Cornerstone CEO on the who, where, when and how of talent

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright September 23, 2014
Cornerstone CEO Adam Miller says changes in the nature of work mean talent management must focus on people, not systems. But does he go far enough?

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At Cornerstone OnDemand's EMEA customer event in London last week, much of the talk from the vendor was about orienting HR systems around people, not the organization. It's a theme we hear frequently from the HR vendor community these days — see last week's diginomica interview with Appirio's Jason Averbook, for example, or SAP HR chief Mike Ettling's summary of the recent Workforce 2020 report.

Cornerstone sees this change of emphasis giving it a competitive advantage against more traditional talent management vendors, singling out traditional learning management systems as a case in point. Customers were on hand to reinforce the message. Andrew Lax, head of learning technologies and innovation at Philips, the healthcare to electronics manufacturer, spoke of the need to adapt learning systems to people's needs:

We need to think more strategically how we define our content and make it available where people need it, rather than just the 3- or 4-day course.

At car manufacturer Peugeot Citroen, putting course material online not only proved more convenient for learners but also had a valuable knock-on effect. Replacing folders of printed papers with a tablet based system had resulted in production cost savings of a quarter of a million pounds ($0.4m) each year, which in turn had funded a global roll-out of the Cornerstone system.

These are striking achievements, for sure, but even so we are only at the beginning of the changes under way in the workforce and in the nature of work itself. Vendors like Cornerstone have to achieve a delicate balancing act between preparing for the future without moving too far ahead of where customers find themselves today.

In his remarks to analysts, CEO Adam Miller grouped the changes he sees under four convenient headings — who, where, when and how. I've summarized his key points below and added my own take on each.


People are living and working longer to the extent that you can have four generations in the same workforce. But the proportions of each generation are shifting dramatically. Baby boomers are retiring en masse, with the result that it's estimated more than half of the employment base will have retired during this decade, leaving millennials making up half of the workforce.

This new generation doesn't expect a single career for life. Instead of progressing through a predictable management path, millennials will typically switch between five to seven different careers in their lifetime. Even if they stay with the same employer, they will move between management structures, either between different divisions or global regions. This is challenging for enterprise HR, said Miller:

Companies are not set up for handling that. They're set up for people moving up the corporate ladder.

My take: Business guru Charles Handy first advanced the notion of the 'portfolio career' in 1989, based on his observation of what was already happening in the employment market. So while it may be more prevalent among millennials, it's hardly a new idea.

Nor do I think it's a good strategy for employers to seek to accommodate all those careers within the same organization. Sometimes it's better to encourage talented individuals to go off and enrich their skills and experience elsewhere, while remaining ready to welcome them back into the fold later on.

The practice of acqui-hiring alumni-founded startups is almost becoming a familiar pattern in Silicon Valley. Perhaps there should be a talent management app for that.


People don't work in the same office as their colleagues any more — many of them don't work out of an office at all. Learning and teamwork has to become virtual, said Miller.

That means the training structures are no longer valid — too many people are not together. Virtual communities become very important.

My take: Virtual teamwork and collaboration skills are becoming essential in the modern, digital workplace. It's up to individuals to develop their skills but it's also in the interest of the enterprise as a whole to ensure the effectiveness of these activities. Few organizations pay enough attention to the strategic importance of digitally empowered collaboration.

I suspect there's an opportunity here for talent management vendors to gain a competitive advantage by emphasizing collaboration success strategies. Instead, they are leaving it to the collaboration vendors to take a lead.


Adam Miller - CEO Cornerstone OnDemand
Adam Miller, Cornerstone OnDemand

Contracts have to change to reflect the more flexible ways people now work, said Miller.

People are now working essentially 24 hours a day 7 days a week. This idea of set hours is becoming anachronistic.

If an organization expects an employee to be available [out of hours], the employee should be able to expect the organization will let them work when they want to work ... They should be allowed to be unavailable at certain times.

My take: This is not just about employment contracts. The workforce is increasingly made up of a mixture of employees, contingent labor and crowdsourced resources. Some digital native enterprises are staffed almost entirely via the '1099 economy'.

Many of those contract workers for one organization may be moonlighting while on employment contracts for another. Or they may volunteer in their spare time for non-profits — the Red Cross, another of Cornerstone's customers, has 17 million volunteers worldwide. The energy those volunteers devote in their spare time most likely enriches, rather than detracts from, what they can bring to their day job.

Talent management systems don't measure any of these external activities but they would provide a fuller picture of the individual if they did. But to be sure of capturing it, contracts will have to become much more permissive of 'extra-curricular' activities than they generally are at present. There are legal complexities to navigate here, too.


People now expect technology to just work, with elegance and simplicity. The borderline between consumer and professional applications is no longer distinct. Are LinkedIn and Evernote consumer or professional apps, wondered Miller?

There are many crossover applications today that people are using at work as well as at home.

My take: Work/life boundaries used to be defined by the perimeter of the workplace and by the hours of the working day. Digital has dissolved those boundaries but notions of employment are still rooted in the old certainties.

Miller concluded that, despite so much change across all four of these dimensions, the way we manage people is the way we've been managing them for years if not centuries. A new approach is required to attract and retain the best talent. He suggested that it should be based on identifying and nurturing potential.

But who's defining that potential and for whom is it being nurtured? If talent management really wants to be people-centric it has got to start looking at its role from the perspective of helping people manage their own talent. At the moment the model assumes that the talent belongs to the enterprise. I'm not sure it ever did. It certainly doesn't today.

Disclosure: SAP is a diginomica premier partner.

Image credits: People round table © Rawpixel -; Adam Miller portrait courtesy of Cornerstone OnDemand