work culture

What IBM’s New Agile Talent Practices Can Teach Us

By Ann Petry

When it comes to improving performance, especially outcomes that impact patient experience, health care can learn by looking at other industries for innovation. For example, much like in health care, the tech company, IBM discovered that employee engagement explains two-thirds of their client experience scores. Furthermore, they found that if they were able to increase client satisfaction by five points, they saw an average revenue increase of 20% on the account.  This was the business case for their focus on employee engagement. Health care is a people-centric industry, and nearly everything a patient and family experiences occur amidst human interaction. Research confirms that higher employee engagement results in better quality increased patient satisfaction, and increased patient loyalty.

So, what can we learn from IBM’s experience in building an agile, engaged workforce? IBM started their improvement efforts with the onboarding process. Employee onboarding sets the stage for engagement.  Initially, they believed they could simply re-work their traditional orientation classes. But when they asked new hires about their “new and improved” onboarding experience, the feedback was a wake-up call. There was a sizable gap between what IBM’s HR team (who developed the classes) thought of the experience, and how employees rated their onboarding. New hires were unimpressed and disappointed by the blue chip’s clunky process.

So, the HR folks took a step back and looked at the entire onboarding sequence end to end.  They brought in people from each new hire touchpoint, including security, IT, and education. In other words, they looked beyond the orientation classes and broadened the scope to consider onboarding from the point of view of the new employee.  As a result, suggestions for improvement came from people who knew firsthand, what was broken. They also learned about practical fixes that brought an impressive level of efficiency and care to the new employee experience.

In health care, a great example of employee involvement in process improvement is shared governance. These are structured councils or work groups organized by department, or role, for example. In a shared governance model, the staff is given authority and accountability for decision making. Employees are continuously engaged in providing input in process improvement. Additionally, leadership and staff activities are interdependent and there is decentralized decision making.

Beyond orientation, IBM reconsidered employee learning and development. They recognized that people consume information on their smartphones and tablets now.  Employees are familiar with YouTube and Ted talks. So, they brought in millennials and other end-users and involved them in the design of their learning processes and platform. They used design thinking to build a conceptual model of the platform and put it out for employees to experiment with and comment on. Initially, there was mistrust in the process. Many considered it a ploy and didn’t expect their suggestions to be integrated.  However, employee suggestions were integrated resulting in greater learning and development participation.

Like health care, IBM tailors its online learning by role.  IBM built a platform that offers employees intelligent recommendations that are constantly being updated. It is organized like Netflix with different channels. Notably, all the learning elements are user-rated. So, you can see quickly what is popular. This gives the HR and learning and development folks a clear line of sight into opportunities for improvement when there are low scores on offerings. There is also a live-chat advisor who helps the learner in the moment. In a push for greater transparency and feedback, HR has embraced measuring their offerings with a Net Promoter Score. They believe it keeps them up to speed on important learning needs and pushes them to constantly improve the learning experience.

We know that healthcare has a long history of using labor-intensive annual review processes. Including having staff fill out questionnaires which managers sign off on. IBM has done away with these practices and instead does more frequent spot checks along with mentoring. Managers feel this is far more effective because they can observe employees and better understand the individual’s strengths within the context of their role.

Another key point, IBM’s new agile talent practices involved over 100,000 employees offering input. As a result, people are feeling proud of what they created. They are saying “this is what we wanted.”  In fact, the agile talent practices were cited as the top reason engagement improved. Staff is actively contributing to the transformation.

Health care HR leaders can tap into the wealth of information within their own enterprise. It is exciting to meet pioneering leaders who welcome employee insights to co-design and iterate onboarding, as well as continuous learning and development. If you are one of these pioneers, please share your stories with us.  Email me @



Burrell, Lisa. 2018. “Co-Creating the Employee Experience.” Harvard Business Review, March-April: 54-58.

Guanci, Gen. 2016. Feel the Pull. Minneapolis: Creative Health Care Management.

Koloroutis, M, and D eds. Abelson. 2017. Advancing Relationship-Based Cultures. Minneapolis: Creative Health Care Managment.

Martin, Angela. 2015. “Talent Management: Preparing a “ready” agile workforce.” International Journal of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine Vol 2: P.112-116.



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