18 May 2021

The Skills Obsession: A 'Third Age' of Human Capital Management

Stacia Garr
Co-founder & Principal Analyst


  • This is the 6th episode of our podcast: The Skills Obsession.
  • In this episode, Stacia Garr and Dani Johnson of RedThread and Chris Pirie of LITNW interview, Greg Pryor, Senior VP, People & Performance Evangelist at Workday
  • Find out why Greg thinks we entered this ‘third age’ of human capital management and why be believes there will be more of a focus on people & performance management
  • Five specific imperatives in the context of the acronym IDEAS (Inclusion & belonging, Digtial acceleration, Enabling experiences, Agile organization, and Skills) for a changing world
  • Shifting from jobs or roles to being the center of the universe to work & people
  • Leveling up and collecting capabilities and skills
  • A special thanks to our sponsor, Workday, for its support of this season!



Listen to my podcast


Greg Pryor, Senior VP, People & Performance Evangelist at Workday


“I think we have to help organizations get out of the way and let people unleash and unlock their capabilities in ways that does not require the organization to be at the center.” Sounds pretty optimistic? No surprise as whatever else he is, our guest this week, Greg Pryor, is an optimist—and we are too, given the power of the examples and the strength of the conviction he gave us in this hour of debate over the future of HR. Greg, People & Performance Evangelist at Workday, a tech firm that is shaking up the world of enterprise software and which we’re grateful to have as sponsor of this whole Workplace Stories first season, shares many fascinating insights into what he sees as a totally new age for human capital management that the pandemic has tipped us all into. These cover the gamut from bleeding-edge academic research on the future of work to the life lessons kids are teaching their parents out of playing Fortnite, and keep Stacia and fellow interviewer Chris engaged and often delighted. It’s a great conversation: use it to level up your thinking about skills. We certainly did.

Find out more about Greg and his work at Workday here

Connect with him on LinkedIn here


Conversations for a Changing World with Telstra and Mastercard

How Skills Unlock the Future – HR Tech Discussion with Dell

Forbes – Career Sprints using Agile Development Methods to Foster Employee Development


Workday will host an exclusive live webinar towards the end of the season, where you can meet the Workplace Stories team of Dani, Stacia and Chris, and join in a conversation about the future of skills and skills management. Find out more information and access content at www.workday.com/skills. 


We're also thrilled to be partnering with Chris Pirie, CEO of Learning Futures Group and voice of the Learning Is the New Working podcast. Check them both out.

Season Sponsor

We are very grateful to Workday for its exclusive sponsorship of this season of the Workplace Stories by RedThread Research podcast. Today, the world is changing faster than ever, and you can meet those changing needs with Workday; its one agile system that enables you to grow and re-skill your workforce. Workday is a financial, HR and planning system for a changing world.  


Key quotes:

Around 2010, we entered into this ‘third age’ of human capital management, which I very much believe will be much more around people and performance enablement. There was a very specific pivot in what was happening around the democratization of work, the availability of prediction machines, and the expectations of workers.

If you would ask anyone 12 months ago, could a vast majority of the entire workforce overnight move to remote work, people would have said: just not possible.

I'm also buoyed and excited by the resilience of people. I think this has been such a tremendous experience—that we underestimate how resilient and how agile people are… I spend time with our customers and I think they're optimistic as well. This has been a crazy challenging time, but what it's told us is, wow, people for the most part are good, thoughtful, committed, wanting to do the right things and resilient. So I'm finding the silver lining.

I think we have to help people have to help our organizations get out of the way and let people unleash and unlock their capabilities in ways that does not require the organization to be at the center. I think all of that happened much, much, much faster than we expected.

This CHRO was sharing with me that during the pandemic, they were playing Fortnite with their daughter. And finally he turned to his daughter and he said, honey, when is this game over? When do I win? And she turned to him and she said, Dad, you don't win, man; you just level up.

Stacia Garr:
Today, we spoke with Greg Pryor, who’s Senior Vice President, People & Performance Evangelist at Workday [see his blog here].

Greg Pryor:
But I do think around 2010 we entered into this ‘third age’ of human capital management, which I very much believe will be much more around people and performance enablement. And that there was a very specific pivot in what was happening around the democratization of work, the availability of prediction machines, and the expectations of workers. And I do believe those three things have really driven us into this ‘third age.’

Stacia Garr:
Greg is one of the smartest people we know when it comes to thinking about the future of work, but then making it practical in terms of what can be done today.

Greg Pryor:
I see five specific imperatives: we think about those imperatives in the context of ideas for a changing world. IDEAS is an acronym that stands for Inclusion and belonging, Digital acceleration, Enabling experiences (with the ‘e’), the Agile organization, and then finally the Skills imperative—all of which I believe have been dramatically, both accelerated and amplified by our extraordinary 2020.

Stacia Garr:
Greg shares with us why skills are hot, how tech is changing them and why we have to unlearn everything we know.

Greg Pryor:
My name is Greg Pryor. people call me a lot of things, actually, but some of the titles that I enjoy most, I guess, officially, I'm an executive director at Workday and also on my LinkedIn profile, I referred to myself as a ‘people and performance evangelist,’ and so maybe a little practical and a little aspirational in there.

Stacia Garr:
Wonderful. Well, Greg, thank you so much for coming on today. Welcome to the RedThread Research podcast; we are extremely excited to have you come and share your perspective, both kind of from a technology angle and also just as a follower of what's happening in the workplace and the future of work. So thank you so much for coming.

Greg Pryor:
Well, thanks for having me—thrilled to be here!

Chris Pirie:
Well, we always start with a rapid set of questions, just to give people a sense of your work practice and what you do on a day-to-day basis, so we'll rattle through those and then we'll go deeper on a couple of topics that I know you think deeply about anyway. So can you start by giving us a quick overview of Workday, its mission and its purpose in the world?

Greg Pryor:
Yeah, great question: thanks for asking. So Workday is a technology company offering finance, planning, human capital management solutions for our amazing customers around the world. We've been in existence for about 17 years, so relatively new on the field here, and we just feel so grateful. We have just, you know, thousands of amazing customers around the world. And I believe we wake up every day helping to create brighter workdays for millions of employees around the world who work within our customer organizations.

Chris Pirie:
Wonderful. And can you tell us about your work? What is your job title and how would you describe the kind of work that you get to do?

Greg Pryor:
So I'd probably say, you know, a long time human capital practitioner. So doing that work in various contexts for gosh, more than 30 years long time practitioner. At Workday, I have had the privilege and pleasure of looking after talent management for many years, helping our own workmates have remarkable Workday experiences; as part of that work, as well as you can imagine, I spend lots of time with our customers, and that's a part of my role that I just thoroughly love. I know Stacia and I share a friendship with our friend Josh Bersin, and Josh refers to me as a ‘pollinating bee’ taking information and ideas, and perhaps a little bit of inspiration across our customer community, and I love that.

And then I also have the great privilege to spend lots of time with various academic leaders and really understanding where the future of work is going. So whether that's folks like our friend, John Goodrow at USC who had just thought of doing some of the best work on the future of work, Amy Edmondson at Harvard, Michael Bush at Great Place To Work, my good friend, Rob Cross at Babson College looking at social network science. So I sort of swirl those three things together, sort of practitioner slash former practitioner spending time with our great customers. And then, and then just geeking out with various thought leaders on where the puck is going, if you will.

Chris Pirie:
It sounds like a pretty cool gig you have there, for sure!

Greg Pryor:
Oh, thank you; I mean, it's all the things I love, I have to say. I'm incredibly grateful. They all sort of come together and swirl together.

Chris Pirie:
And can you tell us broadly, what are the kinds of problems that you and the good people at Workday are trying to solve? And remember the frame here is skills in general, but how do you think about the kind of problems that you're going after?

Greg Pryor:
So I personally believe that we are about 10 years into the ‘third age’ of human capital management—that sort of directionally from the 1930s to the 1970s was the age of ‘Personnel, ‘ there was a particular sort of tone tenor and technology that technology may have been a filing cabinet, but maybe technology, nonetheless, I do think from the seventies until about 2010, we were in the age of HR, and I apologize to whoever I may be offending who affiliates or associates or identifies with the previous age of HR. But I do think around 2010, we entered into this third age of human capital management, which I very much believe will be much more around people and performance enablement and that there was, and happy to geek out a little bit on this, but there, there was a very specific pivot in what was happening around the democratization of work, the availability of prediction machines, and I know we'll talk a little bit about that, and the expectations of workers. And I do believe those three things have really driven us into this Third Age.

And from where I sit today and talk with, again, that group of, whether it's researchers or our amazing customers or folks like yourself to stay current on what's going on, I see five specific imperatives. We think about those imperatives in the context of IDEAS for a changing world. IDEAS is an acronym that stands for inclusion and belonging, digital acceleration, enabling experiences with the E, the agile organization, and then finally the skills imperative.

And so I spend quite a bit of my time working with our customers and we, as an organization, thinking about those five imperatives, all of which I believe have been dramatically, both accelerated and amplified by the extraordinary events of 2020.

Chris Pirie:
Yeah, well, we definitely want to drill down into this sort of seeming acceleration and what are the forces at work? I think before we do that, What's the hardest, what's the most challenging side of the work that you do today?

Greg Pryor:
Wow. That's a great question. You know, it's, and it's sort of funny, I guess you know, they say that, and this is what I share with people as well; I do think that what's been interesting and what's happened recently is, it maybe it used to be the technology that was the harder thing to grapple with and work through. And I actually believe that that has shifted, probably over this last decade, and now it's actually, I think the acceleration of sort of programs and principles and approaches on the way we work and helping people sort of, again, I use this sort of metaphor of skating to that future puck.

And so I definitely would have said that if you asked me that 12 months ago, interesting, you know, again, that the technology has now accelerated quite a bit, and those aren't the same similar sort of challenges you may have seen 10 years ago, we were seeing people embracing and adopting. And then yet, I'm completely fascinated by the events of the pandemic where, you know, if you had said, could the entire global workforce or a vast majority of the global workforce, I'm also so incredibly grateful for our healthcare workers, our frontline workers, all of the people who go to work every day to keep us all safe, to keep the supply chain going and keep them. But if you would ask anyone, I'm sure 12 months ago, could a vast majority of the entire workforce overnight move to remote work. People would have said, just not possible. And so I'm also buoyed and excited by the resilience of people. I think this has been such a tremendous experience—that we underestimate how resilient and how agile people are. And so again, it's sort of this funny cross section of three things coming together for me.

Stacia Garr:
I think it's wonderful that you called that out… kind of a funny story, Chris and Dani and I got together in January of 2020. And when we got together here at a very small church and it was raining. And I remember we were talking about maybe potentially a book idea and Dani and I said to Chris, we said, Chris change isn't that hard—it’s just having the necessary incentive to do so.

And Chris, as the wise, you know, kind of corporate executive, said, Dani and Stacy, you guys are wrong. Change is really hard. There's a whole study!And so we'd like to add this very fierce debate, not knowing what we were all just about to go into, but I think to some extent, you know, obviously this last year was very hard, but to some extent the incentives were such, there was no alternative. You know, the boats were burned, we had to work from home. We had to make this change and we all did it. So we're in the middle between those two perspectives is the reality, but we saw it in a totally different way than we would have expected ever before.

Greg Pryor:
And I, you know, but I think it has, gosh, I mean obviously if having to do again would not have wanted to do this giant social experiment, obviously in so many, so many lives lost as a result of it, which is so, so, so sad. But I do think to your point, it has told us that I think it's two things. One, I do think that digital technology enabled us to do things and in many ways, thank goodness we had the technology that we have today to stay connected, to be somewhat more productive than we were before March 11th, you know, around the world. But I do hope that it shows us that people are much more agile, much more resilient. Change is hard; I'm a recovering change management practitioner, I did spend 10 years at Accenture in the historic change management practice there. And so I do say that I'm a recovering change management consultant, but I think to your point for me, when something has that opportunity, I do think we run toward things I think, you know, and so I think too often we've framed some of the challenges as change, and as soon as we do that, as soon as we frame it as change, it does activate the anxiety in us around, around change. But I do think there's the opportunity to say, what are we going toward? What are the opportunities? How will things like skills democratize opportunities for us? Where are the upsides for the opportunity to use machine learning, to curate the future, to provide opportunities to use.

I know I'm getting ahead of myself on that, but I'm, I'm optimistic. I am, and I spend time with our customers and I think they're optimistic as well. This has been a crazy challenging time, but what it's told us is, wow, people for the most part, are good, thoughtful, committed, wanting to do the right things, resilient, autonomy, you know, have a lot of autonomy. So I'm finding the silver lining.

Chris Pirie:
You're a good man. I like it. There's one little thread I want to pull on from something you said before; I think he was saying how in the past, we were frustrated a little bit by the technology, the technology wasn't there and now there's been a shift. And I just want to see whether I understood what you said. I think what you meant was that policy, and the policy around work practices and the technologies that we use might be the drag. Now am I, I don't want to put words in your mouth…?

Greg Pryor:
Yeah, no, I think I, yeah. So I think to your point, it used to be that it was perhaps harder. And again, I'm looking over sort of, you know, the last 10 years, the technology necessarily wasn't there. It was hard to use that technology, that technology had not quite matured to the space, I think we're in today. But I do think to your point, I think it's actually our organization, the way we think about organizations, it's our own, it's sort of a, self-inflicted wound, a little bit, Chris, and the fact that we say, well, people can't do that. Or they won't, or that's too hard, or can we really trust them? I'm hoping that the last year has told us things that say, people are pretty darn resilient, and if we give them a guiding light of where we need to go, you know what sometimes referred to as you know, whether it's the commander's intent or this or what's the purpose people thrive on that they want to move to. So I actually think it's been a little bit of our, and feel free to challenge me on this, but it's been a little bit of our change management mindset that says, well, this change is going to be super-hard and people won't do it and it's to be hard and I have to overthink it and I have to go slow. The pandemic told us that wow, overnight billions of people… anyway. Yeah.

Chris Pirie:
Yeah, I've got one observation on that. And I've got a lot of friends who thought of themselves as evangelists, particularly in the learning space for digital learning and myself included; we spent 10 years, you know, trying to push the envelope and get people to embrace it and move beyond some traditional paradigms. And then all of a sudden, in seven days, everybody's online, everybody's learning online, because there's no other way. And there was a little bit of sort of like what next for us evangelists. It's like, what's our job now? A lot of people are sort of scrambling to figure out, kind of like what are the building blocks of putting things back together?

Greg Pryor:
Yeah. And I think to your point, I think what was interesting is likely, gosh, definitely, that second age of human capital management and perhaps just the last century or more in organizations is the organization saw itself as the point of primacy; everything had to move through that. Our companies were designed to control, to be controlling, to create predictability and they may appropriately put themselves in the center.

What I think we saw was this great democratization of work: we saw this great democratization of capability. And now what we see is, I think we have to help people have to help our organizations get out of the way and let people unleash and unlock their capabilities in ways that does not require the organization to be at the center. I think all of that happened much, much, much faster than we expected. But now, like to your point, we find ourselves on a new game field to be like, okay, well, that just happened: where next?

Stacia Garr:
Yeah, it's really interesting. We did a study last year—we actually started it in 2019—where we were asking about how we could build organizations that could respond to rapid change, et cetera, and mind you, it was in 2019. And we had a really hard time getting people to talk to us about this, because they're like, whatever the economy's going, like everything's going great guns, why are you guys focused on this?

We ran our survey actually December, 2019, right before the pandemic started and got this amazing snapshot of what we ended up calling ‘What responsive organizations do differently.’

Greg Pryor:
Love that report by the way.

Stacia Garr:
Thanks! But it speaks to everything you guys are talking about: the four things we found that mattered are respect, so respect for the individual and for their capabilities, distributed authority, so the center getting out of the way, not that it's not important, but not putting those barriers in place, growth and transparency and then trust. And I think that's what we saw in this last year.

This season is called the skills obsession, but we'd like to ask everyone before we dive in, what does skills actually mean to you? Because it's a very broad concept, we throw this word around. So as you think about that term explicitly, how do you define it?

Greg Pryor:
So I'll take like a half a step back if I can. So at Workday, at least for, you know, the last seven or so years, we have really thought about our talent strategy around enabling five fundamental factors. And that's helping people to understand where they can make a unique contribution, a collective contribution to our collective capability.

The second is around capabilities: this idea of how I look at my skills, my experiences, my competencies, and the energy and energy that I need, and I know you had my good friend Clint [Kofford] on a recent podcast one of my favorite people. And if you haven't listened to that one, stop this podcast and go and listen to the one from Clint because he is one of my favorite people, but we now increasingly know, right, our mental and our physical wellness are the energy we bring to that.

So we think about that as capabilities. The third is this idea of career; how do I think about people's career interests and abilities, and then connections. Stacia, you and I share a good friendship with Rob Cross around this idea of social network science. And then people do want to be compensated and recognized. And so our work has really been around if we, to your point, move the person to the center, and we create these five conditions for success, we believe that is this idea of sort of people and performance enablement.

So one of those five factors is capabilities. And so we really do believe that it is central, not only to people's contribution, but their career interests. And I believe that we're seeing a shift to where what we would call ‘capabilities’ is the new career currency. It's a really significant shift that what I believe we're seeing at least, especially amongst people, maybe a little bit more junior or earlier in their careers, is that they absolutely understand that their capabilities—collecting, developing maturing, progressing—is the way that they will see both success and satisfaction.

I'm not sure that I've defined it the way you asked for it, but what I would say is I do believe this idea of capabilities and skills being a component of that is the new career currency. It’s what's going to give people a democratized opportunity for jobs, and it's going to be actually what we want to collect.

I'm a big fan of Bob Johansen at the Institute for the Future—I love his work and he is just a wonderful person—and in his book New Leadership Literacies he talks about sort of this idea is especially people in younger, in their career, early in their, in their career of a gameful mindset at work. And I think he is onto something so powerful here in specifically, it's interesting. I was with the CHRO over a very US-based retailer, and this CHRO was sharing with me that during the pandemic, they were playing Fortnite with their daughter. And finally he turned to his daughter and he said, honey, when is this game over? When do I win? And she turned to him and she said, Dad, you don't win, man; you just level up.

I don't even understand what you're talking about! And I think this is the paradigm. When we look at the next generation of our workforce, they think about collecting capabilities, collecting skills, and that gives them the optionality to do amazing things in the future. Those are the superpowers that they put in their backpack and that they go and they face the next great challenge with.

And so I actually really believe we're seeing an in front of our eyes this shift from sort of promotion and an organization as this as a sort of central measure of career success, to progress. And I believe underlying progress is the ability to collect, to mature, to grow, to deepen, to strengthen this set of capabilities that gives you optionality to do things in the future.

Stacia Garr:
I love that point; it actually goes to a piece of research we're releasing next week on career mobility. And we talk about mobility is about mindset, not movement. And it thinks that captures what you just said: that’s the title of the report next week, it’s out there.

But this backpack analogy, like you said, with, with the video games, I think that that's actually really powerful Greg, because as people are moving from, you know, types of work, I'm not going to say job to job because I know that we've got a whole discussion about that, but types of work, those skills in their backpacks from the one that they pull out for particular types of work, and they're thinking about what's the type of work I want to go do and need the skills to have, as opposed to, I want this job title, you know—winning the end game, the promotion, whatever it is. I think that's a fundamental shift.

One of the questions we have is why now? Why is it skills, or why is this mindset of about skills being in your backpack? Whatever it is, why is that happening now versus five years ago, 10 years ago?

Greg Pryor:
I think it's the convergence of three things that were already in place, and are absolutely being amplified and elevated. The first is this idea of the democratization of work. And so when we think about it, I had the opportunity to work a number of years ago with John Boudreau and a group called Create, where we really looked at a 10 year forecast on the future of work. And we are seeing absolutely that the democratization of work, moving from roles or jobs as the point of primacy to work. The second thing that we see is the advancement of machine learning; we’re big fans at Workday of the book Prediction Machines, and how does that now help us predict sort of the, if you will, the ‘Uberization’ of work I can predict what's the body of that's most relevant to me that builds on my capabilities and my connections, that's consistent with my career interests?

And so we see that democratization of work is this idea of the prediction machine, along with the expectations of our workers. I'm a fan of the work that Tammy Erickson has been doing at the London Business School on this idea of the psychological narrative of generations at work. I'm a big fan of hers anyway, but she talks about this idea that especially our Millennials entered the workforce during the Great Recession, and I believe what they watched and what they saw was that unlike, maybe in my generation where there were large corporate layoffs, you'd lay off just huge numbers of people, what they saw was based on people's capabilities, based on their optionality in the organization, they kept their job or they didn't, you know, one a week, or two every Friday. And so there's this narrative of particularly our millennial generation seeing those capabilities, those people with the greatest breadth of capability have the greatest optionality to survive the next uncertainty.

And I was sharing this theory before the pandemic—that especially our Millennials group who have grown up in a very volatile, uncertain time, and obviously the pandemic has now just absolutely accelerated that. And so this is where I do think this idea of capabilities are the new currency, so you have the combination of gigs at work and the democratization of work; you have the now real availability of prediction machines to identify who are the best people to do that work based on their current skills, their connections, and their career interests. And then you have this expectation—exactly as you've described—moving sort of from, you know, promotion to progress as the fundamental principle.

So the convergence of these three things dramatically accelerated by the pandemic, I think, put us where we are today.

Stacia Garr:
Yeah. I mean, I would add a couple of points. One is, so I am technically a Millennial—you guys may not believe that—but Millennials, I felt like I couldn't say that for a long time cause but now I'm comfortable in my Millennial skin, but I think, you know, another part of this is Millennials did see their parents get laid off, many of them particularly, you know, kind of those of us who were on the older side of the Millennial phrase. And so I think there was that.

And then to add to that your capability, yes, those people who had broad capabilities kept their job, but also those people who were innovative and combined capabilities, even if they did get laid off, they were the ones who went out and started new companies. I mean, we know that actually companies that tend to start in recession often are stronger. And so those people were able to combine those capabilities and unique ways and make really big impacts, but they had to have those sets of skills that overlapped in interesting ways.

One comment I had though, you were gracious enough to share with us a framework that kind of talked about some of these things before. And I was interested in what I think is a little bit of a tension between this idea of, you know, there's this democratization of skills availability, both kind of inside and outside of the organization, but at the same time for an organization to take advantage of that, they have to be able to retain those people and retain those skill sets—even though those skill sets in theory are quite a bit more available to anybody.

So as you've thought about that at Workday, how do you think about a greater availability of skills, but keeping those skills within kind of your four walls with your current employees?

Greg Pryor:
It's a great point, and gosh, you know, I think we'll look back 10 years on this and say, this was one of the biggest drivers in the way that we all work. I think right now, they under-appreciate what an impact that this is going to have and viewpoint.

So I think two things, one, I think I do believe the new war for talent, if you will. And I've been, and I was old enough to live through the last war for talent; it very much is going to be this, this notion of the I'm going to recognize people for the capabilities they have, right? And there’s going to be a resurgence of, whether you call them skills, competence, that we use capabilities as this broad context for all of that, but I do believe that will increasingly become the currency by which we sort of look at the valuation, if you will, of human capital: so attracting, retaining, engaging, inspiring the application of those capabilities is sort of a major job—one, if you will, for talent management and for human capital professionals moving forward, perhaps outside of maybe ensuring mental and physical wellness, it may be the number two most important thing over the next five years.

I will also say, I do believe, to your point, we're also going to see that the technology and this democratization will open you to access to these capabilities beyond where you thought about historical employment. And you know, just when you didn't think wave one of that change was going to be big enough, like wave two changes the game. So it's a both/and I think; how do you attract people to your brand who say, Hey, I may not join you as an employee or, or I'll join you for a short gig; I think that the whole world is about to open up.

So yes, you have to do your point, job. Number one becomes even more important and you have to identify what that capability looks like, how that capability has value within your organization—and then, especially as we look at some of the likely movement toward more distributed and decentralized workforce, where do you have access to that workforce now, maybe anywhere in the world. Yeah. It's, it's a big—it’s a big idea.

Chris Pirie:
I'd like to drill down a little bit more on what's going on in the technology space. One thing that just occurred to me, Greg, from your conversation before was I think maybe half a generation ago, most people's access to technology was through their employer. And what we've seen with technology, it's become more ubiquitous, and people can build their own skill; they can build their own platforms, they can launch their own businesses based on access to technology that was only available through this sort of corporate structure in the past. And I think that's driving a lot of the changes, both the self-confidence in our millennials and this focus on skills, too.

What do you think are the technologies—you mentioned machine learning, for example—but what do you think are the technologies that are most impacting the conversation around skills today?

Greg Pryor:
Yeah, I will declare my bias on this. I do think that most people under-appreciate the incredible impact that specifically machine learning will have encouraged. Again, I'd coach people. If you have an interest in there to read the book Prediction Machines, written by three economists at the university of Toronto, interestingly enough, from an economic perspective of what's the change that will happen.

And I'll geek out for a second on one of the examples. I have two college-aged daughters, and they do much of their clothes shopping through a company called Stitch Fix. And if you know Stitch Fix, what you may know about them is you don't go shopping there; first, what they do is you fill out a profile and they use algorithms, augmented by people, to send you the clothes ahead of time and they believe their predictions are good enough that you won't be sending all these clothes back all the time.

Now, in fact, that's true; in my case, I don't know that we've ever sent any of these clothes back. So I don't know what's teaching the algorithm other than maybe they have a very loving father who would do anything for them, and so more and more boxes continue to show up at our doorstep. But this idea of a prediction machine—and Chris, I'll give you a super specific example, and I don't want to kick out too much on Workday technology specifically, but I do want to make it practical—I will never forget the moment I had the opportunity to use, it happens to be Workday's talent marketplace capability. And so the way that works is I type in a gig; I identify, I describe the work that I need done. Machine learning immediately breaks that description down into a series of skills I can augment and add skills to. And then I hit a sort of submit button—and I'll never forget the moment, literally a millisecond later—a list of 150 people at our organization who could do that work appeared in front of me.

And so for me, I was first of all blown away that it happened so instantaneously. And then I would say, I was perhaps both shocked and dismayed that the first 10 people on the list I had never met; I had no idea who they were. And I thought to myself, wow, I have lived in this bubble, a constrained world, where who you knew created opportunity rather than what you knew. And all of a sudden, I mean, it was overwhelming to me.

That's just for me, this democratization of opportunity; I saw a list of names of people who I did not know, and my own bias, my own sort of behavioral economic bias of what you see is all there is, I thought the a hundred people I knew at work, they were all the people who had had a capability and all of a sudden, there's this list of 10 names.

Then interestingly enough, the next 10 names were people I knew. And I was like, wow, I'm also sub-optimizing my work by limiting it to what only my brain could hold. Right? If you're familiar with Dunbar's number, I mean, I'm not smart enough to fully realize that no, the 150 people that one knows, but we've just got limits in our own brain, by how many people we can know. And I am optimistic and hopeful that specifically machine learning will help me democratize opportunity, and help us move from who we know to what we know.

Chris Pirie:
This is technology that's inferring what people's skills are based on looking at data that surrounds them.

Greg Pryor:
Yeah; and so again, that's exactly what it's doing, it is making those inferences. And, and I will also say, and I'm glad you mentioned that because I do believe what's so central and what we see in all of the research—a few years ago, I spent some time at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Labs with other HR people to talk about the implications of machine learning and technology on HR, and what we all walked away with, I believe, was this both/and: the importance of having the machine learning to do that inference, but you absolutely need to add human judgment on top of that.

And there's all sorts of really interesting studies where it's a both/and; let the machines do what they can do to find those 10 people who I hadn't thought of, then let me apply my judgment to just to talk to those people, to engage them, to find out if this is an area of interest. So I very much believe it's a both/and let the machines do with the machines, do well, and then let the humans do what are essential human skills, which is the ability to connect, to engage, to motivate, to understand whether this is a gig that, that someone wants to do and is good for them.

Chris Pirie:
So play this out, let imagination go wild; if we can really master these technologies and we can build these tools, what happens to the job description? What happens to the promotion systems that we have, because they're all based around these taxonomies that people have painstakingly glued together? And what you're telling me is that those things are artificial constructs full of bias and machines are going to do a better job. What kind of talent management future do you envisage if this plays out?

Greg Pryor:
Gosh, those were your words. But I also happen to really agree with them, by the way. I think the last 2-300 years were based on the point of primacy was this idea of the job. Again, a big fan of John Boudreau's work, where he talks about reinventing work and reinventing the job. And I do think we will shift from jobs or roles being the center of the universe to work and people being the center of this. So I'll geek out for a moment if I may on that, so the first thing to your point that I do, and I'm optimistic about, I have a, maybe I'm oversharing here, you're going to have to tell me what one of my daughters is a nursing student. And I envision for her a world in the world of healthcare—and so grateful for all our amazing healthcare workers out there in the world today—but where it can look at patient records and information and health care provider records and information, and say, this team of people is likely going to have the best success with helping this particular patient based on their capabilities, the things they've done, their skills and experience, and based on their connections.

When we look at the world of psychological safety, when we look at the importance of trust in the relationships that we have, again, a nod to the great work that Amy Edmondson has done—originally discovered out of healthcare workers and her study of things in the healthcare space—this idea of curating teams or capabilities of people that maybe the best there.

To your point, then, I do think that allows us to evolve and to elevate the work that we do as human capital professionals or HR professionals to a next generation of work that really becomes about enabling people, enabling their success. I will make a plug for one of the new capabilities that I think is going to be required is this idea of social agility, and that the ability to quickly create new relationships, to build trust, to understand the context as people move in and out of these gigs faster. And so I do think human capital professionals will play a greater role in helping elevate the essential human capabilities while also helping us transition into this future of work.

Stacia Garr:
One of the things I wonder about is what this will do to the HR profession. I think that Chris mentioned some of the specific processes that we have in place, but I can see this in many ways as being a great enabler, which I think is a good thing, right? Chris mentioned kind of job descriptions, or maybe your traditional talent or succession or promotion process. But if we're able to use tech to handle some of the basics and/or some of the recommendations that we need, I wonder if we're actually going to be able to enable our business leaders to do much more of this themselves. Because there is an HR saying, well, here's the rules on your job description? Here's the rules on this, which I think could be a good thing.

Greg Pryor:
I mean, I agree. I think there are always, and so I'm, as you know, a glass half full person, but I also don't want to suggest that they are not unintended, right? I’m a big Star Wars fan, there’s good and evil in each of us, that’s what we learned from the original Luke and Darth Vader, it's how we choose to use it. So I do think we always should be very conscious of the choices we're making of the unintended consequences, where these things can come off the rails, but I'm on the optimistic side; I hope and believe that this technology will do what technology does well, which will then allow us to elevate. And I believe one of the most important things that we will be asked to do as human capital professionals is to go upstream and to help people embrace this new world of work, to figure out what the path is that democratizes, enables, empowers versus perhaps exploit's or biases against: I think that's our work ahead.

And so it's, hopefully it's letting chatbots and other things answer questions for people. It's finding those gigs for people, it's making recommendations through technology so that we can really elevate the essential human work of empathy, creativity, innovation. What do we think about strategy? How do we help enable people using essential human capabilities to find their way in this new world of work. Much the way I think we saw it with the pandemic; the value of empathy just exploded in the past 12 months, which, which I felt I thought personally, was fantastic.

Stacia Garr:
I should clarify. I didn't mean to say that the HR profession was going to go away. That's not at all what I meant.

Greg Pryor:
But I think that's what we have to be aware of; I believe it will change faster than we think it will. One point of view.

Chris Pirie:
I don't want to be the downer in the conversation here because I'm an optimist too, but there are some things that we need to watch carefully. A couple of examples: a lot of people picked up on the story about bias in resume screening. I think Amazon had a disastrous experiment where machine learning was just replicating the past and all the biases, maybe even amplifying, the biases of the past. I mean, it's now a known problem and it's getting a lot of attention. There's a lot of ethics being taught in computer science programs now, but we do have to be careful.

And then there's one thing that you said, Greg, that really interested me, and that is the importance of trust in all this. And I think right now that Edelman Trust research says corporations and places of work actually hold a high degree of trust. People that have a high degree of trust in their place of work, more so than in their communities and neighbors even—it’s quite shocking. So I think trust is going to have to play an important part, especially if we hand over work to the robots and to technology. Have you done any thinking on trust?

Greg Pryor:
Again, I couldn't agree more. I do think that trust at the end of the day is one of these essential human capabilities; it’s one of these essential human skills. And so what I'd love to see to your point is that human capital professionals, HR professionals are able to work on those ideas of a bias, of ensuring that there's good, ethical work being done in that space, rather than answering benefit questions as an example.

I think the challenges we have as we move into the new world of work, we think about the new workplace and the new workforce expectations. Goodness, there is so much important work to be done in the HR space, but I do think so much of it is new. So I think what we're going to see is to allow us to automate and augment what we can and what we should, so that we can elevate our thinking, our capability or a human judgment in exactly into the areas that you just talked about.

I think what we've learned over the past year is that what our people in our organizations, to your point look to human resource professionals to is now two, three, four times greater than maybe what we've historically and the leadership role and responsibility that HR professionals now have is crazy off the charts compared to what it may have been a year ago.

Stacia Garr:
One of the things that you've talked about in the past in addition to the democratization of opportunity is the idea of a development divide. And I think that kind of connects in here to what we're talking about, how access to and funding for, learning could amplify the current opportunity divide that we're seeing. So as you think about what this new world looks like, how do you think we potentially address that?

Greg Pryor:
Again, this is where with all of these changes or evolution, there are consequences. And I think we need to be clear-minded about the consequences and be using again our essential human capabilities. That is one that does make me anxious, and I do think as Chris talked about earlier, that on the one hand, we have this great availability to digital learning to capabilities, but that there are so many people in the world who don't have that access, and does that amplify this sort of development divide along with the digital divide?

One of the things, a trend that I see is that organizations are increasingly thinking about development, whether that's access to more traditional college experiences—that, I think, I wonder if it's going to become a new benefit, if you will, it's going to become part of the new fundamental part of the offering that a company will have, whether it's to its employees, to its broader ecosystem or community of people who may make a contribution or to its customers, I think that's something we need to continue to watch, and we need to make sure that we see that the positive side of that.

Stacia Garr:
Yeah, it's an interesting point. We had a wonderful conversation with the former CLO of McDonald's, who was talking about using opportunity and development as part of both their retention strategy, but I think also positively impacting the communities in which they work. Another great conversation was with Matthew Daniel at Guild Education, and he also was talking about, you know, how do we get more access to opportunities for, for people who are usually frontline workers or, or people who are kind of in more traditional blue collar jobs. So, a really important topic.

Greg Pryor:
Really, really important and a couple of great organizations who are doing fantastic and important work in that space. It's got to become one of those priorities. And I would include that in this skill imperative not only how we look at skills, how we identify skills, but how we grow and develop to ensure this, you know, this democratization of opportunity

Stacia Garr:
Kind of moving us forward: we’ve talked quite a bit about how digital transformation of HR and learning and many aspects of business life really got accelerated in 2020. As you look to this year and pull out your crystal ball, if you can, what do you think is going to move to the top of the people agenda now—what are you focused on at the moment?

Greg Pryor:
From everything I read, and gosh, I think this is going to be true for at least the next year is that wellness and the responsibility to help ensure that there is physical and mental wellness, I would say is top of the list for all the folks that I talk about. How we continue to be empathetic, how we continue to understand how we continue to use listening mechanisms to understand where people are, and provide them support. So I do think that idea is going to be in a fundamentally new space. I think traditionally we've thought about that as not part of the fabric of what an organization offers beyond a benefit, and I now think that has come into the corporate tent, if you will, as something that organizations will feel a responsibility, a greater responsibility for them, they maybe have in the past.

I will also say that at the same time, one of the things that I find; our friends at McKinsey had done an interesting body of research, looking at the last recession. And to your earlier point, there were those companies who really used that opportunity to put their foot on their gas rather than put their foot on the brake, and we see now 10 years after the recession, they've done materially better than other organizations. And so I think there's going to be this duality of, I need to address and ensure that I'm addressing what's happening in the world today and this is not an opportunity to sort of put my head in the sand and say the future isn't still happening around me. We are, I think going to see more decentralized workforces, I think we're going to see new constructs in the way we think about who our workers are, and so I do believe that organizations using that opportunity now to really think about those things are going to be really well positioned five or 10 years down the road.

And unfortunately, people without the ability or the capacity to think about that today are going to fall further behind in this digital divide, or what I call the COVID chasm. I do think there is this COVID chasm that has allowed accelerators to accelerate and unfortunately, others to fall further and further behind.

Chris Pirie:
The K-shaped recovery. Are there any organizations out there that you think are doing particularly good work? I know that you get to work with some of your customers, for example, but anything that's really caught your attention recently of good progress?

Greg Pryor:
I think there's just so many… I’m a really big fan of Telstra; when you think about agility and the work that they're doing, Alex, who, who looks after that group, is crazy smart and doing just brilliant things. The folks at Dell are doing some really advanced work in this space, really thoughtful; I'm a big fan of Unilever, I love the work that Lena and Tom and crew are doing there. Now I'm going to be in trouble because there's going to be others who are going to be like, Hey, I think the thinking of Michael Arena at Amazon, I'm a big, I'm a friend of Michael’s, and I think he's doing some of the best thinking in this space right now. Lots of organizations.

And then I have to say on the other side of that, I am such a fan of Dean Carter at Patagonia. I mean, not only is Dean one of the most wonderful people on the planet, but his thinking on this both/and, he's a big user of technology, but he is tripling down on humans, on empathy, and he's got some crazy interesting ideas on this idea of applying the theories and principles of regenerative farming for the workforce that say what if our goal was to help people not to trade money for their life and for their energy, but what if our role was to actually lift them up and enable their capabilities and help them be more well and more capable and enabled to make a greater contribution? Mike Malloy at Quicken is doing such wonderful work. I mean, there's a lot of really exciting pioneers doing, I believe, wonderful work in this space. There's lots that I'm missing. I apologize to all my friends who may be listening and I forgot you.

Stacia Garr:
And I know that some of the folks that you mentioned have some links and opportunities where you've interviewed some of them. So I think we'll put on the podcast page links to those folks that Greg just listed, because we'd love to share the work of others.

Chris Pirie:
Where can people find out more about your work—is there somewhere we can send them?

Greg Pryor:
My wife accuses me of being an over-sharer on LinkedIn, and I view myself less of a sort of originating sharer, but more of a broker of other people's good work. So feel free to follow me on LinkedIn; what I try to do really, there has to be a curator of other people's great work.

Chris Pirie:
Great. Are there resources at Workday that we can send people to?

Greg Pryor:
You can look me up on Workday; I’m also a contributor to Forbes, and if you're part of the Forbes HR council, I contribute there. And then I do often provide blogs and webinars. Again, my wife tells me I overshare, but especially around inclusion digitalization, but doing a lot of work on that and yeah, you can sort of just Google me on some of those things. I have a lot to say as you no doubt discovered.

Stacia Garr:
Well, our final question—and I can't wait to hear the answer on this one—is around purpose: for everyone we talked to, we want to understand why you do the work you do? Was there a particular person that inspired you or a particular purpose mantra that you have, but why do you do your work?

Greg Pryor:
Gosh, thanks for asking. For me, what has always been so clear across my career is I really do believe in the power of people. I personally believe that so much of the structure we've historically had in the world has not allowed us to really unleash and unlock the greatest amount of our human capability, and so that's what's always driven me.

And what I see at least what I see in the research is that it's not that that has not been held back by the individual or limited by the individual, it’s been limited by the structures around us. It's been limited by the way we've thought about constraints in the world of work in the past. And I am so excited; I really do believe that we are 10 years into this Age where we put people and performance enablement at the center where we think about their wellbeing and wellness, and we think about things like now, social agility, how we accelerate relationships, because we know that the density and positivity of our relationships are fundamental to our success more so than 10 years ago in a role-based way of work.

So I'm very excited, I'm very bullish; clearly there are consequences, but I think we're at this once in a generation, if not in a once in a lifetime, opportunity to enable people to do their best work, to feel good, to feel satisfied, to feel a sense of belonging, that we've all, I can't imagine anyone who didn't discover the importance of belonging over the West, feeling like you, you connect with other people. So anyway, that's what drives me.

Chris Pirie:
I love it, Greg, thanks—it was so inspiring to talk to you; you really bring a lot of energy for the ideas that you collect and espouse and the insights that you do that you generate. Thanks so much for joining us and for your time today, and we'll send people to scoop up your oversharing.

Greg Pryor:
And thank you for all your leadership and working and sharing this with other people; it’s so inspiring. So grateful.

Stacia Garr:
Thank you so much for being on!

Chris Pirie:
We are very grateful to Workday for their exclusive sponsorship of this first season of the RedThread Research podcast. Today, the world is changing faster than ever, and you can meet those changing needs with Workday; it’s one agile system that enables you to grow and re-skill your workforce. Workday is a financial, HR and planning system for a changing world.

Workday will also host an exclusive live webinar towards the end of the season where you can meet the team Dani, Stacia and myself, and join in a conversation about the future of skills and skills management. You can find out more information and access exclusive content at www.workday.com/skills.

(transcript ends)

Written by

Stacia Garr Redthread Research
Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst

Stacia is a Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research and focuses on employee engagement/experience, leadership, DE&I, people analytics, and HR technology. A frequent speaker and writer, her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal as well as in numerous HR trade publications. She has been listed as a Top 100 influencer in HR Technology and in D&I. Stacia has an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.

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