18 January 2022

Workplace Stories Season 4, Skills Odyssey II: How Do You Build Things That Are Reversible?

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

TL;DR

  • This is the first episode of our podcast: The Skills Odyssey II, Season 4 of Workplace Stories.
  • In this episode, Stacia Garr and Dani Johnson of RedThread Research talk to Robert Carlyle, the VP of HR analytics, systems and risk management at Sun Life Insurance.
  • Robert presents a book report of Homer’s The Odyssey and explains how Odysseus’ trials relate back to our own Skills Odyssey.
  • “There’s an element between destiny and the view of the Gods, plus the free will of Odysseus. And in many ways, that’s us in our normal lives, in our careers: we have directions we want to go, but decisions that companies make about where growth is, what jobs are available, predisposes what’s possible.”
  • There are three audiences—the learning and development community, managers, and employees—who are all sewn together to make a Skills sail for our ship.
  • Learn what Robert means when he says “experimental phase,” “business is a team sport,” “Skills matching,” and “the need to be able to undo things.”
  • A special thanks to our sponsors, Visier and Degreed, for their support of this season!

Listen

Guest:

Robert Carlyle, VP, HR Analytics, Systems and Risk Management at Sun Life

DETAILS

“We really just almost assume that, self-evidently, Skills matter—and then went to try to build a Skills library. It is only then that we start to think… what for?” Talk for any length of time with this week’s ‘Skills Odyssey II’ guest, Sun Life’s Robert Carlyle, and these kind of zingers just keep on coming through, along with solid thinking about why doing anything with Skills that isn’t ‘wholesale’ (think, ‘big’) and at scale is a waste of everyone’s time, why it really doesn’t matter if you want to say ‘competency’ versus ‘Skill,’ and many others. You get all this in this week’s in-depth conversation with a real Skills practitioner striving at enterprise level, as well as, heck, a book report on Homer as Tarantino and what the Odyssey actually can teach us all about careers and acquiring knowledge. Don’t say we never spoil you.

Resources

  • In the episode, Robert says he is happy to make connections and drive the conversation through LinkedIn (as his commitments allow, obviously).
  • 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.

Webinar

As with all our seasons, there will be a culminating final live webinar where we will share our conclusions about the show’s findings. As ever, we will share details of that event soon as it is scheduled in early 2022.

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:

I really took away from the Odyssey that there's an element between destiny and the view of the Gods, plus the free will of Odysseus. And in many ways, that's us in our normal lives, in our careers; we have directions we want to go, but decisions that companies make about where growth is, what jobs are available, predisposes what's possible. And we can move around and we have an element of free will, but we are also the macro conditions, whether it's a recession or a change in corporate strategy, really limits or gives us new opportunities we didn't expect. And so in many ways, you can take the Odyssey as a view of what an actual career could look like.

I wonder if our focus on Skills is part of giving us a little bit more free will, and the ability to map our journey a little bit more carefully.

When we talk about Skills, maybe we ask, why are we talking about Skills: we want to make better decisions? We want to know who should I hire? How can I develop? Where are the gaps we have in capabilities across the company that are getting in the way of strategy? Skills for me are just one extra piece of information that we use to make these decisions. To make these decisions in the past, you'd often have a whole pile of information in front of a leader, and they would look at it and they would use their informed management judgment to make decisions. Now, how do we really think about improving that, and getting rid of biases, and making sure all the information's there at scale for every decision we make? Skills are part of it–but it's not the only thing we look at.

The challenge around Skills–or capabilities–is that there's tens and tens of thousands of different ones; they’re often described differently and there's different nuance, and I don't think we can use traditional techniques to use them. The real advance, I think, from a technology perspective, is that as machine learning becomes more cost-effective, we can start to use those types of analytical techniques to look at all of the Skills data that might be incomplete for an employee.

Once we see governments really leading this, and focusing on Skills and where are the gaps across the economy, is when I think we'll start to see some real widespread change in how we talk about them.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

Welcome to ‘Workplace Stories,’ a podcast from RedThread Research: I'm Stacia Garr, co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

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

Chris Pirie, Learning Futures Group:

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

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

We're calling this season ‘The Skills Odyssey II,’ and it's a continuation of our investigation into the insights and learnings of talent leaders who are already running hands-on Skills projects.

Chris Pirie, Learning Futures Group:

We are very grateful to our season 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 Uber; you can learn more about Visier at Visier.com. Degreed is the upskilling 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, and thanks to both of our season sponsors.

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

I really took away from the Odyssey that there's an element sort of between destiny and the view of the Gods, plus the free will of Odysseus. And in many ways, that's us in our normal lives, in our careers; we have directions we want to go, but decisions that companies make about where growth is, what jobs are available, predisposes what's possible. And we can move around and we have an element of free will, but we are also the macro conditions, whether it's a recession or a change in corporate strategy, really limits or gives us new opportunities we didn't expect. And so in many ways, you can take the Odyssey as a view of what an actual career could look like.

Chris Pirie, Learning Futures Group:

Don't worry, you've not accidentally stumbled into a podcast on classic Greek literature: you are in fact listening to ‘Workplace Stories’ by RedThread Research. But I do think that this episode might become a ‘classic’ from our now four Seasons of conversations on the topic of Skills and the journey many of us are on towards Skills-based talent management—a journey that we've called the Skills Odyssey.

In this episode, RedThread founders Dani Johnson and Stacia Garr unlock some incredibly valuable insights that inform our ongoing research into the innovation and challenges of Skills-based HR practices in a conversation with Rob Carlyle. Rob is the VP of HR analytics, systems and risk management at Sun Life Insurance: Rob started as a business strategist, but his early-in-career epiphany that strategy is actually executed by people, led him to an interesting career shift and a subsequent body of deep dirt under the fingernails work applying strategy, data analytics, and machine learning to critical talent workloads. He's something of a polymath, with lots of evidence and experience-based opinions, and insights to share with us all and a passion to build at scale, or wholesale, as he calls it, approaches to helping people thrive at work. Oh, and as you've heard, he's also actually read Homer's Odyssey and thought carefully about how it might inform his work.

You'll hear about many of Rob's learnings on his own Homeric journey so far that just might inform your own, including how a Skills-based approach might connect the needs of three constituencies: managers, L&D teams, and employees; why technology—and specifically, machine learning—has ushered in a new era and a set of possibilities that go way beyond the stacks of competency binders that we all built in the eighties; how the cost of poor hiring is a critical business issue and reason enough alone to do this work, but saving that cost is just a fraction of the benefits that might accrue; the critical questions to ask before using third-party Skills libraries, and why Rob believes that the work has to be done comprehensively and at scale if we to unlock the real benefits of a Skills-based approach. So tie yourself to the mast—metaphorically at least—and listen closely to this conversation between Dani, Stacia, and Rob Carlyle.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

Hi, Rob, and welcome to ‘Workplace Stories.’ Thanks so much for coming on today and sharing your insights with our audience.

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

Delighted to be here!

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

So we're going to start off with some quick questions to introduce you and your overall work practice to our audience, and then we'll go deeper in some other areas around Skills that we'd love your perspective on. I think it's important for our audience to know, before we dive in, that you may be the most recently educated on the whole concept of the Odyssey; you mentioned that you've actually read it recently, so our hope is that we'll have all sorts of wonderful symbolism in our discussion today that alludes back to the Skills Odyssey. So with that, can you start off by giving us a quick overview of Sun Life, its mission and purpose?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

So, Sun Life is a multinational insurance, wealth management, and asset management company. Including our joint ventures, we have about 42,000 employees in 27 markets and about 140,000 independent insurance and wealth management advisors.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

And tell us a bit about yourself, your title, your work—and why you actually did read the Odyssey a few years ago!

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

So, my title is the Vice President of HR Analytics Systems and Risk Management, which really brings together sort of the corporate view of how to use data systems in a safe way to provide better experiences for our employees or our managers as they hire, develop, and engage employees. Why I read the Odyssey: well actually, I read it largely because it was a sequel to the Iliad, and I had read the Iliad before that, and I found out that they seemed to have a very different style. I know that sounds funny; I actually thought that the Iliad when I read it was kind of like the Quentin Tarantino of classic poetry. And then I read the Odyssey, and found it was quite different and different pacing, but in many ways relevant here. From my read of it, and this might sound odd coming from a person that's probably more data analytic, I really took away from the Odyssey that there's an element between destiny and the view of the Gods, plus the free will of Odysseus. And in many ways, that's us in our normal lives, in our careers: we have directions we want to go, but decisions that companies make about where growth is, what jobs are available, predisposes what's possible. And we can move around and we have an element of free will, but we are also the macro conditions, whether it's a recession or a changing corporate strategy, really limits or gives us new opportunities we didn't expect. And so in many ways, you can take the Odyssey as a view of what an actual career could look like.

[Stacia & Dani together:]

I love that.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

I wonder, too, if our focus on Skills is part of giving us a little bit more free will, and the ability to map our journey a little bit more carefully.

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

I think that's a great point—that the more capable we are, and if you look at Odysseus, and his descriptions in the Odyssey is he's really sort of the great Greek with all this intellect, the bravery, the cunning, the ability to take on any problem. And I think that that's why he's so successful, despite all of the things the gods throw at him. And in a similar way, that's where the most skilled employees, the people that are devoted to learning and constantly upgrading their capabilities actually tend to have the best careers.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

Moving on from the Odyssey for a moment, let’s talk maybe a little bit about your own career Odyssey or journey, because in our prep call you mentioned your previous employer, so can you tell us a little bit about where you were before that, and your experience there, because I think we'll be weaving those together today?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

Yeah, this is really my fourth company, and I'll really quickly touch upon this because it might suggest why my experience set is different than many HR professionals? I started coming out of university—I’ve got a doctorate in strategic planning—and I went into what I thought would be a career of a typical strategy consultant, and quickly came to realize that it was the people that make strategies work. Early on, I thought it's about the strategy, it’s about the finance, it's you've gotta get technology and operations, right—but ultimately, it's about having the right people, about developing people. And that started an Odyssey, and through that process, my career has shifted to more and more thinking about how do we enable people and Skills, and create culture and organizational structures that best support talent development and effective strategy implementation. And that's really, I guess, sort of an outside way of coming into HR.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

You mentioned this is your fourth company doing this work, so what have been kind of the others, and how do you see them connecting to the work that you're doing now?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

Yes, the first company I really worked with was actually a startup: after one year in business, I thought, oh, this seems easy, I’ll do a startup! And that ended up being a tech company that tried to optimize workforces through transitions, thinking that if that is the problem, how do you implement strategy with people? The second problem is how do you do it at scale, and it seemed about getting information and trying to find optimization techniques. From that I moved to Aon Hewitt, and took on really started to expand that to a larger client base, and after seven years in consulting, it seemed that it would be time to move over to a corporate role and actually own rather than give advice and own responsibility in the outcomes. And so really took that capabilities and built it into a sustainable practice really on the analytics side at Royal Bank of Canada. And from there, three years ago, I had an opportunity to move over to Sun Life and think about really extending that beyond just the analytics but embedding it into HR processes and making those decision supports available to a wider audience of leaders and managers, and ultimately employees.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

That all sounds really easy to do. So I know this question's going to be difficult, but what's the most challenging aspect of the work that you do today?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

I think it's really trying to bring, create a set of capabilities in technology that meets the needs of employees, managers, and leaders. They all have different decisions: employees are thinking, how do I improve my day-to-day and get better at my work and find more fulfilment in my job, and ultimately grow either as a deeper expert in a subject I love or an occupation or vocation or some type of progression to a more senior level, with more responsibility and ability to drive impact. Managers are looking to find people to get work done as well as grow people and engage people, and leaders are trying to have business or organizational impact. And as I mentioned earlier, how do you do that and really make sure you've got the workforce to do that? Because it's not just about the strategy, but about having the people that can deliver on that.

And all of these need to be synchronized. From a technology perspective, they tend to use the same data and information, but we often look at these processes and capabilities independently of one another, and build silos, which makes it hard to have integrated user experiences. And so when you think about doing HR at scale, it becomes a wholesale process rather than retail, but often the way we think about it is retail. Many HR professionals think about, What's the individual interaction look like? Bt when you look at it at scale, it's quite a bit different. So for me, it's trying to figure out how do we keep those individuals, how do we support the individual employee to have better conversations between employees and their managers, but do it at scale and try to improve the average consistency. Great managers probably do a good job regardless of what the tools look like, but there's still always room for improvement, and maybe newer managers or managers that are weaker than they could otherwise be—how can we use technology to support them so that they're the best they can be?

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

We’re asking every single person that we interview for this season what ‘Skills’ means. So Skills is a really hot topic; everybody seems to have an opinion on it—we’ve spent countless hours in arguments over what's a skill versus capability versus competency. In your world, Rob, what is a Skill?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

This may sound heretical, but I actually don't care about a definition—I think the rigor is irrelevant. And partly because when we talk about Skills, maybe we ask, need to ask why are we talking about Skills? And really, we want to make better decisions. We want to know who should I hire? How can I develop where are the gaps we have in capabilities across the company that are getting in the way of strategy? Those are the kinds of questions we ask, and I really don't care if the gap is about Skills or capabilities, or maybe you need a certification to get licensed, could be about general intelligence of an employee, their adaptability, their personality type—all of these are important and relevant to that decision, and Skills for me are just one extra piece of information that we use to make these decisions. If we weren't using computers to do this, or we thought, how would we make these decisions in the past, you'd often have a whole pile of information in front of a leader, and they would look at it and they would use their informed management judgment to make decisions. So how do we really think about improving that and getting rid of biases and making sure all the information's there at scale for every decision we make. And Skills are part of it, but it's not the only thing we look at.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

So, we wholeheartedly agree. Why do you think there's so much lip service around Skills, then, if it's just one input into how you make better decisions?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

They're easier to measure—I think that's a component of it. But I also think there's an element of a technical orientation that many managers have, where they're looking at can you do the work, and Skills are often a good surrogate that you do have the skill to do this job. But when we look at someone who's going to be successful in a role, it's not just about the skill—it’s, do they have the will, the motivation to do that work, will they have a passion for this kind of work? Can they adapt if the job changes, because the job probably won't look in 6 months, 12 months, 2 years the same as it does today? And so there's a lot of other factors, but Skills are easy to measure; they’re easy to do behavioral interviews against. And so I think that's why we go to Skills a lot, and it sounds objective.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

I think that's a really interesting point because the whole of the L&D community right now is talking about how we've been using degrees as surrogates to whether or not someone can do the job for a really long time. And now what we've done is we've basically granularized that, but we're still using Skills as a surrogate to determine whether or not somebody can do a job.

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

I think that's a good shift.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

So do I.

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

But I think it's actually a little bit more nuanced than that. We really have three audiences: you’ve got the learning and development community that looks at certification and courses and the completion of some type of learning activity; you’ve got managers who think about what work needs to get done, and you've got employees thinking about what job do I want to get? And things like that. And Skills, I think are a great translation mechanism between those, because I need Skills to get work done helps the manager, what Skills are developed through this course helps the L&D community figure out what courses are going to be impactful and useful, and what Skills do I need so I can get my next job or be good at the job I've got now, which helps the employee. So I think Skills become more of a universal translation mechanism for these different groups, rather than necessarily intrinsically useful on their own as a source of information.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Can I go off script for just one second? I'm really curious about the idea of context. So you mentioned that Skills can act as a translator between these three things; the leaders that we've talked to have also mentioned this idea of context, a skill in one context works but a skill in another context doesn't work. I'm wondering your thoughts on that?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

I completely agree, and the approach to that is really thinking about what is relevant. Just like if you think about how IO psychologists have been going for a long time, they've looked at different factors that drive different or personality types that are more successful in different situations; I think we'll end up at the same place with Skills. The difference is if you apply those techniques from psychology, there might be five major traits, seven major traits, depending on how you look at it; there’s maybe 40 or 50 questions on your typical psychological assessment instrument that might be delivered. So it becomes complex, but the drivers for each particular role that you'd want to prioritize in your selection are relatively straightforward. The challenge around Skills, or capabilities, is that there's tens and tens of thousands of different ones; they’re often described differently and there's different nuance, and I don't think we can use traditional techniques to use them. So the real advance, I think from a technology perspective, is that as machine learning becomes more cost-effective, we can start to use those types of analytical techniques to look at all of the Skills data that might be incomplete for an employee, but you can probably infer what their Skills are through job history and other things you know about their background.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

OK. Do you think you can over index on Skills?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

Absolutely. And we often underestimate how much organizational context and knowledge matters to be successful in a role. And again, Skills are easily observable, but organizational knowledge isn’t. It’s one of the reasons I believe most organizations likely hire externally rather than develop Skills, because you can see somebody who has the Skills that you may lack, but as they come into the organization, they really struggle because the complexity and the knowledge it takes to learn to work within a particular organization is critically important, but often not measured or assessed.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

So all of this makes me wonder if we're using Skills to try to solve an old problem, right? So I think back to about a decade, probably more ago, and it seemed like we were almost saying the same thing about ‘competencies’—so competencies are the things that we're going to use to understand how well people do things and develop on them, and the competencies we have in the org and all the rest of that. But maybe our efforts towards this old problem have been rejuvenated by this magic that we're calling machine learning and the ability that, Hey, HR doesn't have to manage these super-complex competency things because now we've got the machines that will basically manage this problem. Does that seem right?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

Yes. And I think the challenge—or maybe, the opportunity—is that competencies, even if we were really good at competencies or at Skills, still require the context or the knowledge of what Skills or competencies are required to get work done and to be successful in a job. What I think the machine learning approach offers is that we can allow each of those constituents, the manager, the employee, and the L&D community to speak in their own language. ML can actually do the linkages. So managers can focus on what they do best, which is try to figure out what work I need to get done to be successful, for my team to be successful, for my company to be successful, and really focus on what work needs to get done. ML, when it's really well applied, can take that work and infer what Skills will be required and what other attributes of an employee's background will be required, or are at least predictive of being more successful. And I think that's where the real difference is that it allows managers to talk about what they know best, rather than a recruiter to work with a manager and say, “What Skills do you think you need?” Frankly, that's not where they're thinking, and they'll likely just look at the last employee and say, “What Skills did that person have?”, which might not have been the right thing, because it could have been some other attribute, like great intelligence, will to get work done, high levels of resilience, that made them successful more so than the Skills.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

Well, and back to the context too, it assumes that the context is the same and therefore you need the same skill sets—which seems unlikely, particularly given the incredible volatility we're seeing right now.

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

Absolutely.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

So Rob, in a different conversation with us you mentioned how conversations in the past have been a mass-media type approach. We would love for you to re-enact that for us; just share with our audience and how you think Skills changes this approach.

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

I think there's two differences. In the past, we built our internal processes larger around jobs and job families because it was administratively simple to do it that way, where even a modest-sized organization might have 200 or 300 jobs in 20 job families. And to try to understand what are the pathways, the career growth, the Skills required, was really quite difficult to do, and many organizations didn't do it well or didn't even attempt to do it just simply because that was so much effort. And that approach really is sort of a mass market approach; it’s the same for everybody. You’re sort of, you're in a high-level segment, you're in the accounting work stream, you're in the sales career path, whatever it is, and you really get the same capability regardless of how good you are, where you came from, your previous experience—you get really the same experience, and experience the same treatment. What we now could do is really understand that you, with your Skills, your background, don't necessarily need to be getting to duplicative training. We’ll know that your career path can be different because although you're in the sales path today, you might have come out of operations. So that makes you excellent to be potential general manager material whereas somebody else might need other development before they can go forward. And because we'll know the Skills that you've developed along the way. So I think that really allows a lot more hyper-personalization, and particularly when we start to think that jobs look less and less alike—the average, if a company has 300 jobs, types or job codes, there might be 20,000 employees. Many of those jobs with the same coding don't actually look the same, and their detailed requirements are quite different. And so I think that the ability to do Skills, at scale, with customization, really changes it, so it's a little bit, rather than being a segment of a thousand, you're now a segment of one and that’s really been used in the consumer world for a while. I think we can start to use that in the employee side.

The second thing is we can look at employees holistically. And in the past, we've really digitized paper processes—you’d look at a resume, do people have the Skills because that's cheap, you can go through, do you have, or the job of experience, and then you might do a Skills assessment and then you go into a personality test and finally you do a culture fit during your interview. But every one of those screens has some opportunity for bias or error in them, and they're additive. Every time you go through one of those screens, you've got a chance of introducing bias, often bias towards what was successful in the past. But when we look at all of the data at once with machine learning and we're looking at your Skills in that larger context of Skills compared to the work that needs to get done, plus your personality fit, plus your general intelligence, plus maybe an integrity assessment, we can actually measure you all in one go at who you, or other people applying for a role, are the best fit. And in fact, it goes beyond that, because we can compare you with every job at once, so it doesn't become just a selection tool, but this larger sense of who you are holistically through analytics is, where could you go? So the same analytics and data we use for selecting people can also be used for career pathing. And we're starting to see a number of vendors and solution providers move into that direction, where they have a core Skills and capability data set and they're applying it to all of these use cases at the same time. I think that's really exciting.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

We agree; we’re seeing the vendors as well. I'm interested in your take on how this data on Skills and the whole person as you describe them is going to change the way that we work in the future. So you talked about how we can apply it to the system and the momentum behind the system that we've got right now, but how can that change how we actually work in the future?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

I don't think it changes your day-to-day job that much, because we don't talk about Skills while you're trying to work. Where I think it really has an impact is in terms of who we hire; we can better predict who will be successful in a role, and I think that's an impact on both the hiring manager, but also the employee. You never want to get hired to a position you're not going to be successful in—no-one likes that, and I think that's one of the reasons why we typically say first-year attrition rates being three times higher than the average attrition rate for a company is because somebody made a bad decision. And so to the extent that we can reduce that, we reduce the cost of first year attrition, both from the company, but also an employee that's realized, I've made a mistake and now I've gotta undo that. So I think that's a really big thing that creates not just an economic cost, but an emotional and social cost as well, as people who have lost a year.

I think the second place is around coaching and development Skills. And to the extent that we know where there's Skills gaps for what's successful, it allows you to really focus on what capabilities people need to build, what Skills they need to work on and where they're struggling, I think it helps give insights to managers to coach employees through where to focus on to get better. And also to know that if there isn't a Skills gap, maybe it's something else; it could be the context, the environment, the team relations, possibly the instructions from the manager aren't clear enough, but it helps you focus on where there really is a skill issue or not. And then I think the third component is about career planning as you are much better able to see where you are likely to thrive and a pathway to get there. That's unique to you rather than some career ladder or pathway that's the same for everybody in the same job, which isn't really likely to work for most people.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

One of the implications we talked about in our prep call was that if we're able to fundamentally change this, people will talk about their Skills and not about their work more broadly at a cocktail party. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that even means?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

I don't think we're going to get that far! But what's important is the sense that identity is tied to your job. It's been one of the bigger issues of some communities where they're having companies closing, whole industries are going away: how do people reinvent and view themselves as something that isn't their job, whether it's in, you're in manufacturing or as we have more and more things into white collar, you may see entry-level roles in accountancy or audit going away as those are needed less because of machine learning. So people usually describe themselves by what they do, and by what they do, they mean, what job do they hold, and so there's a whole element of status and things there. And that's how we've always talked about it but as we start to think about Skills, I meet somebody and they say, oh, what do you do and you say, well, I actively learn and collaborate and drive for results. I mean, no one would ever describe themselves that way.

And it is kind of humorous. But the fact is that that actually tells you, if we think about your Skills and the actual work you do, and the tasks you do, that's far more useful for planning and thinking, but it doesn't really give us a sense of identity. And so I think that's going to be the bigger issue is how do we start to shift that where people take pride in the specific things they do and the specific Skills they build. And that will help, I think, create more willingness, both for employees and managers, to try new work and new jobs, because their sense of identity and value won't be tied to a specific job occupation or industry. I think we're going to need that more and more as jobs change more frequently and new Skills become important. There's a higher, I guess, rate of change, and employees, all workers will, will just need to adapt more quickly.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

It makes me think of about… so both Dani and I have young kids, and it makes me think about how early this starts, the sense of identity: you ask people in preschool and kindergarten, people say, well, what do you want to be when you grow up, right—like what job do you want? Not, how do you want to spend your day, what Skills do you want to have? And I think it's a wholesale shift, and it starts very early.

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

I think there's actually two gaps here. The first is that if you think about what most people do, assuming they go to post-secondary education, college or university, or even trades schools, only about a third of people end up in a job that's kind of linear. Like med students become doctors, law students become lawyers, people taking pipe fitting become pipe fitters, but it’s maybe a third of the workforce has that kind of progression—and they might not even stay in those occupations; the number of lawyers that move into other occupations or doctors who reinvent themselves, it's actually a surprisingly large number of people end up moving even beyond those. But the other two thirds to 70% of the population, your education isn't what you actually become; there isn't necessarily a clear path. And we've been in this place for a long time, but we kind of pretend that it doesn't exist. So I think that's the first challenge that we'll need to overcome is that we're already not doing that, we just don't really recognize it.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

It's an interesting point; Stacia has some degrees in History and I have one in Engineering and, and you have one in Strategy Consulting and none of us are in that space.

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

It's funny. Since my children are a little bit older, but I've often suggested that the best education is a combined History and Mathematics, or History and Engineering. I think actually the two of you probably actually complete that blend, because history, you learn how to think and analyze the messy world of literature and unclear events and from documents often and things like that, whereas engineering or the physical sciences tends to be much more cause and effect and observable and measurable. When you pull those together, you're able to really think about and analyze and effectively the come to conclusions in about the quantitative and qualitative worlds.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

Yes, we agree [laughs]. In all seriousness, we talk about this quite a bit, and I think Chris likes to refer to it as our ‘poets and quants theme’ that continues through the podcast. But no, I think as a historian, I would say the ability to identify patterns from very messy data is probably one of the most powerful things.

Okay, we’ve spent a lot of time in the abstract; I want to get a little bit more concrete with what you all are actually doing. So can you talk to us about why is Sun Life in particular focused on Skills right now?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

It's a bit of a cliche, but we really came to the recognition that Skills are the currency of talent management. Leaders are saying, I need someone with this skill: we’re finding that projects particularly in the technology and data world require a very specific skill, and that's where our gaps are. And when you start to focus on that, it becomes Skills are what matter. We're often talking about it in terms of not the roles—again, it's sort of been a natural evolution, is that where our gaps are? So I think that's probably the simple reason. It's not that complicated.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

Yeah, no, that's great. Tell us, how are you actually approaching Skills? What's your philosophy, and what's the approach you're setting for your team?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

So to be truthful, we're in the experimental phase right now. The first thing we've realized is that we can't do this at scale with just our own data: 25,000 permanent employees, and another 15,000 employees with our joint ventures, is not enough data to use machine learning to build Skills profiles and all the information we'd actually need. So that's sort of our first realization is you can't do this alone. So we've experimented, and we've learned that. Fortunately, over the last couple years, that realization has been made by smart people that are running a lot of startups or maturing companies that are pouring money into this to solve it, and so our approach right now is really, we're doing assessments with different vendors, test and learn of what is possible, because even if you get the technology right, there's the internal processes, there's changing management behaviors about how you talk about Skills, getting employees to look at themselves in different ways about where I could be and how to close skill gaps and how to link that to micro learning. So right now, we have a high-level architecture of what we think it's going to look like in two to three years, but there's five or six questions we need to ask an experiment about so that we can actually make decisions about who are our partners going to be, what will our change management approach be, what type of communications will we need to put out to employees to effectively manage our change? So we have a roadmap, and sort of an end state we want to get to, but there are a lot of unknown ones, because we've never done this before, but also because nobody's really done this before.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

Yeah, no, definitely. Can you talk to us about what you have done so far? So what kind of experiments have you run to date?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

So with leadership, we've actually done some pretty interesting analysis where we've looked at our successful leaders and their skill profiles, as well as their other assessments they might have done that are classic industrial organizational psychologist type things. And we've actually been able to identify what Skills are the most important thing for leaders. Unsurprisingly, the biggest one was the ability to create and engage their team. And again, it shouldn't be a surprise, but often we think about, are they strategic visionaries or things like that that are more on the decision making, but if you step back and you go, oh, business is a team sport, so if you've got the best team, you'll probably win. So that stands apart from the others as being sort of the biggest predictor of long-term success.

That was a couple years ago we ran that type of analysis, and then we've extended it; we've started to extend it to other roles and looking, you know, where we have good Skills data, which isn't everywhere: what are the Skills that really disproportionately drive success? We've also been looking at how to use machine learning to build our own Skills taxonomy, or ontology. And as I mentioned, that sort of proved that we don't have enough data to do it alone, but it also did help us understand what are the Skills that are most important, because there are ones that come up frequently, and even with our limited data, we're able to understand what we'd call maybe our 300 key Skills across the company that are most in demand and that we need to at least start to focus on. Although we can't do this at scale and maybe to the level we would like, we do know where our gaps are, so that's been helpful as well. And then finally, we've been deploying sort of Skills matching to create gigs and small-scale learning and development opportunities that may be a little less traditional—that’s moving out of pilot into production over the next year. We’re hopeful there, but I think the bigger issue there is less about the technology, but how do you have managers that are comfortable having work done on gigs, releasing employees to do temporary work? I think the larger social and organizational challenges are far bigger than the technical ones there.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

You mentioned that there are about 300 Skills you've identified as more critical than many other thousands that I'm sure you've also identified. Can you talk to us about how you got to that point to understand those 300, and then what you're envisioning doing with those moving forward?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

It was largely a machine learning exercise, where the Skills data we have today coupled with what we were with a partner able to pull in from LinkedIn and other third-party sources able to understand what are the Skills we have, where are they in the areas that are growing, what do those Skills look like, how do they cluster together? And so interestingly, probably 40 of them are people often call them soft Skills, I think I'd rather call them core Skills, I think core Skills probably sounds a little bit better because they're, they're pervasive everywhere. And most of the other Skills actually aligned to some extent with our current job families, but not entirely. So it gave us a sense that some job families make sense because there's a lot of technical knowledge where a large portion of our business is an insurance company, you’ve gotta know underwriting and risk management and actuarial science—those Skills are really critical! Similarly, we were maybe a little less sure about what particular Skills on our tech stack are the ones that are emerging, and how do you trade off or compare knowing a very technical programming language versus the proficiency of, or familiarity with, working with agile methods. It turns out you need both, but just getting a sense of that and where we are today and what Skills we have—that’s sort of where we are right now: trying to understand what Skills we need is another challenge, but that's sort of our next step.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

You mentioned, just a moment ago, a bit about data and that some of this data came from LinkedIn, a third-party partner: can you talk to us a little bit more about what were those sources for data that you used and how did you pull them together?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

So we relied on a third party, because we're not experts at scraping the web. So I'll be clear about that! There's a lot of companies that are doing this today. So I think that the first thing is that what used to be rare is becoming, I wouldn't want to say a commodity, but you've got alternative partners. Some of them work almost as data providers, others have that capability: that’s tied in with a service such as talent management, career pathing, things such as that, so you already, you have as you're trying to navigate this, do you want to work with a data provider or a full-service HR solution provider?

And again, I don't know; I’d like to have an answer to that in the next six months which is best, and I don't know if we'll know. So I, I think there's an element here as well, is that as you think about this from a more technology, architecture perspective, how do you build things that are reversible? Because this space will change so much in the next couple years, you don't want to make commitments that lock you in for 10 years. So you can be comfortable with your core HR system, that if you put it in place you're making a 10-year commitment, pretty much; you’ve gotta be thinking that some of these decisions are going to be, I'm going to try it for a year, but I might need to pull it out, and if you're really feeling like you can make a commitment, I'm going to try it for three years and I might have to pull it out. But you do have to have an exit strategy for all of these, because whoever's leading today might not be leading in two years, something could come along that's just a brand new approach to this. That's, I think the biggest warning recommendation is to think about how we undo what we're going to do, but still keep that capability? We know we're going to want to use Skills for hiring: what if I don't use this vendor? How embedded are we with this provider, this partner, and how could we exit from that? I think that's really important. Otherwise, you may find yourself with a lot less opportunity in the future.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

That’s a really great point, and one that folks haven't really brought up yet. To what extent as you've been thinking about, have you been worried about data interoperability? We've mentioned data and Skills, data being used for talent acquisition, for example, and then obviously also for internal mobility. So to what extent, particularly as you think about the tech, have you been concerned with that?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

That is the question 🙂 In fact, I’d say it is the most important question, because nobody wants to fill out a different Skills profile for every tool they use. The Skills landscape, and the way we're using Skills with machine learning, are into the tens of thousands of Skills, so manual curation and linking between systems isn't possible, and so really you need to find automated ways to link different tools that are using Skills in slightly different ways with possibly slightly different language. And that is the technical question that has to be answered: and that’s probably the biggest reason why when I just referenced the need to be able to undo things, I think it's because of that—that if you have something that's so core to a vendor and that vendor goes away, or they stop developing, or they go in a direction that you're not comfortable with, or they deprioritize the industry you're in, and they're not building up the Skills and the capabilities you need, how do you undo that if you've made their Skills library, the core of all of your talent management programs?

And so that's really the key. And even in something as simple as—I look at two areas, we use Skills, we use Workday and Cornerstone, they both have Skills libraries: even with two systems, they both are in the tens of thousands of Skills, how do we link them? How do I find out that if somebody's identified a Skills gap in the recruitment and they want to learn, how do they know what courses to take? Right now, until there's a level of integration, you're probably going to have to repeat some of your Skills assessments. It's not a terrible experience, but it's not a great experience; it’s certainly not predictive, where I saw you looking at this job, you applied, didn't get it, here’s some courses you should take. Like, we're not giving any proactive advice to people until we can link these systems.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

So how are you thinking about this?

[All laugh]

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

So I think there's two broad approaches. And the technology is at a detail level beyond me, but I'd like to think that this sort of the two approaches we're looking at is, do we hold sort of a master Skills library or ontology that can link to everything else—so do we build something else that takes it from all of our sources, builds it together and maps back, and we're going to own or at least with a partner, some master Skills library? Or do we try to rationalize the number of vendors we have, so there's only two or three that really focus on Skills? And we just do system to system integrations between those two or three vendors? I don't know what's the right approach. That's what we're actually going through in our strategic review; that’s what we're trying to really understand, and what are the trade-offs from a user experience, a cost base, vendor management and complexity. There's a lot of different trade-offs. I'm not sure where we're going to land yet.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

So can I ask a question, Rob, and this goes back to kind of the philosophy you're using to make the decisions that you're making right now: you’ve identified these 300 core Skills that your organization needs; some of the leaders that we've talked to are only focusing on core Skills. I think they've recognized the problem that you see in front of you as well, and they're saying, okay, we're going to take these 50 Skills. We know that these are the ones that are most important to our success in the future, and they're just going after those while maybe everything else settles down over the next couple of years. You seem to be going after everything. Talk to me a little bit about that.

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

So core Skills are great for entry level hiring.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Okay.

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

Your employees don't know much; you’re going to teach it to them on the job no matter who they are, so you really want to have core Skills and basic potential, and that your trained. The real challenge is if you're trying to go into new businesses, or grow quickly, you need mid-level professionals who know what they're doing and can teach other people how to do that work, and core Skills aren't enough. So if I think about our highest impact hiring internal talent development, where we want to promote people, the technical Skills in conjunction with those core Skills are absolutely critical. And so I think people have gone away from those other Skills, because it's hard—but, well, it might be hard, but it's also the most important decisions you can make.

Like a really simple thing is like, do you say, oh, are you a good mobile app developer? Well iOS or Android, it matters. If you don't have to scale in the other tool, that's a problem if I need to get something done! And we can pretend we don't want to talk about those, because it's really hard. I think one of the problems is that if we don't do it centrally and at scale, all that complexity gets pushed out to the manager who has to make that same decision, but they're going to make it unaided. And so the complexity of all these decisions and all those trade-offs, it's going to be in every decision we make. You can help it centrally, and use all the tools and technology that are available to sort of do this at scale with all the insights and really good predictions, or you leave it to the manager to do their best. I think I probably five years ago, would've said, let's balance it out and maybe leave a lot to the manager and maybe help them think through of things structurally and talk about it more from process. I think the data and the technology has advanced so much, particularly in the last two and a half years, we could probably take that complexity on centrally as long as we're not thinking sort of in that mass approach, and thinking about curating skill libraries—a lot of times leaders, when you say we're going to build a Skills library, they're thinking about the 1980s with binders of competencies descriptions. That's not what we mean: we’re thinking about data signals of Skills that give a good prediction of whether somebody can do the work, and that's different. So there's an element of education there, but the complexities in the decision, we can pretend it's not there or not.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

What are some of the critical lessons that you've learned through this work?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:
I think the biggest lesson for me is that we define the need around Skills, largely as we need a Skills library, because it's almost inherently good, because if we know more about Skills, we'll make better decisions. And so that initially let us into the path towards building a Skills library and then ontologies and stuff like that, and we didn't think about enough about why do we want to use Skills data, and what other information do we need to make that same decision? So the real key was, how do we want to make better workforce decisions, how do Skills fit in that decision, and then start to solve the problem.

We really just almost assumed self-evidently that Skills mattered, and then went to try to build the Skills library and then started to think, what for?

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Yeah… we’re seeing that quite a lot. Tell us, in 18 months, where do you see Sun Life with respect to Skills?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

I think in 18 months we'll have an infrastructure in place, and we'll have some successful applications of how Skills are making better talent decisions. But I think just the amount of time it's going to take to really understand this, and for the time it'll take for the external marketplace to shake itself out and know who're going to be the winners and losers and what are the best approaches, that’s really the next 18 months. It's really your three-to-five-year period where you can start to get better Skills, influence talent decisions in place, and then let them play out for a couple years so that you get the benefit of that. Because if we make better hiring decisions from 18 months out to 60 months out, and every one of those hiring decisions is a little bit better, every one of our coaching discussions are a little bit better, every career planning discussion is a little bit better, then we'll start to see those little decisions aggregate into some big impacts.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

One of the things I think is great about that is that it underscores how we need to be measuring that these decisions are better over time, particularly if this is a culture change effort, right? So if we think that the real power, from a data analytics/machine learning perspective, is going to come to us in three to five years, that’s in some ways amazing because that means, we know that culture change takes three to five years. So that gives us a ramp to know, like, if we're working on the culture on one level and we're working on the tech at another level, they should come together ideally at the right time. But I think the takeaway from that is you have to start now with the culture change. You have to start now with the measurement so that you can say, Hey, we make better decisions in the middle of 2024 than we did at the end of 2021. And we’d start to see people actually believing it and therefore willing to do some of those changes that you mentioned that are so hard.

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

Yeah, and I think that's critical—that as we put the strategy in place, we need a number of measures, both from a high-level impact perspective, but also how are each of the little components building up and do we know that those decisions are getting better? We’ve got a theory. That's what strategy is: strategy is a plausible theory of success, right? We believe it'll work—there’s some causality that's in your business plan and it's going to be successful. And like any theory, you can test it, and if evidence shows that your theory is not valid, you've got to either change your theory or you change how you're implementing it. And so we need to have measures along the way so that our strategy is actually going to be impactful and is being successful, and where it's not, let’s make early corrective action.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

So if you were to advise other leaders on how to get started doing this work, what would you suggest?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

To be really clear on what you're trying to do [laughs]. And you know, because everyone will wave their hands around and say we need Skills—but if it's a really targeted solution, if I say I just need Skills because our context is I need to hire people: focus there! If you think you need Skills because you're going to do a lot of redeployment, focus there, and be clear on what you want to do. And once you've got that, you can start to think about the solutions, framing up the problem, and starting to work through it. But don't just go assume ‘we need to know about Skills of our employees,’ because that's focusing on process and capabilities rather than outcomes.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

We talked about where Sun Life might be three to five years from now. But if you were to just kind of pull up your crystal ball and think about broadly, what do we see as the future for Skills, what do you think we're going to be talking about in five years that we're not talking about today?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

I'm actually slightly hopeful that it'll actually be in the more broad public debate. Many of the government labor departments, ministries of labor, particularly in Europe and North America, are starting to reframe their data collection—and not just for themselves, but for all stakeholders in the labor market so that they can help educators, they can help employers, but also for government so that they can make better policy.

I don't know how much progress they're going to make, but they're certainly starting to invest in that. Five years might be too short a term on a national basis, but once we see governments really leading this and focusing on Skills themselves and where are the gaps across the economy, that's when I think we'll start to see some real widespread change in how we talk about this. So I'm hopeful that we're going in that direction: I don't know if five years is soon enough for something that's that big a change at a national level, but I think we'll be making progress there, certainly in North America and Europe.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

Well, Rob, this has been fantastic, and we want to just wrap with our final question, which is the purpose question. So why do you personally do the work that you do?

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

I'll actually go back to an earlier reference I made versus retail versus wholesale: somewhere along the line I became passionate about how do you develop people and make them make, give them the ability and create the opportunity for them to thrive at work. And you can do it one person at a time, or you can do it wholesale! And where the world is today, I think data and technology solutions allow you to do that at wholesale. You won't be doing it a hundred percent—it’s up to an employee and then a manager often to figure out and create those opportunities, specific ones—but I think you can influence those.

So that's kind of what I like; I think I can help make a wholesale approach to helping people thrive.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

Wonderful. Well, Rob, thank you so much for such a rich conversation—we have enjoyed it very much, so thank you for taking the time.

Robert Carlyle, Sun Life:

Well, thanks. It's been a pleasure—it’s a lot of fun.

Chris Pirie, 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 read us on the podcast platform of their choice.

Stacia Sherman 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 RedThreadresearch.com/podcast, and see what else we have to offer as far as research goes.

Chris Pirie, Learning Futures Group:

Or Stacia, they could…?

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

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

Chris Pirie, Learning Futures Group:

A big thanks to our guests—on all our podcast Seasons—for sharing their insights and thoughts. We should thank our sponsors, of course, for making it all possible. And of course, we should thank our beloved listeners. Thank you!

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Thank you.

Stacia Sherman Garr, RedThread Research:

Thank you.

About the author

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 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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