HR and AI - how pharma firm Moderna prescribes an holistic approach to AI

Sarah Aryanpur Profile picture for user saryanpur June 28, 2023
Being a digital-first organization from the get-go has helped Moderna experiment with AI tech.


Pharmaceutical company Moderna is in a fortunate position - at only 12 years old and with around 4000 employees, it has always  been a totally digital organization. With no legacy systems to worry about, the company is concentrating on a holistic approach to  AI. 

Speaking at a recent Josh Bersin Company event, Tracy Franklin, Chief Human Resources Officer at Moderna, explained:

Moderna loves everything AI and digital, it's kind of the core of who we are. The way we think about AI, and  digital as a whole is for speed, quality and innovation for patients. It's not necessarily to drive costs or to reduce jobs or anything like that. It's how we can get to patients faster, with the best quality and so we have thought about this holistically for the entire company and specifically for HR.

Franklin believes that the increasing use of generative AI means the role of HR is changing fast: 

At Moderna we're  taking a blank sheet of paper and mapping the flow of a product out the door. How do you digitize and use AI around that?

Like the rest of the company, Moderna’s HR function is adopting a similar agnostic approach, according to Franklin:

What's the flow of work? How can we look at it from a division or people perspective? What are the things that we can automate and use AI and digital for, to be able to help the organization be more effective and be more efficient.

Franklin thinks AI will lead to constant enterprise wide evolution, where understanding what capabilities you need in an organization, and what is going to be done by humans and what is going to be done by technology is key. As the technology improves, she argues that HR departments will be able to better understand the roles needed in an organization, and then give people the right skills and put them in the right roles.

AI Academy

To underpin this the company has set up its own University including an AI Academy, where it teaches the entire organization about AI. Franklin commented:

It has been tremendously exciting to watch people in the AI Academy. Both in HR and across the whole organization people come up with really innovative, different things across all levels and the business lines to use AI and technology to be able to improve the way work is done, either from an innovative perspective, or from an efficiency perspective. And so it's just natural energy flowing through the system.

She believes that generative AI will mean companies are going to know their employees a lot better:

I think the relationship will change. And as you collect more data on individuals, you will be able to match where the organization is going, and how the organization is growing.  We'll be at an advantage to upskill the employees we have in house faster, and I think learning and curiosity will be a key component of the people who you are recruiting into your organization.

This ability to understand employees better is illustrated by one project that uses an avatar to track emotions.  Franklin said she is particularly  excited about this because it will help HR see when employees are struggling:

As an employee, you can log on to an avatar that senses human emotion that we have powered by our own internal version of ChatGPT. We'll deploy it around things like onboarding to make sure that people are culturally onboard or if they're struggling. The avatar, if you're happy, it'll make you happy. If you feel you're struggling with something personally, you know, it'll help you work through that. It's pretty wild, right? But I think it's  what will help us make sure that, you know, we're being most effective in meeting people where they are.

Moderna has launched an internal version of ChatGBT to deal with the open source security issues, and issued its employees with a challenge to come up with the most creative prompts or challenges. As a fast moving company, Moderna doesn’t have a big employee base to move over or train. Franklin said:

The basis on which we built was digital. We build digital first everywhere. So I think employees want to be excited about this, and if you take them on the journey around the excitement and how they can be part of it, and the disruptive nature to it, and how it can be a good thing, we've seen a lot of excitement around that. 

The company has not enabled work computers to use open ChatGPT, but the company has a space for employees to experiment in a safe company environment. Although the firm can't control what employees do in their home environment, it believes experimentation, understanding and learning how to write prompts are important, and it has a whole training series around those issues, and is currently working on how to train people to write prompts.

The company is also running AI studies to find out what motivates employees, Franklin revealed:  

We're running a study right now with our senior leaders. We put them on a call and said, 'We're going to collect a lot of data around you, we're going to figure out why you're attracted to this type of environment, what creates high performance, and we're going to try to figure out how to create our own kind of AI enabled talent platform, that works for our company. And we're going to look at things like biometric data, and psychometric data'.

While the company expected some  resistance to what might be seen by some as a potentially fairly intrusive level of data collection, Franklin said that the general reaction was positive:

The amount of notes and calls that I got after saying, ‘Thank you, thanks for being bold. This is exactly what our company needs’, was really a positive sentiment.

HR focus

On a wider note, Franklins thinks HR departments now have to be very focused on what she calls the operating model of an organization:

We've been talking a lot about the ecosystem of an organization and how it operates. I call it the operating model. It means a lot of different things to different people, but it's how the organization comes together and operates to be most effective and efficient. Everything from how they're organized, to how they're governed, to how they interact.

HR has a critical set of skills and is well placed to be the architect over AI based tools and platforms in an enterprise, but Franklin believes HR needs to get organized and make sure it has the skills and curiosity to make the most of AI innovations that are evolving.

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