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HRx Radio – Executive Conversations: On Friday mornings, John Sumser interviews key executives from around the industry. The conversation covers what makes the executive tick and what makes their company great.

HRx Radio – Executive Conversations

Guest: Henry Vasquez, Principal Product Manager and Ike Bennion, Principal Portfolio Marketing Manager at Cornerstone
Episode: 381
Air Date: October 2, 2020




Important: Our transcripts at HRExaminer are AI-powered (and fairly accurate) but there are still instances where the robots get confused and make errors. Please expect some inaccuracies as you read through the text of this conversation. Thank you for your understanding.

Full Transcript with timecode


John Sumser 0:13
Good morning, welcome to HR Examiner’s Executive Conversations. Today we’re gonna get two people at once. We’ve got Henry Vasquez and Ike Bennion from Cornerstone. And we’re going to talk about Cornerstone’s approach to skills and jobs over the course of the thing.

Henry, one of the things that’s great about Henry is that before he came to Cornerstone, he worked at SpaceX as the product manager for knowledge management, and figured out how to do amazing things in job articulation at SpaceX.

And then Ike is a veteran of Bridge by Instructure and Hirevue. So he is a Utah born member of our community who saw the light and came to the beach, which is now in Santa Monica at Cornerstone. So, why don’t you guys take a moment and introduce yourselves?

Henry Vasquez 1:03
Ike, you can go first.

Ike Bennion 1:04
I can go first, yes. Thank you. So my name is Ike Bennion. And yes, I am a veteran of a couple places within the HCM space, I love it too much to leave it, but indeed found the light in terms of seasons, at least in the winter, by coming to California, and now working for Cornerstone out here.

I serve as the principal product marketing strategist for cornerstone for a number of different products, including learning and skills and get to work very closely with Henry who has some exciting experience in the market that we’re excited to share with you today.

John Sumser 1:35
Fantastic. Henry?

Henry Vasquez 1:36
Yeah, so my career is I think kind of like a Benjamin Button career. I started out as a startup founder and kind of the boss, building three different companies. Started out in the Midwest, and and then eventually found my way out to the west coast to work for SpaceX, and more recently landed in the talent management space. And so the frame that I really come from is the world of enterprise software broadly, and really systems of knowledge management and productivity. And I kind of bumped into talent management through through that side door, when I was working at SpaceX working with the talent team and realizing the data they need to understand employees is living in the systems of knowledge management and productivity. And we can work together and really change how this stuff brings value to the business.

John Sumser 2:21
So, Cornerstone has been around a long time. And Ike, it sounds like you are the chaperone of the original beating heart of the company. What’s the business like today? What does Cornerstone do today?

Ike Bennion 2:34
Yeah, this year, as you know, and as many who are listening know, has been very important to us, we’ve recently acquired who used to be one of our largest competitors, Saba. And with that came a lot of important things, namely, an incredibly large base of developers, customers, support clients, or etc. That really helped us to deepen our knowledge in HR and build cooler and more innovative products.

But then, this resulted in not only that product focus, but then also a reimagining of the customer experience, as well as the career experience out of these solutions out of what we’ve built. And so we can accelerate our research innovation, rolling out new products, so that we can help people to learn in the flow of work, improve career pathing and make more people data accessible.

And so I think what we’ll see and as you know, Phil, the former CEO of Saba now has become the CEO of Cornerstone, a nice melding of two very well performing companies delivering products that a lot of people really like, working together to do some exciting things in the HR space.

John Sumser 3:38
So, what business is, I’m gonna ask you again, what business is Cornerstone in?

Ike Bennion 3:41
Cornerstone is in the people development business. So we’re focused on, I would say, I think HR has come to the realization that we’ve built all these processes to scale HR, and that has gotten us a long way. Let’s not minimize that. But then we’ve also wondered why we don’t see the employee coming along a little more, why we don’t see a little more engagement and people’s investment into their own careers through learning and development within a company.

But, learning and development is still happening. You know, there’s very successful businesses online where b2c and so we hear that from our clients, as well as we see it in our own analytics. And so our focus is to balance, as I mentioned, just a little bit, but to dig in more, not only doing that same thing to provide scalable solutions to clients, but then also to really focus on people. And so some of the things that we’ll we’ll get to dig into a little bit more today, like our skills graph, helps us to really understand who people are, where they are right now, and where they have really strong potential to go in terms of not only what they’re capable of doing but also what they’re interested in doing and how they work with others to match them really strongly with a career that can really enter the forefront.

So, I think that that’s where we’re headed as a business, is to really invest in and build an experience that engages people and gives them a lot of momentum and an incentive to invest in their own careers within the four walls of a company.

John Sumser 5:08
Interesting. Okay, so I know that I’ve been listening to the company talk about itself recently, and everybody was very proud of the content that you have about how to operate a distributed workforce. You have that stuff up in June. So we’ve been doing distributed workforces for 60 days. How did you figure out how to be smart enough to teach people how to do operations in COVID?

Ike Bennion 5:32
That’s a really good question. We, first of all, have a number of different remote offices as well. And so we have understood and figured out how to do some operations on our side. But then we also leverage the intelligence of a lot of people who are very smart in this space. But even before that, we have been watching how through our own modules, as you know, we’ve tried to build a holistic platform where you can get kind of everything out of box. And so we hope that we’ve provided all the tools that an admin needs in order to carry out some really robust talent management. And we watch how different companies over time as they have done different initiatives that kind of mirror on a smaller scale, what’s happened with COVID, and distributed workforce have begun to understand how check-ins are used differently. For instance, and that’s one thing that we’ve seen during COVID that is spiked a lot is changing up the relationship between manager and employee, whereas it used to be, hey, give me your to do list of what you’re working on. And now has become a little bit more of, how are you doing emotionally, and how is your workspace? Are you capable and have all the tools that you need.

But then we have other tools that have come into a lot of use, which is also playlist, it’s a curated ability, or an ability for users to curate their own content from both within the LMS and outside of the LMS. And that’s another one that has exploded quite a bit. Because people have found the need to do knowledge management, for instance. And so they’ve really expanded out that type of growth.

So, when we saw this happen, we saw some of the little seeds that we had watched other companies use really take into maturity. And now I think even past COVID, no matter how it looks like when people go back to work, I think these will be tools that people now understand the power of and scaling, knowledge and coordination, and ensuring that there’s a really good lockstep between an employee, the manager, and the company.

John Sumser 7:21
Interesting. So when COVID hit, it’s my hyperbole that every job changed the moment that we went into lockdown the first time. And so now, job descriptions always change and what people do always evolves. But now more than ever, we’ve got the sort of discontinuity between what we used to do and what we’re doing now. It’s a very different world. How can a company stay on top of what people are actually doing, and maybe more importantly, how the aggregate of what people are actually doing produces the value that the company is trying to produce?

Henry Vasquez 7:56
It’s a really tough question. And a really good question, John. You know, I think when you start from how we used to do things, it was really about central planning, hiring managers, recruiters working with the hiring manager to define different job descriptions, building out a leveling strategy, building out a job architecture, and then watching all of that becomes stale really quickly.

And what you ultimately need is this balance of theory and observation. Observation being what are people really doing? And what are those new activities that they’ve had to take on? And so a lot of this is cultural, it’s just about changing the frame and saying, Let’s actually listen to the employees, let’s look at what they’re doing. And what we’ve seen is actually align the interest of the employee with the company’s goals around data.

So let’s say for example, and we do this, you’re building your performance review continuously throughout the year by documenting your major accomplishments and activities in a more continuous fashion. In a tool, like our check in system, when you’re doing that, you’re building your own resume, selfishly, you’re writing your own performance review, you’re kind of self advertising a bit. But in a sense, you’re also communicating the things you’re doing that are critical, the things you’re struggling with. And if we go and look at that, in the aggregate, we can learn a lot about where that frontier is where things are really changing. And the same thing is true of performance reviews, instead of just saying we know exactly what generates high performance. It’s to have a bit more of an open mind and say, we know who’s performing really well. What are the things that they’re doing? What are the skills that they have? Kind of flipping the question a bit.

John Sumser 9:28
Okay, so your view would be that performance management process is an adequate way to figure out what people are doing? That’s interesting.

Henry Vasquez 9:36
No, I would say that it’s a signal to say, a lot of times what you see is people will say, Okay, you’ve got these goals, you’ve got the skills, if you get a goal completion, and you get high ratings and these skills and competencies, therefore you performed well. I think intuitively it’s sort of the opposite. Companies know how well people are performing. They don’t always know which characteristics those people have or which activities those people kind of skew towards? And that’s what we’re talking about flipping the question a bit. And being open to the possibility that your model for a job or for success doesn’t include all the things that really matter. And there’s a way to do that in your performance process that opens up the possibility to discover those new skills and activities.

John Sumser 10:19
That’s really interesting. This is sort of the hard part of the work that you’re doing. Is this this assumption that the people who are engaged in work and relationships around work can accurately see what they’re doing? And I wonder about that, I wonder about that. But let’s move to, you’re watching this on a variety of fronts. What are the skills people need in a COVID-based distributed workforce that they didn’t need beforehand?

Ike Bennion 10:48
Yeah, I think the question on top of everyone’s mind is, now the dust had settled just a little. But what does this mean? And how does this change impact my business? And so as we all know, with talent, there are two really big levers that a company can use.

Either one, they can go out to the market, and find talent externally, or two they can look within to build talent internally within that organization. So, we have to address if you just look on the outside in a company, there’s obviously been a lot of change. People who are working in physical stores either get moved somewhere else, or they’ve been laid off. But then also companies that suddenly had to go omni channel, they had to take everything digitally and online, had to find as much technical talent as they could out in the marketplace. So, those were some more obvious ones that were seen.

But, if we look on the inside, we have a very smart organization that was doing some data gathering and researching and surveying. And we call this the Cornerstone People Research Lab. And somewhat by luck, a little bit, we had a survey already out, or it was about to go live in April, rather. And so we were asking questions about what were the priorities for people at that time in terms of what they needed to develop and what they were being taught. And we asked this, both from the HR practitioner side and the individual side. And what we saw was more of a soft skills focus. So, how do you prioritize tasks, because the way that we’re organizing ourselves, and our labor is a little different, building work relationships remotely was another big one, that was a high priority. And then, of course, like we talked about just a little bit earlier, effective communication for remote teams. Because, the way now that work is going to be coordinated, also changed between people. And so, what this ultimately spelled out to be that we have to figure out how to collectively adapt to change. And I think it was in the World Economic Forum that said that the new high priority skill that CHRO’s feel they need, is how to deal with ambiguity, deal with changes frequently. And I think that’s just going to be the nature of the world. But then I think that that spills over and flows down into the organization itself, that everyone is starting to build this ability to change and adapt over time.

John Sumser 12:59
So one of the things that I see is that there is starting to be differentiation about who performs well and who doesn’t perform well in organizations based on their ability to deliver high quality video. And you would guess that the fact that I am working hard on getting my Zoom game in order probably doesn’t pop up in a lot of these things, because it’s a competitive differentiator between jobs, like the early computers were in the 80s. And so that kind of thing where everybody’s doing it, but nobody’s talking about it. How do you pick up on those signals?

Ike Bennion 13:36
So just make sure I think I heard you say, high quality video has been a predictor?

John Sumser 13:41
High quality video will be a predictor of success in the organization. Absolutely.

Henry Vasquez 13:46
This is the tiktok-ification of enterprise, right, we’re sort of seeing this happen. What’s happening with the teenagers is happening in the business, which is video of communication is so compelling.

I mean, we’re actually seeing this here at Cornerstone, we’ve transformed the way that we work on global teams, to a video based communication style for major updates, strategy, demos, etc. All of us have become amateur video producers, because we’re asynchronously communicating. You don’t want to have synchronous meetings all day long with people across the globe in weird hours. And so you end up coming up with these more scalable ways to communicate and then thinking about how you look, how you sound, how prepared you are, the equipment you have, the setup you have, it matters, it’s become a real thing. I totally agree.

John Sumser 14:29
Yeah, and how do you pick up on that in performance reviews or conversations about the job or asking people about the job because that’s rarely the job. The job is something other than the communication structures around the job. So it’s the kind of skill that’s real easy to miss.

Ike Bennion 14:46
I absolutely agree with you that it is one that is easy to miss. However, I think if you think about how people, what research has said about engagement, that one of the key pieces of that is that people have to have the foundational tools of their job to perform well and feel like they can be capable and produce really high output.

And obviously now you’re illustrating the shift that I think no one was anticipating before COVID. But we obviously need to pick up on now, that video is a tool. And I think if you double-click into what high quality video means, it’s of course, not just your stream rate or you know, if you’re in 1080, or what have you. But I also think it’s continuity of a platform, not locking up. So, it has to do with like ram on your computer, I think there’s a lot of elements. And I think at first, an important place to start is encouraging managers, when asking questions like, do you have any blockers in your situation, I think that we have to encourage, this is actually something that we can do. And I think it’s a great nudge from you, John, is to encourage managers to ask about their connectivity with people through video, online, making sure that there isn’t something happening that the company doesn’t see. But as an individual, I’m really struggling in this new remote world of work, because I don’t have the right tools for me to be an effective contributor.

John Sumser 15:59
Yeah, so we could spend an hour talking about that. But let’s go a little deeper into the product. Skills, people have been talking about skills, you know, I can’t imagine you’d know this, but my dad ran the project for The Dictionary Of Occupational Titles in the early 60s. And so I’ve been talking about skills in jobs since I was five.

And it’s a common topic inside of HR. But recently, most of the work associated with skills extraction or skills monitoring comes from comparing resumes and job ads. It’s a very theoretical approach that may not actually describe what the work is of the job. How do you differentiate from that sort of thing?

Henry Vasquez 16:43
Yeah, this is a tough subject. And I appreciate what your father did, because the history does go way back to, you know, the First and Second World War and the marriage of the military and government strategy around classifying jobs and work. And it kind of continues all the way into the modern era with software. The way I think of it is kind of like this, too. There has to be a reason for, why now. And I think that’s kind of what you’re asking. What’s different about the world that makes this easier to solve or more possible? I think there’s a few things.

In SpaceX, we used to talk about the technology readiness level, that’s like a framework that NASA uses. I think we’re seeing like full commercial innovation and skills happening right now. And that’s pretty evident across all the big players in HR. And that’s just because that’s where the world is, it’s because machine learning is finally accessible. A lot of people understand it. And it’s cost effective.

There’s another big thing, which is, more work is being completed in software. There’s just some amount of table stakes to get us to where we need to be where you don’t have to do all this by hand. And that was ultimately the success of digital transformation, is just getting all the pen and paper processes brought into the digital world that have happened over the last 30 years. That’s really set us up for success and that lowering costs of machine learning, has made it possible to actually say, we can manage a large ontology of skills. And, so that’s, that’s really a picture of the landscape.

But what do we do that’s a little bit different? There’s a couple key insights and pieces that we noticed. One is, you’ve got to figure out how to verify skills, you have to have a system that is almost ungamable. You have to figure out okay, how do you make this so it’s not a popularity contest? How do you make it so it’s not the quality of data isn’t garbage. And we put a lot of thought into how we assign a confidence score to each signal in the system. Whether you complete a training, you say you have the skill, you get endorsed by a peer, you get rated by a manager expert in a process, or you go complete a work experience, each of those things carries a certain level of competence.

And so, when we combine all that together, we can visualize it, but we also can calculate the likelihood that you have a certain proficiency level of that skill. And that’s really part of our skills find. That’s something that we take seriously, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out. And I think that’s absolutely necessary to make this kind of stuff work. Otherwise, the data is just way too annoying. It’s all over the place, you’re looking at it, you can’t really wrap your hands around it. Verification’s big. Another big thing is clients have to embrace the employee centric employee driven approach. Which is to say, not every skill out there needs to be formally defined by HR and measured through a detailed behavioral assessment. Not everything needs that level of detail. Sometimes, we can use a lightweight development centric way of giving feedback to each other that you might see in LinkedIn, or you might see in in a learning experience platform. And that creates a nice foundation that everyone can relate to. And then you can extend that deeper into performance. But you don’t start with performance. You start with employee development, and then you grow into that deeper verification.

John Sumser 19:39
I keep coming back to the same thing, which is how do you stay current, right, things are changing fast. And so you’re building out this complex skills graph. There’s an adjacent question we might talk about some other time about whether or not counting things tells you the quality that’s involved, but you’ve got the skills graph, it’s evolving. How do you know what’s right and how do you know it’s current?

Henry Vasquez 19:59
That’s a tough one. Ultimately, you know, the new skills that are out there, they don’t just appear in the wild. Skills emerge in a kind of fission process, they split out of other skills, we zoom into certain areas. Like if you think about what we were just talking about with video video’s always been a thing. Now it’s, we’re just going so much deeper. We understand the problem as a society a lot more. And so we can even split those video skills into little sub pieces. And that’s what you really see what’s happening, the skills don’t just pop up, there’s innovative companies. And there’s forward thinking employees all around the world who are already building the skills of tomorrow, you just had to figure out how to find what those people are doing. They’re essentially the startups of you know, a technology that’s later going to become popular. And, so what we’re doing is we’re monitoring all those new terms that people are using on their profiles in their resume, periodically retrain the model. And some of those concepts just becomes synonyms of existing things – that’s pretty common. And then eventually, some become distinct skills. And there’s a statistical way to know that by looking at how much they co-occur with existing concepts, how often people are using certain terms. And it’s something that we’re looking at right now on a quarterly basis, but then ultimately, is going to be even faster than that.

John Sumser 21:15
Cool, so how about a quick success story? Who’s doing this well?

Ike Bennion 21:20
So we’ve seen a large chemicals manufacturer in Europe, they have about 25,000 employees. And they have a very forward thinking HR technologist come in as an employee and introduce this technology that we are offering into their workforce. And essentially, they had a really great amount of success, because they were able to align now individuals things to this framework of skills into the business objectives as this company was undergoing change. So, what they saw was that they reduced the recruitment time for available positions, because now they had more of a pinpoint understanding of what they actually needed, because they sort of had this inventory, if you will, of how teams were operating and what skills they had and did not have. But then, most importantly, at least to us, is that we saw that boosted employee satisfaction, because employees now felt empowered, just like we had talked about, like video being an important part of somebody’s toolset. Now, people had skills not only in themselves, but also teammates that could fill in any gaps where they could produce really high quality work. So they had some success in multiple aspects. But ultimately, it helped to drive an internal transformation, internal mobility, but then also a really strong alignment to business objectives to move forward but they needed to get done.

John Sumser 22:31
Fantastic. So we’re coming up on the close. How do you see this evolving over the next five years? Where are you guys headed?

Henry Vasquez 22:38
Yeah, as I mentioned earlier, some big tectonic change is happening. The big thing I think about is really the transformation of learning and development leaders. And what that looked like, to me, at least is really going from an art to a science. A science and an art really. And what I mean by that is, you think of advertising executives or marketing in the Madmen era with Don Draper, and that’s not very scientific, and it’s all sorts of art and sales, to a world where we can measure and track the impact and effectiveness of learning training programs, etc, it’s a bit more of a science but still has an art to it. But it’s got those measurable outcomes and a seat at the executive table being taken seriously as a way to drive change in the business and not just compliance and the narrow concerns that maybe L&D started with. I think that’s a big change, that’s going to happen because of what we’re talking about with skills, what we’re talking about with people development. And so that’s one of the big areas that we’re focused because, you know, of course, we’re laser focused on learning and development.

Ike, I don’t know if you have anything else you want to add.

Ike Bennion 23:38
I was just going to say that, yes, it helps to bring a landscape map to the C-Suite to understand where gaps are, because that’s one of the big things that we’re hearing, especially in the age of COVID, is that to lead initiatives, there’s just not the right leadership to take something there or leadership is already dedicated to other areas for instance. So, it really is starting to make a strong connection with growth. And that’s the big potential for L&D, is to be able to help create a game plan to make sure that there’s continuing growth for the business.

John Sumser 24:05
That’s great. So that raises the interesting question of how do you tell where the growth is headed? And are you going to start being in the business of making recommendations about the quality of the growth plan? So let’s say our executive committee thinks that the future involves everybody learning underwater basket weaving, and your analysis shows that underwater basket weaving is a decaying skill? And so are you gonna be in the business of saying, you know, we kind of recommend that you don’t invest in this kind of content, because where you need to be down the road is over here. Is that sort of strategic advice look like part of the product in the future.

Ike Bennion 24:47
That certainly starts to create more of how businesses plan for other things like money and machinery. That I think of a machine with lots of depreciation and it’s just going out of vogue quickly and a business would obviously look at that and say this would be a really expensive investment to buy more of these machines. And so in the same way of skills, if this is going by the wayside, even though we want to go over here, it will have a cost that I, as a business leader have to make a decision about as I’m evaluating what the opportunity is. And so I think that people now have a more valuable contribution, a more visible contribution to different initiatives, because now I as a business leader can understand that it’s gonna take me a long time, it’s gonna take me five years to truly get my workforce skilled up to the direction I want to take it.

John Sumser 25:31
Got it. Okay, so any closing thoughts before we get off the air?

Henry Vasquez 25:36
No, this was a great conversation. Like you said earlier, we could probably dig into each one of these topics for an hour each. So, thanks for having us on.

John Sumser 25:44
Yeah, thanks very much. It’s a good conversation. Thanks for being willing to go deep and thorough with me.

Would you mind closing up by reintroducing yourselves and telling people how they might get a hold of you?

Ike Bennion 25:56
Yeah, absolutely. So my name is Ike Bennion and I’m the principal product marketing strategist over here at Cornerstone you can find me on Twitter @IkeBennion.

Henry Vasquez 26:05
And I’m Henry Vasquez , Principal Product Manager here at Cornerstone and you can find me on Twitter @HVasquez.

John Sumser 26:12
Great, thanks for doing this guys. I really appreciate you taking the time. And thanks everybody for listening in. This has been HR Examiner’s Executive Conversations and we’ve been talking with Henry Vasquez and Ike Bennion from Cornerstone. Bye, Bye now.

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