How one company used AI to transform talent

There are often concerns that artificial intelligence will replace people’s jobs, but in the case of forward-thinking multinational Schneider Electric, the opposite is true

Until early this year, Schneider Electric was living with an uncomfortable truth. Some 47 per cent of employees who left the global energy management and automation business said they were leaving because they couldn’t see any future career opportunities. It was clear that, in this company of 140,000 people, the traditional means of internal talent recruitment and career progression were not working.

To solve the problem, Schneider launched its Open Talent Market, an innovative application of AI in HR that is helping to place the company’s considerable internal expertise where it is most needed.

The platform currently performs three functions: matching employees to vacant roles, helping them find a mentor and connecting them to side projects. Crucially, it puts employees in control of their own careers. People are free to share whatever personal information they feel is relevant, such as skills and goals, which is then matched by the system’s algorithms to the company’s requirements.

“Previously, we would humanly try to make matches, but we weren’t able to bring the supply and demand together,” says Jean Pelletier, vice president of digital talent transformation at Schneider, who played a leading role in launching the project. “We’d been asking to do this for years, as we outgrew our ability to operate without it. The spirit was there, but the technology was missing, and that’s where AI is the game-changer.”

Despite this use of AI in HR only being rolled out globally in April, Schneider is already seeing the business benefits. Although it’s too early to say exactly how the system has affected the employee attrition rate, the early signs are encouraging. Some 38,000 of the company’s 75,000 white-collar workers have already enrolled and there’s a plan to make it available to blue-collar employees via on-site kiosks. Meanwhile, an immediately visible upside is that managers looking for suitable internal candidates for vacant roles have been able to reduce the time taken for sourcing “from months or weeks to seconds”, says Pelletier.

Enhancing employee experience

Helping people find suitable side projects is also transforming employee experience at Schneider, whose workforce are encouraged to spend 10 to 15 per cent of their time on areas that fall outside their usual role. “We’re measuring that as ‘unlocked hours’,” says Pelletier. “Those hours are not only the employee making discretionary effort for development, it’s us actually sourcing internally for the skills we don’t have resident on our teams.”

But the overarching business benefit of using AI in HR in this way is the visible increase in dynamism the talent market is fostering. “We have created an internal gig economy within Schneider that is delivering exactly the agility we need,” she says.

What’s more, applying technology-driven solutions like this is particularly crucial in organisations that are undergoing a digital transformation, says Josh Bersin, a leading HR industry analyst who specialises in HR technology.

“The more ‘digital’ your company becomes the more project-based it needs to be,” he argues. “So we need tools and systems to facilitate this new world of work and I’m excited to see them here at last. Creating a talent network in your company will greatly improve your retention. And when your people feel safe to try new things, contribute to other projects and share their expertise, they can innovate and solve problems faster than ever.”

Don’t underestimate the people part of it and the fact you have to rethink how managers and employees are equipped to deal with this

A further benefit of this use of AI in HR is the way it helps to enhance the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, says Pelletier. “We can’t help but be human and have unconscious bias. But AI looks at hard facts, it looks at skills, it’s making things agnostic,” she says.

However, she is also aware of the possibility of in-built prejudices lurking within the system’s algorithms. “We’re super vigilant towards that,” she says, but is confident when the technology is combined with human skills, the result is far superior to where Schneider was before. “It’s brought science to where we used to only have art and now we’ve found a good balance between the two.”

Rewriting human resources

Of course, rapidly implementing and scaling a system like this in a 184-year-old global enterprise is always likely to throw up challenges. “This is by far the most disruptive technology we have brought into Schneider. It’s a complete rewrite of HR,” says Pelletier.

She explains the company failed to predict the effect that rapidly rolling out the platform would have on some of its people, particularly those in middle-management roles. Frequently, they have felt their staff are more open to being “poached” internally, while being unable to see the broader business benefits of a more dynamic workforce.

“What I don’t think we did incredibly well was the change management around mindsets,” says Pelletier. “Do not underestimate the people part of it and the fact you have to be open to shifting and rethinking, not only your HR department, but how managers and employees are equipped to deal with this.”

However, once these human elements are addressed Schneider’s team leaders are usually able to see the bigger picture. “Most progressive managers get it,” she says.

As for the future, Pelletier’s boss, chief human resources officer Charise Le, is clear about how Schneider needs to double down on the outcomes the Open Talent Market is delivering. “When it comes to talent, we need to achieve empowerment for all,” she says. “Expectations of employees may change, but the need to make your own career choices will not.”

Pelletier is excited about the possibilities of using AI in HR to unlock further value, particularly when it comes to operating at pace. “Speed is the key to winning in the market, whether it’s with talent or with our business,” she says. “AI has brought speed to us that we’ve never had before. And that’s why we continue to keep looking at it.”