The Company As A Talent Network: Unilever and Schneider Electric Show The Way

Over the last ten years, we’ve seen a lot of digital business disruption. Amazon disrupted Wal-Mart. PayPal disrupted Visa. Tesla disrupted GM and Ford. And Facebook and Google disrupted just about everyone.

And this disruption was not just caused by good ideas: it is driven by speed. These disruptive companies have new ideas, they test them, and they execute faster than their entrenched competitors.

Why do existing companies take so long to react? Well as Clay Christensen describes in the Innovator’s Dilemma, large companies have lots of vested interests. It’s very hard for well-run, execution-focused companies to stop, think about something new, and start something different.

Many believe the problem is leadership: we need bold innovative leaders to drive change in older companies. But my research shows it’s actually something different. The entire management system is what gets in the way.m

Existing companies have business units, leaders, reward systems, and job roles that institutionalize the way they are now. This is all good for growth and scale, but they get in the way of new ideas. When you want to spin up a new idea, create a new product, and go after a new market, you have to break down all these silos. So this whole model of management has to change.

(This is the focus of a book I’ll be publishing with Harvard Publishing later this year.)

The New Idea:  Company As A Talent Network

In the old model of work, everyone had a job and a level, and each job reported to another. Managers were put in place to take responsibility for these hierarchies, and the managers are paid to make things happen. 

As an employee, you have a job in this hierarchy – and over time you progress through execution, growth, and relationships. You may work on cross-functional teams, but often these are “side jobs” and it’s your success in your main role that drives your promotion.

In a highly innovative company, however, we need things to happen faster. Google, for example, told everyone to take “20% time” so people could invent, create, and team on new ideas. So ten years ago or so we started the idea that companies are not really hierarchies, they’re networks. You do the job you have, but you also help other teams succeed as you go.

talent network, teams

I wrote about this in 2017, and we found back then that around 6% of companies defined themselves as the picture on the right. Today it’s almost 35% of companies, and nearly everywhere I go people talk about “team-centric leadership,” “empowerment,” “network-based leadership,” and the need to build followership, agility, and project-based teams. (This will be the focus of my book coming out early next year by the way.)

In this new world, when the market demands a new product or service, we spin up a new team (we called it a “sprint” at Deloitte), assign people to work on it, and they go off and start something new. Sounds easy, right?

Network-Based Organizations Are Harder Than They Look

Despite many companys’ efforts to do this, it’s harder than it looks. Today Agile has become a popular new management practice (nearly every company is experimenting with it now), and companies often think “doing agile” means “becoming agile.”

It turns out this isn’t true.

Paul Cobban, the chief innovation and data officer at DBS in Singapore (the “best digital bank in the world“), has led the company’s agile transformation. He explained how they created hundreds of small teams that did two-week sprints to simplify practices and make the business more efficient. Now, several years into this journey, he told me that ultimately it’s all about trust. People have to feel safe that taking time to work on new projects and speaking up about problems won’t hurt them.

And this means making it easy for people to take on new roles. In a company that has spent decades building job levels, rewards, and talent models the old way, that’s hard to change.

I talked with the CHRO of HPE in May of this year and she told me it was becoming nearly impossible to get people to take new assignments because everyone always wanted a promotion. “I’ll take that job if it’s a level up.” or “Is that a Director level job?” She told me they eventually decided to do away with the job titles (VP, Director, etc.) and reduced the number of levels dramatically.

But even that isn’t enough. We need tools that help people find the job they want (and the job that’s right for them), look for projects in their career interest, and give people development and rewards to help them work in an agile way.

Suppose you need a team to market a new global toothpaste? Can you just “borrow” the experts from other consumer products groups to help you get this done? Will their managers let them go?

Unilever sells hundreds of products in thousands of locations and is constantly looking for creative people, marketing managers, channel managers, and designers to build new things. And their employees thrive on such change: they want to learn and grow. How do we make these projects and jobs available and help people find the right ones to take?

Schneider Electric, a leader in energy management and automation products and services, has precisely the same problem. While the company’s products are well established in many markets, the senior leaders realized they needed far different strategies and skills in different markets. With the company originally headquartered in Paris, how could they find people to move to different markets, take on new jobs / projects, and motivate them to move fast when all these middle managers were in the way?

I’d argue that you all have this problem. Digital business models have forced us all to be more agile and team-oriented, yet our management practices and job roles get in the way.

HR and Management Tools Have Been Behind

I’ve had this conversation with leaders at Cisco many times. Cisco, a company that has grown and adapted through hundreds of acquisitions, prides itself on talent mobility. One of the leaders told me that at Cisco you can take any job you want in the company, as long as you’ve spent two years at the one you’re in. Your manager can’t stop you from taking another job, and internal mobility is highly valued. 

So Cisco went out to find management tools that would make this easy. Did they find any? No, not really. All the traditional HR management and work management systems are built around the hierarchy, so Cisco found they had thousands of teams which were not recorded in any system at all. (Cisco has now implemented a new team-based solution to try to fix this).

Can you just post these opportunities in the internal job board? Of course, you can – companies do this all the time. But do you know how hard it is to find a job in the company website? And would the hiring manager even hire you if you applied?

In the latest study I did with Deloitte, we found that almost 65% of companies told us “it’s easier to find a job outside the company than to find one inside,” so this problem has definitely not been solved.

And how do you find the “right” job or project for you? Just like we have AI tools to help candidates find jobs, we need algorithms that help me find the “best project” for my needs, so I can make sure I”m working on something I want, in the career path I desire.  (Read more about career management here.)

This kind of software was never imagined ten years ago when talent management tools were built. But today, I”m excited to say, they’re starting to arrive. Workday has an effort underway to build its own Talent Marketplace solution, and vendors like Instructure, Fuel50, Phenom People, AllyO, and Beamery are working on this.

But right now the leader in the market is Gloat, an Israeli-headquartered company that recently launched a product called InnerMobility. Let me show you how it works.

Unilever: A Company Built For Purpose

Unilever is one of the most interesting companies in the world. As a consumer products company, you know it for Dove Soap or Lipton Tea. But in reality, this is a purpose-driven company, focused heavily on bringing purposeful and sustainable products into our lives.

I won’t take you through the history (it’s fascinating to read), but suffice it to say the company acts “locally” in every geography, working hard to build a management structure which is inclusive, diverse, purposeful, and growth-oriented.

Consumer product companies are among the most dynamic businesses in the world, and they attract ambitious, hard-working people. So as they grow, acquire, and adapt they need to constantly give people new opportunities, making mobility and project work an imperative. 

Jeroen Wels, the head of Talent at Unilever, has been pioneering a new management system to do this – and it’s now public for all to see. They call it FLEX, and it’s a whole new way to work, develop people, and grow.

The way it works is simple. Employees are asked to build “purpose statements,” and share their skills and desired skills online. Using Gloat and other tools connected to Workday, every employee becomes part of Unilever’s talent network, and the system finds great projects to work on.

The goal of this system is not just to help people find good work, it’s to “democratize” the entire workplace, using AI to help people find the best possible work for the skills they have and the skills they want. Unilever already has 30,000 employees using the system, and Jeroen gave me examples of people in marketing, HR, and finance now doing project work. One marketing professional in the US took time to help a global innovation group build a go to market plan, a use-case common in many companies.

I asked Jeroen how managers feel about this, and he told me they’ve already built management practices that work. You as an employee can work on multiple projects at a time, and your manager knows what you’re doing. At the end of a period or end of a year, projects are reviewed.

Unilever calls it a talent marketplace because it lets any manager or team “shop for skills” inside the company. While I think this is an important element to the solution, I think it actually goes further. It’s “the new world of work,” and it unleashes energy, productivity, and growth. Already Unilever has unlocked 60,000+ hours of work that people want to do, and 95% of employees endorse the system.

unilever, gloat, innermobility

Schneider Electric:  Global Mobility Explodes

The second company I want to highlight is Schneider Electric, another pioneer in their space. I wrote about Schneider Electric’s innovative diversity program late last year, and since then the company has moved fast. Olivier Blum, the CHRO, is one of the savviest business leaders I’ve met, and he also sees internal work management as a key to the company’s future.  (Olivier was awarded CHRO of the Year in France this year.)

Andrew Saidy, the head of talent digitization at Schneider, told me they found that 47% of people who leave exit because they couldn’t find an opportunity they wanted. With 140,000 global employees, the company needed a high-powered internal mobility program. 

They also started using Gloat, and are not only sharing jobs and projects but have also set up mentoring in their Open Talent Market system. They started with the 2,300 people in HR (where we are also working with Gloat on the Josh Bersin Academy, by the way), and then moved to UK, Ireland and Singapore with more than 5,500 employees. 

Their system is connected to Oracle Fusion, Taleo, and Cornerstone, and also serves as the employee’s primary system to find projects, assess skills, and look for mentors.

Here’s how it looks.

Schneider, gloat. innermobility

As you can see, Schneider also focuses on employee self-assessment, and encourages people to share their purpose and goals.

And as a talent network, it lets employees promote their skills to hiring managers..

And as a talent network, it lets employees promote their skills to hiring managers.

Andrew told me the platform has exploded with growth. More than 75% of employees already registered on the system, and like Unilever the company rewards people for project work and encourages people to loan their skills to others.

This Is The New World of Work: And It Is Here At Last

While internal mobility and project work has been around for decades, it is now central to success. In fact, the more “digital” your company becomes the more “project-based” it needs to be. So we need tools and systems to facilitate this new world of work, and I”m excited to see them here at last.

In conclusion, let me mention three important things driving this strategy forward.

  1. Engagement and Retention: in a tight labor market like we have today, developmental assignments and exciting projects are one of the most valuable opportunities you can provide. Creating a “talent network” in your company will greatly improve your retention.
  2. Development and Growth: yes everyone needs skills, but training alone is not enough. It’s the experiences and projects that help people learn, so these kinds of networks create expertise, a new breed of leaders, and depth in your organization.
  3. Business Agility and Innovation: when your people feel safe to try new things, contribute to other projects, and share their expertise they can innovate and solve problems faster than ever. This new network model of management will become essential in the future, and today it’s a way to grow.

As Paul Cobban told me last week, once the “digital mindset” started to grow at DBS, everyone wanted to work this way.

I want to thank Unilever and Schneider and Gloat for showing us the way. There’s still a lot to learn about running your company as a network, so stay tuned for more on this critical new model of management.

(The Bersin Academy program People as Competitive Advantage dives into this in detail – join us!)