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SAP’s Dr. Steve Hunt: Every Talent Team Needs to Map Out a Path to Upskilling

 

Today’s episode of the show features Steve Hunt, Chief Expert of Technology & Work at SAP.  Steve has been at SAP for over a decade, and in his current role, he supports SAP’s customers with understanding and managing the interaction between work, technology, and business performance.  Before transitioning to SAP, Steve led a team of research scientists at Kronos (now UKG).  He holds a Ph.D. in psychology and is the author of several books on technology in the workplace.  His new book, Talent Tectonics, takes a deep dive into some of the topics we will touch on today.  

Steve shares his winding career path, which takes what we know about people and technology’s capabilities to improve the work experience.  Today, the new talent code dictates that we transform learning in the workplace and differentiate between learning and upskilling.  Two major workplace shifts drive this need for transformation: the change in work due to digitization and the evolution of workplace demographics.  One prominent result of these shifts is that companies hire more for potential than qualification or experience.  The technology used to design jobs and manage talent, Steve says, is crucial for these companies to create a learning organization. 

To see the workplace transform into a learning environment, companies can use role modeling, opportunity marketplaces, self-reflection techniques, and more to help employees develop a sense of what they’d like to learn. And again, technology is a critical piece of the puzzle. As technology is to skills what a GPS is to maps, talent intelligence updates on the fly and offers better insight, thus helping people imagine their growth and career paths better.  Next, Steve explains what employees or candidates should look for to see if a given company will promote their learning and also offers insight on how HR leaders and hiring professionals can create a culture of continuous learning. 

Finally, as the conversation ends, Steve talks about what might have been…had he taken choir class!

Links:

You can follow Steve Hunt for more practical insights and learn more about his new book, Talent Tectonics.

Here’s Why Every Talent Management Team Needs to Map a Path to Upskilling

Ligia:

Welcome to the new talent code, a podcast with practical insights, dedicated to empowering change agents in HR to push the envelope in their talent functions. We’re your hosts. I’m Ligia Zamora.

Jason:

And I’m Jason Serato. We’re bringing you the best thought leaders in the talent space to share stories about how they are designing the workforce of the future. Transforming processes, rethinking old constructs and leveraging cutting edge technology to solve. Today’s pressing talent issues. It’s what we call the new talent code.

Ligia:

So if you’re looking for practical, actionable advice to get your workforce future ready, you’ve come to the right place. Hey, Hey. Hey. Hello, and welcome to another episode of the new talent code. I’m Ligia, and I’m here with my co-host Jason. Hey Jason.

Jason:

Hey, I think, uh, we’re gonna learn today about learning. I think we have a good show. I, and a lot of topics to cover, but some exciting conversation ahead.

Ligia:

I know, I know I had extra cups of coffee. I’m so excited, but before we start our show, let me go ahead and introduce our guest Steve hunt. Hello, Steve. Welcome. Hello,

Steve Hunt:

Great to be here.

Ligia:

<laugh> first. Let me share a little bit about you. Steve is the chief expert technology and work at SAP. An organization he’s been with, I think, for about over a decade, but in his current role, Steve is supporting SAP’s customers with understanding and managing the interaction between work technology and business performance. And if that wasn’t enough before SAP, he led a team of research scientists at Cronos now UKG, which is a talent management technology company. Believe it or not, Steve has his PhD in organizational psychology from Ohio State University. In fact, Steve is also the author of several books on technology and the workplace, his new book, Talent Tectonics, is coming out later this year, and today we’re gonna be covering some of the topics he has discussed more in depth in his book. When it does come out, please check out our notes. We will include a link so you can order yourself a copy.

Ligia:

But before we get started on today’s hot topics around transforming learning into upskilling, we always start our podcast episodes with a fun question, just so that we can get to know our guests a little bit better. Jason and I are fascinated by the concept of non-linear career paths and we’re firm believers that people can and should try different things in their careers so that they can be hired for their potential. So with that in mind, Steve, tell us a little bit about your own career path. What would you say is potentially nontraditional about it so far?

Steve Hunt:

Well, I guess if I went way back, my father is a cognitive psychologist; actually wrote one of the very first books on artificial intelligence in the 1960s. And, um, my mom was a career guidance counselor. So I guess you put those two together, you get an industrial organizational psychologist, but it didn’t, I didn’t start out having any idea that the field that I’m in even existed when I was growing up, um, I was just sort of exposed to computers and psychology just because of my parents. Did I actually get an undergraduate degree in applied mathematics and cognitive psychology? They largely, cause I didn’t know what I wanted to do. The great thing about a math degree is that people think you’re smart. So they hire you to do other things and

Jason:

Amen.

Steve Hunt:

<laugh>, there’s some truth to that too, cuz thank God. Nobody asked me to actually use my math. But when I got out my first real job on my first job was working in the sailboats in Hawaii. Then my first quote, real corporate job was actually as a computer programmer. And what I learned pretty quickly was two things. One, I wasn’t a very good computer programmer cuz I wasn’t good at all the detail orientation that goes into that. But the other thing that I found that I was fascinated about was not so much the program, but why we need computer programs. And it’s more specifically what you’re trying to do to improve work. It was an applied, it was actually a government organization, but started trying to understand why do we need technology? What are we trying to do with it? And that led me back into psychology, which is sort of understanding why people do what they do at work.

Steve Hunt:

And then when I was in, got my PhD and came out, I was, had all this knowledge about why people do what they do at work and then sort of ran head along to the fact that nobody used it. <laugh> it’s like if you look at a lot of the HR technology, at least the strategic HR technology, this stuff for talent management learning, what it really does largely is it takes knowledge sort of out of like the journal of applied psychology and packages it up and puts it in the hands of managers and people so they can actually use it. But you know, and that’s kind of what my career has been about. I kind of sometimes use the analogy between HR technology and GPS technology. You know, what, what did GPS technology do for maps? You know, we’ve had maps for a long time, but we didn’t use ’em. We didn’t use cartography. And what it did is it basically took all this knowledge we had and it packaged up in a way so that people could get around the world more effectively by leveraging maps, as opposed to I’m gonna date myself here, the old paper maps we used to have to try to unfold and can never figure, I don’t

Ligia:

Know what you’re talking about. I wasn’t born at that time. <laugh>

Steve Hunt:

<laugh>

Ligia:

Never used them. Nope.

Steve Hunt:

And my career’s got a zillion different twists and turns since then, but that’s always been the core focus has been, how can we use what we know about people leverage the capability of technology to improve the experience of work.

 

Transforming Learning into Upskilling

Jason:

So Steve, we’re glad you’re here to help us crack the new talent code today. We’re gonna talk about how the new talent code dictates that we transform learning in the workplace and people are talking more about upskilling and actually making a clear distinction between the two, you know, what is learning and what does this mean for now as we’re talking about upskilling? So along those lines, can you kind of give us just a quick history lesson or evolution on kind of how we got from learning programs based around compliance to then the shift to employee experience, to now people focused on upskilling and preparing for the future?

Steve Hunt:

Yeah. Yeah. And, and actually in the, in the book talent tectonics, I talk a lot about this and I kind of, it starts with understanding the fundamental nature way that work has changed. And largely because there’s two big shifts that are driving this change. One is digitalization of everything and digitalization is accelerating the rate of change in organizations. And so increasingly we aren’t hiring people for what they know we’re hiring the folks they’re able to learn and adapt to no matter kind of what job that you’re in now, it’s going to change over the next two or three years. The business is going to change in either a small way or maybe in a massive way. So suddenly companies are very much having to hire people and say, how can we manage people to deal with this accelerating rate of change? So that’s really forcing more focus on learning and thinking about learning.

 

Talent Management in the Labor Market

Steve Hunt:

The other thing also is demographic shifts. That’s the other big talent tectonic shift is demographics, which is, I mean for the first time in history, in a lot of labor markets, more people are aging out of the labor market than entering it. If the economy continues to grow. So what this means is traditional, oh, we can go find qualified. People isn’t necessarily true anymore. Now companies are like really saying, we have to focus more on hiring for potential as opposed to qualifications. So that’s also putting a huge focus on learning so that I think I like to start with, why is this important? Why is it happening? We need to manage for adaptability and we need to get much better at building our own talent. So to your point about how is this driving change in the technology? This is a really interesting thing. You know, my job involves working with literally thousands of companies talking about how can we use technology to address these sorts of challenges.

Steve Hunt:

And the one thing that isn’t changing about work is people, the fundamental psychology of people is not changing there’s differences in attitudes and communication systems, but the fundamental psychology of people, we just don’t evolve that fast. The fundamental way technology is changing is it’s really, if you wanna know where technology is going, understand the psychology of people and we increasingly build technology so people can tap into their natural capabilities of people. So much of work historically has forced us to act in unnatural ways. Like think about the, the training course. There’s nothing natural about sitting in a classroom with a hundred people taking a training course, you know, back in caveman days, if somebody wanted to build a fire, they didn’t go, oh, there’s gonna be a training seminar on how to build a fire. And one of the big myths about people is that people aren’t good at, you know, aren’t good at change. That’s completely wrong. That is like the competitive niche of humans as a species is our ability to adapt to changing environments. We are really good at it. Sadly other animals aren’t, which is why there’s more of us every year and fewer other animals, but it’s called learning. You know, it’s one of the things we’re born with knowing how to do,

Ligia:

Is it fair to say too, Steve, that everybody or each person learns differently in different ways?

Steve Hunt:

Yes and no, we’re all unique, but we’re unique on common dimensions. The way I kind of talk about people, personality, style, attributes. It’s like the paintings in a museum, every painting’s different, but they’ve all got the same basic colors. Some may have more red, some may have more blue and they mix ’em together differently. And so the more you understand the different ways people might wanna learn, the more you can build technology that sort of taps into that.

Jason:

But Steve, as we, as we talk about kind of learning and transitioning to the, the label of upskilling, how do you see technology in some of the recent enhancements and capabilities, helping to inform people on what to learn? I know you talked about kind of why and, and the method, how about aligning better? What to learn?

Steve Hunt:

That’s a really good point. I think when we look at learning and in the, in my book, Talent Tectonics, I talk about this as a whole chapter on developing capabilities. But I think it starts with looking at the context, which is to make sure you’re designing jobs in a way that encourages learning, if not outright requires it. That’s the first starting point. I think there’s an old saying you often hear an employee development development is the employee’s responsibility. It’s like, yeah, but it’s the responsibility of the company to create an environment where they can develop. At least if you want an agile adaptable workforce and recognizing that there’s a big, difference psychologically between working to be productive and working to learn. That we are most productive when we’re doing stuff we already know how to do. It’s just repetitive, mindless work. It’s not fun, but it’s when you’re really productive and you’re doing the same thing over and over and over again.

Steve Hunt:

The good news is that we’re automating those repetitive tasks. And so we’re asking people to do this stuff that isn’t repetitive, but that’s what requires learning, learning psychologically. You need one to be exposed to a reason why you need to do it, which is why it’s important to do things like hire people into jobs because they haven’t done it before, but you believe they could give people job assignments to say, Hey, this is a really important goal. I’m not gonna give it to the person who’s already done this five times. I’m gonna give it to the person they think could do it. So that’s the first part, design jobs, assign goals, things like that in a way that supports learning and also part of this too, and is make sure managers are rewarded for developing people too. That’s like a really big issue and sort of context of learning.

 

Talent Management Technology and Upskilling

Steve Hunt:

So it’s funny you talk about learning technology. I’d say learning technology actually starts with talent management technology, which is, are people giving goals? Are they rewarded for learning, including managers? How many of your managers were promoted to management? Because they were good at coaching people, usually companies laugh, none of them. Okay. Well, you know, so make sure your managers know how to coach and develop. But the other thing is how do you reward managers for developing people and another, I hear the time and time again, we don’t, no matter of fact, we often punish them by not backfilling the position when people are promoted out of their teams.

Ligia:

So some of these things that you have to have in your culture. So how do you reward managers for coaching and hiring for potential? Is it a bonus or is it more people like practically?

Steve Hunt:

I think, think it’s probably the most important is, is recognition applauding their own career advances; they’re supported. I do think that if a manager, you know, has an open headcount because they promoted somebody from within, I personally think they should go to the top of the queue for backfilling that position. Oh yeah, yeah. You, I see your point, but they don’t. And so I think it’s really just recognizing that. And, and if you can’t, for some reason, backfill, at least recognize them some other way. So really encourage that because the main reason that managers quote, hoard talent, they blame it on these managers like being selfish and it’s like, no, they’re being intelligent. So the most important thing, the most important technology to create a learning organization in my view is the technology used to design jobs and manage talent. Then we get into the actual process of learning itself.

Steve Hunt:

And there you touched on something that I think is often overlooked. The very first thing is, do people know what it is they should be learning. And this is where you can use different technologies that make people aware of certain skills they could acquire. There’s a concept in psychology that I really wish was more widely known, which is some concept called possible self that we all carry around with us visions of what we might become. They’re not necessarily super well identified, but all of us you can think of yourself. Like there’s a wow kind of, where do I wanna be in three years? You know? And if you talk to a child for example, and say, you know, when do you wanna be? You grow up and they say, I wanna be an astronaut. That means that’s a possible self. They could somehow imagine being it possible selves.

Steve Hunt:

Um, when we’re young, they’re heavily influenced by demographic similarity. Do you wanna see people that look like you? My wife is a doctor, family practice doctor shared that story with me when she said, I can tell you when I first realized I wanted to be a doctor. And it was when I was about eight years old and I met she’s Puerto Rican. I met a Hispanic woman doctor. I’d never seen one before. And she said, they said, I want to be like her. And my wife said that kind of was a triggering event in her life. So I think that’s why role modeling is so important, this exposure to sort of skills that seem interesting to you. So finding ways to make people aware of things that they could learn that appeal to them. And there’s a lot of stuff called opportunity marketplaces and things like that, that you’re seeing in technology where people can kind of explore, like what are the things I might learn and how are they relate to it? And I think also incorporating for more inquisitive employees, you know, self-reflection techniques I think are really useful. Gamification is an interesting way to get people kind of, to play around with different ideas and explore different things they might become and sort of get into that. And then you can also course get into more formal career development plans and discussions and all the sort of traditional stuff I was

Jason:

Gonna say, as you think about kind of the capabilities of technology, you know, one of the references you gave when we were starting, the discussion was like what a GPS meant to maps. So as we think about kind of what this does for the organization, but more importantly for employees, how do you see that kind of playing out in not only helping people identify aspirations, but also potentially managing or setting or driving expectations?

 

Why Upskilling Is Important

Steve Hunt:

Yeah. Eightfold is really leading the role on the whole concept of skills and how do we get skills. So people understand, you know, what are the tangible things that if I knew how to do them, they’d create more opportunity for me. And on the company side, what are the tangible things we need people to learn so that it will allow us to build our business and grow the way we want skills are great. At GPS example, skills are not a new thing. We’ve had skills, taxonomies and, you know, definitions enough for years, but nobody ever used them because they were sort of locked up in Excel spreadsheets intended to be very hard to use and very awkward. And if you look at what artificial intelligence machine learning tools are doing to the field of skills and skills ontologies is they’re kind of like what GPS did for maps.

Steve Hunt:

It’s taking this knowledge. It’s allowing us to more quickly update these things on the fly organically, kinda like how Waze updates traffic patterns on the fly organically. So it allows employees to get much better insight into possible career paths and sort of more real time, as things are changing so fast. And it also allows companies to get a better insight into, “wow, if you had this skill, then you could move into that skill.” And that idea of skills as a, a way to open doors, into learning new skills. There’s a tendency in our society to associate that with people that are earlier in their career, even though the average tenure in professional jobs now in the us is like five or six years. Doesn’t really matter if that’s 50 to 55 or 25 to 35 years, we want of learning and development is five years of learning and development. Not based so much on your age, this is based on your career stage and your life stage things that you were like excited about doing when you’re just starting your career are not necessarily what you wanna do when you’ve been working for 25 years.

Ligia:

So for those HR leaders and hiring managers out there, I mean, you know, sometimes there’s some of these concepts it’s really great, but they’re like, well, gosh, I don’t know how to start. How, how do I create a culture of continuous learning and upskilling in my company? Where do I start? Who do I talk to? What things need to be in place. And then the counter question to that, I’m a candidate, I’m an employee. What do I look for in a company to make sure what’s the criteria to make sure cuz I love to learn. I wanna make sure that I join a company that provides me opportunities to continue to learn and opens up a plethora of other opportunities.

Steve Hunt:

That’s a good question. Part of it depends on what kind of thing you wanna learn, cuz there’s a big difference between knowing something and actually knowing how to apply it. The way we built capabilities is through job assignments, is through using our knowledge. And so the other thing that you would want to look at is how does the company assign goals to people, ask questions about how people got to where they are in the company and really good learning development. Going back to your non-linear careers, you’ll talk to people that will say, well, I was in this role, but the great thing about this company is once you get in, you can go all kinds of different places. They’re very supportive of you trying new things and doing new things. So, so talk to people about that. The other thing that I would not expect a candidate to ask, but I think it would be good to try to know, is to say, is going back to our talent management conversation, how does the company make decisions that affect my career in very tangible ways around pay and promotion.

Steve Hunt:

This is particularly important if like in demographic groups where you feel that you may experience bias, that I remember seeing somebody who was a woman focused on gender equity. And she said, we have a much better world if every female engineer coming outta college asked, convince me, you’re gonna make decisions based on my capabilities of potential and not based off of other traditional biases. You know? So if you can get some insight into how the company actually evaluates talent, I think it’s useful. It’s a very sensitive topic though. So I think it’s, you gotta, I wouldn’t necessarily put that on candidates, but I would challenge companies to use your talent management as a differentiator, let people know that, Hey, if you have potential, you have capability. We’re gonna let you, we are gonna look for you. We’re gonna find you. And we have these tools and methods to find you and we’re gonna promote you or we’re gonna move you into new roles.

Ligia:

I once worked for a company that had a percentage of each person’s salary allocated to learning and development. And so it was highly encouraged.

Steve Hunt:

Mm-hmm <affirmative> yeah, that’s a good example. The problem you run into in companies, they do that is they can allocate the time and budget, but do they, they allocate the budget, but do they actually allocate the time? That’s the, the challenge? I think the best is the best is just to talk to people in the organization about what’s the culture like, and if you can’t quickly find a few people that came in and they’ve advanced their careers and they’ve moved to higher levels, it’s probably not a good company and you can almost feel it mm-hmm <affirmative> this goes into so many different areas though. Part of it does go. And also what you’re looking for a job because in highly developmental cultures, we’re expecting you to move to new things and learn all the time, which you also realize the flip side of that is often a lack of stability. You know, there’s kind of an expectation you’re gonna move and move and move, particularly in professional jobs.

Ligia:

So what’s your advice for, for HR people listening in, I mean, how do they, if they don’t already have it, where do they get started? How do they establish or build a culture of continuous learning?

 

Job Design and Talent Management

Steve Hunt:

Well, we talked about already, first of all, is it factored into how you design jobs? So you’re designing jobs at the idea that we’re gonna be hiring people, not based on just what they know, but based on what they could learn.

Jason:

So Steve, do you think we’re past the point of hiring people for jobs because they’ve already done that job.

Steve Hunt:

Uh, and I don’t think we’re past the point part of it. Is there a business when you need, sometimes you just need people to come in to get stuff done, but recognize that that’s a kind of a transactional hire and often that is being done through contractors now where it’s more sort of a short term. If you’re a company that wants to engage people and have people for long term, then you want to have a job where they feel a sense of development and challenge. This is a fundamental thing. It used to be people didn’t expect to get to learn a lot in their jobs cuz the economics were different 50 years ago. Right? But now learning is good for us. You know, change is good. It’s growth. It’s it’s healthy. So if you’re as an organization saying, we want to design jobs and develop people with the assumption that they’re gonna be doing something different in five years, it may be the same role.

Steve Hunt:

It doesn’t mean they’re not gonna be in the same job role, but thinking of talent as something that’s always changing. I remember one company and I’m not a big fan of the nine box where you look people on performance of potential, but it’s simple. Right? And they used, they did these nine box reviews where they’d look at people’s current performance and they’d also look at their future potential to do everything. And they, they did it all the way down to frontline, like, manufacturing positions where traditionally you wouldn’t think of doing. And the person said, the reason we did it is that we want managers to always thinking about what a person’s next role or job could be. Even if they’re not moving, we don’t want people thinking of employees as a fixed asset. We want to be constantly thinking of employees as something that is changing and growing over time. I, I often use the analogy that when, you know, we used to talk about building organizations, designing organizations, and people would use an analogy of we’re gonna design a building or a house and we’re gonna figure out the rooms and put that out. And that is a different way to think about job design management. And you’ll see that in cultures of organizations, does it feel like a place where everyone’s always talking about not just what are you doing, but what could you be doing?

Ligia:

I love it. I love the concept of garden and nurturing talent. I think you’re dead on. So Steve, those familiar with our podcasts know, we always ask our guests a fascinating question. I’m so curious to know if someone had believed in your potential earlier on in your career, what else would you have done? How different would your career be? What kind of expert would you be today?

Steve Hunt:

This is gonna sound really funny, but when I was a little kid, like in elementary school, I loved to sing and I sang all the time, but of course my brothers and other and his friends, they all would teased me about it. Right. And so when I went into seventh grade in junior high and you could sign up for music class and you could do choir, or you could take like this music theory class and I didn’t do choir, cuz everyone said you can’t sing. And Aw. Yeah. It’s kind of sad. Right. And then years later when I was a senior in high school, I was like, I wonder, can I not really sing? I like singing.

Ligia:

You auditioned for America’s Got Talent. You got no,

Steve Hunt:

There was no America’s got talent back then. But it was like, it was so sad, such a sad story. Cause I went into like my high school choir teacher and I said, I’m just curious if I can sing. And he had sat me down with a piano and he said, yeah. And he goes, where were you in seventh grade. I die for kids like you that wanna be there and don’t have to be there. So I kind, kind of think that, gee boy, if I take choir, who knows what direction my life would’ve gone might have had a completely different career track.

Ligia:

Yeah. We’d have a singer, a chef and a cartoonist

Steve Hunt:

<laugh> yeah.

Jason:

You have a great voice for a podcast.

Steve Hunt:

Yes you do. Thank you. But I’m not. We’re

Ligia:

Gonna have to have you back.

Steve Hunt:

The singing voice is not quite is, is unrefined. Let’s put it that way. <laugh>

Jason:

So Steve, I think that’s our time for today. This has been a great discussion. We were able to see a preview of your book, talent tectonics. And in that book you cover a lot of ground and touch on a lot of topics. How can people follow you and learn more about your new book and kind of keep up with talent tectonics.

Steve Hunt:

Thank you. Talent tectonics comes out September. You can learn about it. There’s a website talent tectonics.com. And you can find me on LinkedIn, Steven T. Hunt on LinkedIn. And I’m pretty, pretty active out there, but I’ve really enjoyed the conversation. So thank you for the chance to share some of the things that I’ve been thinking about.

Ligia:

We’ve enjoyed it too. All right. And that’s a wrap. We will see you soon on another episode of the new talent code. Thanks for listening to the new talent code. This is a podcast produced by eightfold AI. If you’d like to learn more about us, please visit us at eightfold.ai and you can find us on all your favorite social media sites. We’d love to connect and continue the conversation.

 

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