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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Al Adamsen, Founder & Exec. Dir., Talent Strategy Institute
Episode: 163
Air Date: March 29, 2016


Al Adamsen is the Founder & Executive Director of the Talent Strategy Institute. He’s one of the few who’s led a workforce planning & analytics function within a Fortune 500 company (Gap Inc.), served as a leader with an analytics vendor (Infohrm, now SuccessFactors/SAP), and has also served as a consultant and advisor with Ernst & Young, Kenexa, and now TSI. Over his career Al has served such organizations as Gap Inc., Starbucks, Disney, T-Mobile, Boeing, Heinz, Mayo Clinic, Stanford University, among many others. Al also co-chairs the Leadership Development Council, Workforce Planning Council, Workforce Analytics Council, Talent Strategy Council, and Culture & Change Council. Al’s educational background is in economics and individual, team, and organizational behavior. Finally, Al teaches Mindful Coaching to youth and high school coaches, parents of young athletes, as well as young athletes themselves. He lives in Santa Cruz, CA with his wife and three children.


Audio MP3





Begin transcript

John Sumser: Good morning and welcome to HR Examiner Radio. I am your host, John Sumser, and we’re coming to you live from remarkably sunny downtown Occidental, California. For those of you who’ve been listening regularly, Occidental is the place where innovation really got its start in the great state of California. It’s where Leland Stanford built a railroad engineering lab to solve the problems of railroad tracks that don’t go in straight lines.


  Today we’re going to be talking to Al Adamsen, who’s the founder and executive director of the Talent Strategy Institute. I’ve been getting to know Al over the course of the last six months or so, and he’s an amazing new entrant into the world of the influencers of the HR and HR technology space. How are you, Al?


Al Adamsen: I’m doing outstanding. Thanks for having me, John.


John Sumser: You’re quite welcome. Would you take a moment and introduce yourself to the audience?


Al Adamsen: Sure. I’m Al Adamsen and I’m the happy parent of two young kids, fifteen and twelve, here in Santa Cruz California which is also very sunny today. More relevant to the audience, I have been in the HR space in one form or another for close to 20 years, although I come in as an operator as opposed to someone who’s gone through the generalist ranks. As an outsider rooted in consulting and having implemented SAP, I got involved in linking employee behavior with customer behavior and in turn financial outcomes, first as an entrepreneur in the former Soviet Union which is a story in and of itself; I founded and ran a five gallon water delivery business; but then I was consulting to Gat Inc. here in San Francisco in that regard, which led me to the inform group which is a part of CLC Metrics, was a practice leader at Kenexa for workforce analytics, and for the last eight years have been an educator and advisor and consultant in the area of workforce analytics, workforce planning, and talent strategy. That’s me in a nutshell.


John Sumser: Tell me about the very beginnings. I’m reasonably sure that when you were in the sandbox and you were 4 years old playing with your dump truck that the thought bubble over your head wasn’t, “When I grow up I want to be the founder and executive director of the Talent Strategy Institute.” How did you make this gargantuan shift?


Al Adamsen: Thanks for asking. It goes back to, I guess I had to be in sixth grade; my father gave me a three by five card that said on it, and it was highlighted and in his writing, manage yourself or someone else will. I have that three by five card tacked up to my wall. I never knew really what it meant. I knew it had something to do with personal responsibility, but as I got older and I kept reflecting on it, it came back to creativity, it came back to giving to society in ways that I felt was most appropriate, so as I started to evolve in my career and become more focused on people analytics and workforce planning I thought, “Well, what’s out there,” and, “Do I want to join something that’s already existing or do I want to fill this gap that I see emerging in the marketplace?”


  That gap was really around educating the next generation of workforce planning and analytics professionals. It was really having authentic conversations with leaders on, “Hey, this is what you have to do in terms of an investment to create an enduring capability with workforce analytics, workforce planning, what we call workforce intelligence services.” It allowed me the freedom to, again, have truly authentic conversations, provide content, curate content, and do things, frankly, that I didn’t see I could do with a larger firm. That’s how I got to where I am, and I have to say that I’m very happy that I’m here.


John Sumser: When I think about something called the Talent Strategy Institute, I imagine you walking with your hands clasped behind your back, down a long, brightly lit hall in a place that’s as quiet as a library, and when you look to the left and the right you see these monkish professionals pondering weighty questions about talent strategy. Now, given that I’m almost certainly wrong about that, what’s your job and what does a day look like?


Al Adamsen: Thanks for asking. My mission, and the reason I created the Talent Strategy Institute, is to help people’s lives, help improve the work experience, because what’s happened after 2008 is that people are working a job and a half, two jobs, and they’re not being compensated commensurate with that additional workload, heightened stress, all of these things that we’re struggling with societally. I believe analytics professionals and HR leaders specifically have an opportunity to highlight not only some of the issues that are arising, particularly around fair pay here in California; the fair pay act just went in affect January 1. Obviously there’s diversity implications as well as gender fairness implications there, and again those are opportunities that if leaders understood how to get after them and how to improve them systematically on an ongoing basis, then everyone benefits. Leaders benefit, the employees benefit, customers benefit.


  What we do day to day is we look for those who are really serious about making a fundamental change in how they consciously create culture and customer connection. If they want to think about measures that are going to help them gain insight into their workforce, both what’s happening now and what will likely happen in the future, not only inside their organization but in the external talent market, then we want to partner with those companies and say, “Hey, here’s some content that’s going to help you. Here’s some frameworks. Here’s some definitions. Here’s some metrics that are going to help create additional visibility, additional insight, and help you as a leadership team make better decisions,” and it’s, again, going to be for the benefit of these employees as well as those they serve.


  Day to day, we’re advising leaders, we’re putting on workshops, we run conferences around the country, what we call people analytics and future of work learning forums, we have a flagship event in late January, early February of each year here in San Francisco entitled People Analytics and Future of Work, so we have 150 to 200 people each year coming to hear thought leaders and practitioners from Google and LinkedIn and Intuit and Chevron and GE among others, and this year we had Josh Bersin keynote the event as well, and we’ve got to get you involved. It’s just something where we’re building community and we don’t pretend we come in with the answer. We are learners, we’re curators, we’re just prodding thinking so we can all get to a better place.


John Sumser: It sounds like, if I were to summarize what you said, I would go: There’s an events business, there’s an advisory services business, and it sounds like you do some research as well. Is that a fair picture?


Al Adamsen: We do a little research based on needs. One of the other things that I have yet to mention is that I cofacilitate the workforce analytics council, the workforce planning council, the leadership development council, talent strategy council, healthcare workforce intelligence council, among others that we have coming online. These are peer groups of leaders and practitioners in these various disciplines. If there is research that those and others would like to see, then we will go and get after that, but we’re not a research organization, we’re not Aversan or CEB or i4cp; that’s not the business we’re in. Yes, we do events; yes, we do webinars; we do inhouse training; we have online training; we have a variety of ways that we help facilitate, but we are very careful to position ourselves as an education and advisory firm, and we’re building community not only here in the US but around the world on the people analytics and workforce planning theme.


  With that in mind, we are more interested in identifying need within organizations and helping leaders identify the service providers, whether it be a software vendor or consultancy, that can help them get where they want to go. We provide an overarching framework by which they can audit their current capability, provide a vision and roadmap to achieve it, but how they go along that roadmap is going to be up to them. We’ll, again, provide some guidance and tools and ways to think about it, but we’re not a consultancy, we’re not a software provider, and we’re not a research institute for that matter; we’re more of a curator of existing research, although we’ll do research occasionally.


John Sumser: That’s pretty cool. Workforce analytics, in some ways it’s the topic of the moment. You happen to be in the right place at the right time. How do you see workforce analytics evolving? What’s going on there?


Al Adamsen: I’ll answer that question from a historical context, because you introduced me as a new entrant and I totally appreciate that and I also appreciate that you have been in the space in one form or another for 20 years. Like many who are now in the space, we were doing the work and we didn’t know what it was called. Now we have a naming convention around it. That being said, many people who are doing workforce analytics or specializing in it are really doing HR metrics and reporting, while others who are doing workforce analytics are doing statistical analysis, hypothesis testing, and still others who are doing workforce analytics are doing data mining and other analytical techniques. There’s all these array of activity going on in there.


  How I got into it? I was interested in understanding, like I said earlier, how the employee experience affected the customer experience and in turn financial outcomes. At Ernst and Young I worked under the guidance of Dr. Tim [Krischfield 00:11:48] who had a PhD in statistics. He was very interested in statistically validating the metrics within the balance score cards. Norton and Kaplan’s a notion that they introduced back in the early ’90s. Here we are, 25 plus years later, and it’s been very, very difficult, way more difficult than most thought. We thought we’d be in a place where we really understood what they called the leading indicators of downstream outcomes. In many organizations there might be some assumptions around that, but to statistically validate it and assuming you have the right measures in place at the right frequency, the right quality and all that, it hasn’t emerged as many had hoped. Now, given a proliferation of data collection tools as well as analytical tools, our ability to tell these data driven stories is far beyond what it’s ever been.


  The analytical techniques have been around for a long time, many of them in any case, but now we have, again, the data, we have the horsepower computationally, and we have the people through our educational system who now have the data science; I have psychology, economics backgrounds who can go in and help tell these stories that formerly weren’t necessarily get-able. Now, we’re at this cusp where we’re going to actually be able to do what we’ve long just hoped we could do. That’s a fact.


John Sumser: I wonder. Let me poke at that a little bit, because I believe what you said is in the ’90s people started thinking about this topic and there was a general consensus that it would be possible to understand what goes on in the workforce by looking at leading indicators. There was an initiative or 20 to identify leading indicators and it failed. Now, today, there’s more optimism in that same subject, but I wonder if it’s possible to standardize leading indicators in organizations. It seems to me that the differences between organization A and organization B are so numerous and so wildly variable that the idea that there is a standard biology of the human organization, which is what I think you’re talking about, is a reasonably ambitious challenge.


Al Adamsen: I couldn’t agree more. That’s the reason why organizations need to be doing analytics on an organization by organization basis and not just read an article and say, “Okay, that’s the way our organization functions.” That’s oftentimes fallacious; it’s just not a smart way to run a business and lead the people within your organization, because we’re diverse people. It’s going to vary by geography, it’s going to vary by industry type, it’s going to vary by … Even if the same geography, same industry, the people within that organization are going to be unique. The culture of that organization is going to be unique. If there’s not an insatiable curiosity and willingness to learn by leadership and then take appropriate action, then I frankly think they’re not leading; they’re underserving the individuals that they are supposed to be leading and serving, because the customers are going to be compromised, the shareholder is going to be compromised, everyone’s going to be compromised if leaders don’t have this willingness-capacity to learn about the people within their organization and, in turn, take appropriate action.


  One hundred percent agreed: the idea of standardizing … like engagement was kind of tossed up as the standard. “Oh, engagement is a leading indicator of innovation, customer satisfaction, and all this;” I don’t believe that to be true as an absolute. I believe it to be true in some cases, but it begs the question: How is engagement measured? How are those downstream outcomes measured? At what frequency? All that’s going to inform the quality of the analysis that can be done, the quality of insight that is produced, and, in turn, the appropriate action that leaders take, because if that action isn’t appropriate, doesn’t align with the insights that are being generated, they can make mistakes. They can have some false positives, some false assumptions, and move forward in ways that might be counterproductive. Each organization, particularly in large organizations, needs to address this individually. The search for absolutes, I’m not a fan. I couldn’t agree more.


John Sumser: Okay, well it’s nice to hear that. I don’t often get into conversations where I agree so completely with somebody about their view on it. Just to sort of summarize what you said, there’s a tendency … It may even be a fundamental characteristic of organizations, but there’s a tendency for particularly western organizations to look for single origin cures for everything that ails them. You can watch many companies lurch from fad to fad as they try to figure out their central angst. What you’re saying is that the solution to organizational renewal and self-development is introspection and a solution that’s rooted in the realities of life inside of your organization. Is that right?


Al Adamsen: Well said. One hundred percent agreed. Frankly, the search for these absolutes, part of me wants to say it’s frankly just lazy; the other part of me says that, yeah, there is value in trying to do a meta-analysis and seeing what’s common out there and learn from that, but to take that as the basis for ongoing decision making I just think is not in the interests of the leaders or the organizations they serve, and it can be done better.


John Sumser: I wonder what you think about this. It seems to me that that tendency to lurch towards certainty, to want to grab an idea and have that be the answer, it seems to me that’s a fundamental human trait. I certainly have a stack of things that if I could find a magic bullet for, I’d buy the magic bullet and shoot it. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t.


Al Adamsen: Yeah, I get that. Maybe a sense of relief that the sun came up today and that the world’s still spinning and all that. Absolutely. There’s comfort in that. There’s comfort and then you get to come home and get a hug from your spouse, there’s comfort in seeing your kids arrive home safely at the end of the day and that there’s going to be food on the table. Yeah, they’re certainly comfortable in that certainty, but the certainty is an illusion in many cases, particularly when you talk about social dynamics and organization behavior and individual behavior, team behavior. People change, environments change, circumstances change, and when you talk about analytics, the number of variables impacting the employee, the number of variables that that are impacting the customer are massive. I mean, they’re in the thousands. The weather affects people’s behavior. It changes.


  Hopefully we have this level of curiosity about the dynamics that are affecting the people within our organizations, and if we do, we can learn. When we learn, we are talking at the end of the day about probabilities. Certainty cannot be the expectation. If it is, people are going to get frustrated, it’s going to fail, because never is it going to be the case where a plus b equals c. In other words, a is in place, we have the circumstances dynamic; if we do b, then c is going to ensue. That’s not how it works. That’s not how analytics works, that’s not how the use of insight works in decision making, that’s not how it works. What’s going to happen is: a exists, we’re going to do b; the likelihood that c is going to occur is this based on what we know, and that likelihood is going to be relatively small, particularly when we talk about people affecting the customer, another group of people, and in turn financial outcomes, which is what many leaders want to know.


  “Hey, [inaudible 00:21:18] this program; it affects the employees in this way; tell me how it drives economic value.” Not the right way to pose the question. Ultimately it’s going to be around what are the intermediary variables that the employees are going to affect, and those in turn are going to affect those downstream outcomes. We have to understand that causal chain, look at that, but the idea that we’re going to do something way up here and it’s going to affect dollars way down here, and there’s going to be certainty throughout that causal pathway? Not going to happen. We have to understand that, we have to socialize that, leaders have to acknowledge that, and at the end of the day they have to say, “Okay, if I understand this better, not certain, but if I understand it better, that reduces my risk and increases the likelihood that my investments reach it’s desired return, and that’s a great outcome.”


John Sumser: What a wonderful vision. In the world that I inhabit people go to work, they’re bright and optimistic, they get to the company, they’re there for about six months, and they realize that nobody’s actually going to pay any attention to anything that they say, and so they do the next smartest thing, which is say, “You tell me what my job is and I’ll do it,” instead of being the bright, probabilistic thinker that you just described. That’s a classic human adjustment that, my bet is going to be, the number of people who make that adjustment and say, “Okay, you can’t give me a straight story; I’m just going to sit here and wait until you get clear enough about what you want.” People make that adjustment all of the time, so the idea of a dynamic, living, breathing organization where everybody sees and accounts for the fact that their view of outcomes is probabilistic … I don’t know how you get anything done in that environment.


Al Adamsen: It’s interesting, because those organizations that I see that do the work well, there’s some commonalities that are emerging. Number one, leaders are involved in the process. They own the output of the analytics. They understand that they’re not going to be in a situation where they’re going to get the perfect answer, and they don’t put the analysts on the defensive. They are co-learners about employee dynamics and what can be done to improve those dynamics, whether it be reducing turnover and keeping the high value talent or recruiting more efficiently and effectively or improving innovation and productivity. Whatever the case is, there is this insatiable curiosity and willingness to learn; I’ll say that again; where they are involved in the process and they’re not putting the analysts on the defensive like, “Okay, this is your dissertation, I’m going to come now and poke holes in it.” It’s like, “Hey, I’m here. Gosh, wouldn’t it be great if we created that new measure. What if we moved from our current performance management process to a more frequent interpersonal dialogue that not only has the manager quote/unquote assessing the direct report, but the direct report provides some ideas on how the manager can improve, create better clarity. How can we move maybe to an OKR’s environment where the objectives and key results are articulated more frequently?”


  There are any number of processes that can be in play, but the internal customer, the decision maker, the leader in this case is helping the analyst identify not only what to look at and what to study and what to understand better, but what can be done to improve the dynamic, so that they’re working together and not, again, the leader putting the analyst on the defensive, which I see way to often.


John Sumser: I’ll try to get this question short enough so that you can answer it. Because we’re having such a great time, we’re running through the half hour.


  The world that you describe imagines that that is a surprising new development and a new way for people to work together. I’ve never worked in an environment where the relationship wasn’t as you describe it. From the lowly … I had laid railroad track when I was a kid, and even there you had an intimate relationship with the boss and if he was an idiot you told him so. What’s new?


Al Adamsen: What’s new is that, particularly here in the Bay Area, which is driving a lot of the change, but it’s really happening not only throughout the nation but globally: you have the millennial generation, and there’s been much said and written about it; it is different. Generationally they are different, and this is why. Number one, they’re more educated broadly, but the high value talent … Let’s just hold up the engineering community, young engineers, say, in their twenties right now, if they’re high value talent and they’re going into an organization and that organization isn’t taking care of them in unique ways, they have options. The unemployment rate for engineers is virtually zero here in the Bay Area, and if you’re really at a [inaudible 00:27:16] talented, what we call high value talent, you can go anywhere you want. Therefore employers are continually competing for their services, and they’re getting smarter, they’re creating more authentic discussions and measures that are more fair, because in the research that we did …


  You asked about us doing research. We did do some millennial research years ago on our own, and millennials wanted four things: they wanted respect, fairness, significance, and growth. If the underlying processes in an organization aren’t fair, aren’t respectful, aren’t clearly making them more employable, aka growing personally and professionally, then they’re going to leave, or their propensity to leave is going to be higher, or they’re going to not produce as much. I just held up engineering; I know in energy there’s not enough petroleum engineers, there’s not enough pole-line workers in utilities, nurses in healthcare, not to mention doctors. There is this supply of talent that is not going to meet future demand; therefore the employers need to be more creative in not only attracting them but keeping them.


  Layer on top of that that the fair pay act here in California that is creating this impetus for analytics that is frankly unprecedented in many respects, just because organizations now arguably have to do it or they’re going to run too much of a risk in terms of the liability that they’re going to be exposed to. Add all of this together; analytics is here to stay and employers are going to get more creative around the measures and processes that they’re going to put in place to affect the employee experience. If that experience is consciously created by leaders, then they’re going to be in a much better place than they would just keeping with legacy processes and measures.


John Sumser: We have [inaudible 00:29:20] through our half an hour, and it’s been great. Would you like to make sure that readers take away something about you or the Talent Strategy Institute?


Al Adamsen: Talent Strategy Institute is really an education and advisory firm that’s building a global community that is addressing people analytics, workforce planning, and helping organizations consciously create culture. It’s about innovating what the employee experience of tomorrow is going to be like. If you want to engage us, you can look us up at, and we’ll gladly answer any questions you have. John, I super appreciate you having me. It’s been a joy.


John Sumser: Okay, so take a moment and reintroduce yourself and tell people exactly how to get ahold of you.


Al Adamsen: Al Adamsen, founder and executive director of the Talent Strategy Institute. You can learn more about me and the institute at I’m at, and phone number, if I may throw that out there; I rarely do but I will: 415-815-7297 here in the Bay Area. Hope to hear from you.


John Sumser: Thanks very much, Al. We’ve been talking with Al Adamsen, A-D-A-M-S-E-N, who is the founder and director of the Talent Strategy Institute. It’s been a great conversation. You’ve been listening to HR Examiner Radio. We’re coming to you live from Occidental, California. Hope you have a wonderful, wonderful day. Thanks very much for checking in with us. Bye-bye, now.

End transcript

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