An Interview with Diane Gherson, CHRO at IBM, on Driving Organizational Transformation

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Meet The Woman Who Has Changed IBM’s History

Harnessing the power of data analytics to transform process, people, and culture is not easy. It demands conscientiousness – but when you master the organizational muscle of using data, it can contribute to greater prosperity. Today, as Diane Gherson, CHRO IBM, transforms global workforce outcomes through talent analytics and data, she is not afraid to put forward profoundly ambitious and path-breaking ideas.

Companies often find it difficult to find common ground when it comes to incorporating AI with human relations. The conjecture often revolves around how AI and automation can put people out of jobs and entirely change the way companies conduct their businesses.

The CHRO of IBM, Diane Gherson however, has different views and she has translated the term “human+machine interaction” into HRM practices. Human Resources has traditionally been very process driven. The contribution of technology in improving customer experience is well documented, but little has been done in using it for enriching workplace experiences.  Diane Gherson is a trailblazer when it comes to introducing agile technologies in the gamut of Human Resources. She has shifted the focus of HR in IBM from rigid to agile policies that are fast-paced, digital-centric and reciprocal and has replaced traditional HR methods with agile tools. Some of these tools include Murala platform where members can organize, share and develop ideas with their team and Boxa platform where HR professionals can store and access all employee information at one place.

According to Diane Gherson, “speed and innovation” are two essential organizational competencies in the digital era. Her vision has lead IBM to venture into innovative management systems, ones that empower the employees and facilitate continuous learning through technology. Under her leadership, IBM has incorporated automation and AI throughout the employee life cycle. This has made the company more efficient in dealing with talent issues, matching employees and career opportunities and proactively retaining its most valued skills.

Diane Gherson sees failures as opportunities for growth and encourages employees to venture out of their comfort zones. Training in analytics, automation, robotics and adaptation of design thinking at scale throughout the company, are some of the ways in which she is helping employees improve their efficacy in the digital era.

IBM is often touted as the best place to work and Diane in her thirteen years of working with IBM has made that happen with her forward thinking. Data and analytics is yet another area which Diane has emulated in IBM’s strategic imperatives to improve employee experiences.  Fast and flexible responses, better employee engagement, more efficient measurement of performance, and detecting issues, as a result of data collection and analyzing have been possible due to Diane’s efforts in fostering technology-employee interaction.

Leadership skills, confidence and the courage to pursue the unconventional, are the traits that brought her the HR Executive of the Year Award-2018. The evidence of such traits can be mapped back to when she left home at only eleven years old. That was when she first learned the importance of adaptability and independence and since then, these traits only burgeoned and lead her to be the head girl of her secondary school and now the CHRO of a multinational corporation. “You need heightened self-awareness and the skills to discern cultural norms, adopting different world views, and styles of communicating, interacting and making decisions,” says Gherson, and her work is truly an epitome of her beliefs.

The HR Digest: You led IBM to undertake the most ambitious technology-enabled HR transformations in its 107-year history. Can you tell The HR Digest readers what these changes are and what led you to make these changes?

Diane Gherson: We’re all experiencing a tectonic shift in our businesses – from business models to how work gets done, and in people’s expectations as consumers and as employees. IBM was no exception. The tech industry was undergoing a massive shift about six years ago. We had to completely rethink our strategy, expertise, structure, how we innovate and work differently. It meant readying our more than 350,000 workforce for skills for the future and redesigning how they work and experience work to drive innovation and client engagement.

That meant rethinking HR with skills at the core of our management systems, employee experience as an outcome of our work, and new leadership models to take the company through the transformation and into a more agile world.

As context, like many HR organizations, we were very process-driven. Coming out of the internet era, we were all geared up for process standardization, manager self-service and shared services. Digital technologies forced-disruption of all that. It laid a good foundation for what was to come, but the process mindset was optimizing for efficiency rather than speed and innovation – two essential organizational competencies of the digital era. And employees and candidates have new, consumer-grade expectations being shaped by their every day, rich digital experiences outside of work. When they come to work, they expect this same type of personalization, transparency and responsiveness. We realized that we had to radically change HR, move out of our HR-speak and pivot to outcomes and solutions versus process-centricity.


In HR, we self-disrupted with AI and automation, recognizing that incorporating this into our work could help us tackle the challenges –particularly skills – much more quickly.  We adopted AI throughout the employee lifecycle, from how we attract, engage and develop to how we grow and serve. This has helped us to solve pervasive talent issues, reacting quickly to employee hot spots, matching employees and external candidates with career opportunities and proactively retaining our most valued skills. AI is powering our digital learning platform for employees through episodic training programs to learn on the go and helping to reduce bias in recruitment.

The outcomes have been material for us. Seven out of 10 IBMers now have skills of the future compared to three out of 10 when our transformation began. And HR has contributed significant benefits to the business — $107 million last year alone.

The HR Digest: One of the big themes in your work is increasing the importance of an autonomous workforce. What’s your sense of what companies can do to foster the freedom to innovate within teams while also providing clarity of purpose to keep them on course?

Diane Gherson: We all want to create an environment where employees can thrive, even see failures as opportunities for growth. At IBM, we have been nurturing a culture of experimentation, providing opportunities for employees to get out of their comfort zones. Adopting agile and design thinking at scale throughout the company has been a game changer for us. These teams are self-directed and empowered to innovate, using retrospectives to course-correct when needed.

In my own function where we’ve encouraged HR professionals to work differently, some are now coding, for example, to create chatbots on an as-needed basis to answer employee questions about benefits, on-boarding, performance management, just to name a few. A majority are trained in analytics and applying it to their work. We have trained our operations teams in robotic process automation and they are leading the charge in re-thinking work design with robotics, in areas like payroll, global mobility, and expense reimbursement. The recruiting team has gone all in on embracing agile. This freedom to innovate has resulted in higher value contributions for the HR team members, and they’ve gained new skills in the process.

The HR Digest: What are the tools IBM is using to build an agile workforce?

Diane Gherson: We’ve rolled out agile training across the organization and made contemporary collaboration tools available to everyone – including Box, Mural and Slack. This is a vast improvement over the asynchronous momentum of email.

Training employees to think like designers has also been important for us. We have 2,000 formally trained designers but having many in the workforce go through enterprise design thinking training makes us think differently about the products we are producing for our clients.

The HR Digest: What skills do the global HR managers of the future need to acquire?

Diane Gherson: The ability to work with data and analytics tops the list. And of course, business acumen. Design thinking skills for HR can translate to better experiences for the workforces we support. So, we’re recasting the programs we roll out to be more like “offerings,” where we aim to delight the user.

The digital era means this list of skills will keep changing. A commitment to continuous learning will be key.

The HR Digest: Looking back on your career, what educational influence was the most important in enabling you to become a leader?

Diane Gherson: I grew up in three different countries and left home at the age of eleven. All that enabled me to learn adaptability and independence at an early age. Just to gain peer acceptance and avoid ostracism, you need heightened self-awareness and the skills to discern hidden cultural norms, adopting different world views and styles of communicating, interacting and making decisions. I had the opportunity to test my leadership skills early, as I was elected to be the head girl of my secondary school. All that prepared me for what was ahead – moving 3,000 miles back to Canada to go to university, a career in management consulting in the U.S., and ultimately, my leadership career here at IBM.


This article was published in the April 2019 issue of The HR Digest magazine.

Diane Gherson | CHRO, IBM


Diane was named an officer of IBM and CHRO in 2013. Diane is responsible for the people strategy, leadership, skills, careers, engagement, employee services, labor cost, diversity and inclusion of the more than 350,000 person workforce covering 170 countries.

During her tenure as CHRO, as IBM has dramatically shifted its business portfolio, Diane has redesigned all aspects of the company’s people agenda and management systems to shape a culture of continuous learning, innovation and agility. At the same time, she has digitally transformed the HR function, incorporating AI and automation across all offerings, resulting in more than $100 million in net benefits in 2017. Diane has championed the company’s global adoption of design thinking and agile methods at scale, as an example, driving a company-wide, co-created overhaul of performance management.


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Priyansha Mistry
Currently editor at The HR Digest Magazine. She helps HR professionals identify issues with their talent management and employment law. | Priyansha tweets at @PriyanshaMistry

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