01 March 2022

Workplace Stories Season 4, Skills Odyssey II: Designing A Future That Loves Us All

Dani Johnson
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst
Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst

TL;DR

  • This is the fourth episode of our podcast: The Skills Odyssey II, Season 4 of Workplace Stories.
  • In this episode, Stacia Garr and Dani Johnson of RedThread Research, and Chris Pirie of The Learning Futures Group finally finally finally talk to Manisha Singh VP of people analytics and digital employee experience at AstraZeneca.
  • As a leading creator of talent marketplaces, Manisha’s main goal is to create a future that loves everybody.
  • “Skills are a tool which can really help us craft those kind of meaningful experiences, create lifelong employability opportunities, and kind of democratize the growth, and all kinds of growth, economy growth, and with opportunities for people.”
  • Three lessons: This is a complex problem. Design comprehensively. Break HR Silos.
  • Manisha walks us through, guides us toward, and charts the maps of all things Skills. She can teach you how she navigated her Odyssey in order to help you through yours.
  • A special thanks to our sponsors, Visier and Degreed, for their support of this season!

Listen

Guest:

Manisha Singh, VP of Employee Experience, People Analytics, and Digital HR Operations, AstraZeneca

DETAILS

Manisha Singh is a leading voice in everything from HR technology to people analytics and from AI ethics to doing practical work on the future of work. And as someone who built what may well have been one of the very first ever talent marketplaces during her years at global energy equipment giant Schneider Electric, she’s also got incredible street cred for any Skills discussion. If that wasn’t enough, her years moving through the HR ranks at places like Tata and AXA would also mark her out as someone worth a conversation with. But now she’s capping all of her achievements so far with impressive work at British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnology brand AstraZeneca. Where, among other things, she is quietly working away on doing her bit to design “a future that loves us all.” A brilliant phrase, for sure. But what’s great about Manisha, who we’ve been wanting to compare Skills Odyssey notes with for soooo long, is that it’s not just epic, Homeric poetry: she’s actually doing the steering and the navigating. Oh, and just for good measure, you’ll also hear why she thinks Skills could be the way we solve The Great Resignation. Oh yeah.

Resources

  • Manisha’s LinkedIn profile is here, and there’s a nice YouTube video here about the Open Talent Marketplace she helped get up and running at her previous employer.
  • All three previous seasons of Workplace Stories, along with relevant Show Notes, transcriptions, and links, are available here.

Webinar

Join us on March 22nd at 12:00 pm est for our Skills Odyseey II webinar. You can register here.

Partner

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 Sponsors

 

 

We are very grateful to our second ‘Skills Odyssey’ sponsors, Visier and Degreed. Visier is a recognized leader in people analytics and workforce planning; with Visier, organizations can answer questions that shape business strategy, provide the impetus for taking action, and drive better business outcomes through workforce optimization. Visier has 11,000 customers in 75 countries, including enterprises like Adobe, BASF, Electronic Arts, McKesson, and more. Degreed is the upscaling platform that connects Learning to opportunities; they integrate everything people use to learn and build their careers, Skills, insights, LMSs, courses, videos, articles, and projects, and match everyone to growth opportunities that fit their unique Skills, roles and goals: learn more about the Degreed platform at degreed.com. We encourage you to show your support for their involvement by checking out both websites—and thanks once again to both organizations.

All three previous seasons of Workplace Stories, as well as our series on Purpose, which was a co-production with the ‘Learning is The New Working’ podcast, along with relevant Show Notes and links, is available here. Find out more about our Workplace Stories podcast helpmate and facilitator Chris and his work here.

Finally, if you like what you hear, please follow Workplace Stories by RedThread Research on your podcast hub of choice—and it wouldn't hurt to give us a 5-star review and share a favorite episode with a friend, as we start to tell more and more of the Workplace Stories that we think matter.

TRANSCRIPT

Five Key Quotes:

The enterprise has to be agile to adapt to changing business needs, but also the individuals in those roles have to be agile. The choice in front of every organization is, you can't hire and fire the big chunk of people: you can't say that, oh, now we have to become digital salespeople, so let's hire everybody who's already doing digital sales, because it's a consultative selling, it's a very unique skill. We have 60% of the Skills and these are the additional 10% that we need to build, help us stay in the game and move at a faster pace.

I think as a digital leader, my job is to look at decluttering, simplifying, bringing technology right up front. In the old times, what used to happen is you were designing frameworks in HR and then giving it to technology, then they were kind of getting some system and implementing it. Now, it's all happening simultaneously—and if everybody's coming together at the same time, you can take advantage of not theorizing a lot!

We are also looking at building Skills in workforce planning for small, high impact teams so that we can show how having your Skills match the workforce plan can really help you take more granular decisions on upskilling and things like that.

Solving the Skills problems can really democratize opportunity, career growth and viability for employees. And that will solve The Great Resignation that we're facing today.

I actually joined operations manufacturing, and in my rotation, I came to HR and I fell in love with it, because I thought that this function really has the power to create a more energizing, more engaging, more motivated workforce. And I thought neither strategy nor finance, none of those functions have the superpower that HR has. So I have never had a dull day believing it, exercising it, pushing for it. I have failed maybe 40% of the time, but that's what keeps me going: sparking the potential in every individual.

You are listening to Workplace Stories, a podcast by RedThread Research about the near future of work.

Stacia Garr, RedThread:

I'm Stacia Garr, co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread.

Dani Johnson, RedThread:

And I'm Dani Johnson, co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

And I'm Chris Pirie, CEO of The Learning Futures Group.

The team at RedThread Research would like to thank Visier and Degreed for their sponsorship of this podcast season, The Skills Odyssey II. Degreed is the upskilling platform that connects learning to opportunities; it integrates everything people use to learn and build their careers including skill insights, LMSs, courses, videos, articles, and projects, and matches everyone to growth opportunities that fit their unique Skills, roles, and goals. Visier is the recognized leader in people analytics and workforce planning; with Visier, organizations can answer questions that shape business strategy, provide the impetus for taking action, and drive better business outcomes through workforce optimization. Visier has 11,000 customers in 75 countries.

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

I'm a hiker, explorer, futurist, digital evangelist. But at the core of it, I really love being an HR professional. I know my mission in life and at work is to design—design the future that loves us all.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

In this episode, we talk to Manisha Singh. She is the vice president of employee experience, people analytics, and digital HR operations at AstraZeneca. She's also led talent, people strategy, and digital transformation projects, including the future of work at Schneider Electric, which we will cover in our conversation today; she's also been at AXA, Tata, and a number of other global companies. She's incredibly active in this discipline; she’s a research affiliate for MIT Office of Digital Learning and Future of Work; she’s also an active fellow in AI for Humanity, creating an advocacy for adoption of higher ethical standards in our digital future. She's a leading voice in HR technology and employee experience, and, like me, she's senior faculty at the Josh Bersin Academy.

This is a really great conversation to add to our Skills Odyssey: Manisha understands the vision and promise of a Skills-based approach, but she also brings a clarity of thought, a wealth of practical experience, and she's not shy about sharing what's hard and what hasn't worked so well. Manisha describes herself as a system thinker, a futurist that believes that HR is the conscious keeper of business, and that human capital is a key differentiator and that the future is human. You're going to hear all that passion and all that experience in this great conversation between Dani, Stacia, myself, and today's guest, Manisha Singh.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Hi Manisha, and welcome to Workplace Stories; thanks so much for your time today, and for sharing your thoughts with our audience.

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

Hello there, and thank you so much for having me.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

So we're going to start off with some quick introductory questions to help our listeners to understand who you are and your work practice, and then we'll go deeper on this whole topic of Skills. So can you give us, first, just a quick sense of your role at AstraZeneca? What is AstraZeneca, its mission, and its Purpose?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

Well, AstraZeneca is a global science-led, patient-focused biopharmaceutical company. We are $30 billion, 78,000-plus employees, spread in 70 plus countries. We have drugs in specialty areas and therapy areas as well. Oncology, CBRM with respiratory and immunology are our focus areas. I think one of the things to know about AstraZeneca is we're really passionate about pushing the boundaries of science to accelerate delivery of life-changing medicine for our patients. So if you look at all pharma companies, compared to most of them, we really invest a lot more in R&D and not just today when we are very profitable, but right from the day when we started our turnaround to back to being profitable, to really committed to a purposeful science in terms of our patients.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Well, that's helpful context, particularly as we're about innovation and that connection to Skills. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your title, and how you describe the work that you do?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

I always say introductory questions are hardest for me, but let's say … I love what Chris said: I’m a hiker, explorer, futurist, digital evangelist. But at the core of it, I really love being an HR professional. I know my mission in life and at work is to design the future that loves us all. So through HR or the various chairs or function or roles that I have got in HR, I've always tried to build progressive, fair, recruitable people practices.

My current title is VP of people analytics and digital employee experience at AstraZeneca, which means I globally head this function. And as head of the function in each of these areas, I service business and employ an organization to get future-ready. I've worked with insight and analytics as a leader; I provide in a database decision-making for initiatives like DEI, pay equity, and workforce transformation. As digital head, I work with our CDO and digital board of the company working on flexibility, work of the future policy, and also digital experiences and simplification. And as an HR operations, leadership team member, sometimes we call it to make HR faster, smarter, and efficient. So whatever it takes, whatever kind of combination of work it takes.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

You are relatively new to AZ: can you tell us a little bit about where you were before. Because we’re going to talk, I think, about both experiences.

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

So yes, I've just been with AZ for one and a quarter of a year, and prior tot his I spent four and half years at Schneider Electric, based in Boston, and I was heading the global digital transformation of HR. I got to work on lots of transformative programs, learning experience strategy and architecture, open talent market which we pioneered, and I’m very proud of that. Our high performing analytics ecosystem—we actually rebuild it twice in four years, and Schneider is still pioneering, I think, the way we build the data strategy and architecture is phenomenal. And the whole insights teams and what does it take to build a future is to get by experience and how can you think strategically about it?

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Interesting. So there's obviously a very strong data tech, employee experience thread through all of this. How did you come to do this type of work?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

That's a great question. When I was looking at the flow, I did like every other young HR professional. I started in young talent management, talent acquisition, campuses, branding. But very soon I realized that I have a little bit of affinity for solving complex, systemic problems in HR or organizations, so I quoted a lot more talent in OD where my first love in HR. And I remember in 2003 or 4, I took Petersen's learning organization and went to my HR and said, we should be working on culture, there’s no point working on leadership, and culture was big fluffy, complex topic. I think even today, for many CHROs, and he advised me saying, you should stay away from something like that because once you get into it, there's no outcome that you're getting out of it! But that's what I went solving for. And I grew into talent in OD Head, I got to service talent in OD Head of three big corporations, including AXA in Asia Pacific. And after that, I hit refresh as I hit mid-career and came to Sloan for an immersion and kind gathering. And that's where I realized the power of digital in the hand of HR leaders to enable next phase of exploration. I suppose that I quoted assignments at the intersection of HR strategy, digital and process transformation, but I was very clear. I don't want to go into HR tech-tech roles, but the roles, which demanded the intersection of strategy and HR strategy and transformation with digital.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

I love how you were just an example of learning, of continuous reinvention! You mentioned you kind of started in some of the more traditional HR activities, but taking the courage to step back for a little bit and say, where next? I just think that's so admirable.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

I really love the term you used, ‘reset,’ which I think is a great way to think about it. And we are hearing it a little bit in the context of Skills, because if you get down to the skill level it allows you to do a reset in ways that you can't if you're always focused on roles.

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

I think only now in the last five, six years, we've all started to hear about career as constellation of experiences and not just a hierarchical part and one particular specialization. So when I was making these moves, it was full of risk, right? It was not like you should, you should stick to it, but I kind of always followed my gut. And that's why I also realized it's not just that, just that I professionally believe or propagate that, but I have seen the firsthand, the benefit of kind of being able to transition from one to another very smoothly, be the sector, your Skills are really transferable and you should not box yourself into one particular thing. I actually also work at the intersection of HR and strategy for three years. I worked in the strategy team for business transformation.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

I love the fact that you're drawing a connection between Skills and flexibility and those types of things. The other thing that I love is your sentiment earlier, you said, ‘I do this work because I want to create a future that loves everybody.’ That was like, I love the way that was phrased. I think it was beautiful. And I think the way that we get there is through taking a look at Skills, because it is kind of a great equalizer across everything.

Just a little bit of context setting. So this season is about Skills; we called it The Skills Odyssey, because so many people are trying to figure it out and there's no right answer, there are monsters, and all kinds of things that happen as you figure it out. How would you define Skills?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

I have, like a romantic notion of Skills. To me, Skills is that powerful tool which HR can use to create meaningful work; we all talking about work as a tool to of connect you to your Purpose, but we've been talking about it for ages. Skills is a tool which can really help us craft those kind of meaningful experiences, create lifelong employability opportunities, and kind of democratize the growth and all kind of growth economy growth and with opportunities for people. Technically speaking, we can define skill as granular ability or expertise to do a job well, so it's not just about knowing it, it's really about our ability to execute it. And it's not dependent on acquiring a professional degree or certificate or going to school, right? You can also acquire a skill by practicing it, and that's why it is so refreshing and different.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

I love this too, because in that scene you actually said, it's good for the individual and it's good for the organization. So as an individual, you can sort of recognize your love and your passion, where you want to be through this idea of Skills, and you don't need to go back to school to do that; you can do it through practice. But you also mentioned how, this idea of Skills can affect organizations and economies and all kinds of things; it’s not just the individual: it's the individual and the organization and the economy and the industry where it sort of happens.

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

I want to build on that part, Dani. Actually Skills: when we were talking about, see I joined work in 2001 I think, I entered Tata Motors, a manufacturing company, in about 2001, and my first assignment was to also map world-class manufacturing competencies. So we were always talking about competencies. The way we defined it then was Skills, attitude, and kind of knowledge to do the work. But the dictionaries became so complex that by the time you mapped it in 18 months, in another six months, they became outdated. And still some of us tried to make good use of it. But when I think the World Economy Forum started publishing the future of the jobs report and I did, I think they did a beautiful job of statistically making this complex topic very simple, because they mapped the direction in which jobs and Skills were moving and at the pace that it were moving: they mapped it for countries; they mapped it for industry. So for example, we can look at pharma map, we can look at how Skills, US will do in Skills versus UK will do in Skills. That brought the subject of Skills to the forefront. And secondly, the digital and data acceleration forced the business to look at the pace of change. It was no more five year plan, three year plan; we are looking at changing 10, 20, 30% of our business value chain every year, or now maybe every six months these days. I think those two things put together brought the skill conversation absolutely at the center of enterprise strategy, hence HR strategy and also economies, like you said, for countries and sectors.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

So I want to deep dive that just a little bit, because what you're actually talking about is like, if you're not, you don't have a five year plan anymore, you need a six month plan, and that talks to agility. I know in our pre-call you mentioned agility and how Skills are critical to it: could you talk to that a little bit?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

So look, if you look at pharma, we used to have had 10 years’ drug discovery process, right? It would take us 10 years but if you look at the pandemic, the whole vaccine/design/discovery and manufacturing process have been shrunk to a six-months, 18-months process. In the digital era, the pharma companies are also going to become digital healthcare companies. So we are no more just going to be working at the preventive end of wellness, but the entire wellness chain—how to take proactive care for the complete wellness chain. So if you look at the value chain of the business, from preventive to complete wellness from kind of being a lab-based drug discovery process to digital data, AI-based drug discovery process, 10 years value chain [become] like 18 months and also hyper-personalized medication. I'm just talking to you about very broad based pharma.

And if you look at all these responses, the current report says by 2030, a lot of this will happen. We are eight years in, so we have to make so much shifts. We are already making a lot of shifts with every passing year. A very micro example: the way we sell. We used to sell earlier by really physically medical sales representative would go and meet people, doctors in the field. In the pandemic, it completely shifted to virtual. And we had to literally train the sales force to do that virtual thing. So we were talking about agility. In six months’ time, we had to really retrain, retool, reskill our sales force, and repurpose our distribution, commercial distribution value chain to operate so that we can continue to survive and not just thrive—that’s where agility is. And I think it works at both levels. The enterprise has to be agile to adapt to the changing business needs, but also the individuals in those roles have to be agile. And the choice that stares at us, or the choice that is in front of every organization is, you can't hire and fire the big chunk of people: you can't say that, oh, now we have to become digital salespeople, so let's hire everybody who's already doing digital sales, because it's a consultative selling, it's a very unique skill. So it's really agility essential and focusing on skill and we have 60% of the Skills and these are the additional 10% that we need to build, helps you stay in the game and, and move at a faster pace.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

My husband and I were looking at COVID tests and sort of comparing the 20 different brands of COVID tests and it was really interesting that one of the columns for comparison was, does it require an app. And so if you think about the way that you market and the value chain that you just about having to prepare an app to go with a test is probably a completely different mindset for your industry than ever before, but it also provides all kinds of opportunities, right? So collection of data and making sure that that data is getting fed back in, so it feeds your system faster and all that kind of stuff. I think it's a really interesting idea.

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

Every drug that we used to sell is now becoming a platform—a digital platform and giving a lifestyle solution around it to our patients.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:
Manisha, I’m going to step in here if I can: we’re very greedy, and we're so excited to have you on the show and we figured we could get two case studies for the price of one because of your recent experience 🙂 We’re really interested in how pressures and forces at work on business are driving change, and you talk about the shift in the drug industry, how that is driving this different approach to talent and this sort of skill-centric approach. So, if you don't mind, I wouldn't mind understanding a little bit at Schneider Electric, what was the shift there that was driving the need to operate through this Skills lens?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

Schneider Electric is another very, very beautiful Purpose-driven company. It operates in the energy sector and it was originally a manufacturer of electrical products, industrial and retail of all kinds, but as the world is moving in the digital era, so is Schneider. Because if they keep manufacturing the industrial electrical equipment, some other company will come in on top of it and start providing the digital analytic solutions, so Schneider is morphing into becoming a digital, energy automation company providing end-to-end solutions to the customer. So the big burning platform for the business transformation of Schneider Electric is how do we accelerate that digital transformation? And in that context, at HR, our job was, how can we support businesses in doing that?

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Love it; and what was your work in that focus on Skills, and what did you specifically work on and build to try and build Skills into the ecosystem?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

We were trying to solve Skills-related problems from a couple of different angles, just like every organization, because it's a journey. I think we, this is, we are talking about still four or five years back now. I think few organizations are at least trying to think about solving Skills problems holistically, but that was also time; so I'll tell you a couple of angles with which we were trying to solve the problem, different use cases. How do we identify and rate what digital Skills we have today in the workforce? And what is our level of operating it, because how do you accelerate digital transformation if you don't know what the status of your digital Skills? So that was one use case. How do we do that? Second, how do we make it easy to hire for digital Skills that we do not have? So once we identify what is our skillset, what we don't have, how do we hire? And then when we realized the gap between what we have and what we don't have, we looked at this beautiful, new emerging job roles on UX design, digital marketing analytics, data science—so then we had a paradox: we had internal employees looking for career opportunities, and we had this cool job for which we are going out and hiring. So our third use case was how can we go deep into our own 144,000 employees across a hundred countries and pick up those gems who are on their own, not surfacing, not coming up. How can we surface them for these kind of job roles?

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Got it! I’m really interested to learn what you learned from that process and maybe what you're taking forward. And something you said earlier really struck me this ‘previous generation’ of this work, where we really got wrapped around the axel on building incredibly complex models and capability models. How did you approach it differently at Schneider, and what did you learn through that process?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

So we tried to solve each of these use cases because now I have come to an understanding how these use cases will mesh together and how, but at that time we said, okay, each use case, let's treat it differently. Let's not try to be super-complex and cook it all together because then it'll become a multi-year program. For example, to identify our digital skill sets today, we actually went to LinkedIn and I think out 144,000, we had 65,000 plus employees present on LinkedIn. And we looked at that data setting because the profile in our system would be like outdated compared to the LinkedIn profiles, which are much more current. So we would looked at that data, we scraped it in R Studio to look at how is this profile looking at an aggregate level, what skill sets we have, and then we sent it out to employees to validate.

So that was a very quick and dirty, smart way to look at the whole skill picture and using LinkedIn's ontology in the back-end. We also talked to LinkedIn to say, you have this current digital Skills: can you give us that? I think they're still working on figuring out how to kind of structure their ontology and in a way, make it available like MC does or Burning Glass is, so that's not yet available. It's a work in progress.

That's one problem that we solved. Second problem was this the most interesting one we solved was how do we hire for digital Skills and how do we make these roles available for internal employees? And that's where, Chris, to your point, I remembered how complex was our competency model and actually use this argument to not select some vendors.

So we went into the market, we were doing two, three things simultaneously; we were trying to solve our problem on paper theoretically, to say if we had ideal technology, what would the solution look like from an employee persona, from a manager persona? And then we went to the market, open minded, looking all kinds of tools that we had, and that's when we kind of partnered with a very early stage Israeli startup. And we almost literally co-created the product, because the vision of the product that we had was non-existent in the market. And this was an early startup. It had just one more big enterprise customer working. And when they looked at our vision, they literally got the three-year product roadmap, so they loved to partner with us and we loved to partner with them, and that's how open talent market was born. And we kind of chose the algorithm: we said, we will not be feeding job descriptions or the competencies within the job description, we want an algorithm which can actually infer the Skills from the job and an algorithm, which can input Skills from the profile and then do the matching. And can that matching be based on lots of options—not just Manisha's past history, but let's say Manisha has worked in HR, but she wants to work in digital marketing, so it should also take Manisha's choice and give it equal weight. Through those kind of dimensions, we tried to keep employee experience at the center of it and same progressive design principles. Otherwise there were lots of algorithm which were working much more effectively, but they were back-end tools where HR would match to open position employees and say, here are 10 employees. We didn't want any of that. In a way, we took away power from HR to say, if you're a manager, Chris, we go there, poster job poster projects, and people can apply in a second.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

What I'm getting from the picture overall is that you had a pretty experimental mindset, and you were also kind of using what you had at hand. I love the LinkedIn example; that’s already there, it's powered by the individual, right, so there's some authenticity there and then you layer sort of tools on top of that. Is there anything else before we move to AZ that you are bringing forward from that experience? Any results that you came up with that you are particularly proud of, or any approaches that you want to replicate?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

So there's one more thing that we were doing at Schneider. I think a couple of things were working for us to be able to experiment on something this strategic at this scale, because when you look at open talent market, it's not just a small pilot, it's a big cultural shift—it’s a mindset shift for leaders, it’s a behavioral shift which will make something like this successful. So we kind of brought HR leaders together and business leaders together and supporting the HR strategy, we built a digital game plan and in that digital game plan, Skills and open talent market became very important. And we built pilots sequentially saying, if we succeed in this, if this AI platform can help us solve the Skill problem, then it's well and good, because only after you execute that you realize that, oh, this has added another layer of complexity. So now I have an open talent market, I have an algorithm which is of giving me data. I have an LXP, a learning experience platform where there's another skill index, which is helping me recommend the learning. And then how do I kind of, which one of the—

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

How do they talk to each other?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

—and how do I keep it dynamic? So I think that problem we solved, we were working on with our design house in Schneider on saying, what is the future employee experience architecture? And again, not when we say ‘employee experience’, I think it's not a misnomer; it's really employee experience in terms of what are the issues that employees want technology to solve for them—not just service, not the self-service or few, few left clicks. So employees really wanted to know strategy GPS, just like I put a destination and I know what does it take to get there? So when we were creating an architecture, we could see very clearly that we need a separate Skills inventory somewhere at some point of time. So that would be one future project that we would work on.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

So you had this great momentum at Schneider, but you made the choice to move over to, to AZ. So you come over to AstraZeneca, and were you brought in specifically to help with Skills? Was that the remit? Where was The Skills Odyssey for AZ when you came in?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

So my mandate in AZ was to really help AZ get ready to deliver 2025 transformation. We have a 2025 business plan and an HR strategy supporting that, and one of the three pillars of HR strategy, the central pillar, is digital and data. So it was to define a digital and data game plan, and when we looked at defining that, it was really to say, which pillars cut across all COEs in HR and are absolutely central to delivering a people strategy. And that's where Skills came into the picture.

We looked at some other aspects as well; we looked at workforce planning, we looked at Skills. We looked at continuous listening Skills. We looked at simplifying employee experiences. So that's where Skills became central because rewards wanted to pay for Skills at some point of time, learning wanted to build multi-year career development strategy and game plan basis on Skills, we in people analytics and business partners wanted to build skill-based workforce plan, because otherwise they had very broad head count number based plans. That's how Skills become a central problem.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

So that was the problem that you kind of came into a year ago. Can you talk to us a little bit about—it’s one thing to say, Hey, we need this, hey, we’re bringing something new in to do it, and it's another thing to start to get leaders on board and to create a vision for what you're trying to do. So can you maybe first talk to us about what that vision was, like once kind of got your feet underneath you, what that vision was that you created? If it was what you just said, cool, but if there was more to it than that, and then how you went about getting leaders on board to support this new vision?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

In a way, it's always a collaborative effort. So we had people from learning, people from talent, people from rewards. So at the first stage, I always reach out to these people because they have a business use case for why they want, where they want, to use Skills. Then we also went to a couple of business HR leaders, and we created a team of five fixed evangelists who all wanted to use Skills. And the first step was really to educate them based on my prior experience: if instead of tackling this problem separately, it makes sense for us to go together because the data architecture and framework that we need is going to be common, and then use cases could be different. So if we all can pull in together, it'll be easier to create buy-in with the business leadership as well as HR leadership.

And then we had to look at the business problems that this will help us solve. And so we were actually interviewing business leaders to identify what are the top business problems that analytics could solve. Learning was interviewing them for something else, for the learning strategy. So from those interviews, we took out some of the problems. And like I told you about commercial skill, medical sales and preventative Skills: one of the other challenges was, the whole operation; the manufacturing is shifting to more remote-based manufacturing given the pandemic, right? So all these shifts which was happening needed a very different skill sets and profile sets of the workforce. These were not HR problems; these were business problems that business was not waiting for HR to solve. They had already opened their Excel sheet, they had opened their SharePoint, IT had created a SharePoint based-IT gig and started some projects already. There was plan hundred to move talent flexibly in commercial. So we went and collected these problems and these solutions, which were already existing. And we showcased this to the leaders saying, the organization has this pin point, organization has already embarked on this solution. Here is how the state of art looks like; if we could solve Skills together, this is how the jobs are moving, this is how the future will move, and this is how we can solve and help you build more and agile HR organization. And kind of, that's how we had conversation. We created one or two fellow sponsors.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

What I love about that is you basically say, you all are already doing this and we're going to take some of this work off your plate. We're going to—I’m sure you didn't say this—but basically professionalize it all, standardize it and make it a lot better. So I love that approach.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

The degree of difficulty feels like it probably went up when you got everybody in the room and you got everybody’s kind of wish list. How do you avoid sort of falling into the trap of boiling the ocean, we sometimes call it? Is that your job to help prioritize?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

I think, Chris, you’ve identified one of the biggest problem in trying to walk the Skills path. And this is where the competency framework got caught, because you wanted to solve the whole world problem and have the most articulate dictionary. I think as a digital leader in these conversations, my job is to look at integrated, look at de-cluttering, look at simplifying, look at bringing technology right up front. In the old time, what used to happen is you were designing frameworks in HR and then giving it to technology, then they were kind of getting some system and implementing it. Now, it's all happening simultaneously to help save the plan because your design can actually influence how the product is designing. And if, if everybody's coming together at the same time, you can take advantage of not theorizing a lot.

So that's my job: to share with them what AI can do and what AI cannot do, where should they think about really going deep into making framework, where should, where they should just remain at so level because rest of the work AI can do it easily for them. For example, job descriptions—that’s where our Skills sit mostly today. And in most of our organization, 80% of job descriptions are not updated. 20% positions, which are in higher attrition. Those job descriptions are also very custom updated, which means if four recruiters are hiring for those jobs, they would each update the JD differently today. Most of the technology platforms, the inference of the skill from JD is very good, so when I'm in those conversation, I can very well say, don't worry about JD, as long as you bring the JD, then we'll make the system work to ensure that Skills are pulled. But once skill ontology is pulled, an organization like AstraZeneca or Schneider Electric, they all use some custom Skills and terms. No general skill ontology has that. So you have to have a human in curating that skill ontology, so you have to plan for that.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

We talk to a lot of vendors and they're having the same problem, right? Like, a skill is called something different in another company, do you see a time when we're going to get good enough so that those can be translated—at least within another company?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

The complexity problem that Chris raised, Dani: the question that you asked would be an ideal solution to it. The only reason the Skills initiative is very complex is because we still don't have that capability between multiple vendors. I have used Workday Skills ontology, 200,000 Skills, but if you really want to use the Skills specifically from that, you have no way to curate, unplug and say, okay, in AZ Enterprise Workday, I'll just have this skill work across my … it’s still a very new thing that even innovative to like Workday developing or constant, they all are still trying to master their own Skills ontology. How can they give power to different enterprise to curate and they can still control and be agile? But when you and I are trying to solve Skills problem in our enterprise, let's say in AstraZeneca, I have a Degreed skill index. I have a Workday skill. I have a Work Human skill, and if I'm using some other workforce planning tool, I have a skilled index on that. And today even they don't have ability to speak to each other.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

It all gets complicated, really quickly.

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

It does. And then, which of these should be your job architecture, right? And that's why I think the futuristic solution for companies which can afford to see, there's always two separate solutions. One is if, if you have a new, not the old ATSF, but a new ATSF for Greenhouse, they have a skill. So you can work with them to try to make it your repository, and then create API and connection in your ecosystem in a way that that acts as master. But if you're a company like Schneider or AZ where you can probably do a little bit more investment, then we will create a Skills database outside a master Skills database—

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

But then everybody feeds into it.

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

But you need a lot of people to do that. And I really think that will become imperative because it's not nice to have, it’s really very critical.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

So then for this basically Skills ‘database,’ or depending on the size, Skills ‘data lake' that you're creating it—as you have envisioned it or done it in the past, is that really just a conglomeration of everything? So you got the Greenhouse ontology in there, you got the Workday, you got the Degreed, you got whomever else, and you're putting it in and stitching it together so you've got all of those in there, or are you still having some level of selection on like, ikay, in the front end of the funnel we're going to use Greenhouse and then when we actually get people in, we're going to use Workday, and those are the two and everybody else has to play with those two? How do you think about it?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

I think it's some combination of both. And these days, these data lakes also become very intelligent, right? You also have algorithm and data mesh. So I think you will have, we will have to choose. Like I always say, even when we are thinking about building a Skills database at first stage, having your core ATM can easily deliver 30, 40% more value, only if we decide to work on that data. I remember in 2005, I first implemented my first ever HRMS, which was PeopleSoft, and we had spent one year trying to get data tables right before we even embarked on implementing. And in that implementation, I could get 80% value out of that system—but today, when I look at how we've implemented Workday and all, I think because we are always in a hurry, we have a team we need to show success in two years, we roll up, we have not spent enough time standardizing our datasets. And we can still do that to directly answer your question, we will have to look at skill sets in our current ATM and, and kind of ensuring that employees are updating that profile if we can. And then at second level, making skill metrics, data lake as core, but it'll be a gradual, two-step process.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

So I have kind of a follow question to that. You mentioned 200,000 Skills, and you mentioned curating them by a human. Are you focusing on all 200,000 Skills, or are you taking certain sets of those Skills and deciding which ones you're going to focus on?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

That's a great question. I think we are looking at all of those Skills and yes, there are clusters—and really looking at—and this is where we partner with our product vendors to say, this is the task we need to do. And today we have to do it manually. Is there a way you can build us an algorithm to do that curation so that we can guide or something like that. But yes, today, it's manual.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

What you're saying is really fascinating to me, and I think of the use case that you mentioned where you're helping people build their personal Skills for the future, right? And we've heard other people talk about examples of laying out very clearly for people where the business is going, and where we're going to need Skills. And then also Skills being a competitive advantage to AstraZeneca versus its competitors, right? You're never going to get those things. It strikes me that one of the most valuable things is the combination of Skills that's kind of needed—not just a discreet list of things that I need to build, but where combinations of different types of Skills come together to create opportunity and real value for the company. Have you done any work to that kind of level or is that, does that happen down in the business?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

That work is happening in the business, Chris, and our learning academy and learning teams are doing that work: they’re defining the sales capability, the commercial capabilities, and things like that. So an organization will still have to develop their own subset skillsets required for their success. But I think what, what are trying to say is how do we present all this? I think even in the competency dictionary, we got fixed on saying HR created the state of art and maybe managers looked at it. But when it comes to an employee choosing to go from position A to B, how did that competency dictionary help? And this is where today the power of AI and good platforms can really come into picture. And you can just put your jobs there, Skills there, and then Manisha can put her in experience there and let the AI do the work, then to say Manisha, if you want to grow in current trajectory, these are the jobs, these are the projects that you can take up, these are mentors you can connect to, these are the people you can follow. You want to go very different, then here are the jobs, projects, mentors that you can do. If you want to go in an accelerated trajectory, then here are other people.

So I think that's what platform can bridge. But how sharp that matching will be, how effective that matching will be and how unique a competitive advantage that matching will be to your organization will also depend on how curated that competency as far a skill list is for our organization. And I think the data set will get sharper than more we use it, so we have to start somewhere with confidence. After having said that, I also want to say that 60% of the Skills will remain generic. For example, our data finds some Skills will remain common across data scientists, but then data scientists and pharma, drug discovery, some skillsets will become unique.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Can we talk a little bit about where you get your data? It's been really interesting to hear you talk about, sometimes we get it from LinkedIn, and we do it manually, and sometimes some of it comes from degree and Workday and Greenhouse, if you're using it. What are your data sources for Skills?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

It's first, the employee profile, right? Whatever employees are maintaining their profile. It is XCM. I think most organizations, including AZ, have done a very rigorous drive even for our DEI initiative to ask employees to really keep their profile updated. So employee profile in XCM on the company page, whatever it is, then with employee permission, their LinkedIn profile so that becomes the source of what could be the input current Skillset. Then are those performance document or leadership evaluation documents as well, right, where we have some defined Skills or proficiency level, so we take some data sets from there. Then one critical component in trying to map Skills is how is my skillsets doing compared to where the market is moving. So getting data sets from Burning Glass or AZ where we can, or from a particular vendor for my industry, for my sector, is also very important. And I think there's a whole opportunity for each industry for those kind of vendors to come together. If let's say AstraZeneca wants to benchmark reward, I make a positioning to say, I will peg my reward at 68 percentile of pharma markets. And here are the five companies I will peg against. So I will take in basket to Hewitt, whatever, and I give basket to Hewitt or Mercer and, and they give me broad ranges for each of the role type that I have. So this has got stabilize for reward, and I don't see any reason we won't have some similar solution in future for Skills, but we don't have one right now.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

I have one more question sort of aligned with that. We're seeing more organizations look outside of systems for data, or formal systems. So for example, a lot of especially smaller companies are that are looking to hire engineers will go to GitHub and take a look at GitHub profiles because that's a perfect example of the work that they do, are you looking into things like that as well? And I mentioned it because, you're already using LinkedIn, are you using some of those other things as well?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

We are, we are using LinkedIn, we use scholarly search, paper references and things like that. So yes, we are all using different datasets, but the key is how do we not, how do we not lose this knowledge once we are doing all this search for hiring, how do we use it on an on-going basis?

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Yeah. Interesting.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

I think that gets into what I would like to talk about, which is we’ve talked about a lot of the potential things in kind of direction. What have you been able to do in the last year and where are you hoping to get to in the next year or two?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

Like I said, we have some of these use cases that we are working on, like plan 100 gig variety, operations career pathing. And so we are designing proof of concepts around that and computing this in our current systems while we are creating a momentum and alignment around an integrated skill strategy for people to come together and invest. We are also looking at cleaning our skill ontology, so the work Skills project really cleaning our job architecture and Skills so that when we are doing our POCs they really become successful—the experience is seamless for people, so that they can see the power of how it all comes together. And lastly, we are also looking at building Skills in workforce planning for some smaller, high impact teams so that we can show how having your Skills match along with the workforce plan can really help you take more granular decisions on upskilling and things like that.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

That's cool.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

What I love is you're using a combination of, as Chris mentioned, getting all those leaders into the room and aligned around the central vision but at the same time, running these smaller scale experiments and doing some of the, just kind of grunt work that has to happen to enable this in the long term. So it's kind of like you have three different threads going through as you are doing this work.

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

I have learnt it the hard way, Stacia: I think one of the two biggest challenges in all these things and one of the challenges is balancing, I call it securing the present versus shaping the future. So all these things that we are doing is securing the present because if we don’t work on what we have and show the proof point of to what extent it can deliver results and not deliver results, there’s no way we can align people in shaping the future. Especially when it comes to HR, because we are still GNA, we are still part of GNA, we’re still considered a call center. So that's something I've learned the hard way; if you want people’s attention on futuristic, disruptive innovation, then show them the proof point so that they can walk along.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

I think it also leads nicely into some of our final questions: the first one I want to make sure we get to is you're now on at least company two of this particle Skills Odyssey! What are some of the critical lessons you've learned through this work?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

I think two lessons we already talked about. One is it's a complex problem to solve, so it's good to think in entirety but don't try and go and solve it all from day one. So start focused, identify problems worthy of solving, have CXO sponsorship and attention. So let's say if you have four or five use cases tested, which one of this has CXO attention and they really care about outcomes so that once you get and hit those outcomes, then he's ready to, or she's ready, to sponsor the next one; start in a focus way. Lesson two is to design comprehensively. So while you start narrow, start focused, but when you're designing, don't design just for that narrow solution. At the time of design[ing] it, you have liberty to think, to dream, to say what could the solution bloom into and take an ecosystem approach really, so that when you are going from one use case to second use case to third use case, you don't have to buy a new platform or inject a new database and things like that—your system is really ready to go from one to another seamlessly.

Third lesson is a coalition of partners are needed. If you go alone on Skills—and I’ve seen this a couple of times, both my organizations I have seen it happen—it’s not like that people have never tried before, right; if you go alone and if you don't share, like sometimes hiring teams is ahead of the curve, they're hiring digital already. So they want to go alone and build digital skillsets. Sometimes, the rewards team is wanting to go alone, sometimes the learning team because they have LXP I have to say, all learning teams have our little head in Skills, game, they have LXP and they were anyways early competency owners. So they want to go on their own.

So how do you bring people together, and RDT, and data scientists and business leaders? I know it sounds bureaucratic when I say get many people together, but I have learned the hard way that spend 80% of the time walk while talking in aligning, but the speed that you will get because of that investment in the last 20% of the time will be phenomenal. But if you did decide to invest only 10%, 20% time in talking your 80% time will still not get you the result that you're looking for. And I think my toughest one is, get support from the HR to break the HR silos, to come together because otherwise we are just solving for piecemeal something which can be very and value creating will just become something very mundane.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

HR silos: I’ve never heard of those before:)

[Laughter]

We just have a moment left, so let's hit just two questions. The first one is, what do you see as the future? You've been thinking about this problem for a long time in different ways, and what do you think we'll be doing in five years that we're not talking about today?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

That's a tough one. I think we are talking about everything, but we are still not able to do things in a more integrated and cohesive way. We are doing smaller experiments, but are we able to show the entire workforce plan—for example, to grow my company for $5 billion, I need to have 5,000 more headcounts in these 10 geographies and here are the skillsets that I'm looking at. I think a lot of us are far away from that. And if we can do it real time and really make it available to employees, managers, link it to the development plan and growth plan, it will be phenomenal. So I think around Skills, that's my take that hopefully in five years, this will all be done and dusted and we will really be living in an agile organization where I can work 30% of time in marketing, 20% of time and strategy, and 10% of time in HR, depending on whose interest lies where. And I think some consulting organizations are getting there, some IT services organizations are getting there, but they're only 5%; most of us are further behind.

I also wanted to add a few more points to this question. In the future, what we are not talking about today is employee agency and reimagining employee contract with organizations: solving Skills problems can really democratize opportunity, career growth and viability for employees—we are still not talking about that. We're still talking very much from HR lens, right? So how do we flip that? And that will solve The Great Resignation that we're facing today.

The second thing is, again, employment—how to redesign meaningful jobs with manageable workload. We have our jobs, designs and structure and primarily because we write it in such a complex way with so many, like I used to have four pages, functional KPI metrics and, and things like that. But once you have, once we can decode jobs and Skills and tasks, we should be able to mix and match and create something more meaningful at much more speed and if it's not working, create something else, create something else, really move faster to create. And last is my favorite, right? Virtualize the HR operation. HR is supposed to be a kind of accelerating a lot of this, but most of us in HR are stuck in our administrative tasks. And then with COVID, there's additional tasks that, that has come to our plate, so unless we virtualize all of the administrative tasks by using technology, I don't think we can create bandwidth in HR to coach, care and kind of support all this intelligent Skills work and, and future organization development.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Just a real quick, final question, we ask every guest who comes on, which is what we call the Purpose question. And that is why do you personally do the work that you do?

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

Growing up, when I was a young girl, I was very clear that I wanted to be a doctor. And the reason I wanted to be a doctor: growing up in India, I had lots of people around who could not afford medical services and things like that, so I was really motivated to do my bit to serve humanity. But it's very competitive to write medical exams in India, I couldn’t bear it, so I ended up studying Science, then moved to HR. I actually joined operations manufacturing, and in my rotation, I came to HR and I fell in love with it, because I thought that this function really has the power to create a more energizing, more engaging, more motivated workforce. And I thought neither strategy nor finance—I had rotation in all those functions—nor manufacturing, none of those functions has that superpower that HR has. So I have never had a dull day believing it, exercising it, pushing for it. I have failed maybe 40% of the time, but that's what keeps me going—sparking the potential in every individual.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Well, Manisha, thank you so much for joining us: this conversation was just wonderful, and both a blend of inspirational and practical. So we are just grateful for you and for your time!

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

Thank you so much, guys. I'm a very poor speaker. I made lots of notes! But I think I could not do enough just especially for example. So if you want me to redo some pieces, let me know.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

It was really great. In fact, I texted Stacia halfway through—I’m like, she's so articulate! You’re very succinct in your answers, and they were clear. It was wonderful.

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

So grateful to you guys. You guys are amazing with your words and your inspiration. I think one of my self-developments, and I've told you all last time also, is to write, is to express, because what’s the use of building progress practices if you're not debating it out there, isn't it. And not putting it out for others to comment on it.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Well, we did today. You don't have to do it with writing!

Manisha Singh, AstraZeneca:

Thank you. Thank you so much for your time.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Thank you!

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Thanks for listening to this episode of Workplace Stories. Dani and Stacia: how can our listeners get more involved in the podcast?

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Well, they can subscribe and rate us on the podcast platform of their choice.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

They can also share this, or their favorite episode, with a colleague or a friend.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

You can check out the beautiful handcrafted transcripts at redthrearesearch.com/podcast and see what else we have to offer as far as research goes.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Or Stacia, they could…?

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Consider joining the conversation and community by joining our RedThread membership.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

A big thanks to our guests on all our podcast seasons for sharing their insights and thoughts. Of course, we should thank our beloved listeners: thank you!

[Stacia Garr, RedThread Research & Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:]

Thank you.

The team would like to thank Visier and Degreed for their sponsorship of this podcast season, The Skills Odyssey II. A big thank you to our season sponsors: for more information you can find links to their websites in the Show Notes for this podcast.

This podcast is a production of RedThread Research and The Learning Futures Group.

Dani Johnson

Dani is Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human capital practices and technology. Her ideas can be found in publications such as Wall Street Journal, CLO Magazine, HR Magazine, and Employment Relations. Dani holds an MBA and an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from BYU.

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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