August 25, 2022

How DICK’S Sporting Goods Uses AI to Elevate Team Skills in a Changing Workplace

The way people shop has changed dramatically in the last five years, and DICK’S Sporting Goods is no exception. To keep up with growing digital demands, the sporting-goods retailer realized that they needed to adjust their talent strategy by embracing new skills to serve their customers better.

Digital transformation affecting the workforce is hardly a new story by now. In 2020, the World Economic Forum released its Future of Jobs report. It found that 50 percent of the workforce would need reskilling or upskilling by 2025 to meet the new responsibilities created by technology and automation.

Additionally, voluntary attrition has exploded in the wake of the pandemic. The WEF also reported that 77 percent of CEOs surveyed had concerns that skills shortages could hinder future growth.

“Skills are the throughline connecting all aspects of the employee life cycle,” said Jason Cerrato, Senior Director of Product Marketing at Eightfold AI. “The issue isn’t that this is a secret, but rather identifying, collecting, and analyzing skills is not easy. It’s a challenge for us as individuals, let alone an even greater challenge to do this for an entire organization. Leveraging skills for talent practices requires a deep and more dynamic look at your workforce.”

The volatility of recent years — especially recent worries about the economy — still has employees concerned about what workplace challenges the near future may bring. And they are increasingly looking to employers for answers.

“Employees have always wanted to feel cared for from a personal wellness perspective or have their managers invested in helping them reach their career aspirations,” said Brad Cohen, Sr. HRIS Analyst for DICK’S Sporting Goods. But now, Cohen says that the economic disruption of the pandemic, coupled with the social unrest caused by the nation’s lagging moves toward diversity, has only accelerated changes that have long been coming.

“Customers and employees are now demanding what they want,” Cohen said. “These demands are redefining the role of what a leader looks like. There are more demands on leaders than there’s ever been before. They have to care about the wellness of their coworkers, and we have to practice empathy for the people who walk into our stores.”

To help DICK’S management and employees realize this dynamic transformation, everyone’s skills must be made central to their place in the company. DICK’S leadership needs to know what an employee can do, as opposed to what their role says they should do — and employees need to make their leaders aware of their career goals and have easy access to the skills training they need to achieve them.

“Skills contribute tangibly to key milestones and activities and a standard talent life cycle,” Cerrato said. “They also facilitate and enable the more intangible components of a total talent experience. They help organizations create inclusive career experiences, driving more equitable outcomes for all. They help facilitate access and exposure for individuals to consider internal opportunities as well as external opportunities for applicants and prospects. And they help drive long-term employee engagement.”

DICK’S Sporting Goods’ skills-focused strategy is already off to a great start. In the past year, the company has introduced “elevated profiles” for employees, a 360-degree look at an employee’s complete skill set and career aspirations sourced through traditional assessments and AI-driven insights. Cohen and Cerrato recently spoke in a SHRM webinar about DICK’S implementation of skills-based talent management strategies and how it will help employees grow and manage their careers. (Ed note: Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.)

Building a Skills-based, AI-driven Workplace From the Inside Out

DICK’S Sporting Goods has 858 stores in 47 states, incorporating multiple brands, including Golf Galaxy and Public Lands. The company has approximately 40 million customers (who they call “athletes”) in its database, and they’re served by 50,000 employees (“teammates”). 

They faced the challenge of implementing a large-scale, skills-based strategy that had to be seamless to not disrupt the teammate/athlete relationship and at scale so those 50,000 teammates could move forward together.

The answer came in the form of elevated teammate profiles. The project began roughly a year ago in what Cohen called “a very structured process.” Project team members interviewed DICK’S high-performing leaders and conducted positive deviance observations, with the ultimate goal of learning the behaviors and skills that contributed to their success: “What are those leaders doing, [who] are running great businesses? How are they doing it?”

The next step was to leverage DICK’S historical trove of proprietary data. “We have a metric or a scorecard for almost everything we do,” Cohen said. The team took data from several of its internal systems and loaded it into Eightfold AI, where it interacted with data from the public domain. It scanned billions of profiles to better understand the skills and attributes of different roles, and really what contributes to success.”

Combining the AI findings with their interviews and observations, the team developed the first draft of skills-based profiles for their Leads, Assistant Store Managers, Managers, and District Managers. Those elevated profiles were presented to DICK’S executive steering committee, who gave feedback and guidance toward a final product.

On day one, DICK’S employees logged into the company’s new “Elevation Hub,” which has Eightfold AI at its heart, and completed three weeks’ worth of assessments across three categories: leadership, managerial, and technical. The information was uploaded to the Elevation Hub, and DICK’S leaders learned where they stood in relation to benchmarks for their roles — and how they might pursue other jobs within the company.

This is only the beginning of what Cohen called “a multiyear journey to deliver an outstanding teammate experience… [We’re going to] build out something that’s truly in class.” Later iterations of the Elevation Hub will include training resources, internal job listings, and succession-planning elements.

“What makes an organization skills-based is that skills sit at the center, driving the experience both from the HR perspective and the employee perspective,” Cerrato said. “Skills are at the heart of the talent strategy, which ultimately is tied to the business strategy. A skills-based organization is nimble, adaptable, and responsive, tracking skill needs dynamically, and more quickly matching and aligning talent as business needs change.”

“Something you’ll constantly hear from our CEO is ‘We’re gonna win through our teammates,” Cohen said. With the Elevation Hub and Elevated Profiles in play, DICK’S is well situated to make more winning moves in their field.

3 Takeaways: How DICK’S Sporting Goods is Transitioning to Skills-based Employment

Keep employees fully in the loop. “I’m going to steal a phrase from the project-management world, which is ‘progressive elaboration,’” Cohen said. “At the start of a project, you have a rough lay of the land, but you really don’t have the turn-by-turn. In those early phases, you have to communicate early and often to make sure you have success.”

Elevate worker skills through a mix of traditional and AI solutions. When DICK’S decided to perform a companywide employee assessment at scale, they recognized that they needed two kinds of external vendors: an assessment vendor to help acquire employee data, and an AI-driven vendor to crunch it. “Huge investments are being made in the HR tech space, and you have to spend time figuring out what’s right for you. For us, it was Eightfold,” Cohen said. “You have to have well-built algorithms with a lot of data science behind them, and you need a large set of data so you can train those algorithms.”

Move forward in a thoughtful, deliberate manner. “We were fortunate enough to have a dedicated change manager and dedicated training resources,” Cohen said. “We defined personas. We did direct communications throughout the year. We had breakout sessions with all our leaders to help them really understand what the elevated profile meant and how they can espouse the benefits of them to their teammates and everyone else who wants to grow. We were very deliberate in how we rolled things out.”

For the full conversation with Eightfold AI and DICK’S Sporting Goods, watch the webinar Workforce transformation: A skills-based, AI-driven approach.