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Q&A with HR Tech Influencer: Heidi Spirgi

The connection between personalized learning and high-performing organizations can't be overstated, Cornerstone's chief marketing and strategy officer says.
By: | January 6, 2021 • 5 min read

The role of HR leaders has never been more important, as organizations struggle to keep up with near-daily changes to the world of work ushered in by the coronavirus pandemic and other global challenges. With such a tall order for HR leaders, it’s beneficial to look to industry experts for their experience and guidance. Last year, HRE and the HR Tech Conference unveiled the second edition of the Top 100 HR Tech Influencers, comprised of HR, business and technology leaders whose insights are needed now more than ever.

Influencer Heidi Spirgi, chief strategy and marketing officer, Cornerstone, says learning and development will be vital for organizations this year as reskilling and upskilling becomes the biggest piece of talent ROI. Just as important, empathy and all that encompasses will be “mission-ciritcal” for leaders in 2021. Spirgi recently spoke with HRE about these and other trends on the horizon.

HRE: What will work look like in 2021 and what is that based on?

Heidi Spirgi

Spirgi: 2020 was the year of reacting. As a global community, it was difficult to prepare for such a dramatic shock to our lives at work and at home. We learned that we can never predict the future, but it is an organizational obligation to prepare for it. 2021 will be the year of building systemic adaptability into our organizations and people—training our people to be resilient and comfortable with ambiguity and transforming our organizations to be able to pivot when needed. 2021 is the year for widespread investment in our collective adaptability quotient (AQ), which will have an impact on how millions of individuals progress through their careers as well as how organizations digitally and culturally transform.

Related: How to survive and thrive despite disruption

In 2020, the roles of employees at every level, and in every organization, changed in some way or another. Whether the crisis has forced people to pursue entirely new career paths or simply re-explore the path they’re on in a new way, people are feeling the pressure to take stock of their skills and figure out what new skills they may need to be invaluable to the rapidly changing world. The events of 2020 have sparked a greater sense of autonomy and personal accountability for one’s ongoing development and upskilling. We’ve seen more workers take online learning and development courses this year to up-level the value they bring to their organization, according to customer insights from the Cornerstone People Research Lab. People and businesses are looking for new ways to adapt in highly volatile markets, and skills will become the currency, which will drive that change.

In the new year, we can anticipate increased rejection of one-size-fits-all work models. In other recent Cornerstone People Research Lab research, we found a correlation between high-performing organizations and personalized learning. The research shows that 80% of high-performing organizations customize learning to a specific role and 65% customize learning at the individual level. This demand for personalization will extend across the entire employee experience into onboarding, coaching, learning, connections and more, and it will be enabled by technology. People have come to expect personalization from their consumer apps and have little patience for work and technology models that aren’t tailored to their specific needs and interests.

Finally, in 2021, we will see empathy continue to take center-stage as the world heals from the events of 2020. Leaders will play a crucial role in maintaining business excellence while finding new ways to build empathy and humanity into the fabric of their culture. Some people will return from furlough, others will head back to the office and meet with their co-workers after many months of working from home. Some may have been affected by the virus, personally or through a family member. There’s so much human complexity that leaders need to keep in mind as they head into 2021 and consider how they work with their people. Authenticity, vulnerability, employee experience, purpose, wellness, mental health, resilience are far more than buzzwords—they are mission-critical to leadership and organizational health. They will separate the organizations that thrive in 2021 and cultivate employee loyalty from those that struggle to adapt and retain top talent. These organizational traits will be woven into the fabric of the future of work. This is a massive opportunity to create positive change in the world by reimagining the role that empathy plays in the workplace.

HRE: What HR technologies and applications should vendors be working on right now? Why?

Spirgi: Globally, reskilling is seen as the top talent activity most capable of delivering ROI in the eyes of executives. This makes sense given that 99% of all companies are both embarking on a transformation this year and reporting significant skill gaps. And when asked what helps them thrive, employees’ number one response is recognition for their contributions, alongside opportunities to learn new skills and technologies.

For those focused on accelerating adaptability and upskilling in 2021 and beyond, there needs to be an increased focus on extending learning beyond compliance requirements and into a holistic approach to address many aspects of work life. As roles and workplace norms continue to evolve, it’s critical that organizations help employees keep up by making learning continuous, organic and always-on, embedded into work processes and systems themselves.

HRE: How can HR leaders—and HR tech buyers—continue to focus on and invest in areas like D&I with business priorities so suddenly shifted?

Spirgi: Well-intentioned companies fall prey to two common mistakes when it comes to making progress on their DE&I initiatives. First, they tend to lose focus over time, with leadership making commitments and public statements about their intentions and then failing to execute over time. Second, they make DE&I an HR initiative versus an organization-wide leader-led initiative. By making DE&I a core responsibility of leadership versus an HR responsibility, DE&I becomes a part of the fabric of an organization, part of how it operates rather than a series of programs managed by HR.

As business priorities shift, often so does the company vision. In order to have people emotionally connect to the vision, it’s important for HR leaders and then other business leaders to create a sense of safety among employees, especially during times of change and uncertainty. If employees don’t feel safe—and included—they will be resistant to change. And change is an executive’s number one responsibility. While change is the only constant in life and should be embraced, it’s true that many take some time to get to that point. Consciously marching toward change requires a certain amount of radical thinking in an organization, and we need our people to believe that they can take risks, strategically experiment and possibly fail without fearing penalty.

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