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Hosted by Chris Dyer, the CEO of PeopleG2 – TalentTalk Radio features engaging conversation with CEOs, thought leaders and HR executives.  TalentTalk connects professionals who care about talent-related issues and having the cultural mindset to embrace the needed diversity of the workplace.

Today’s guest is Michael Arena, Chief Talent Officer at General Motors. To hear the entire show, click here.

On the show today, seasoned talent management expert shares his years of experience in the talent space and how he goes about innovating strategies and programs everyday.

Michael Arena bourne

Michael Arena heads talent management and development at General Motors (GM). His responsibilities include a variety of talent management programs such as employee engagement, leadership development portfolio across the enterprise, learning and professional development and so on. GM currently employs 215,000 people globally who work across 23 time zones and speak over 70 languages.

Arena is passionate about people development and human capital strategies. In the last few years the application of sciences to soft skills has really intrigued him. He is very interested in applying the advancements in analytics and technology combined with the ability to measure human behavior in the HR space. He is also passionate about exploring ways to create an environment for active learning and development. Rather than sitting passively in the classrooms and using traditional methods of learning, he wants to develop ways to engage people in real-life business challenges and create scenarios where they are driving business impact. Thus, these are some of the areas that Arena is currently focusing on.

Changing Work Environment

We’re no longer in the industrial revolution. The work environment has gone through an enormous change and people are once again at the center of it. “It’s not about the industrial revolution, it’s about using better techniques to understand the nuances of human behavior so people can make choices instead of being forced into a predictable model. We’re using more evidence-based approaches so that we can empower people to make right choices. It is quite different from the old-time studies. Instead of a one size fits all approach, we live in a world where we’re trying to find different approaches,” Arena explains. He believes that the days of best practices are over. He insists on looking for more evidence-based practices. Best practices come from the work others have done and what worked for them. When adopting those practices in a completely different context, they don’t yield the same results. Thus, in today’s day and age, best practices don’t work. Arena believes in using hard evidences to drive decisions and programs. He uses this method for identifying career paths for employees so that they can self-nominate themselves for a career that really interests them. Data is used to drive these efforts. Arena also uses this method for engagement. It helps them identify key traits and how to evaluate them in a way that can change the way work is done and make people feel more enriched when they step into the work environment.

Workforce Planning

At GM, there are two levels of workforce analytics that are used. One of them is the standard strategic baseline planning that includes monthly reporting, business plans, building demographics, forecast as well as planning towards getting the right people into the organization at the right time. The other level is the advanced analytics part which has a team that consists of data scientists who work on predictive analytics and build models to help people make better choices.

Innovation Xchange Lab

The Innovation Xchange Lab at GM is a space that is built in a startup fashion with several creative spaces where people can come together. Arena says, contrary to the belief, there is no dearth of good ideas even in large organizations. What they suffer from is the inability to connect those ideas. Thus, at the Innovation Xchange Lab, they hold events with teams from across different functions so that there is a diverse mix of people working together and it is all about generating new ideas. In a large organization, innovation, in particular, is more of a social phenomenon than a technological one, according to Arena. The lab also organizes Tech Talks which is their version of Ted Talks and several other events that bring people together to share ideas and facilitate collaboration. Apps for talent management, redesigned work conditions and many other innovative solutions to problems have come out of GM’s Innovation Lab.

From Human Capital to Social Capital

Most of GM’s efforts in the HR space over the years have been human capital-centric approaches. Like many other large organizations, it has always been focused on how to develop people and their competencies, building talent management systems and procurement management systems, and so on. Arena is interested in what’s happening in the research world in terms of human behavior. There is a growing body of research that says social capital is increasingly more critical to complex businesses and there is a strong correlation between a person’s network position and how highly compensated they are and how quickly they’ll get promoted. “We’ve been thinking how to approach behavior and development from a social capital perspective. One of the ways to do that is through leveraging organizational network analysis to help people understand exactly how they are positioned within the company and what that means to them as they are thinking about driving success for themselves and enabling success for others around them,” elaborates Arena.

Complexity Leadership Theory (CLT)

Over the last decade, Arena has been involved in research along with Mary Uhl-Bien. The study deals with a simple question – why is it that some ideas inside large complex organizations garner attention and momentum and manifest into successes while other seemingly equally fit ideas do not. Arena and his co-researcher’s study is based on what it takes for an idea to become an innovation or a new strategy. They’ve worked with large organizations and have interviewed almost 400 people so far and based on their study they’ve found out that every large organization has an operational system which generally defines the way work is done in a company. Another thing they found out was that every organization, even those that weren’t successful, has an entrepreneurial system where new ideas originate. Some of these ideas probably haven’t moved through the organization but are embedded somewhere inside the organization. What was missing from the organization that weren’t successful versus those that were was a third dimension which is called the adaptive space, which is a bridge between the entrepreneurial system and the operational system. The real challenge lies in creating this space. Thus, Arena has been trying to create an adaptive space which is a finite time and space for people to come together and discuss ideas around business challenges. They call this initiative GM2020. It’s all about getting groups of people together who’ll co-create a new future starting today but targeting 2020. This initiative has created a lot of buzz and energy among the organization. Activities at this adaptive space range from summits with 300 people to Shark Tank type games and interactive sessions that involve multiple teams trying to find solutions for the same business challenge. Teams get to create prototypes and have 3 minutes to pitch their ideas to an executive sponsor panel that selects the winning idea and commits to put resources behind it to see it come to fruition.

What Are You Reading?

Michael Arena highly recommends “Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World” and Social Physics: How Social Networks Can Make Us Smarter by Alex Pentland. Both the books have had a significant impact on him.

How Can People Connect With You?

Connect with Michael via LinkedIn.