14 December 2021

Workplace Stories Season 3, The Skills Odyssey: A Peek Inside a Skills Transformation

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

TL;DR

  • This is the sixth episode of our podcast: The Skills Odyssey, Season 3 of Workplace Stories.
  • In this episode, Stacia Garr and Dani Johnson of RedThread Research and Chris Pirie of the Learning Futures Group interview Tim Dickinson, Global Head of Learning Systems and Innovation at Novartis.
  • Tim actually asked to be on the podcast to talk about the Skills experiments Novartis is running and how the supply and demand of Skills drives the work that they do.
  • “I think the goal and the vision behind Skills is an innate understanding of what both the organization and the employee need to be successful now and in the future, and I think maintaining that vision and strategy is really important and also understanding technology is a huge supporter and enabler of that.”
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel: Skills start at the info-load of data already out there.
  • Do you focus on all Skills or do you focus on critical Skills? How do you start?
  • A special thanks to our sponsors, Visier and Degreed, for their support of this season!

Listen

Guest

Tim Dickinson, Global Head of Learning Systems and Innovation at Novartis

DETAILS

A lot of people we talk to are hesitant about starting their Skills Odyssey. They’ve got a good reason: they feel there’s just too much ocean out there between them and getting to the good place of Ithaca/success. But if you don’t start somewhere, you won’t get anywhere, so you kind of have to dive in. That’s the view, at least, from our guest today, Tim Dickinson, Global Head of Learning Systems & Innovation at European life sciences firm Novartis, a global healthcare company based in Switzerland that provides solutions to address the evolving needs of patients worldwide—and which, fascinatingly, has made ‘Curiosity’ a core corporate value. A key clue on how to do that jumping in: decide if you want to focus on ‘Skills’ in general or the ones the organization sees as critical right now. As Tim says himself, his job is all about improving learning and knowledge-sharing through technology, and then driving that knowledge-sharing and Skills-building throughout the organization. Don’t know about you, but that sounds like a job we’d really want: and we think you do, too.

Resources

  • You might find a conversation Chris Pirie had in July 2020 separately with Novartis useful, specifically Tim’s colleague Simon Brown, Chief Learning Officer, over at his Learning Is The New Working podcast. Check out the company’s commitment to Curiosity here.
  • Tim is happy to make connections and drive the conversation through LinkedIn (as his commitments allow, obviously).
  • We’d recommend, if you haven’t had a chance yet, to catch up with the first Workplace Stories season on Skills, which we released February thru June 2021, entitled ‘The Skills Obsession.’ Find it, along with relevant Show Notes and links, here—where you can also check out our intervening season on all things DEIB, too.
  • Find out more about our Workplace Stories podcast helpmate and facilitator Chris Pirie 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: we will share details of that event soon as it is scheduled.

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 season sponsors for ‘The Skills Odyssey,’ 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; you can learn more about Visier at visier.com. 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 degree platform at degreed.com, and thanks to both of our season sponsors.

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:

My job title is a wordy one, but what I interpret that to mean is really a focus on improving our associate experience—so how can we improve learning and improve knowledge sharing and augment that through technology, using different learning technologies, and how can we drive that knowledge-sharing and drive building Skills throughout the organization? And some of that is through traditional tools that learning technologists are very familiar with, and in other ways, it's trying to find new ways to really build on that, and deliver that great employee experience.

The most challenging aspect of the work that I do today has nothing to do with the tech itself, but with aligning everyone's vision and goals of the best way to solve our collective challenges. I think we all have a lot of good ideas and sometimes even similar ideas that are just executed slightly differently, which can sometimes create additional problems, and it's that alignment for all of us across an organization that's spread across the world and multiple different divisions. That is probably the biggest challenge.

How do I define Skills? For me, I tend to think of Skills as a granular piece of data that describe someone's ability to complete a discrete task or piece of work.

Within this Skills Odyssey there is absolutely no choice but to collaborate.

Innovation is a core competitive advantage within the organization, and I think how Skills can drive that is something that we're really recognizing, and trying to pay more attention to and take greater action around. I also think that at an organizational level, that freedom to fail comes with a need to be able to place people in the right roles at the right time, if those big bets may not always pan out. So I think from a talent perspective, the ability to retain and re-skill some really highly talented associates across Novartis is something that's really important to us; that re-skilling piece over the next few years and how we can really have some of those targeted re-skilling initiatives with associates across the organization is something we see a lot of value in as well.

Chris Pirie:

Welcome, or welcome back, to Workplace Stories, brought to you by RedThread Research, where we look for the ‘RedThread’ that connects humans, ideas, stories, and data helping define the near future of people in work practices. The podcast is hosted by RedThread co-founders Stacia Garr and Dani Johnson, with a little bit of help from myself, Chris Pirie of The Learning Futures Group: we’re excited to welcome you to our third podcast season, which we call The Skills Odyssey.

Our first podcast season focused on what we call The Skills Obsession, and we asked ourselves why so many organizations and leaders are currently focused on all things ‘Skills.’ We learned that the shift to Skills-based practices was something of a journey—an Odyssey, if you like—and we decided in this season to go deeper, and find more examples of program strategies and experiments.

We’ll be talking to leaders who are starting to run experiments and programs using the Skills concept to rework how we think about all aspects of talent management. We hope to learn why they've embarked on the journey, how they're progressing, and what they hope to accomplish. We’ll seek to find out the approaches they're taking, the challenges they're encountering, and the successes or potential successes that they're having—and we'll definitely meet some amazing talent leaders along the way, so listen in: it might just help you think through your own skill strategy, and it will certainly be fun.

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 more; you can learn more about Visier at visier.com. 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, and thanks to both of our season sponsors.

Dani Johnson:

In today's episode, we talked to Tim Dickinson, Global Head of Learning Systems and Innovation at Novartis. Tim actually contacted us after our last podcast series on Skills, and volunteered to share some of the things that he and his larger team were thinking of it and Novartis when it comes to Skills, and of course we jumped at that offer. One of the things that struck us in our conversation with Tim was his, ‘Well, you've got to start somewhere’ when it comes to Skills. We know that many organizations are really paralyzed by the sheer size of the task, but Tim and his team have jumped right in. He talks about who's responsible for Skills, why they at Novartis formed a task force for Skills and what the goals of that cross-functional task force is. We also really loved how the discussion on how this focus on Skills dovetails with Novartis's larger focus on curiosity, and how these two things are complementary, not necessarily fighting for attention in the organization. And finally, we found the time we spent talking about where to focus was interesting: do you focus on all Skills or do you focus on critical Skills? Our conversation with Tim was an excellent way to get some really good tactical information on where to start. Tim’s thoughtfulness and experience made this podcast really a joy to record, and, we hope, a joy to listen to.

Chris Pirie:

Tim, welcome to Workplace Stories: we’re really, really pleased to have you on the podcast!

Tim Dickinson:

Thanks, Chris.

Chris Pirie:

And as long as my Internet holds out, I'm going to start with some really fairly rapid opening questions to just kind of sketch out your work practice for our listeners, and then we'll go deeper on a few topics that I know you're passionate about. First one is, can you give us a quick overview of Novartis in case people don't know the organization? Can you tell us about its mission and purpose?

Tim Dickinson:

Absolutely: so Novartis’s mission is focused around re-imagining medicine to improve and extend people’s lives. And we focus on a couple of different things within that: innovative medicine, through pharmaceuticals, gene therapy, and oncology, and then also generic pharmaceuticals and biosimilars to deliver treatments to as many people as possible throughout the world, and try to improve access to medicines.

Chris Pirie:

That's a pretty worthy mission. Can you tell us about yourself—what’s your role in all this, what kind of work do you do, what’s your job title, and how would you describe what a typical day looks like, if there is such a thing?

Tim Dickinson:

Absolutely! So my job title is a wordy one, but it's the Global Head of Learning Systems and Innovation. So what I interpret that to mean is really a focus on improving our associate experience—so how can we improve learning and improve knowledge sharing and augment that through technology, using different learning technologies, and how can we drive that knowledge-sharing and drive building Skills throughout the organization? And some of that is through traditional tools that learning technologists are very familiar with, and in other ways, it's trying to find new ways to really build on that, and deliver that great employee experience.

Chris Pirie:

So just for clarification, you're a part of some central L&D function that operates across the whole organization?

Tim Dickinson:

Great question: to clarify, my role is within the global L&D function at Novartis. As a global corporation, it's definitely one of those complex matrix organizations; we have different divisions that have their own learning strategies, we have different regions that also have some of their own learning strategies, and that all comes together within the global learning function. And that's where I sit globally is with accountability and responsibility for all of that learning technology and all of the systems that enable and drive that.

Chris Pirie:

A really awesome place to innovate and influence from. What did you do before you joined Novartis— how did you get into the kind of work that you do?

Tim Dickinson:

So before Novartis, I actually was focused on working with large organizations to integrate all of the data behind learning experiences. So as people tried to solve problems, maybe with employees who just didn't like going to a central location all the time, or just accommodating the reality that we don't always go to an LMS to learn on a daily basis, that’s just functional, not really how most people do it. So where is the data for those learning experiences? Where does it live? What systems does it live in, and then how do we collect and interpret that? That was what I did before joining Novartis for six or seven years or so, and then prior to that was doing systems integration consulting with Accenture. So from a very large organization to a very small organization, back to a very large organization—and I will confess that I thought my time at Accenture prepared me for the complexities of a global matrix pharmaceutical customer like Novartis. And I was wrong!

Chris Pirie:

Interesting! All right. So stitching together these many, many, many LMSs and platforms that people find themselves with these days are really interesting: what would you say is the most challenging aspect of the kind of work that you're doing today?

Tim Dickinson:

I think the most challenging aspect of the work that I do today has nothing to do with the tech itself, but with aligning everyone's vision and goals of the best way to solve our collective challenges. I think we all have a lot of good ideas and sometimes even similar ideas that are just executed slightly differently, which can sometimes create additional problems, and it's that alignment for all of us across an organization that's spread across the world and multiple different divisions. That is probably the biggest challenge.

Dani Johnson:

That's a great answer. We were talking a little bit before we started recording that you actually reached out to me, Tim—you heard our first season, The Skills Obsession, and said, Hey, we're doing some interesting stuff. At which point Stacia and I were, like, turning cartwheels in our respective offices, because what we have had trouble finding is people that are actually brave enough to start down this road. And so when we called this season, The Skills Odyssey, it was very purposeful and Odyssey is a journey, and there are things that happen and we don't know exactly what's going to happen, and we don't even actually know where we're going to end up, so we were thrilled that you reached out and said, Hey, Novartis is doing some interesting things—let me tell you about it! And so to start, I'd love to talk a little bit about what Skills means, and we found this to be a loaded question, but we really love to understand in your book, what is Skills? What does it mean to you?

Tim Dickinson:

So I even addressed this on my own as kind of a, ‘What do I actually think? How do I define Skills? ‘And for me—I alluded to my background in data integration across different systems—so I tend to think of Skills as a granular piece of data that describes someone's ability to complete a discrete task or piece of work. I'll put a period in that statement.

Dani Johnson:

That's good, that’s good— we have some guests that go on to say, you know, ‘competencies’ versus ‘traits’ versus ‘characteristics’ versus ‘capabilities,’ and I like your very simple definition. It's discreet, it's small, and it’s descriptive.

Tim Dickinson:

I was just going to add, I used your Skills versus competencies research on more than one occasion in trying to describe within our Skills task force, what are the differences? How should we approach them? What do we do with our competencies? What do we do with our values and behaviors? What do we do with these other related and similar, but not exactly the same types of concepts within the organization as well?

Dani Johnson:

That feels good. That research was hard for the very reasons that we've been talking about.

Stacia Garr:

I just want to say I love that, as a data person, you're thinking about it as data, but kind of bringing that over into learning: one of the kind of the common themes from that first season, and really throughout the whole podcast, is this question of how do we bring more data into learning and how do we fuse that culture within learning? And I think this is a really nice start, starting with definitions.

Dani Johnson:

A follow-up question to that, Tim, is how do you think that codifying these Skills is going to help us rethink the fundamentals of work?

Tim Dickinson:

That's a big one. When you say ‘the fundamentals of work,’ can you actually elaborate on that a bit for me?

Dani Johnson:

We left it vague on purpose, but we can definitely give you an idea of what's in our head: what we've noticed is organizations that are going after this, aren't going after this just so that they can provide vendor better training. They are fundamentally seeing some things that can change because of work; we can rearrange teams differently. You know, we can, we can hire differently. We can obviously train differently, those types of things.

Tim Dickinson:

Yeah. So, we really think it can fundamentally shift how we work, not just within learning, but in learning and talent as a collaborative function. Within Novartis, we are part of one people and organization group, but learning and talent are different teams—but within this Skills Odyssey, there is absolutely no choice, but to collaborate, really. And I think in terms of how we view that fundamentally affecting work.

Skills to us, essentially, represent how we measure the supply and demand within our workforce; we have a strategic workforce planning team and strategy, we’re working on a re-skilling team and strategy, we also have our tech platforms that use Skills as data, and I think it works really in that kind of supply-and-demand model of how do we identify that demand and then how do we meet that supply? So if Skills represent the emerging needs, Skills can also help us understand how we're going to meet those with a new supply. And then from a learning perspective, how do we build that supply? How do we build an upskilling program? How do we ensure that the capability either exists or will exist within the organization to meet what's being identified, either by strategic workforce planning or different future-looking strategies, or at a narrower level, just within different Skills gaps across the organization? So I think that supply and demand piece is where we really think Skills can provide clarity and drive that strategy going forward.

Dani Johnson:

It sounds like it's being infused into a lot of your people practices, and even some of your data practices. How important would you say this focus on Skills is to the way that you're looking at the future?

Tim Dickinson:

It's hugely important, because from our perspective, we're a company that relies on innovation genuinely. We don't manufacture a lot of physical products; yes, the medicines themselves are a physical product, but they're the result of an innovative idea that someone had, that a scientist had and spent a lot of dedicated time and effort in creating. So in that sense, we fundamentally rely on innovation as how we generate value —we rely on new discoveries. And so in that sense, emerging trends and emerging Skills are critical for us to identify, how do we either build those within the organization or bring them into the organization? I think that is an ongoing task that never really ends for us, and I think that's where Skills really drive that is how do we maintain that high level of innovation within the organization?

Dani Johnson:

I love that you’re using innovative people practices to make sure that you have innovation moving forward: it’s kind of meta.

Chris Pirie:

Maybe it's a good time to talk a little bit about the learning culture journey at Novartis? I had the great good fortune to have Simon Brown on my podcast a few months ago, and then learned about the extraordinary journey that you guys have led by him as the CLO, and also the CEO, to build this learning culture at Novartis, and you have this sort of primary meme of ‘curiosity.' Can you talk about that journey from your perspective, who's been involved and what's your role and experience been on that effort?

Tim Dickinson:

I actually loved that you used the term ‘meme’ in that sense, because I think it really is kind of a great way to encapsulate how it's a journey of trying to change the behavior of the organization through imitation and through exhibiting the same behavior that the leaders exhibit—whether it's Vas as our CEO or Simon as our CLO, how do we really drive curiosity as not just a cultural initiative, but going back to that innovation piece, curiosity being really a demonstration of a willingness to learn new things. And learning new things comes from learning from mistakes, from fostering, an environment of psychological safety—that is really at the heart of what we're trying to drive with curiosity is that sharing lessons learned, organizational learning, how do we build that culture so that, you know, building these Skills, fostering this innovation, is not always just about Skills as data and new platforms to drive that, but also, as you're saying, the culture of curiosity and how that can really be a crucial factor in delivering all of this.

Chris Pirie:

I'm really, really interested in this intersection between culture, data, practice process—they’re all important parts of the soup. And I asked Simon why, in a scientific company, he needed to drive this effort to create a learning culture. What was interesting to me as he talked about how there was a culture of expertise, and kind of wrapped up in that culture of expertise was the lack of safety and the lack of comfort with admitting you don't know something or there's work to be done. So I thought that was really interesting and I just wondered how you see your specific work fit into that overall meme or frame.

Tim Dickinson:

There's a couple of different ways I see my specific work fitting into that frame, and one is how we can create spaces for people to share those lessons learned and to share some of that organizational knowledge, especially in a completely virtual space. So often we're used to being able to have a face-to-face conversation where in passing, I might have something that maybe went wrong on a project or might be a learned bit of expertise that is generally easier to share in a face-to-face setting, but how can we now start to foster more of that in a digital setting? Especially in a science-based organization: as you mentioned, one of my peers in our global learning team is a new role and it's the Head of Knowledge Management Strategy for the organization, and an anecdote that is probably familiar to most of us, but I think fits right within that scientific organization niche, is the evolution of the culture at NASA, and how it was a very science-driven organization but at the same time, the culture of expertise that they had built, created a fear of failure or fear to speak up, and that gave the go in some of the catastrophes that are well-known in space exploration. So how can we both in a physical space and a virtual space in a digital space, create that psychological safety from a cultural sense and provide the enabling technology as well from a systems lens to really foster that knowledge sharing and those lessons learned.

Stacia Garr:

So Tim, a lot of organizations have been talking about Skills for years, and not done anything. It's obviously been different at Novartis where you have been talking about Skills and you've actually made some progress and started to make the investment. Can you tell us about why you're focusing on Skills—and particularly why now?

Tim Dickinson:

In terms of why now, I've mentioned earlier our case for innovation being a core competitive advantage within the organization, and I think how Skills can drive that is something that we're really recognizing and trying to pay more attention to and take greater action around. I also think that we talked about the culture of curiosity as well and at an organizational level, at a macro level, that freedom to fail comes with a need to be able to place people in the right roles at the right time if those big bets may not always pan out. So I think from our perspective, from a talent perspective, the ability to retain and re-skill some really highly talented associates across Novartis is something that's really important to us. So that re-skilling piece over the next few years and how we can really have some of those targeted re-skilling initiatives with associates across the organization is something we see a lot of value in as well.

Stacia Garr:

It kind of reminds me, as you were speaking, of some work that we've read on innovation and how important it is to basically be running multiple experiments at any one time, if one of them is going to be successful. But when we bring that to telling context, and this is what kind of clicked for me when you were just talking, and bring that to talent context, if you don't know the ingredients in those different teams and the different work that they're doing on effectively, the different experiments, trying to drive an outcome, it's impossible to know what you should switch for the next time, and how you should alter it. So I kind of liked that connection with understanding the ingredients, if you will, of people to the experiments and work that you're doing.

Dani Johnson:

It seems really humane: so you're talking about failure, and people maybe not being in the right roles, but having the information that you need in order to move them into a role where they can succeed, so it's not a sink-or-swim type of approach to your workforce. It's much more of a ‘let's get you in the right position for you’.

Tim Dickinson:

Absolutely—and even in terms of the multiple experiments at the same time, I think that's also where, in addition to some of the work we're doing and learning, we’re partnering with some of the teams and talent so that we have more visibility on what is happening from a project-based perspective or more short-term roles that may not always be a three or a five-year role, but maybe a six-month or a nine-month role within the organization. So these are still FTEs who are able to find the right fit for them for maybe a shorter period of time, because it is an experimental initiative, it might not have a long runtime, but nonetheless, we have that visibility as we start to look at new technologies, like a talent marketplace, and how can that really facilitate some of that.

Dani Johnson:

I love that.

Chris Pirie:

I love that image that you created of Skills being somehow removing the friction for people finding the right place in the organization, based on where they can have the best impact; it’s a really nice image that you have been able to do that. Can you talk, Tim, about your Skills ‘task force’?

Tim Dickinson:

I can! So our Skills task force is a group that was really born of necessity. We had all of these complementary initiatives beginning at close to the same time across the organization. It's partially technology driven, really the technology changes were driven by the broader people in organization strategy. Within those technology changes, we started exploring new HCM systems; we started exploring learning experience platforms; we started exploring talent marketplaces—and as we went further down those exploratory routes, and we all have a collective skill strategy that might differ in certain ways based upon your talent approach, your learning approach, we realized there is a need for a collective workforce across all of these different work streams to start to understand what's the shared infrastructure that we need to operate from. That's really what it was born out of, was that necessity; I mentioned the leapfrog opportunity before, but as we were preparing for that, we realized that there were some things we really needed to get aligned before we went down three separate routes and started diverging.

Chris Pirie:

Definitely one thing we learned in our first look at this was, this is a journey that you're going to take with other people, for sure. What other functions are involved and how have you organized the work between yourselves?

Tim Dickinson:

So it's spread across our learning organization and our talent organization primarily, but we also have input from what we call our P&O digital experience team, and that team is also really running our large HCM implementation right now as well. So those are the three core teams: within that though, there’s also our technology transformation team, which is critical that's our newly rebranded IT partners. And then even as we look at where's the gray area between our technology transformation, some of our P&O teams, there's also our P&L data and our people analytics teams as well who have large roles within this task force and even potentially growing roles as we gain a better understanding of just what are the problems we need to solve. We're even starting to see the task force evolve into something that's a bit new, and it's actually being structured a little bit differently, so our latest proposal is to really approach it more as a ‘Skills Operating System,’ and start to define what are the processes, what is the shared data structures that have to exist to facilitate this model that we envision of this supply and demand model, finding the right spots for the right people, ensuring that we know what to build for the future. That requires shared processes, shared data across all of these different teams and technologies.

Chris Pirie:

I like the Operating System metaphor, very much! Can you tell us what kind of experiments that you're starting to run in terms of testing and exploring both the technology and the approach?

Tim Dickinson:

Yeah, and I wish I could take credit for the Skills Operating System approach, but that was one of my peers on the Skills task force and an evolution of how we structure the work going forward, but I think it's the right path and I think we're all really excited about it. In terms of some of our experiments, we do have a few different ‘irons in the fire’ regarding how we are starting a bit smaller and trying to learn as we grow within the Skills task force, so there's a few technology experiments going on—I’ve mentioned talent marketplaces and learning experience platforms—so we are working within a couple of targeted populations across the organization to understand where there's a burning or an urgent need for some of the problems we think these tools solve. One example is around some of the changing roles in our pharmaceutical division, and how there's really the increased need for talent mobility within that group, and that’s where my colleagues and peers on the talent side are really starting small, or at least starting with more of an experimentation mindset, how can they deploy within this group experiencing the specific problem around talent mobility and shifting from one role to an adjacent role where there's a lot of overlap, where there's a lot of adjacent Skills, but based upon our current organization structure and our current technology infrastructure, that shift becomes very challenging. It becomes a long laborious process that takes months and months to make this permanent shift in a role as opposed to, how can we just identify the adjacent Skills and put this person where they can be successful for the next X number of months.

That's something that our talent team is working on right now. Also within the learning function, we've got a couple of experiments that we're running in parallel: one is with some of our scientists who were really focused on early drug research. So for these associates, there's even a particular role within this group that you can think of as a bit of a product manager, where they manage teams of scientists as well, and these team leaders have deep, deep expertise in their scientific domain—but that's not all they're expected to do, they’re also expected to lead a team, they're expected to fail fast and innovate as we've been saying, they're expected to move through these stages of early drug development as effectively and efficiently as possible. That requires more than just deep subject matter expertise in their domain, and so in that sense, how can we on one hand focus on some of those newly coined power Skills within those scientists, how can we help them become leaders of teams, but also going back to our knowledge sharing and lessons learned earlier— how can we facilitate more communication across these different team leaders? How can they share lessons learned as early as possible as opposed to operating just within their team, so the lessons learned just stay within their team. So that's a little bit of some of the curiosity component, as well as some of that Skills component there.

Dani Johnson:

You've talked a lot about technology, and I know that's one of your largest responsibilities: how important has technology and data been to this push towards Skills?

Tim Dickinson:

I think it's hugely important, but I think it's also crucial that it be recognized as not the only thing that matters. I think the goal and the vision behind Skills is an innate understanding of what both the organization and the employee needs to be successful now and in the future, and I think maintaining that vision and strategy is really important and also understanding technology is a huge supporter and enabler of that. I think that's where both in terms of a delivery mechanism, these different platforms that people engage and interact with, is how they might experience these Skills-centric opportunities and experiences, and I think a common data infrastructure really supporting all of that is hugely important as well. From our perspective, we have a collection of different technology providers and systems in our ecosystem, and something that we're trying to work out is how do we ensure employees understand the ‘why’ behind all of this? What is the connective tissue beneath all of these different initiatives and systems within the organization, and helping them link the fact that if you applied for a new job or a new role in the talent marketplace and perhaps didn't get it, we can immediately identify these are the two data points that say from the hiring manager why you weren't considered for this role, and you can immediately then be directed into an experience that is Skills-based from that Skills data in an upscaling initiative, or in some other targeted intervention.

Dani Johnson:

I love this idea, and I think this goes back to the phrase that you used, ‘Skills Operating System:’ you’re creating this basically system within the organization where Skills are helping people move where they need to be, which is good for you and good for the organization. Talk to me about the employee's responsibility in all of this?

Tim Dickinson:

I saw that question on the sheet, and I thought it's a great question. Because I don't have a great answer to it.

Dani Johnson:

I never asked for it before. So you're the first!

Chris Pirie:

It's kind of interesting, though. I mean, just an observation, I sometimes think that the work around Skills is to enable us to bring compute power to bear on all these problems like locating talent and engaging talent and all that kind of good stuff, but I do think there's a real human side as well. Definitely, some of the people we've talked to for example, have been careful to make sure that individuals and individual groups have a say in terms of the definition of what Skills are critical in a given role. So I don't know whether you've spent much time thinking about that side of things as well?

Tim Dickinson:

My personal experience is not so much in associate's responsibility, in defining Skills for a role per se, but there is definitely some interest internally in how the associates can define what Skills matter the most. If I go back to the previous example of our scientific researchers, they know more about emerging trends than I do—I work in learning technology, I do not know gene therapy emerging trends! If we need to identify those emerging Skills that are going to help us maintain that innovation and that competitive edge, it's really crowdsourcing that from our associates in addition to anything else that we're trying to do globally within our P&O function.

Dani Johnson:

I think this is really interesting, because it came up on our previous recording as well, with Heather Whiteman—she says exactly the same thing. She said, the people on the frontline that are doing the job know exactly what's going to be necessary in the future. How are you doing that? How are you doing the crowdsourcing?

Tim Dickinson:

I don't think we're there yet. I would just flat out say I don't think we are there yet.

Stacia Garr:

So then, where are you getting the data right now? I mean, is it because I presume—and maybe I'm wrong—that you all weren't capturing or quantifying Skills before this. So where is this information? Where are you planning on it coming from?

Tim Dickinson:

We did attempt to quantify this information previously and struggled a bit. So recently, a lot of this has come from external sources, a lot of our partnerships in the industry and within the market. So sometimes that might be your familiar ones like LinkedIn, but also looking at some of our learning partners who partner with academic institutions—so Coursera, for example, not just working within the corporate education marketplace, but so much of what they offer is through research and academic institutions as well. How do they help us understand what trends might be coming in the near-term future has been some of our focus as well as—and this is more our talent team’s work than my team's work so I'm only semi-educated on the subject, I'll say—but also trying to partner with other providers, whether that be Mercer or recently combined Burning Glass and EMSI, working with a lot of those external providers and market researchers to help us understand what are the trends in our industry and more broadly outside of our industry as well.

Dani Johnson:

That makes a lot of sense— we’re always a little dubious when people tell us they're starting from scratch, because there's just so much out there! Talk to me about the extent to which you're looking at Skills: I've had some leaders come to me and say, oh my gosh, we're behind in the Skills game, I don't even know where to start, and it's because they're looking at everything. And so when we look into some organizations that are looking at everything and trying to quantify everything that everybody does and each skill individually, and trying to get an overall picture of all the Skills that exist, are you all approaching it that way, or are you approaching it more based on critical Skills?

Tim Dickinson:

Yes.

Dani Johnson:

Okay.

Tim Dickinson:

We are trying to do a bit of both. I actually think the more we try to get a broad picture of everything, I think the more we start leaning towards thinking it's more important to focus on the critical Skills. And I even think about my answer to the previous question, for the broad Skills we can get a lot of that data from external partners, from market research providers, from some of those specialists in the market, whereas if we really want to use Skills to build unique talent and unique ideas within our organization, I think that is where we need to focus on the critical Skills to Novartis as an organization and what is going to make sure that we're successful.

Chris Pirie:

Makes sense: higher order Skills are there to differentiate you.

Stacia Garr:

So let's talk a little bit about where you're trying to go with this. So I know you've mentioned a couple of specific use cases—we talked about talent marketplaces, for example—but as you envision the future, what are you trying to achieve? What's the objective of all of this work? Kind of second question, where do you think you'll actually be in maybe 12 to 18 months time? The reason I ask this is because to Dani's point just a moment ago, a lot of times people are, I think, ‘oh, in 18 months, we're gonna have the whole thing built in but there's so much work between now and then.’ So I just am hoping you can kind of maybe set some realistic expectations for folks on what is possible.

Tim Dickinson:

The pace of change is not slowing down—not just within our industry as a pharmaceutical organization, but just globally. And we view this as a critical way for, not just us as an organization but also our associates, to keep up with that pace of change, to give us the visibility and clarity and to give every individual the clarity of what they might need to prepare themselves to future-proof themselves in a changing economic environment, and what we need to prepare for as an organization to build our workforce for those same changes in the future. I think that's a big ‘why’ for us is that agility as an organization is going to be critical, and if we want to be able to meet that agility and deliver on that agility, it's going to require the level of transparency into what our capabilities are and what our capabilities need to be in the near-term and long-term future to really meet that.

Stacia Garr:

One of the things that resonates particularly about what you just said is this idea of transparency, not just for the org but also for individuals and future-proofing their own careers. One of the things we've heard in some of the strong examples of this working is where people were able to say, you know, I have these Skills, but the market's going in this direction and I'm interested in going that way too and therefore we're going to, you know, make the investment in up-skilling in those areas—it’s so much more powerful when you can kind of paint the motivational picture for folks, as opposed to just telling them, you know, thou shalt learn these Skills now, so I think that's a really nice thing. The second part of my question was, as you look at 12 to 18 months out, what do you think is realistic? What's reasonable, where are you trying to get to?

Tim Dickinson:

I think in 12 to 18 months, we can realistically be in a place where we understand what people and what processes are needed to drive these different skill strategies across the organization. And when I say the different skill strategies, I'm thinking about the supply and demand of Skills across the organization. So how do we up-skill and for that up-skilling, what is that based on, is it based on demand from market research? Is it demand from our internal strategic workforce planning; is it demand from a targeted re-skilling initiative? Having the processes and people in place to understand those handoffs? When does the demand get met by supply and vice versa? I think in 12 to 18 months, that's a realistic expectation for us: we are laying the foundations for that to be supported by technology as well. I think in 12 months we'll have made a lot of progress. I don't think we'll be in a finished state; I think it's going to be a continuous evolution.

Stacia Garr:

That absolutely makes sense. I'm going to ask a slightly related question, but I know it gets at one of Chris's darlings, which is the intersection of learning and data. You just mentioned you'll have the data to understand, should we be up-skilling people, should we be looking to the external market to bring in people, et cetera… as you've been thinking about this, what additional data are you looking to? So not just Skills data, but additional data, looking to, basically, bring into the model to help you make those decisions—is there different learning data that you're looking to bring in then you have in the past, or are you one of the unicorns who has this magical repository of awesome learning data?

Tim Dickinson:

We are not a unicorn with an awesome repository of learning data. I am sorry to disappoint you.

Stacia Garr:

We talk a lot about my hopes, dreams, and aspirations that never come true, so here's another one! What are you looking to do, to be able to have those insights?

Tim Dickinson:

I think on one hand, something that we're trying to do is really rely on some of our existing partners quite a bit, and I've mentioned a couple of them before, and I may be myopically considered them mere content providers as recently as a few months ago. I've mentioned partners like Coursera and LinkedIn as organizations that more than just provide us content; they have a breadth of information about what Skills people are coming to them for that might be an indicator of what we need to prepare for in the future, or what we might not be aware of yet. I think that's kind of an inkling of where we can start trying to find more value in some of our existing relationships, especially from a learning perspective; I come from a background where I'm familiar with trying to get the learning data from these providers, and try to ideally create that nice, beautiful learning dataset, but they also have more to offer than just the data about what's happening within your organization: what courses are people completing, those types of things. We can ask them for more than that, and I think they're able to deliver more than that, too.

Chris Pirie:

Yeah, they have extraordinary scale operations now—there’s millions and millions of learners. A couple of things, maybe something Tim, that you've learned along the way of your Odyssey so far, any advice that you would give to other people who are thinking about working on their own Skills strategy?

Tim Dickinson:

Probably what I've learned so far is to try to focus: this is a huge, huge all-encompassing problem —I don't even know that problem is the right word to use, because it is also a huge opportunity. The nature of Skills, the value of Skills, is that they touch everything, the challenge and addressing the opportunity is it touches everything. That's why I use the term ‘processes’ as kind of that first iteration of our potential Skills Operating System is, how can we isolate what Skills are used for in a given process? So what is that supply and demand hand-off between team A and team B within the organization, and how can we more carefully define that before we jump right into what is the job and Skills taxonomy and ontology of the future, and how can we have a future-proof plan for the next five years for that, and instead, try to narrow that focus down a little bit.

Chris Pirie:

‘Focus’ sounds like good advice. We're getting towards the end of our hour, Tim, and it's my job to keep an eye on the clock; I’m really not very good at that typically, because I'm very interested in what you have to say, but I wondered if there were any organizations out there that you admire in terms of how they're approaching this? You talked about the incredible insights that some of those vendors have and those learning platform folks have, but anyone else that you benchmark against or talk to as you're working through this?

Tim Dickinson:

Yeah, there's been a couple of organizations that we try to benchmark ourselves against. Unilever comes to mind as an organization that we try to learn from and try to benchmark ourselves against, as someone in the space who seems to be leading the way a bit, and doing some of this well. They stand out in particular. There’s probably a few others but I can’t think of them off the top of my head.

Chris Pirie:

Tim Munden and team—we were trying to get these guys onto one of our podcasts at some point, so if you have any leverage, you tell them what a great experience you're having with us. That would be good! Here’s an open question that we just like to ask anyway, is there anything that we should've asked you about in the call today that we didn't?

Tim Dickinson:

Maybe for me, potentially, how does the focus on Skills change the organizational design model or the organizational structure?

Chris Pirie:

Interesting. What do you think about that?

Tim Dickinson:

We've tried to introduce some new governance around decision-making and how we operate as different teams. And that's essentially thinking about the Skills task force: the nature of a task force as it’s short term and designed to tackle something specific, but when the task force dissolves, we still need to have a mechanism, so that learning and talent and the rest of our P&O function has a common vision and a common way of working when it comes to Skills—it’s still going to be a shared data structure, it’s still going to be processes that get handed off from one group to the next, and it's still going to have a big impact on associates and employees across the board. I think that's something that we're still figuring out is what's our long-term organizational design when it comes to how we tackle this as a P&O function.

Chris Pirie:

Interesting—so maybe some really far-reaching outcomes from some of these experiments in terms of how you think about talent all up makes a lot of sense. Last couple of questions: first of all, how can people connect with you and your work, Tim?

Tim Dickinson:

LinkedIn is probably the easiest. If you want to find me, you can find me and connect with me on LinkedIn. That would be the easiest place.

Chris Pirie:

Open-door policy on LinkedIn, I love it, that’s great. The last question we always ask our guests is why do you do the work you do? Is there somebody or something that's prompted you to spend your working life focused on Skills and people in the workplace?

Tim Dickinson:

I really like this question, because really throughout my life, I haven't always focused on one single domain of expertise, and I think about that evolution of what motivates me and that has really brought me to a place where I feel like I am genuinely curious, I really enjoy finding new things to learn about, but sometimes it can also be challenging; it can be challenging, not just the act of learning something new, but finding the new thing that interests me. And I think about Skills as an interesting way professionally to think about how can we solve that same challenge for people in the workplace, whether it's learning development or Skills, I kind of view it as pretty similar, the sense of, I really get a kick out of using data and using technology to help people grow, because that's what excites me in my own personal growth—I love tracking what I'm reading on Goodreads as a silly example, but then I love using that as an opportunity to either personally find people I connect with who I respect and see what they're reading, or use the algorithm behind it to do a little bit of inference and have it suggest to me what to read next, and I really love tracking some of that and then the social element of discussing that with peers and friends.

I think it's becoming popular lately to hate the term ‘Netflix of Learning,’ and I am a fan of hating that, because I always like to tell the anecdote that I don't know about you, but when I'm looking for what to watch next on Netflix, I don't use the algorithm; I ask my friends, Hey, what'd you watch last week, or I just finished the show that I love, what should I watch next? And so I think the technology is great, it serves a purpose, but the algorithms don't solve everything. And so I kind of like that intersection there of how do we help people find what's next? That is either going to be interesting and fun for them, or help them build their career.

Dani Johnson:

I love that question, Tim, and I love how almost everybody that we talked to in this space has this almost altruistic view of what they do—even if they're dealing with Skills and data, they can see the bigger vision. Also, the answer to your next Netflix question is Ted Lasso: definitely watch it.

Tim Dickinson:

I adored Ted Lasso, and it was one of the brightest spots of the pandemic for me when I was in just such a down moment when I discovered it. This is the show that I needed at this time.

Dani Johnson:

We just barely tried it until a couple of weeks ago, but man, it's such a bright spot.

Chris Pirie:

Are we trying to work Ted Lasso into every episode as season?

Dani Johnson:

Yes, we are.

Chris Pirie:

Well, thanks for cluing me into that.

Dani Johnson:

It’s like Superman on Seinfeld.

Chris Pirie:

Great! Well, Tim, thank you so much for your time—and listen, thank you for being ‘Ted Lasso brave enough’ to get out there and share with us your progress so far. You know, the promise of Skills is exciting and the operating system metaphor will, we'll definitely live on after this, and we really appreciate your time and your openness with us. Say hi to all the team at Novartis for us!

Tim Dickinson:

I will absolutely pass along the greeting, and thank you so much for having me: this has been delightful.

Dani Johnson:

This has been great, Tim: thank you.

Chris Pirie:

Thanks so much.

Chris Pirie:

Thanks for listening to Workplace Stories; it’s a podcast brought to you by RedThread Research. If you'd like to stay updated on our research and insights into people practices, including our latest studies on the Skills and analytics that organizations need to foster a more inclusive workplace, simply sign up for our weekly newsletter at redthreadresearch.com; you’ll hear about our latest research and find all the ways that you can participate in our round table discussions, Q&A calls and surveys, right from your inbox. It’s a great way to share your opinions about everything from DEIB to people analytics, from learning and Skills to performance management and leadership, and also meet and exchange ideas with your peers in the industry.

As always thanks so much to our guests, to our sponsors and to you, our listeners.

Written by

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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