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Workday Rising 2022 - introducing a skills-based approach to talent at Merck and RBC

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 15, 2022
There's a growing move in HR towards a skills-based approach to workforce talent. At Workday Rising this week, Merck and RBC discussed their first steps to harness skills.

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Enterprises are looking for all the help they can get right now to recruit and retain great talent and cope with rapid change. One approach that shows promise is to start mapping skills within the workforce. This can then inform smarter decisions about the skills mix that best serves both the organization as a whole and each of its employees individually. Workday customers Merck and Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) spoke about their skills journey this week in a session during the Workday Rising 2022 conference.

In the past, talent management by organizations has tended to focus on competencies — a proven ability to do a specific job — rather than the set of individual skills that make that person competent. But this approach is increasingly seen as flawed. By going out to recruit people in the jobs market with the requisite qualifications and experience, organizations may be passing over existing employees who already have most of the necessary skills to fulfil the vacancy. Besides, many jobs are changing too fast these days to rely on past competency alone. The final factor is the emergence of technology that is able to map skills at a level of granularity, consistency and freshness that's not been feasible in the past.

It was this combination of factors that started Merck on its skills journey. Eric Ervin, Executive Director, HR Operations at pharmaceutical giant Merck explains:

We started to look at what was driving some of our retention challenges. Much of that was around not really understanding what their career journeys could potentially look like at Merck — how could the capabilities that I have translate to other jobs and other opportunities within the organization? And then the other piece was organizational agility — the skills capability of taking a set of resources and retraining them, versus having to go out and hire for an entire new skill set ...

As we started to see some of the capabilities coming up within Workday, things like Career Hub, we started to see ... a wonderful opportunity for us to really utilize some of that machine-learning-driven optimization to help people map out either what they probably anticipated could be career paths, or entirely new career paths that they were unaware of.

For financial institution RBC, a "very tight" talent marketplace was an important factor in wanting to give its 90,000 employees the tools to plan their skills development, as well as giving business leaders insights into potential future skills gaps that would need addressing. But there was also an operational motive to make better use of skills within the existing workforce. Alan Richardson, SVP Talent Strategy & Solutions at RBC gives an example from the company's advisors in its call centers:

If we could cross-train people, and then route based on skills as opposed to a broad job, we can create incredible efficiencies in high-volume roles, because we can suddenly be much more nimble ... at responding to the client need, because we know how to connect you directly to the skills.

Automating skills mapping

A big challenge of course is getting to the point where the skills map has enough detail to be useful. While Merck had already enabled Skills Cloud in its Workday instance, it had not been linked to jobs, requisitions or learning, and only just over a third of employers had added skills to their profiles. To make rapid strides, the company enlisted the help of SkyHive, a labor analytics platform that integrates closely with Skills Cloud, to automatically populate skills data. This took the skills database to a point that was much easier to build on. Ervin comments:

Now we're not having to push employees to say, 'Go out and put all this stuff on your profile,' or taking a big chunk of our HR organization and say, 'It's time to review 5,000 jobs, and we need you to tag it all with skills.'

The search is on to add other datasets that can be mined for skills. For a company like Merck, identifying scientific expertise is important and it's looking at sources such as electronic lab notebooks. Ervin says:

That's something that's really exciting, because that starts to get into your very deep technical skills, which are probably some of the most difficult to source, from a talent perspective.

Unlike Merck, RBC is still in the process of rolling out its Workday implementation, and Skills Cloud is one part of that. However getting buy-in to the concept of letting AI allocate skills automatically takes some getting used to, as Richardson comments:

Let go of the fact that you're going to control everything yourself. That was the ... seductive thing about competencies, you could manage those very directly. But we had to get leadership over the line of, look, you actually can't manage this at scale yourself. You have to ultimately let the AI take it on and do it at scale. And then you can guide around the margins, but it's not something you can own directly.

Stimulating adoption

When it comes to user adoption, the notion that the system will make suggestions that will help their career development makes this kind of system an easier sell than a new transaction system, notes Ervin. Nevertheless, early wins are important to win confidence and stimulate adoption. Richardson says:

Even if you're not necessarily delivering the cutting edge of predictive science around workforce planning, you can still help the workforce migrate by offering great re-skilling programs and great alternative coaching and whatever to get people where they need to go. What we've found, as we've deployed those types of programs in parallel, is we see the uptick in mobility really comes. I think it was our reskilling program had increased talent mobility by over 40%, in the six months following a re-skilling program.

At Merck, the company found the Talent Marketplace was particularly useful during the pandemic in finding underused skills that were in high demand elsewhere in the organization. Ervin says:

It was incredibly helpful to source different talent, where you had a group of people who were completely overwhelmed with work and others that probably had a little bit of extra capacity, depending on the role in the organization.

That did mean that the initial experience was more about where the company needed skills, rather than where employees could develop their own skillsets. It's now become more balanced. He continues:

I think you're starting to see that balance switch more and more. As we start to look at the talent ecosystem as a whole, as we're starting to put feedback into Workday, as we're starting to put development opportunities, and we're starting to get a better vision of what those skill gaps are, we're starting to see much more of an uptick in, 'I want to go out and take a gig so I can get skill X or skill Y.'

It's important to pay attention to those early experiences and make sure people get the support they need to get started. Richardson says:

We need to work both top down and bottom up, to really work with all employees to encourage them to log their skills, to show them the value of that, to show how it shows up in learning. Where we've done it in our pilots and A/B testing, we can see that we're doubling the adoption rate, between groups that have that sort of directed focus versus groups that don't.

Challenges to overcome

One issue at Merck has been where individual business units or functions have already deployed their own skills project. Consolidating this data with Workday as the system of record isn't easy, as Ervin explains:

The most challenging thing has been trying to wrangle every other skills project that has popped up here, there and everywhere, and trying to link everybody to a single integrated skills ontology. As many are probably aware, that's all over the place right now. So how do we figure out how to pull those things together in an integrated way? That's what I'm finding to be most challenging of all, as we start to make the change and implement things in a more consolidated way.

Richardson notes that introducing skills also means that recruiters, managers and the HR team need to adapt how they operate. He comments:

How do you get a recruiter who is used to just talking about a job req, actually asking the manager, 'So what skills do you need? Let's make sure that the profile's right when we go to market for this.' How do you get the different parts of HR leveraging that information?

I would say we're still very much on that journey. But that's where I see there being a lot of change, because going from a pure job architecture to a skills architecture is a huge shift in how you think about organizing talent and moving talent and all those things.

But just getting started will deliver results, says Ervin, while giving people a more flexible career path will help retention. He says:

What we anticipate seeing is a lot of benefit from being able to have people move into roles and opportunities that they never thought would have been their career path. To know that my skills as a research scientist, some magical way, also align to somebody out in the salesforce. But I think we're starting to see some of those and anticipate those connections being made, and as a result a lot more fluid movement, which drives some better engagement as people start to evolve and skill themselves up and ultimately help drive our retention numbers.

UPDATED: Due to an editing error, the original version of this article referred to 'RBS' instead of 'RBC' in its title and summary.

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