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5 Critical Challenges for HR Leaders in 2021

According to Greg Pryor, executive director at Workday, we are experiencing a once-in-a-generation, if not a once-in-a-lifetime, shift in the way HR leaders think about human capital management. In this Q&A, Pryor explains why the focus is now on people and performance enablement.

The global pandemic and the fight for equity have converged, forcing dramatic changes in the way businesses operate. When you add ongoing technological advances, the widening skills gap, and shifting workforce expectations, managing talent – that is, helping people grow, contribute and feel like they belong – has become more important than ever.

However, even before these crises hit, corporate and industry leaders were thinking about the next business imperatives for human capital management (HCM). Among those leaders is Greg Pryor, an executive director here at Workday, who anticipated fundamental shifts happening – shifts that were made more urgent by the pandemic, which accelerated transformation and punctuated the need to reevaluate and rethink certain HCM practices.

We talked to Pryor about the changes he's observing now, and his predictions for the challenges human resources (HR) leaders will face in the years ahead.

What are the biggest talent management challenges facing HR leaders today?

Before the pandemic, we were experiencing a once-in-a-generation, if not a once-in-a-lifetime, shift in the way we think about HCM. From the 1930s to the 1970s it was the age of personnel. From the 1970s to about 2010 it was the age of HR. And I'd say about 10 years ago, we entered into this "third age", focused on people and performance enablement. The pandemic has accelerated and amplified this shift, leaving us today with five business and talent imperatives, which I think about as the IDEAS for a changing world of HR. IDEAS is an acronym for the five imperatives: inclusion, digitalisation, enabling experiences, agile organisation and the skills imperative.


According to the World Economic Forum, 42% of jobs will require different skills in the next three years.


Could you walk us through these imperatives and help us understand each one?

We start with inclusion. We know organisations that innovate, serve customers and deliver critical outcomes better than their competitors have employees who feel a deep sense of belonging and commitment. Unfortunately for many organisations, outcomes have not matched intentions.

According to a June 2020 McKinsey report, almost half of the survey respondents do not feel very included in their organisations. That same report found that most employees, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, said they encountered barriers to a sense of inclusion.

Inclusion is about creating workplace principles and practices that nurture a sense of belonging and psychological safety where all people can do their best work. We actually developed a new approach to ensure this happens at Workday. It's called VIBE™: Value Inclusion, Belonging and Equity. It's about embracing everyone and making sure they feel valued and included.

We've learned that when people feel included, they're more willing to take risks, which lead to innovation and contribution. In the research, we see the opportunity to use digital technology to increasingly personalise and curate talent practices and programs that meet all people where they are. So the key question is this: How do we help enable people, first and foremost, by making sure they feel a deep sense of inclusion, belonging, and what the literature calls psychological safety?

The "D" is for digitalisation. What does that mean in the context of HR?

Scaling this level of personalisation requires the next level of application of digitalisation. While we have digitised information, processes and practices, we have only begun leveraging the democratisation of data with the power of machine learning to automate and augment talent practices so that we can elevate essential human capabilities.

How do we use bot technology? How do we use machine learning and other types of behavioural nudges in the flow of work? We want our employee experiences to echo our consumer experiences, which are about nudges, whether it's Amazon, Google, Netflix and so on. It's the idea of predicting the insight, learning, coaching, role or connection that's relevant to helping enable your success and curating that content in the context or flow of your work.

And enabling experiences?

This is the idea of engineering experiences that unlock and unleash employees' contributions, connections, capabilities and career to deliver remarkable results. Just as our consumer experience has evolved, the digitalisation and democratisation of data now positions us to reinvent the enabling experiences we need to provide to employees. Increasingly, employees will apply their consumer experiences to the workplace, expecting to be surprised and delighted with a learning recommendation, mentoring connection or internal gig assignment that will help them grow their highest-priority skill.

They will expect us to enable their performance with alerts, recommendations and reminders. They will expect us to coach, inform and enrol them in programmes based on their job, skills and experience level. They will expect to ask a question in real language, not HR speak, and get an answer. They may even expect their HR system to ask them questions to help them. Similar to our consumer experience, this experience will be both push and pull, considering both organisational and individual needs.

Another big part of this is moving from measuring activities to measuring outcomes. At Workday, for example, we survey our entire company every Friday, on what we call "Feedback Friday", asking them a few questions that take about 30 seconds to complete. This employee feedback helps us to understand what a people leader needs to do to create or enable performance for their team, and was essential in enabling our employees following the pandemic.


How do you define agility?

To compete in a more dynamic, fast-paced world, we increasingly need to think about how quickly we are adapting to changes in the competitive landscape, at the individual, team and organisational levels. Automating and augmenting work by extending expertise enables the level of agility required in the new world of work. If this was ever in doubt, 2020 has shown us why it's so important.

Organisational needs at the start of the pandemic provide a good example. Companies needed to understand the skills and capabilities of their workforce in order to redeploy workers against the most critical work, or even new work, such as shifting from building cars to building ventilators overnight. An agile organisation taking advantage of a multi-pronged approach could fill the skills gaps a number of ways:

  • Buy skills in the form of hiring permanent staff.
  • Build them by retraining existing employees.
  • Automate them with technology such as machine learning to automate components of workflows and work processes, and identify and fill in gaps.
  • Borrow them by outsourcing projects to external contractors.

Another example is the idea of super teams, which focus on critical projects instead of formal organisational structures. With super teams, an organisation has more flexibility to do work sprints to execute the work. They also offer employees the opportunity to have work experiences that grow new skills and provide career optionality, which have quickly become the worker expectation. It's also now deeply cemented in our own work culture to use this approach to build the resilience and resourcefulness to survive and hopefully thrive during the next great uncertainty.


IDEAS is an acronym for the five imperatives: inclusion, digitalisation, enabling experiences, agile organisation and the skills imperative.


Skills are the last imperative. Why are skills so critical?

Skills, I believe, are the new currency in our changing world of work. Skills are about transforming capabilities into this new currency to accurately and equitably evaluate, find and develop talent, providing everyone with an equal opportunity to succeed, advance and excel.

Skills activate those first four imperatives. According to the World Economic Forum, due to changes in technology and also economic drivers, 42% of jobs will require different skills in the next three years. And more than 1 billion workers will require reskilling by 2030.

Through the democratisation of data and machine learning advancements, we have a much clearer window into an employee's skills. Imagine understanding what skills people have versus what skills they want, and then curating specific work for them. For example, a machine learning algorithm could review a patient's health record and predict the healthcare team that has the capability and connections to treat that patient. We can use the same foundation to understand the capability and training to grow required skills.

Fortunately, these advances are coming at the right time, as we face a growing skills gap imperative. In addition to helping to address the skills shortage, we're optimistic about the democratisation of skills and work-matching capabilities to empower a system that values skills over degrees and results over roles, and creates opportunity onramps for historically disadvantaged talent.

We've got a beneficial perfect storm that's creating this virtuous cycle. Businesses and organisations need it, employees expect it, and the technology will enable it.