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Accenture’s CHRO Ellyn Shook on the Future Workforce

Ellyn Shook is Accenture’s chief leadership & human resources officer, responsible for helping the 435,000 people of Accenture succeed both professionally and personally. Her global team of HR experts is re-imagining leadership and talent practices to create the most truly human work environment in the digital age, fueling Accenture’s differentiation in the market and ability to improve the way the world works and lives.

Ms. Shook serves on the board of trustees at Harvey Mudd College, the Women's Leadership Board of the Women and Public Policy program at Harvard's Kennedy School, and the steering committee of Paradigm for Parity. She is active in Women in America and Ellevate Women’s Network, and is also a member of the HR50 division of World50. A 2015 article in Forbes.com named Ms. Shook one of the top 10 CHROs.

Shook will also be a keynote speaker at the i4cp 2018 Conference: Next Practices Now (March 26 – 29).

First, congratulations to you and your team on your new report on AI, Reworking the Revolution.

Thank you very much; it was definitely a labor of love. It's our second report focused on creating the future workforce; we did one last year as well.

Were there any surprises for you in your research?

I think the discoveries around the combination of intelligent technology and human ingenuity and the real ability to unlock growth and new customer experiences is very exciting. But it was really disappointing to learn that while most (almost 100%) of CEOs believe that these technologies are going to help improve worker capabilities and they’ve increased spending on intelligent technologies like AI by 60% in the last year, only three percent of CEOs are significantly increasing their investment in training their people. So it was a really interesting piece to do.

We do a lot of reskilling at Accenture, in fact, over the past two years we've reskilled 160,000 of our people in new IT. It's inspiring to see how energized our people are to not just learn skills for their jobs today, but learn skills for their jobs tomorrow.

We did a pilot recently that’s an application of artificial intelligence that has two halves to it. For the first half, we took publicly available data that looked at what tasks were going to be fully automated in the future. We fed all of our job descriptions and role descriptions into it and then we had our people input what they're actually doing, what their role was, and we pulled their skills, proficiency and capabilities out of our systems that we track anyway because we need to have that for our clients.

The left side of the application told our people what percentage of the work that they do now will be fully automated and the right side of the application then told them based on the skills and capabilities that they have, what training they should go do to prepare themselves for the jobs of tomorrow. And we asked people if they plan to go do this training—80 percent of them said yes. The research said the average is 75 percent, so it was really interesting to see how the reverse sampling of 40,000 people compare to what was happening in our own workforce.

You're so far ahead of most companies in thinking through this.

When you're a company of 435,000 people, it can either keep you up at night worrying or you can embrace it and go after making sure that you don't leave anybody behind. We chose the latter.

Is this a tool you're using with your clients as well, or did you develop it for internal use only?

We've commercialized our reskilling platform and are making it available to our clients, so our clients can now use our reskilling methodologies and that's been the first step.

This pilot that I just described is called "Job Buddy" and we just finished the pilot internally and we're now going to apply it at scale. So I suspect it'll be the next thing that we commercialize because this large-scale workforce transformation is facing every single company and if they're planning to stay in business, they have to really embrace this new world and elevate their people as they create their future workforce.

Are there any organizations that are doing this especially well?

The company that I think has done the best job of this is AT&T. They don't use our tools, but I think they've done an extraordinary job at reskilling.

Is there anything you're able to share about what it is that AT&T is doing that you find so exceptional?

I studied AT&T very closely last year when we did our first piece of research on creating the future workforce. I did a panel at Davos in January and I invited John Donovan [CEO, AT&T Communications] to come and speak because I admire him and his work. I think they've done a few interesting things: They painted a very clear vision for the future for their people, and they said "We're going to train you to do these new jobs. But it doesn’t end here.”

They were telling their people that the shelf life for their skills was three years. So they needed to train for new jobs, but then they needed to keep training so that every three years as their jobs dramatically changed, they would be prepared.

By being both visionary and transparent as leaders, John and Randall Stephenson [Chairman, CEO, and President, AT&T] painted a picture of the future for their people – this is so important. And at the heart of their vision was continuous learning. Our research found that workers are impatient to start to use these technologies and companies are not stepping up to the plate to provide them with the pathways, but AT&T has. And then they made sure that the people who were investing in reskilling themselves were getting the opportunities for the new jobs. I think that 48% of all the managerial promotions went to people who had reskilled themselves. It's a great story— they recognized their future talent needs early and did something about it in a positive way.

There's a shortage of skills—we would all love to have automation architects and people who have new economy skills, but they don't exist yet. Companies like AT&T and Accenture are recognizing that early, and making big investments in their people to “new skill” them, not just reskill them.

To follow-up on your point about the impatience of workers who are ready and want to start using new technologies, it was interesting that your research looked at differences in the generations in the workforce and there really weren’t generational gaps in the responses when you asked people to gauge their own capacity and confidence in being ready to use new technology. Everyone seems to feel ready for it.

Yes! Even the Baby Boomers are largely optimistic. When I looked at the generational differences, I was really encouraged, and I know from my own mother, who's about to turn 80, that people need to have two things in order to stay relevant: 1) they need to have aspirations, and 2) they need to have higher learning agility. They need to be the type of person who is motivated to always learn.

For example, my mom has a handyman, but if something breaks here is what she does. First, she goes on YouTube, she watches a video, she takes the video on her phone to Home Depot, she shows them the things that she needs and then she goes home and fixes the thing that broke. That may sound ridiculous, but that is how people from all generations can and do keep themselves relevant.

One of the things that came out of your research that is so striking is that business leaders are failing to recognize that their employees are enthusiastic and open to wanting to jump into reskilling and that they're just not providing it. What do you suppose that's all about?

I think most companies are still at the beginning phase and educating themselves about what technologies are available.  And they're getting very enticed by the efficiencies that can be gained through these technologies.

But what hasn't come into view for them yet is that the real power is not just the technology; it's at that intersection of human ingenuity and intelligent technologies where you can get really unlock new sources of growth or new customer experiences. And eventually, we know—even though we can't tell you what yet—there will be new industries that come out of it.

It's just early days and we're hoping that this research helps companies understand a path forward and the importance of going beyond just efficiencies and productivity boosts.  I can tell you that from our own experience, we take 60% of the efficiencies gained and we reinvest in our people. For the past three years, we've spent more than $900 million on training and developing our people. So I think companies need to really understand and accelerate the things that are going to help them differentiate themselves.

There seems to be equal parts anxiety and eager anticipation about intelligent technology, especially in terms of what jobs are going to disappear, how we're going to be more strategic, and what jobs are going to be created. How would you advise leaders to prepare their organizations for this culturally? Throughout your report you talk a lot about this alliance between human ingenuity and machines making companies stronger. Is this how leaders need to start talking about it in preparing their workforces?

They do and I think business leaders seem to forget that their people are consumers too who are already using these technologies in their lives, so they're not scared of technology. They see how intelligent technology helps improve their lives, whether it's Siri® or Alexa® or Netflix or whatever it is—they're using the technologies.

I think some leaders are taking their own fears and concerns about the future and applying it to their people. They need to tap into the real feelings of their people and get to understand those. This is what Randall and John are doing at AT&T exceptionally well—they are presenting a very strong and positive vision of the future, and they're being honest -- acknowledging that the tunnel is long and dark, but there is a light at the end of it, and workers need to prepare themselves and AT&T is there to support them.

Leaders also need to think about the new “leadership DNA” their organization needs. They need to break down silos and create more agile organizations so that as the pace of change continues to accelerate—and velocity is already at an unprecedented rate—their organizations and their people are prepared to accept that change.

If there was one misconception about intelligent technology among H.R. professionals especially that you could have magical powers to debunk once and for all what might that be?

If I had magical powers to make my HR colleagues understand one thing it would be that the real power of technology is not to eliminate humans from the equation but to elevate humans.

For the attendees of our conference this year, what is the one takeaway you would want everyone to come away from your talk with?

The one takeaway I would want them to leave with is the knowledge that there is no better time to be a leader in this profession and that it is our obligation to step up and lead.

What's your advice for organizations that are in the early exploration stage of intelligent technology?

There are a few things they can do—make sure that they're not just thinking about investing in their people at large, but if they feel their organization is lagging that they need to make sure that they are investing in their leaders, too. In many of the companies that I've consulted with on this topic, the leadership teams aren't fully ready themselves, so how can we expect the workforce to be ready? So it's not just about training people, it's about training leaders and really making sure that you can immerse them in understanding what the real opportunities around these technologies are. HR people can really take the lead and do that.

The other thing HR can do is start experimenting themselves in their own organization so that they understand the power of the technology and the power of the people and technology collaborating together. Another important shift HR leaders need to make is from workforce planning to work planning -- because the nature of work itself will change tremendously. If HR starts experimenting in their own organizations, they can get ahead of the curve to lead the rest of the organization.

Lorrie Lykins
Lorrie is i4cp's Vice President of Research. A thought leader, speaker, and researcher on the topic of gender equity, Lorrie has decades of experience in human capital research. Lorrie’s work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other renowned publications.