How McKinsey’s top HR leader looks to AI to ease the Great Resignation

Although the Great Resignation has been a crisis for organizations for the past 18 months, it has also presented opportunities for HR leaders to rethink how they can improve operations while attracting and retaining employees at the same time. As chief people officer for global consulting firm McKinsey, Katy George believes that training workers for the digitized and automated future will deliver better and safer jobs with more avenues for career growth.

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HRE spoke with George about technology’s role in the Great Resignation, why AI is a must for career development and what killer HR tech app her team needs.

HRE: Whether people call the Great Resignation by another name—the Great Reorganization or the Great Regret—the reality is that workers are either leaving or saying they want to leave their jobs. Can technology mitigate this or examine why this phenomenon is happening?

George: I think the answer is [yes to] both. In some places, the Great Resignation is actually helpful in accelerating the use of digital and automation technologies to create greater productivity as a way of making up for some of the [staffing] shortfall. 

Related: Oracle’s new platform latest sign of growth in employee listening

Katy George, McKinsey
Katy George is chief people officer for McKinsey.

I have an interesting vantage point in that I lead the people efforts at McKinsey, which is a highly educated, skilled knowledge-worker environment, but my client work has always been in frontline operations such as manufacturing and the supply chain. I see the full spectrum and it’s amazing how there are themes that are common across workforces. 

If you’re looking at frontline manufacturing, is [the Great Resignation] accelerating some of the automation? Yes. But we see that the companies that are most successful are taking quite a worker-centric approach to introduce new technologies in a way that is not a trade-off between job satisfaction, job growth, career growth, skill development and automation.

Related: To learn more about AI, talent mobility, people analytics and employee listening, join HRE for the 2022 HR Technology Conference from Sept. 13-16 in Las Vegas. Register here.

HRE: Do you believe that upskilling can work with automation?

George: We see organizations using technology to upskill workers more quickly and allow them to be more flexible in doing more things. They bring global expertise to situations and address what I think is the fundamental need of the workforce: People are leaving because they don’t feel they have jobs that allow them to grow and give them a real career path with real development over time. They’re leaving because they don’t see a connection to something that’s meaningful and purposeful to them.

Technology is allowing firms to automate some of the dull and dangerous parts of the job and upskill workers to do more interesting work that uses technology. This not only creates more productivity with a smaller workforce; it’s creating better jobs and career paths for people to encourage them to stay or to rejoin the workforce.

HRE: Not to be crass, but if work will be done by robots and algorithms, will we need people to oversee the quality and operations like a technical supervisor?

George: Yes, and it’s a better and more interesting job with more career potential. We’re also seeing that this automation comes with huge amounts of data science. We actually have whole new job categories at the frontline in manufacturing.

Related: How Colgate, NCI and Panasonic found insights hidden in their HR data

I visited Foxconn’s site in China [where high-tech goods are made] before the pandemic and it was interesting. They have huge academies for their workforce to upskill at every level. They say, “We want every operator to be a technician. We want every technician to become an engineer. We want every engineer to become a scientist.”

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When we interview people who’ve left the workforce during the pandemic, compensation is number seven on their list of reasons why they’ve left and what matters to them. What would attract them back is work that has meaning, development and career potential.

HRE: Skills appear to be more important than experience and previous job titles. What does focusing on skills look like in the work for the future?

George: This is an area that’s just going to explode and it already is. You see many companies adopting this, like IBM saying, “We don’t care about degrees. We care about skills.” We’re doing the same at McKinsey.

Related: Requiring college degrees: Sign of a ‘lazy employer’?

HRE: McKinsey is offering an upskilling program for AI education for all McKinsey employees. Tell me about that.

George: Yes. We have world-class learning programs on different topics and AI is one that we want more and more of our colleagues to be broadly versed in. 

One of the things that we are continuing to do is upgrade and modernize our learning programs and one of the directions we’re going in is skill credentialing. If somebody has invested to build a skill, [we ask] how do we make sure that that’s captured and then is part of both the employee evaluation and promotion process as well as our staffing process.

HRE: Back to the Great Resignation, what are you hearing as a chief people officer? Is the exodus over? 

George: I do think it was a spike and we’re seeing numbers come down. One of the questions I always ask is, are we going back to normal? Can we relax and just go back to the old way? I think the answer is no.

I think this is a permanent shift and COVID accelerated what already was happening. I also think there is a technology-driven shift in the way people work. It is important to continue to modernize our approaches to talent and to the structure of work and the flexibility that we offer and the connection to purpose and meaning.

HRE: Are you using AI to analyze your employees and why they might be leaving? What insights have you gained?

George: The answer is absolutely yes. Of course, we want to do it in a way that avoids some Big Brother kind of thing, but we’ve long had a yearly engagement survey, which now leverages all of McKinsey’s best practices, our organizational health index, etc. This has always provided a lot of insight, but it’s just one snapshot. We now have weekly pulse surveys to ask, how are you doing? Sometimes we ask specific questions about how do you feel about the apprenticeship you’re getting or what’s your perspective on topic X? We get much more regular insights now.

HRE: Katy, do you have a technology wish list? What killer HR app are you looking for? 

George: It’s funny. The call I had literally right before was with our head of IT and we’re talking about this. There are certainly lots of things we continue to work on in our recruiting systems. The next step is a connected workflow that supports how we work. How does somebody identify what skills they’re working on and are important for their development to the next level? How does that connect to the feedback and apprenticeship and the evaluation? 

I think we’re getting very close and it’ll be exciting. 

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Phil Albinus
Phil Albinus is the former HR Tech Editor for HRE. He has been covering personal and business technology for 25 years and has served as editor and executive editor for a number of financial services, trading technology and employee benefits titles. He is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz and lives in the Hudson Valley with his audiologist wife and three adult children.