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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Kristin Lewis, Senior Director of Product Management at Equifax Workforce Solutions
Episode: 169
Air Date: April 19, 2016


As the Senior Director of product management for Equifax Workforce Solutions, Kristin Lewis drives strategic solutions that help companies optimize workforce productivity and improve business outcomes. Lewis leads the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Management Platform, a solution that was awarded Top HR Product of the Year by Human Resource Executive magazine in 2013. She has gained national recognition for her thought leadership around ACA shared responsibility rules and provisions, and is a regularly featured speaker and panelist on ACA compliance for conferences, associations, and industry events across the country. In her role at Equifax, Lewis works closely with top legal advisors and government agencies to clarify and interpret key ACA regulations.

Audio MP3





Begin transcript

John Sumser: Welcome to HRExaminer Radio. I’m your host, John Sumser and we’re coming you today live from beautiful Austin, Texas. Today we’re going to be talking with Kristin Lewis who some people call the ACA goddess of Equifax. She is a senior director of product development, I believe. Is that right, Kristin?


Kristin Lewis: Product management, product development, I answer to both.


John Sumser: Okay, she’s in charge of everything at Equifax. If you have trouble with your credit report please call Kristin. I’ll give you her phone number at the end of the show.


Kristin Lewis: Yes, I like to receive calls only during dinner time or on Sunday.


John Sumser: Kristin, why don’t you take a moment and introduce yourself?


Kristin Lewis: Absolutely, and thank you for having me. Yes, I have been with Equifax, this is my fifth year. The past three years have been a very exciting growth trajectory for us in the Affordable Care Act compliance space. We went from zero customers to 800 in about a 24 month period and just crossed a major finish line getting all of those employers and the 26 million employees they represent through the ACA reporting season. I have been celebrating for the past at least two weeks straight, as all of our clients have. It’s definitely by quiet a ride of the past couple years.


John Sumser: That’s astonishing, 26 million people is 15% of the workforce, does their ACA compliance through you guys. That’s astonishing. Most people in the HR industry don’t have anything like that market share.


Kristin Lewis: Significant, that is for sure.


John Sumser: This is your baby.


Kristin Lewis: This is my baby.


John Sumser: Congratulations. Tell me, how did you get that growth over the first two years? Were you just lucky and you were struck by lightning, or?


Kristin Lewis: Something like that. It feels like that every once in awhile. We were in a right place right time situation where we had been going down a path and really trying to sell workforce analytics solutions to HR. Three years ago when you talked about vague workforce analytics concepts to a room full of HR professionals, they would glaze over. They’d come to the meetings, because that was a buzz word, but if you were talking to them about something that vague and couldn’t really pin point the business problem that would solve, you just didn’t get anywhere. We were in the middle of trying to rethink what’s our strategy.


We have this great technology that can pull all sorts of disparate data together and we have this almost video game like user interface that makes it really easy for non technical users to interact with data. None of them are biting. None of them are interested in buying the software and figuring out if they have a problem to solve. We started thinking about what are the big problems that HR is facing that requires you to pull all these different things together and solve a problem that isn’t being solved elsewhere?


This was around November 2012, right when the election was happening. Obama was reelected. ACA became real, and we realized oh my God, this is going to be a huge challenge for employers. At the core of it, it’s a workforce analytics exercise. All of this data had to come together. The big first problem was making the decision of am I going to play or pay, pay the fine or try to comply with these new regulations. Then there’s the ongoing management piece. We, again happened to be fortunate that we were sitting on this great technology. We have an [inaudible 00:04:00] development team who very quickly rallied behind let’s tweak this software, and tweak this UI to speak to this problem. Got three or four major employers to sign on as early adopters and the rest is history.


John Sumser: This is not your mother’s Equifax.


Kristin Lewis: No, this is not your general credit bureau activity. That’s for sure.


John Sumser: An agile development team powering workforce analytics with what’s got to be the most successful product in workforce analytics to date. That’s a pretty amazing thing to be sitting on top of. I did a keynote last week in Minneapolis, and you will be surprised by this topic, workforce analytics conference, workforce analytics. 900 people from Minneapolis.


Kristin Lewis: Wow.


John Sumser: That’s how big the topic has gotten while you were away at the backwater of ACA. It may be time to expand out.


Kristin Lewis: It might be time to emerge, huh?


John Sumser: Are there plans to move beyond ACA into other analytics businesses?


Kristin Lewis: Absolutely. We keep saying, “We can’t be a one trick pony forever.” We’re finding that ACA, there’s a lot of layers to that onion. I actually just hired last week somebody who’s going to be in charge of new product development and innovation on my team. We’ve got new business clients emerging around ACA, but we’re going to have a whole new team that’s dedicated to waking up every morning and now looking at the new problems HR is facing, plus we’re now sitting on an even richer set of data for these companies. They’re sending it to us. We know so much about their workforce, about how their compensation works, how their leave strategy works, how their benefits are being offered and deployed and accepted by their employees. All we’re doing with it is ACA compliance, so we’re going to have a team that’s really looking at what else could we be doing, and what other insights do we have that we could unlock to add more value and to really diversify outside of ACA?


John Sumser: I’m going to say that you’re the most major player in the workforce analytics business that nobody’s ever heard of.


Kristin Lewis: That’s probably a very fair statement.


John Sumser: That’s pretty interesting. When you were a young girl in the sandbox or playing with dolls, whatever your thing was, and you were dreaming about growing up to be a workforce analytics professional focusing on ACA, what was that like?


Kristin Lewis: I had three brothers. I was usually digging the dolls out from under the sandbox from where they buried them. No, I started off working for a company that sold technology to nonprofits. We helped them develop their fundraising technology, their accounting technology, and made my way over to workforce analytics under the leadership of the great innovator, Mike Psenka, who was a leading a company called eThority at the time. Equifax acquired eThority and it’s been this incredible integration of two companies where Equifax’s strategy is really, hey, when we acquire somebody, we’re acquiring it because we didn’t have something you did.


The last thing we want to do is cover that up and make it part of Equifax’s. You know that we want you to keep doing what you’re doing. Now we’ve got this really fun technology and innovation hub in Charleston, South Carolina. Some of the big partners that we’re working with in the ACA space, they are benefit focused and a couple others. It’s been fun to think about we’ve got this great group who came into Charleston and came into our company because they were all innovators and liked this entrepreneurial spirit within this broader 100 year old company.


Now that we’re through this sprint for ACA, we really are just now, like you said, pulling up and thinking okay, let’s do it again. What’s next?


John Sumser: That’s interesting. Equifax, one gets the impression that Equifax is a big stodgy, conservative thing. Here you are running agile development and doing what’s essentially software product management. Are you the vanguard of the new Equifax, or is this something that turns out is already existing inside of Equifax and you’re …?


Kristin Lewis: It’s existing, and I think it’s been hiding for awhile. A lot of people don’t even know that Equifax serves the HR community, but we have over 6,000 customers. We’re providing compliance solutions across the whole life cycle. For so long, I think credit was something that you didn’t really, it wasn’t the right opportunity to have a big brand around. When you actually learn what Equifax’ broader vision is and why they’re working with HR companies. They’re this broader vision of hey, let’s change the way consumer credit works. Let’s make income part of that equation. It’s not fair that people who have never had debt in their life can’t get a mortgage, because they have no credit history. They’re making $300,000 a year. Let’s bring that to the table. I think that we have a really strong senior leadership team that’s got a really exciting vision. It’s been fun to work for a company where you do feel like everyone comes to work everyday and is marching towards the same mission, but doing very different things everyday to get the company there.


John Sumser: I want to goose that up a little bit, because I swear, I swear in my best dreams of the universe I don’t get Equifax exciting vision in the same pile of books, let alone on the same page. The Equifax exciting vision is?


Kristin Lewis: The broader vision is that let’s change the way that Americans access credit. Let’s make it easier. Let’s enable more individuals to get the houses, cars, loans, whatever it may be. Let’s get them access to that when they need it. Again, a big part of that is, we have so many individuals who haven’t ever gotten a credit card, haven’t ever had debt, but the way that the credit only world works today is that’s the only factor that they’re looking at is that history. Back when Equifax acquired TALX, or as it was called, gosh, what was that? Seven, eight years ago now. It’s because they were sitting on millions and millions of payroll records because they were providing compliance services to HR. The broad vision was man, if we can reach a critical mass around income the way that we did with credit history, we can change the way banks operate and make it a more fair holistic decisioning process. They call that whole concept, D360, or Decision 360, which is giving the banks a better, more holistic view of the consumer so that they can make a more informed decision about how to offer credit.


John Sumser: Wow, what an interesting thing. You’ve got this experience. I don’t believe there’s anybody else who has the experience of offering a workforce analytics product and having it take off, right?


Kristin Lewis: Yeah.


John Sumser: 15% market share.


Kristin Lewis: We had to lie about it a little. Remember that. We had to call it Affordable Care Act compliance.


John Sumser: Having a hook to sell, that’s actually the question is do you think you have to have a hook to sell workforce analytics?


Kristin Lewis: I personally think you do. I think there are some very forward thinking companies in the US who I think are aware of the value of workforce analytics. They’re very analytically minded. They want to get their hands dirty in the metrics around why are we losing high performers, or what are the right types of talent for us to attract to drive performance, but they don’t necessarily know how to get there. Even if they do, if they find a product, they find a workforce analytics vendor or solution that they think will help get them there. It is so hard for an HR group to get in front of their IT and an executive leadership team and justify an investment in new technology that has the words analytics in its title. These companies had every analytics technology under the sun already.


IT is programmed, sometimes I think they’re robots, to say, “We can do that for you. We can already do that for you. We already have that.” They’re set up for failure, but there was no IT group in the US who said, “Oh yeah, we have already built your ACA compliance solution.” They didn’t want to touch it with a 10 foot pole.


What we’re finding is by getting into the door with a hook that’s very specific to a business need or business function that you don’t have a broader analytics tool that checks that box.  Whether it’s actually checking that box or not, it’s giving us a platform to then grow within that organization. We already have companies who bought us for ACA compliance that are already using the data and the visualization and data analytics tools to do much different analysis into compensation trends and to turnover. Some of it’s connecting the dots with ACA. Is the way we’re managing hours impacting turnover or performance? Some of it’s completely unrelated and they’re just thrilled that they have access to data and tools that can help them dig through it.


John Sumser: That’s pretty cool. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about workforce analytics. One of the things that a fair number of the companies who are going in are doing, are things that amount to the evaluation of people. Flight risk ends up being a number.


Kristin Lewis: A percentage or a likelihood.


John Sumser: A percentage or a likelihood, and I wonder if you have an opinion about those kinds of things, about the quantification of people, and what are the risks and benefits of doing that?


Kristin Lewis: That’s a really interesting question. As a manager of, gosh my team is seven or eight people, i don’t think it’s possible to actually apply an algorithm of a flight risk to people across the board and assume that it will relate. I’ve had really high performers that have left and I’ve had absolutely no idea that it’s coming and you have other people where you’re hoping and wishing the situation’s about to work itself out. They are never the ones to leave. I think that is a really personal thing that’s tough to look at analytically. I think it’s important to be aware of the trends and to monitor those, but you’ve got to have a really personal, I think engagement with your team and your broader workforce to have a true lens on what flight risk really means.


John Sumser: There’s a company that produces a flight risk analysis that is completely divorced from any internal information.


Kristin Lewis: Interesting.


John Sumser: It’s simply an evaluation of the market factors that would cause, say Pam Stevens to get recruited away. Her score is the likelihood that somebody’s going to come and [inaudible 00:15:16]. I find that they can prove, this gets to the next layer of the question. They can prove with some certainty that that number is accurate 85% of the time. Now you’ve got this Pam is about to leave because she crossed the threshold and is a 78, and we always do something about 75s. Here’s the thing that gets me, so if we say Pam’s about to leave, or her score is over the threshold so we have to make a decision, the first decision you have to make is do we want to keep her or not? Right?


Kristin Lewis: Right.


John Sumser: At the moment you say, “We don’t want to keep her.” She becomes dead man walking, and the organization starts to withdraw from her, because nobody wants to do a deal with a short timer. You can’t afford to have short timers on your project team. Like that, but if you say, “Oh, we need to do this stuff to keep her,” and you start showering her with responsibility and minions and bigger offices and a car, it also signals to the organization that she’s a short timer and nobody wants to do a deal with her.


I’m wondering a lot about the unintended consequences of this mission.


Kristin Lewis: Knowing that information. I remember a guy named John Sumser, who three years ago told me,  “Privacy is dead. I just swabbed my cheek and sent it to a company, and they told me what I’m going to die from in 20 years.” This reminds me of that. I think that is an interesting question of okay, you know somebody has a likelihood to go, what do you do?


John Sumser: There are people who say that is radioactive information and you should never let it get closer to the workforce than four levels of management away, and that you have to wall it off so that people don’t misunderstand it. [inaudible 00:17:26].


Kristin Lewis: Turnover is one of those really tricky things where yeah, we’ve been evaluating so here we are. We’re sitting on gosh, how many, 200 million-ish payroll records in our work number database. It’s a combination of active and inactive people who have turned over, and so many companies are doing all of this analysis on the things you mentioned, who’s a flight risk, or let’s do the analysis on what are the factors that most contributed to somebody leaving if they’ve already gone. We’ve got the ability to look at movement within our database and we have, I forget the number of employers. These companies send us their payroll every week so that when those employees apply for loans or mortgages, etc., we can verify their income and employment to the people loaning them that money.


We’ve been exploring okay, if we’ve got companies who have this group of high performers that left the organization and they were regrettable losses, you can do all sorts of analysis about why or how or what could we have done different, but we could potentially take that data, match it up against our work number database, and we could never come back and say, “Pam Stevens went to this company for a pay increase of this much,” but we could come back and say, “Your PR group is leaving to go to this particular industry. They’re actually not leaving for a pay increase. They’re on average accepting $10,000 less in their new jobs, which means you probably don’t have a comp problem. You have an engagement problem or some other problem. Here’s the percentage that are relocating versus just going to a different company where they are.”


I’m interested in your thoughts, because it goes back to this, when you know someone’s going to be a flight risk, what do you do? Do you throw more money at them? Do you throw different rewards? If you don’t know what they’re leaving for or what’s really motivating them, you don’t even know what to throw at that problem.


John Sumser: I think it’s worse than that. I think that we don’t know how organizations work. There are organizations who use a hydraulic model of talent. The hydraulic model of talent is it’s the line supervisor’s job to get everybody in the department promoted and off to a better gig. What happens when you do that, when everybody who works for you is to be promoted and the end game is that they go work somewhere else, for some other company, that attracts all this amazing talent in the backend, and the talent process works like higher attrition rates, but better quality work. That’s one model.


There’s another model that is employees are property, and what we want to do is keep them as long as we can keep them, no matter how smelly they get. We want to keep them and that’s another model. That works in certain ways for certain companies in certain industries. I think there might be as many as a dozen different talent management models. You’ve got the data to see that, but the work to flesh out those models hasn’t been done yet. One of the things that I think that we’re going to see a lot of as analytics really comes to take root is the job of being able to look at the database and imagine, first of all that you don’t have the slightest idea what it means, and that everything that you think you know for sure, is absolutely wrong in this particular case, and you have to come up with a series of alternative explanations. I think that’s where the value is going forward.


I imagine a great, big cauldron of data with people stirring it around trying to see what’s in there.


Kristin Lewis: You have to find the companies that are willing to be surprised and shocked by that information, because there is some aspects, especially in HR. People information is so sensitive. If you find that there’s some trends in your turnover data that end up having implications with protected classes or with anything with an EEOC violation. There’s all this, oh jeez, did I really want to know that? Now I have to dig in, and that’s a sensitive subject. There are companies that are all about that transparency, and they want to know so that they can act. There are other companies that I think are a little worried about what they’ll find when they really dig into that data and what it will show them.


John Sumser: That fear is exactly the thing that’s inhibiting the growth of workforce analytics, because what’s clear, and I’m sure you’ve seen this. What’s clear is that the team that digs into these questions comes back with information that contradicts the company’s …


Kristin Lewis: Right, and you’d hope so, right? It’s almost why you need workforce analytics.


John Sumser: You’d hope so, unless the company culture is I’m the boss and you’re not.


Kristin Lewis: Sure.


John Sumser: That’s a lot of company cultures, I’m the boss and you’re not. If you turn up with data that says that stuff that you do really regularly, that doesn’t work, that’s a career shortening presentation.


Kristin Lewis: Fair enough.


John Sumser: This is why I think that there’s a pretty interesting market for workforce analytics consultancies, because you can fire them more easily than you can fire employees.


Kristin Lewis: That’s right. You don’t like their results, you never have to see them again.


John Sumser: Right, shoot the messenger is kind of a good sported [inaudible 00:23:07] on the culture. It’s hard to have internal people do the analytics.


Kristin Lewis: I think that’s true, and from a vendor perspective yeah, it’s hard to be a solely technology play because if you’re doing it right, the data that you’re spitting out is producing surprising results and it’s the interpretation and the what now that’s so important for actually putting workforce analytics to work.


John Sumser: I’ve been having a lot of conversations today about how hard it is to see the customer, that the customer is always the opposite of you, because you’re not the customer. When you go to try to understand the customer, there is all of this information that contradicts your basic view of the world. As we get more and more data in our relationships with our customers, we’re going to be constantly setback by how alien the relationship actually is. The people who prosper are going to embrace that, and the people who don’t prosper are going to flee from it.


Kristin Lewis: What a change. I’m thinking about the development models that you talked about. I’ll look at my father-in-law who works for IBM for his entire career, and has been living off his pension very comfortably for the past, probably 25 years since he retired, but the model not that long ago was you come into a job and that is your job. It is your job until you retire. There was a lot of stability in that, and a lot of comfort in that. That was IBM. You think about IBM as you now it now, they have gone completely full circle in their talent acquisition development philosophy. I would be interested to see what [inaudible 00:25:06]? There’s so many other factors that were involved in that shift, but still it’s fascinating to actually take a step back and look at how dramatically and quickly the entire model has …


John Sumser: I assume that you probably have the capacity to do the research. It’s interesting. It’s interesting. There’s enough data so that Equifax could expand its already impressive economics section into a very interesting research universe to see are there material differences between the more anxious state of short gig engagements with companies versus the longer term thing? Does the divorce rate reflect something different when you’ve got the requirement that you renew yourself every two or three years in the gig economy versus the I’m me for 40 years, and I just get more crotchety, but it’s still me in there, that approach of the old IBM. You should be, I think your move should be to say, “Oh, my next thing is to bring economics into the fold.”


Kristin Lewis: Yeah, and our chief economist is here in Texas. She’s going to do a session tomorrow on what is the state of the labor market, the state of the workforce. Looking at some of our data, and it’s fascinating stuff.


John Sumser: That’s a great way to wrap this up. Equifax has this massive, massive, well defined insight into consumer behavior and the state of the labor market. Nobody really gets that. Nobody really, really gets that. It sneaks out in conversations like this, but there’s this powerhouse in the middle of the country right next to a waffle house that allows you to see with a crystal ball’s clarity what the workforce is really up to. What’d I forget to ask you?


Kristin Lewis: Oh man. Oh, I’m blanking.


John Sumser: See, I asked everything that was important.


Kristin Lewis: You’re brilliant.


John Sumser: I get another A, and that’s the right answer. You get an A, too. Two takeaways for the people are listening.


Kristin Lewis: One is for those of you on the side who are living where I have been in the past three years, in the ACA world. My takeaway from a ACA perspective is this is going to be the year of the employee. We’ve been looking backwards and it’s been all about the employer getting ready, the employer preparing for the forms, and the employer impact has on compliance, but as I mentioned we just delivered forms for these companies and 26 employees managed. There are only 7 million employees get these new tax forms that talk about the coverage that they either were offered or enrolled in. There’s a huge amount of impact on those employees and for people that work in restaurants or retail, lower income individuals. They’re waiting on these tax returns. There’s ACA penalties that are going to be taken out based on the information on those forms, and the employer is going to be who that individual goes to for answers about why it happened.


There’s a few other layers of that onion coming out this year, and I think to be successful at ACA it really needs to shift from an internal perspective to a really think about how the Affordable Care Act and your overall benefit strategy impacts your overall talent strategy and how you’re engaging and communicating with your employees.


Then the second takeaway is as we think about that bigger fear is these people should be going to these workforce analytics conferences. I do think, I’m coming out of a three year bubble. I think a lot of other people are emerging from a lot of other regulatory issues that have been plaguing HR, but the things that you and I were talking about around really mining data and thinking about the broader labor market to figure out how are you going to attract and retain that key talent over the next 1, 5, 10 years. We have to be thinking about it now.


John Sumser: Great. Thanks so much for doing this.


Kristin Lewis: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.


John Sumser: It was a real treat. We’ve been talking with Kristin Lewis who is the ACA goddess at Equifax. She actually has a regular title, too. Thanks again, Kristin.


You’ve been listening to HRExaminer Radio. I’m your host, John Sumser and I hope you have a great day.

End transcript

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