The Changing World of Work: A Conversation with David Windley and Jeff McHenry

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David Windley

David Windley, CEO of IQTalent Partners. Photo: David Windley

Students and alumni of USC’s MS in Human Resource Management program are often treated to guest addresses from industry experts, willing to share their knowledge and expertise, and offer advice for the future of the field. Earlier this year, Dr. Jeff McHenry, professor of human resource management at USC Bovard College, sat down to interview David Windley about the changing world of work. Windley is a 30-year veteran of human resources across companies such as Yahoo, Microsoft and Intuit and is currently CEO of IQTalent Partners and chairman of the board for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

In their discussion below, Windley and Professor McHenry discuss how the changing world of work, sparked by the Information Revolution, is transforming the business world, and more specifically, human resources. Read on, as they discuss the consequences of these changes and the challenges HR professionals need to be ready to face—from talent and compensation, to job displacement, engagement, privacy around big data and analytics, and more.

McHenry: Let’s start off by talking about the changing world of work. What do you mean by the changing world of work?

Windley: We’re in the middle of a major revolution, right? In our history, we were an agricultural society, and we moved to the Industrial Revolution. And now we’re in a third major revolution, the Information Revolution. It’s been accelerating over the past few years with the internet now, and platforms, and creating big data. Throw on top of that robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence.

What you start to see is a lot of traditional work being eliminated. And so what you find is the jobs that are left in the work environment really require human talent, things that cannot be automated.

I’m intrigued. You mentioned that platforms have become prevalent. Can you give an example of what you mean by a platform and maybe some of the industries where you see platforms affecting the world of work?

Two of my old companies—Yahoo and Microsoft, along with Google—were in the search business. And those were the first big platform companies. And what they really unlocked is big data and machine learning.

And these business models aren’t only just changing the business world, but disrupting the world of work. Let’s take Uber. Are these drivers employees? I mean, they are doing work that’s beneficial to the company. But, Uber will say, we just have a platform, and we’re matching independent drivers with people that need transportation.

What are some other examples of artificial intelligence disrupting work?

Autonomous vehicles is a good use of artificial intelligence, if you will. And that’s eliminating a whole job category, or making a big impact on a major job category. I don’t know if you realize that the number one job category in the US for men, is driving a vehicle. So you can see how artificial intelligence is going to affect that category. You already see it out in the fields in farming. Because those tractors that go up and down in a pattern, they’re already using autonomous vehicles.

You can also view artificial intelligence as eating into knowledge workers—for example, paralegals. There are already a lot of bots that can apply logic—because law is a lot of logic, right? And so, where you have algorithms or patterns, that work is easily automated using bots and algorithms.

Interesting. It sounds like one of the things we’ve maybe deluded ourselves around is that even high-end knowledge work is going to be immune from some of these changes. But you’re sharing examples of legal work.

Well, I think all knowledge work will be impacted at the lower portion of that. I believe you will still need that skilled lawyer in the court. But a lot of the routine work behind the scenes in law is what’s getting automated. How do you get a document for a divorce? You can go to LegalZoom.

What we have to think about is that the jobs that will be left in our work environments of the future are really going to be more talent-based than they are today. And I think there’s a whole different set of human resources processes and practices that are more talent-based than our traditional job-based systems from the Industrial Age.

Let’s talk a little bit about that, then. What are some other examples of talent processes or HR processes that you think are vulnerable to change or ready for change?

Let’s start with compensation and use a sports analogy. Let’s pick baseball. There’s a job description for a shortstop. In the traditional Industrial Age, we would have a narrow pay range for that job. But in a talent-based world, what’s more important is the person and the talent they bring. And that’s what you compensate for. It’s a huge range. What you pay Derek Jeter versus the average shortstop is huge, right?

We have examples of that today. When I was at Yahoo and Microsoft, we’d compete with Google for PhD data scientists. We would scout them just like professional sports scout athletes. Because for us, that was such a critical job. These are the people that created these algorithms that made billions of dollars for our company. So think about it. How much would you pay the best data scientists?

One of the topics that’s been hot over the last, say, 10 or 15 years, is engagement. And a number of very good studies have been done that demonstrate that employees who are more engaged in their organization, feel more a part of it, are more productive, contribute more and are more loyal. But in a world of work like you’re describing, what do you think the future of engagement looks like?

Well, it’s interesting because I think for the core that’s left in your company, engagement will be more important, because you’re going to be dealing with what I call a professional workforce, meaning that the people there can go work anywhere else. They’re a professional. And their career’s their profession, not necessarily the company’s. And so you almost have to win them over every day.

I do think engagement becomes much more of a strategic aspect of the HR role, to help create the right engaging work environment. And more and more, that includes the facilities—what that feels like, what that looks like—and the amenities. What does it feel like to come to work? How do people interact?

Well, let me ask a question that’s a bit of a twist on this. It sounds like there might be a number of people who are displaced. What do you see as HR’s role in supporting displaced employees? Do you think there might be some corporate social responsibility aspects to the role of HR that will become increasingly important?

I don’t know, the way modern corporations are structured and the way they’re economically designed, if we as a society can rely on the goodness of corporations to solve that. So I think that society at large, and our governments, are going to have to grapple with that.

That’s also one of the things, at SHRM, as a Society for Human Resources, we are looking at—not just helping our HR professionals in their work environments, but now thinking about the world of work and what’s changing, and if there are policies that we need to push government on.

Well, let me ask about another area that seems really hot right now—talent analytics and the application of big data and, in some cases, artificial intelligence, to the work of human resources. Can you comment on that?

I do see a couple of areas where I think it’s really going to make an impact. And I would say talent acquisition is probably going to be first. The thing about data analytics, and especially big data, is you have to have big data to really make an impact. And with talent acquisition, some platforms using artificial intelligence are getting smarter about making matches to job specs and talent. But it doesn’t eliminate, really, the talented recruiters that still need good human judgment to make that final decision.

Let me ask you about a couple ethical issues that I’ve heard about. Let’s start with the fact that companies possess an enormous amount of data on their employees. In theory, every mouse click an employee makes, a company could be capturing. Do you have a sense for what some of the ethical issues are likely to be?

This is an example of when you go through one of these major revolutions where things have to change. If you go back to when we moved from the Agriculture Age to the Industrial Age, we had to create new laws, new policies, because there were things that, at that time, we didn’t even think about. Look at child labor, for example. They had to pass laws around that. I think we have the same thing happening in this Information Age, especially around data and privacy. And I don’t believe we’ve caught up yet as a society.

Professor Jeffrey McHenry and David Windley discuss the changing world of work

Professor Jeff McHenry (left) and David Windley discuss the changing world of work. Photo: David Windley

One of the other issues my colleagues and I have been talking about in the talent acquisition and assessment space, is that a lot of these big data tools are essentially capturing what you’re already doing, but are not forward-looking. And from a diversity perspective, that can be quite negative. Do you have any thoughts about that, about how we make sure that we don’t become dependent on AI to the point where we’re just capturing what we’ve already done?

Very good point. And I think that’s where people in your profession, I/O psychologists and others, really need to be there with the engineers that are creating these algorithms, right?

So let’s just say, in engineering, that predominantly white males are, today, the people that are successful. So when a company builds a model predicting who would be a successful candidate, if they do it based just solely on what exists, then they end up perpetuating. And that did happen to [a company] and it was highly publicized, and they had to shelf that sort of AI.

It sounds like we’re on the cusp of something very disruptive, very different. When you think about people entering the profession right now, what suggestions would you have for them, and what capabilities and skills and experiences will be most critical to them being successful as HR professionals?

Well, first of all, I want to say, anyone out there that’s in HR, I think you’re in the right profession at the right time. As I’ve mentioned before, as we move more towards a talent-based ecosystem in our world of work, then talent becomes more critical to the success of a company.

And I really believe, going forward, HR needs to be the critical, or one of the critical business functions—not a staff function, but a business function. In a world of talent where talent is the most critical element to a success of a company, that’s a fundamental business issue. I think all of us as HR people need to be good business people, first and foremost, bringing expertise in how humans interact, how we motivate, but applied in a business setting.

So for anyone studying HR, I would say, first, be a good business person. You need to learn some of these other levers, as Jeff and I were just talking about, such as technology. You don’t have to be an expert in the technology, but you have to know what the technology can do for you.

You’ve been very active in the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). And you’re now the chair of the board of SHRM, which is a tremendous responsibility and a great honor. What advice do you have for people starting out in the field in terms of becoming professionally active?

Well, I think first in the HR profession is, be a good business person, and really increase your competency. Because I think more and more, what’s going to differentiate a good HR person is not the technical knowledge within HR, laws, etc. That’s a baseline. It’s going to be those higher-level skills—good judgment, the business acumen, ability to use data.

I would also advise to network, network, network. I mean, just from a career perspective, it’s good to learn from others, but also, as far as movement in your career. While we’re going to have all these bots scanning your resume and making matches, I still believe the best way to find that next best job is through your networks.

Any closing thoughts about changes in the world of work?

I really do think this is an exciting time to be in the HR profession. I think as the world of work changes, what we do as a profession needs to change.

And I think it’s a great opportunity for those of you that are practicing, to shape what the new practice of HR will be and needs to be. We don’t have a lot of answers, which to me is the exciting part. Those that are going to be practicing in this field will need to come up with the new practices, the new policies, the new way of operating in a talent-based world. So I think all of you out there studying HR, I think you guys are in the right profession at the right time.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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