Using artificial intelligence to empower employees to build a better career path
Global biopharmaceutical company Sanofi’s research and development arm is using big data and artificial intelligence to identify employee skills gaps and fill internal vacancies, as its global organisational development head Eraldine Pillon tells Siân Harrington
French multinational biopharmaceutical company Sanofi SA employs more than 100,000 people in 100 countries and has revenues of more than €36 billion. Its focus is to prevent human illness with vaccines and provide innovative treatments to fight pain and ease suffering. Research and development (R&D) is therefore at the core of the business and in 2019 the company invested more than €6 billion in R&D, with some 91 projects in development. It runs four R&D hubs across Europe, North America and Asia.
Sanofi R&D employs scientists, physicians, technicians, product and manufacturing engineers and other innovators. Like so many companies worldwide, it faces that all pervasive skills gap. So much so that Eraldine Pillon, global organisational development head at Sanofi R&D, says it had one open position that did not receive any applications, despite the company knowing it employed people with the right capabilities to fill that position.
“We needed to better leverage our internal competencies,” she explains. “We realised that we needed more focus on competencies than on experience. We needed to change the way we recruited people internally or externally and find a way to help recruiters screen better.”
So she began the process of looking for a solution that could enable R&D to better analyse existing employee skills and build a skills inventory. This would enable it to have clearer insight into existing capabilities and better match employees to specific roles and make more informed decisions on hiring and developing, as well as helping it to structure longer-term workforce planning.
In 2017 it began working with Clustree (which was acquired by people development solutions vendor Cornerstone OnDemand in 2020), which uses machine learning and algorithms to help organisations match their employees’ skills with specific job roles. Clustree’s skills solution consolidated more than one billion job skills across multiple languages into a library of 53,000 verified skills that describe any employee profile from any industry.
Between 2018-2020 HR personnel at Sanofi R&D were given access to this AI-based tool to help them identify potential profiles that would match open positions. It became clear that there were many employees working in R&D who had skills that fitted open roles. However, the employees did not always realise this. So, after two years of using the tool in HR and recruitment, Pillon decided it was time to empower employees themselves to take control of their career development and management to accelerate and facilitate internal mobility.
What Sanofi R&D did
In March 2020 Sanofi R&D gave access to the iMatch solution directly to all its employees, starting in France. Employees receive recommendations of open positions based on their profiles. These profiles are based on criteria such as job title, description and a consolidation of that particular employee’s unique and verified skills. Employees also gain greater visibility of the skills they need to develop to move to a new position, enabling them to prepare for their next step. In other words, they have control of mapping their future and improving their employability.
“We have a lot of people who are strong experts but they are not aware that they have developed skills that they can use in other kinds of positions,” says Pillon. “This is a way to show these experts that it is possible to do something else. ”To roll out the programme, Pillon set up a couple of focus groups containing a variety of employee types – users, managers and non-managers – to tell them about the tool, why the company was using it and how it was beneficial to employees. She then worked with some employee users to prepare a communication plan. “Users are the best promoter of the tool,” she says.
A launch with onsite events was planned for 17 March 2020 – and then, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a national lockdown in France was put in place to start that day.
“So we had to change our mind very quickly,” says Pillon. “We organised webinars country by country and I trained local HR to perform the webinars as well as bringing in iMatch ambassadors.” User guides and questionnaires were also developed but, says Pillon, the solution is so intuitive and user-friendly there is little need to train people to use it. “When we talk about digital, we very often say that for young people it will be easy to use. But I can tell you that I received feedback from the large majority of people expressing that it was very easy for them to use,” she says.
The onus is on employees to take responsibility for their career path but Pillon says some managers have begun to use the tool to talk about development with their team members. “The manager is not aware of the recommendations given to the team members but when they talk about career management and development they can ask them whether they have filled in their profile in iMatch, how many recommendations they have received and if they are interested in any of them,” she explains. “It’s something that we hadn't really thought was one of the benefits of the tool. Each year employees have the opportunity to talk about their development plans, but it’s a different thing to discuss it when you know that you would like to move to this kind of position and you have a clear picture of the skills that are missing. It's more concrete, it's more actionable.”
From the start of the project metrics were put in place to measure the level of usage, the level of profile completion and the number of people that apply for positions directly via iMatch. But while metrics are important, PIllon says the qualitative feedback has been equally useful.
The key benefit employees have fed back is that Sanofi R&D invests in their career management because they provide them with this solution to help them. Pillon says other feedback has been surprise that they have access to a tool that really boosts them because they receive spontaneous recommendations. They also talk about being more aware of the missing skills they need to develop, being able to prepare better for interviews and being more aware of the range of the possibilities.
“We hear things such as that it has opened their mind. One person told me she was so surprised to see a recommendation as she never felt before that she would be able to move to that kind of position. And she did it. It's very positive because it’s a way to break the silos and say, look, you have more opportunities than you thought there were before.”
While empowering employee career management at this scale would not have been possible without algorithms and big data, PIllon says she wasn’t concerned so much about the how as ensuring recommendations are relevant. Being transparent over how employees’ data is being used is built into the Sanofi DNA. However, she does warn that quality of data is vital.
“We underestimated the quality of the data. Artificial intelligence works if the data quality is there. This is why it was really important to convince people to update their profiles. Quality of data is something it's very important to keep in mind when you you work on these kinds of projects.” From a business perspective Pillon says attraction, retention and motivation have improved.
“Most of the time when people decide to leave they say it’s because they don't see how they can move forward in the organisation,” says Pillon. “We need people everywhere to have a 360 degree view about the business. And so we are just at the beginning of the story, but I think that this programme will help us to have employees that are more agile and more curious.”
Eraldine Pillon, global organisational development head at Sanofi R&D is pictured below