Unilever’s marketing team needed help.
The global consumer products company was planning to roll out a new, low-calorie brand of Breyers ice cream in its Hungarian region. To do so successfully, the Unilever Hungary marketing group knew it was imperative that they first gather insights from customers in the Central European country.
Lili Kovacs, a member of the Unilever Hungary salesforce with valuable knowledge of this market, proved to be a vital conduit to those customers.
But, Kovacs might never have learned of this new product launch—let alone been part of it—if not for Unilever’s FLEX Experiences technology.
The new AI-powered platform—which Unilever developed in partnership with New York-based HR technology provider Gloat—matches Unilever employees to projects that help stretch their skills and knowledge in different areas across the organization. In return, Unilever gains access to a deeper and more diverse internal talent pool from which to draw for projects like this one.
In this case, finding Kovacs gave the marketing team a window into customer perceptions in a critical market. And, over the course of this new Breyers brand rollout, Kovacs came to realize that the marketing function was where she truly belonged. The marketing team apparently felt the same way. Kovacs is now an assistant brand manager in Unilever’s personal care division.
Unilever employees like Kovacs start down the path to new roles like this by logging into FLEX Experiences to create a professional profile, and by completing a purpose statement that lays out their interests and aspirations.
Once that’s done, these workers become part of the system’s talent network, and are eligible to be paired with short- and long-term projects that expand their expertise and experience beyond their current role.
Looking ahead, FLEX Experiences will be a tremendous boon to employee development and a valuable analytic tool for the organization, says Jeroen Wels, Executive VP of Human Resources, Categories, and Organizations at Unilever.
“For example, an employee not getting matched to opportunities gets recommendations on the skills they need to build. That’s going to be very useful. And we learn what kind of skills are most in demand, and what the hot jobs are in the organization,” Wels says.
HR’s Role in Improving the Platform
The FLEX Experiences platform is geared toward allowing Unilever to quickly and effectively move talent throughout the organization as needed.
Increasing internal talent mobility is part of Unilever’s quest to become ever-more collaborative. In The Three A’s of Organizational Agility, i4cp describes Unilever’s vision of creating a borderless organization that encourages greater experimentation and cross-functional teamwork within its community of employees.
This emphasis on collaboration, as i4cp’s agility study points out, is one of the trademarks of a truly agile organization. For Unilever, its focus on making talent more mobile is rooted in a desire to help the innovative concepts of employees to come to fruition instead of languishing because of a lack of internal resources.
So far, 30,000-plus Unilever employees across more than 90 countries have brought their talents to projects outside their day jobs via FLEX Experiences. With plans to expand the platform to include 50,000 employees, the company anticipates that full rollout will be complete by 2020.
HR has and will continue to be a key player in bringing the platform to scale. In fact, HR has already helped serve as an effective testing ground. Says Wels:
“You need to have use cases in business units, either a business itself or a functional team. Sometimes it’s the IT department, sometimes it’s legal. Whatever it is, you need clear use cases [to show] why you want to implement this technology.
So, we in HR said, if we really believe in this, we should put ourselves to the test. If we believe that careers and experience are built by exposing oneself to different types of projects and different types of work, then why don’t we do it in HR first?”
Indeed, any and all new features and changes to the platform are first piloted with Unilever’s roughly 1,750-employee HR team.
“If, after testing it within HR, we believe that the additional functionality works, then we start building it out before we launch it to other units,” Wels says.
In addition, HR professionals throughout the organization have already been paired up with projects outside the discipline, as well as other areas within HR.
Wels explains that Unilever employees in HR and elsewhere can take advantage of such opportunities without seeking permission from their managers—provided that daily duties are being fulfilled.
“We don’t say, ‘You need to do this,’ or that there’s a minimum amount of time employees need to make available to pursue other projects. We just try to democratize it and be transparent about the opportunities to join projects outside of one’s core responsibilities.
There’s always responsibility that employees have for their core deliverables. But team leads also have a responsibility to develop his or her people. And if a team lead doesn’t provide time for people to learn other things [outside their usual jobs], then that team lead isn’t doing his or her core job.”
Enabling Agility and Innovation
Before full rollout, Wels and the HR team knew that the FLEX Experiences platform had to be tested beyond the human resource function.
The question was how to identify a perfect place within the organization to do further testing. The IT team in India would prove to be ideal.
Wels describes this mostly project-based unit as “relatively homogenous” in terms of the type of work it does, and as a team that always in need of new skills.
“We wanted to get a ring-fenced team that was primarily skills-oriented, and typically needs a range of skills to deliver on a project. It was almost an optimal environment to test the platform,” says Wels. “And we quickly found that people love to be engaged in slightly different work than what they’re focused on every day.”
Indeed, Unilever employees in IT and beyond have high praise for their experience with the FLEX platform, giving the technology a 95% endorsement rate.
Ultimately, the creation of FLEX Experiences is part of Unilever’s effort to foster greater agility and innovation throughout the organization.
Wels and the HR team are key players in this effort, on a number of fronts—helping to scale up the number of Unilever’s agile teams and units, focusing on driving diversity and inclusiveness in teams, changing the company’s performance management approach to prioritize value/flexible goals, and providing compassionate and direct feedback, for example.
Creating FLEX Experiences has also been critical in Unilever’s adopting an open talent economy as well, says Wels.
“It gives us a frictionless way of letting people apply to jobs [elsewhere in the organization], because they’ve been selected based on their skills, experiences, and interests. And, therefore, you don’t have to set up a cumbersome application process with a recruiter in between. Because you already know the best match as you move forward.”
Unilever’s Flex Experiences program reflects several practices revealed in the i4cp report The Three A’s of Organizational Agility that distinguish high-performance organizations (HPOs) from low-performance organizations (LPOs):
- HPOs are more than 2x more likely than LPOs to place a high priority on diversity of thought, experience, and skills on project or work teams
- HPOs are more than 1.5x more likely than LPOs to ensure the specific skills/knowledge/background of project/work team members align with the needs of the organization
- HPOs are more than 2x more likely than LPOs to adopt agile software concepts in the business (more than 2x)
- HPOs are more than 2x more likely than LPOs to establish or strengthen a dedicated team/unit focused on testing and launching new products or concepts fast
- HPOs are 2x more likely than LPOs to encourage the movement of talent across the enterprise