Article: IBM's Sr VP-HR on leading with Design Thinking

Learning Technology

IBM's Sr VP-HR on leading with Design Thinking

Diane Gherson, in an exclusive interaction with People Matters, shares insights on how design thinking has been a game changer for the company, navigating the continuous skills renewal, and future of jobs.
IBM's Sr VP-HR on leading with Design Thinking

As IBM's Senior VP, Human Resources, Diane Gherson is responsible for the people and culture of IBM's 360,000 person workforce covering 72 countries. During her tenure as CHRO, Diane has redesigned all aspects of the company’s people agenda and management systems to shape a culture of continuous learning, innovation, and agility. She has championed the company’s global adoption of design thinking and agile methods at scale, as an example, driving a company-wide, co-created overhaul of performance management. Under Diane’s leadership in stewarding diversity and inclusion, IBM received the prestigious 2018 Catalyst Award for global efforts to advance diversity and women in business. 

With a U.S. patent in the field of predictive analytics, Diane is a leading voice on the topic of reinventing the profession of HR to create consumer-grade experiences for employees, predictive advice for business leaders, and improved productivity for the business. Diane joined IBM in 2002 from consulting firm Willis Towers Watson where she led the global pay and performance management practice.

Innovation has been central to IBM's HR. How do you foster this culture?

It starts with nurturing a culture of experimentation and encouraging our HR employees to get out of their comfort zones and learn new digital skills and apply them to their work. IBM has adopted agile and design thinking at scale throughout the company, with HR leading the way. It’s been a game changer. The teams are self-directed and empowered, using retrospectives to course-correct when needed. 

I’m delighted with the work they are doing. Some HR professionals are coding chatbots that answer employee questions on topics like performance management, on-boarding, and benefits. Our operations team, trained on robotic process automation, is now re-thinking work design with robotics in areas like payroll, global mobility, and expense reimbursement. The recruiting team has gone all in on embracing agile. 

This freedom to innovate has resulted in higher value contributions for the HR team members, and they’ve gained new skills in the process.

You've spoken about the need to make jobs available to people without degrees and from non-tech fields. In the context of automation and AI-based disruption, how do you see the evolution of jobs? And what is required to make one job-ready?

AI and automation will change 100 percent of jobs. Increasingly the work we do will transform, and new occupations will emerge.

As business leaders, we should be thinking differently about skills, education and preparing our workforces for skills of the future like AI and other digital technologies.

At IBM, we are increasingly hiring for “new collar” roles that require skills, more than traditional degrees –roles in design, as cloud architects, coders, to name a few. This is opening up the aperture for more people to participate in and benefit from the digital economy.

As to job readiness - in the digital era, it is all about skills. And given that the half-life of skills is shrinking, the list of skills will keep changing. One thing is fairly certain: most jobs will require working with data and analytics. Curiosity and a commitment to continuous learning will be key.

How is IBM helping employees navigate 'continuous skills renewal'? 

Continuous learning is part of our culture, largely because we hire employees who are curious, and we have reinvented our company often in our 108-year history. We are transparent with our employees in helping them understand the skills most in demand at IBM and which skills they’ll need to develop. We give them a path to get there, personalized by role and curated by a highly consumable AI tool we’ve developed as part of a significant annual investment in employee training. Forty-five thousand employees use it every day.

We’ve contemporized our approach to training in other ways, too. For example, we designed and launched an internal AI Skills Academy. Four thousand employees will complete the program this year. Another example is our digital badge program. Our employees have earned about one million badges.

Emerging technology is a real opportunity for all enterprises. Certainly, HR needs to step up to address the workforce skills challenge

What do companies need to understand about the future of work? 

Based on what I’m experiencing, the future of work is agile, iterative, collaborative and performed by self-directed, empowered teams. When we work this way, it allows us to assemble and dis-assemble quickly to respond much more quickly.

Design thinking – human-centered design, will be increasingly an important component of how we work. 

Data and analytics is a theme that has repeatedly come up in your conversations about HR. Do you think the HR industry is doing enough to navigate the challenge?

Embracing AI and emerging technology is a real opportunity for all enterprises. Certainly, HR needs to step up to addressing the workforce skills challenge, and it will.

Even as more businesses embrace AI, we have to be aware that opportunities for bias exist –unconscious or not. HR has a responsibility to address potential bias in tech by ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in its creation. It matters who creates, designs and deploys these technologies in our organizations.

I’d also observed that we as HR professionals need to be mindful of our role as stewards of data - for protecting it and being transparent about how we use it. 

In an interview, you've said that a transformational leader is someone who's willing to disrupt, is comfortable working closely with people who have 'radically different points of view,' and is at ease with both telling and being told 'uncomfortable truths'. How can workplace cultures become a psychological safe place to do that?

We as business leaders have a responsibility to create the environment for our employees to thrive. A workplace culture is the outcome of all the experiences that employees have at work. That includes interactions with leaders. At IBM, we’ve looked at leadership behaviors closely and hold leaders accountable for how they engage their teams. We train them to ask for feedback regularly and to create the conditions where teams are comfortable telling the “uncomfortable truth.” Being open to the feedback and being committed to take action on it can go a long way in building trust with the workforce.

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