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Accenture sees enterprise talent moving to a data-driven approach, accelerated by generative AI

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright May 30, 2023
Summary:
Applying the latest AI technologies to skills mapping will make it easier for enterprises to find and retain the best talent and give employees more agency in honing their skills.

Female hand points at technology concept image showing skills increasing on a dial © putilich via Canva.com
(© putilich via Canva.com)

The hitherto laborious process of mapping job descriptions and skills across an enterprise is suddenly speeding up with the aid of generative AI. The automation of much of this work will have a disruptive impact on the specialist consultancies that provide services in this field, but the bigger impact will be faster take-up of a skills-based approach to recruitment and talent management within the enterprise. Filip Gilbert, Global Workday Business Group GTM Leader at Accenture, gives an example from a recent project carried out at a leading chip maker:

In the past, when we looked at normalization and optimization of a job architecture, you were looking at a six- to nine-month journey. We've done that with [this company] in about three month's time. From 30,000 to something like 600 jobs, with complete re-evaluation of everybody's skills profiles attached to it. Three months, done.

That was because of AI augmentation. It was not 100% AI. But in such a hybrid model, you already see nine months being reduced to three months, which is quite important. So if that's my core business — also consultancy, etc, is being impacted by that — if I made the living of selling people [who write] job descriptions, I'm getting disrupted.

While the AI takes over much of the grunt work of generating job descriptions and adding skills profiles, human judgement and expertise is still needed for some functions. He goes on:

What these systems don't do today is, for example, job grading. For grading, they still more rely on the human aspect to do an interpretation of that job description that says, 'Okay, based on that, that's the grade' — which then feeds financial recognition and remuneration attached to that specific role.

Mapping skills instead of competencies

Gilbert was speaking during a press lunch at the Workday Elevate customer event in London last week. Accenture's adoption of the Workday Skills Cloud across its global workforce of close to 750,000 employees is an important showcase for the product, which is frequently aired at Workday events. Identifying and harnessing skills across the workforce is a crucial capability for a professional services company — done well, it can enable more accurate costing and quoting of projects. But mapping skills is becoming important across all industries, driven by rapid technological change and the need for greater organizational agility. In a discussion with Tim Good, Senior Managing Director at Accenture, at last November's Workday Rising EMEA event in Stockholm, HR industry analyst Josh Bersin explained how this has driven a shift away from the old model of defining job roles in terms of competencies. That model couldn't keep up with the onset of digital skills. He says:

The competency was assigned to the job, not the person. People had to fit the job on the competencies, because that was the industrial model, where we had labor assigned to jobs. People were put into slots as if they were replaceable parts. That's not the way it works anymore.

Now people do all sorts of interesting things in companies that are not in their job description, and the job descriptions are starting to mean a little bit less every day. What somebody knows how to do defines what they're capable of doing for your company. The competency framework wasn't designed for that ...

This idea that everybody's locked in this job with walls around, it was a bad idea in the first place. It worked in the early days of the industrial economy, but it just doesn't work that well anymore.

Today's technology enables a more flexible approach that wasn't available in the past, he adds:

What's new is the technology and the data and the systems we have now to try to manipulate this information and infer it and understand it, and do planning around it, we could never do that before.

Taking ownership of skills development

Accenture started its skills journey seven years ago. Now all its employees have an automatically generated and maintained skills profile, which they can verify and fine-tune. This not only helps the employer to identify which projects they should be considered for. It's also tied to a talent marketplace where the employee can express an interest in new skills development, and then get notified of opportunities that arise. So it becomes a means for the individual to take ownership of their own skills path. That two-way function is increasingly important. At Unilever, says Bersin, all employees were asked to write a purpose statement:

What do you want to do with your life? What do you want to do with your career? They put it into a system that everybody could find. So that way, if a hiring manager saw somebody applied for one of their jobs or projects, they could see what this person was trying to do with themselves and say, 'Oh, well, this person would be a great fit. Let's just get them in here and get them help us.' So there's some cultural things to open up the communication. But most people have a lot of aspirations that are not fulfilled by the day-to-day tasks they're doing in their jobs.

Gilbert believes the trend is moving towards talent being managed through event-driven data analysis, rather than as a predefined process. He says:

It's shifting from a process-driven architecture to a data-driven, insights-driven architecture. That's fundamentally different.

Accenture therefore has moved away from hiring based on competencies expressed in the form of formal educational qualifications and now focuses on two key skills. He continues:

We recruit people on one skill, which is learning agility. There's a second skill set that we select people upon, it's digital skills. That's not just because we're a technology company also, but because we truly believe that digital skills are at the core of an agile workforce and flexibility within organizations — actually, for any industry, that skill is important. We select people on those two.

If you have that kind of workforce, actually working anywhere in the world becomes a lot more fluid. Indeed, when we start a project, we truly do it based on the right skills. It's not based on location.

In the US, the shift to skills-based recruitment has been accompanied by an increase in hires that don't have a degree. This opens up better paid jobs to recruits that previously would have been passed over. Gilbert says:

There's 71 million people in the US that don't have the required degree, but actually have the skill set that makes them eligible for jobs where they could almost double or triple their daily pay ...

To give you an example in the US, sometimes, take a customer representative — so I'm sitting in a service desk somewhere, the helpdesk. What I have, I have good negotiation skills, I have empathy. I have listening skills, when I have that position. But probably I am paid $10 an hour or something like that to sit in a call center.

If you take those people and you put them in, even a junior client relationship management position, for us. We bring some additional technical skills to that individual, suddenly they go to $30 per hour in terms of paycheck. So there's a double effect. We really leverage the skills — and they have proven skills around that. Secondly, we dramatically uplift their living standards.

HR culture shift

Bringing this new skills-based approach to an organization does require a culture shift. Gilbert adds:

It's a shift that also mentally needs to happen within HR. If I ask a typical HR person, give me a job description for a recruitment, the first line they're going to put is education, guaranteed. What we have found is that in more than half of the cases, this is the least important criteria.

Accenture's Tim Good says that some managers may resist a talent marketplace that encourages employees to try out new opportunities. He explains:

What you actually started to see in practice was some quite restrictive human behaviors. 'Oh, she is my best person at doing this. I don't want her to go off into this other division.' 'He is my best developer, I don't want him to go off and offer his skills down to that.'

You've got to have an open dialog in the organization to actually break down those silos and make it okay to have that talent mobility, because if you don't, then what will happen is that people will move anyway, but they will move outside of your organization.

At the end of the day, a skills-based approach works because people want to grow their talents. Bersin recounts a workplace survey at insurance company MetLife that asked employees how much capacity they had to work on other projects. The answer that came back was zero. But then when the question was changed to ask how much time they had for projects that would develop and enhance their skills and potentially open the path to a promotion, the answer came back, five to ten hours per week. He concludes:

The biggest demand for this is that people want to learn, they want to grow, they want to try new things, they want to explore new things, and they want to develop new skills. We have to just make it available to them. So these talent marketplaces, if they're positioned well, can grow ... If you position this well, it just blossoms because that's the human nature.

My take

Accenture has derived huge value from a skills-based approach in terms of being able to recruit from an entirely different pool than it traditionally looked at. Now with the additional automation that generative AI is able to bring to the huge task of building a skills ontology for an enterprise and mapping it to job roles, embarking on such a project becomes much more palatable — particularly when working with a vendor such as Workday that has already laid much of the foundation work. Many enterprises that previously balked at the difficulty should now take another look as the cost of entry is falling at the same time as the benefits in terms of recruiting and holding on to your best performers are more and more compelling.

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