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Why We Must Think Differently About Employee Development

A few weeks back, I was on a call with a colleague.

Somehow, we landed on a topic that’s become a personal favorite in the decade or so that I’ve been around the HR profession: overused business buzzwords.

We had a good laugh going over some of the standards in the corporate canon: Triangulation of synergies. Low-hanging fruit. Secret sauce. Outside the box.

There were plenty of others, but we can circle back to those. Or not.

Anyway, it seemed timely that not long after this conversation, I stumbled upon an Entrepreneur article that introduced me to yet another buzzy, HR-centric term: “People enablement.’

The phrase itself struck me as one more bit of nebulous jargon that sounds neat while not really saying much. But give Steffen Maier (the article’s author and co-founder of Impraise) a chance to explain people enablement, a concept he calls “the human resources trend you can’t ignore.”

“At its essence, people enablement is a more holistic approach towards individual development, and it encompasses the technology, processes, and content empowering employees and teams to develop and improve faster.”

It’s worth pointing out that Impraise—the company Maier founded—provides technology that its website describes as “The People Enablement Platform.” So, you could say he has a little something to gain by promoting this idea of people enablement. But that doesn’t mean there’s not some truth in what he’s saying.

Organizations must view employee development differently than they have in the past. Today’s employees aren’t looking for a career trajectory that goes upward in a straight line. They crave continuous development in the form of lateral moves and varied experiences in different areas of the company. The HR function can and should be instrumental in supplying these experiences.

The importance of offering new career experiences

The Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) has underscored the importance of increasing the flow of talent through the organization in The Three A’s of Organizational Agility: Reinvention Through Disruption.

In that report, i4cp identified “fluidity of talent and knowledge across the enterprise to address emerging areas of need and opportunity” as one of the five traits of agile leaders and organizations.

The same study highlighted a handful of companies developing robust programs designed to achieving this goal by exposing employees to work that stretches them well beyond their current roles. For example, consider the Gigs initiative that Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media (DCPI) launched in 2017.

Originally piloted to 525 DCPI workers from three different business groups, the program allows employees to pursue their personal passions—from fitness to photography, voiceover work, and much more in between—on various Disney-related tasks and projects beyond their “day jobs.”

Others are creating their own technology to pair employees with new opportunities throughout the organization. Netherlands-based consumer goods company Unilever, for instance—in partnership with New York-based HR technology provider Gloat—has developed its new FLEX Experiences platform.

The AI-powered technology matches Unilever employees with projects that help expand their skills and knowledge in different areas across the organization. Meanwhile, Unilever gains access to a deeper, more diverse talent pool to dip into for these projects.

As part of its quest to become a borderless organization, it’s imperative that Unilever employees experiment and learn outside of the work they’re doing today, Jeroen Wels, the company’s executive vice president of human resources, categories, and organizations, recently told i4cp. (You can soon read more on FLEX Experiences in this i4cp case study.)

“[Finding new projects through FLEX Experiences] easily connects them with their sources of energy, which is their purpose,” says Wels. “We’re trying to give them the opportunity to go deeper or go into a completely different area, based on their skills, their passion, their energy.”

The benefits of breaking down borders in this way are many, says Tom Stone, senior research analyst at i4cp.

“It’s critical for retention and employer branding purposes, especially for organizations where employees indicate this is a big factor in why they joined or stay in the organization,” says Stone, adding that offering diverse professional experience also aids upskilling efforts.

This could be especially valuable for workers facing job changes as a result of automation, he says, as employees can more easily pivot to a new or upgraded role if they already have some relevant on-the-job experience under their belts.

(See this i4cp infographic on job rotation as an upskilling strategy.)

“It can also lead to lower attrition rates, to the extent that varied career experiences rates highly in terms of employee priorities,” concludes Stone. “And, similarly, talent acquisition improves when the employer brand can honestly include examples of employees getting varied career experiences.”

Companies like Disney and Unilever clearly grasp this reality, and have adopted the more rounded strategy for developing employees that Maier espouses when discussing the people enablement concept. And, like Stone, he sees clear organizational benefits to taking this approach.

“Employees will be more engaged and more likely to stay longer with a company, productivity will increase, and growth will follow naturally,” writes Maier, “as people will have the intrinsic motivation to bring their best selves to work.”