Workday Podcast: The Importance of the Employee Experience at GE

Paul Davies, employee experience leader, GE, talks with host Greg Pryor, senior vice president, people and performance evangelist, Workday, about what the employee experience really means to GE and the impact of digitalization in human resources. Take a listen here:

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If you’re more of a reader, below you’ll find the transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity. You can find our other Workday Podcasts here.

Greg Pryor: Hi, and welcome to the Workday podcast. My name is Greg Pryor, and I have the privilege and pleasure to look after talent for Workday as our senior vice president, people and performance evangelist. Today, I have the incredible pleasure to talk with my friend, Paul Davies, who is the employee-experience leader for General Electric. And specifically, we’ll be talking about what employee experience really means to GE and the impact of digitalization.

But before we get started and dive in with the session, Paul, can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to this position today?

Paul Davies: Sure, Greg. And great to be with you and your listeners today. So I’ve been in the HR space for almost 18 years. I started my career, here at GE, on what we call our leadership programs and really have had the privilege to spend a bunch of time in different parts of the world working for GE in specialist roles, in business-partner roles, and now here in Boston, which is our relatively new headquarters.

Uh, Greg, you know that this isn’t a Boston accent. This is an Australian accent. So I bring a little bit of Australia to Boston each and every day.

Pryor: No, I appreciate that. And I’m sure it’s appropriately confusing all of your workmates there in Boston. So maybe we’ll get started with a little bit of context for our audience. While clearly most everyone is familiar with GE, an absolute iconic brand, it’s a complex and large business with almost 130 years of history.

Could you take a minute and tell us a little bit about the current state of GE and where the business is today?

Davies: Sure. So we have evolved over the years; no secret that we’ve been around so long, Greg, and been able to evolve our business model over the years. And if I reflect on when I first joined the company, we had 13 major businesses that we were all expected to memorize. Today, we are a much simpler footprint.

We play in three key industries, and that’s our power business, our renewable-energy business, and our aviation business. So we’ve evolved over time, Greg. And some of those brands that many of your listeners will be familiar with are no longer part of the portfolio, while at the same time, we’ve grown and merged into new and emerging technologies.

“It’s really important that we provide our people with tools and technologies that work for them and ultimately work for our customers.”—Paul Davies, employee experience leader, GE

Pryor: Oh, fantastic. So an awful lot of transformation and transition happening at GE, which is probably why it’s even more important—the role you have and the work that you’re doing.

You are in a role that’s one of my new favorite titles: looking after employee experience at GE. Can you tell me, really, what you’re focused on today? This is a title that we just really started to hear about recently and, at least from my experience, is quickly becoming one of the most important areas in the human capital space. Can you tell me a little bit about your role and what you’re focused on?

Davies: Yeah. And Greg, I love that you said you like my title. The feeling is mutual. I love your title, as well.

Um, but the term “employee experience” is certainly new from an industry perspective. It’s the first role that we’ve had with that title here at GE. And when I accepted the role a couple of years ago, I was really given a blank sheet of paper. And so me and a very small team headed out and tried to understand what experience meant to different companies, and we spent time in your part of the world with places like Airbnb and some other start-up companies.

We spent time in maker spaces and not-for-profit organizations, and we also spent time with some other large multinational companies. And if I boil it down, employee experience to me really is about three things. It’s the digital experience that you provide for people—so the tools and technology that enables your people to be productive in whatever it is that they do. It’s the culture. So do you put your employees at the center of everything that you do?

And I love Richard Branson’s quote that says: “If you put your employees first, they, in turn, will treat the customers well, which will ultimately deliver great business results.” And then last but certainly not least, we’ve learned that the physical work environment—so the spaces that you create for teams to collaborate, to innovate—are really important and increasingly so as teams operate at increasing levels of speed and that need for innovation is just getting quicker and quicker.

So I think about it as the digital, physical, and cultural aspects of work that all come together to help optimize the output of employees.

Pryor: Oh, that’s amazing. And from my perspective, you’re really doing some really pioneering work here. This is a very fundamentally different way to think about how you support and how you enable people. So if we could, I’d love to talk about those three areas. You’ve said that GE is revisiting what it means to work at the company.

I know GE’s iconic Culture Summit in Crotonville is an opportunity for you to lead others and discuss what culture really means. Could you tell us a little bit about the Culture Summit and how GE and you are revisiting what it means to work for the company?

Davies: Sure. So maybe let me explain and share for your listeners, Greg. And you were a visitor at Crotonville a couple of months ago. Crotonville really is the oldest corporate university in America. It was established back in the 1950s, and it was really about bringing people from across the company together to teach and learn new practices, new ways of managing, as we probably called it back then. Today we talk much more about leadership. But Crotonville is far more than just a physical location in Upstate New York. It really is a place where we bring people to try and instill a different way of working, a different way of leading, and a different way of thinking.

And so this is just our natural evolution as we simplify the business and the footprint that we have globally. As we shift gears into what is the “New GE,” Crotonville is a critical part of how we do that.

Pryor: Yeah, fantastic. And thank you—thank you, by the way—for hosting me. You were kind enough to give me an extended tour of Crotonville. It was a professional bucket-list item for me: Iconic leadership space, the great work that Jack Welch and other CEOs have done there. And fantastic that you’re returning back to the catalyst there.

You talked a little bit about the physical aspects of the workplace. Can you tell me more about how you see that impacting the employee experience?

Davies: Sure. And Greg, I would reflect on my own journey as an HR professional, and I have to admit that the physical aspects of work have never been in my professional toolkit.

So I haven’t spent as much time with people in places like facilities or property management than I have in the last couple of years. And we’re really focused on making sure that whatever work needs to be done at a physical location, we provide the facilities to enable that work to happen. And I actually reflect on the visit I had at Workday last year, Greg, and it happened to be around Halloween.

And just how your headquarters location was completely transformed, and you saw the energy of your employees come together in the creations that they had pulled together. And I think there’s something for us in our toolkits as HR professionals to say: How do we bring out the most of our people by creating environments that are inviting, that enable people to bring themselves—their authentic selves—to the workplace and really, most importantly, deliver and create what is needed for our customers so that we can continue to successfully service and meet their needs?

Pryor: No, couldn’t agree with you more. No, actually, I was quite nervous. As you recall, you were out the day before Halloween here. And just the day before, we had about 5,000 of our workmates’ families coming onto campus to celebrate Halloween. And I did get nervous as I saw all of that PVC piping that was passing by the window, and you looking and saying: “What could be going on inside that building?” And so I appreciate that you were kind enough to come take a tour and see a little bit of the experience that we create for our Workmates and, in this case, our Workmates’ families.

I couldn’t agree with you more. Especially family members, they want to come and experience the workplace. They want to see where their family members work and experience their Workmates. And so I know you do a really thoughtful job of that. And we try to do that, as well.

So maybe we’ll take the other side of the continuum. We’ve talked about physical work space. Maybe let’s talk about digitalization, which we’ve discussed is a huge topic that people are grappling with in terms of how to bring this concept to life in HR and other organizations. Let me ask you: How do you think about digitalization and how it impacts the employee experience at GE?

Davies: Yeah. I think that the tools and technology we provide people, Greg, can be a catalyst for enablement and empowerment or they can be the exact opposite. So it’s really important that we provide our people with tools and technologies that work for them and ultimately work for our customers.

And so for us, it was really about recognizing: What is the most valuable use of our people’s times? What is the best technology for them to be enabled to do what is important for them? And so we’ve had to step back, Greg, and really understand, one, that ecosystem and then, two, create a vision for where we want to head.

Obviously, as industry and as technology continues to evolve, there is more and more plays in the market and more and more applications that we can consider. But for us, it was about simplification. How do we get back to what is absolutely necessary and what is important to return value so that our tools delight our people, not frustrate? And so we’re working through that as we speak. We have a long-term plan to simplify that ecosystem which ultimately will reduce frustration, reduce complexity, and enable us to be much more agile as a company.

And Greg, this is where our relationship comes in. We spent the last 18 months or so looking at our technology architecture and ecosystem from an HR perspective.

And we worked out that we today have about 156 different applications that we expect our employees, our people leaders, and our business leaders to use to do all things HR, everything from hiring an individual, promoting an individual, and paying an employee. And we realized that that ecosystem was simply too complicated.

We spent more time and effort connecting our systems, making sure that data flows through the system accurately and in a timely manner than we did focusing on, really, the outcomes that we should be focused on from an HR perspective and the technology that we have. And so we’re thrilled to call Workday a partner of ours. We signed earlier this year, and we’re on our journey now to deploying Workday across our employees in about 180 countries around the world.

And so really for us, Greg, the compelling reason to make the decision in the selection of Workday was really the user experience that you provide. The ability for somebody to pick up your application, do transactions seamlessly, simply, and quickly on the go, was one of the compelling reasons for us to select Workday and really to transform the way that we think about delivering HR services at GE.

“We’re delving deep into what our data tells us about people.”—Paul Davies, employee experience leader, GE

Pryor: Fantastic. And as you think about the simplification—and you’re being so incredibly thoughtful about that—one of the things that, at least in my experience, digitalization starts to grow is the amount of data that becomes available. You and I, a couple of months ago in Crotonville, when we did our fireside chat, we geeked out a little bit on the increasing importance of data in the human capital world.

When you think about the importance of big data and digitalization, how do you make decisions in this world, where data is an increasing part of the landscape?

Davies: Yeah, great question. Thanks, Greg. We today have about 10 terabytes of data on our people. And for the non-technical person, I just know that’s a lot of data. And so I think increasingly, Greg, we need to do a better job of uncovering and unlocking the insights that this data has on our people.

And we need to obviously return value. I think the concept of big data can be scary for people. There’s a lot of mistrust out there. And so when I talk about big data, I’m always thinking about unlocking value. So if I’m an individual employee, what does the big data tell me about myself? What’s the best next fit for me, whether it’s skills development, the next role I take, the next company I work for? What does big data tell me that’s useful for me?

So if I’m a people leader, I want to know the insights that are important for me to lead my team. And then if I’m a business leader, I obviously want to know: What does that big data tell me about my organization? How do I get the most out of that group of people? Are there things that I can change, variables that I can tweak to get more out of people, to drive better morale, better customer satisfaction? Whatever is important for that particular business leader.

So unless we can answer that “value” question, Greg, I think big data is merely just a trend and a topic. And so we’re delving deep into what our data tells us about people.

Pryor: I couldn’t agree with you more. Can you give me some examples of some of the things that you’re applying that data to make better decisions, to enhance the value to your employees and the business that you talked about?

Davies: Sure. So let me talk to you a little bit about our succession-planning algorithm. So with our data and the richness of our data, we have a long history of how people have performed in the company where people have moved in subsequent roles. And so we’ve built an algorithm, Greg, that really helps us to identify successful candidates or succession plans for our key roles. And what I love about the algorithm is that it’s entirely objective. It takes out any emotion. It takes out any unconscious bias. The algorithm doesn’t look at, for example, which schools people attended what gender someone is, whether somebody is an introvert or an extrovert. It really is objective. And what I would say is that the algorithm doesn’t replace the need for us to be critical and add human insight into those succession plans, but what we found is that algorithm is pretty darned good.

And so that is one way in which we’re using big data to make better decisions for our people and for our organization. And the other example I’ll share with you is our attrition algorithm. So we have an algorithm that has learned over time those factors that lead to somebody’s likely exit from the company. And what I always tell people is, “It’s wonderful to have an algorithm that predicts when people will leave. The trick is for us to know who it is that’s at risk, and then do something for that person who changes their trajectory.” And so we’re still experimenting in this space. But really, this is about ensuring that wherever we can, we save our good people and make sure that GE is their place to work, not our competitors’ place.

Pryor: Yeah. And what I’ve always appreciated, Paul, about the work that you’re doing is the intentionality.

Not only, to your point, are you looking at value, but I think—I had a chance to spend some time with other amazing leaders such as yourself at MIT two summers ago to talk about the future of AI and what we were thinking about big data, and three things really came up. One is how we think about it, as you’ve described, in the application of these capabilities. The second is really around the responsibility that we have, as human capital professionals, to think about the changing nature of work.

And the third, which I know you’ve been so intentional about, is responsible AI, and how do we think about the use of these algorithms, the use of this data, and really be a leader in how we apply those with high integrity. So I just appreciate the intentionality, the forward-thinking/looking that you’re doing in applying this data. Lots of things for other people to learn about from you.

And you and I have shared a common interest in this notion of organization networks and the social-network science. How do you think about what it means to increasingly be an agile organization? And do you see technology playing a role in facilitating this for you and the team at GE?

Davies: Yeah, absolutely. And Greg, I talk a lot about this. I think that we have over-emphasized reporting lines or the box that somebody sits on within an org chart.

And if I’m honest, if I look at the people that I most closely work with and the people that I spend most of my time with, Greg, you simply wouldn’t see that relationship on an org chart. So I’m really interested in being able to understand what relationships are most important in the workplace and how we can recreate the environment that enables those relationships to come together. Because ultimately, that’s how work gets done, so from an HR perspective, I think we have to think well beyond where we are today and really lean in to concepts like the gig economy—right?

And so I think we have a place to play and a role to play in defining what the rules of that game are, because the traditional boxes on a chart are no longer relevant in today’s world.

Pryor: Absolutely. We know that social capital is increasingly important, given the collaborative intensity of work, and increasingly telling us and giving us insights about our own success and the organization’s success. Well, good. Well, that is actually, I think, really, all we have time for today.

I really appreciate you taking time out. You are such an incredibly thoughtful leader, so intentional about the work you’re doing. And I just appreciate that you are pioneering so many of the areas that myself, as a human capital professional, other business leaders need to be paying attention to. And I just—I can’t thank you enough for taking a couple of minutes out and sharing what you’re up to around digitalization and the employee experience with our audience today. I really appreciate it, my friend.

Davies: Terrific. Pleasure to be here. Thanks, Greg.

Pryor: Great. And thanks for joining us for the Workday podcast. Paul, we thank you and all of our audience for listening. Thanks so much, and have a great work day.