given that mantra, how would you define IBM’s culture and what makes it unique?

Diane Gherson: For IBM, our culture is about our higher purpose – it’s about changing the world. We have 106 years of doing that, but it’s always on the line for us. It’s not a tagline. People come to work here because they want to solve big, important challenges, and they want to do it with smart colleagues.

So, connecting our employees and giving them the freedom to contribute to that higher purpose every day helps sustain the culture of IBM.

Zack Friedman: What’s the secret to building effective teams?  

Diane Gherson: What defines an effective team today has most definitely evolved from the industrial era. Then, it was typically assembling a group of independent individuals to each contribute his or her expertise to the mission, with a manager who made most of the decisions.

Today, it starts with pulling together a cross-disciplinary group of self-directed and empowered people guided by more of a servant-leader. So, the secret is empowerment and diversity.

Zack Friedman: So, you build what you believe is an effective team. Months later, you discover that not everyone on the team is contributing equally or optimally. What steps should the team leader take to deal with an ineffective team member?  

Diane Gherson: It’s a two-way conversation. They are ineffective because they are struggling with something. They also need straight talk and regular, transparent feedback. Then, if they don’t improve, they will understand why they must come off the team.

Zack Friedman: I think you’ve hit an important point, which is the need for straight talk and regular, transparent feedback. How does a forward-thinking organization create a culture of feedback, including in its performance reviews?

Diane Gherson: That’s actually the first major challenge I tackled in my role as Chief Human Resources Officer. There’s no perfect performance management system – it is always a matter of tradeoffs. What really matters is the outcome – it needs to drive a high-performance culture and people must think it is fair.

So, rather than attempt a perfect design with a bunch of experts, I engaged our entire 370,000 workforce – all with strong opinions but a vast range of experiences. We did it through an extended ‘hackathon’ in 90 days from start to finish, using videos of prototypes, debates, polling and lots of text analytics. Two months later we were in 170 countries without a pilot.

The heart of the system is about regular feedback – at least quarterly. And people own it. After all, your baby is never ugly.

Zack Friedman: What’s your secret to motivating colleagues and teams?  

Diane Gherson: Most people are motivated by a higher purpose and recognition of their role in it.

So, I make a point of reminding people of the higher purpose of our work, the impact that each colleague or team is having, and to celebrate the groundbreaking changes we have already made together.

Zack Friedman: What’s your favorite question to ask during an interview?

Diane Gherson: When you look back at your career so far, what were the high points and the low points? The capacity for retrospection is so important to continuous learning.

Zack Friedman: What are your three best pieces of career advice?

Diane Gherson: My three best pieces of career advice are:

  1. Follow your passion not your pocket book.
  2. Treat feedback like a gift – and ask for it often.
  3. Take care of yourself – your career is an extreme sport.

Zack Friedman: Given the culture at IBM and your global workforce, how does your day begin? What’s your morning routine?

Diane Gherson: We are global; and our leadership team starts very early, so I triage my early emails and re-prioritize my day before I climb on the ellipse and catch the news while I’m working out.

And as long as you don’t tell my kids, I eat my breakfast in the car.

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